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As you have undoubtedly heard, French authorities have confirmed that Abdelhamid Abaaoud — the mastermind of the Paris Attacks, previously believed to be in Syria — was killed yesterday during a raid on his Saint-Denis hideout. Fortunately, the only fatality besides him and one of his accomplices — a cousin who blew herself up after screaming for help — was a French police dog. A number of other suspects were arrested. Do read the details; it’s amazing.
Based on current reporting, Abaaoud also appears to have been behind several unsuccessful ISIS plots in Europe, including the attempted train massacre that was thwarted by several passengers back in August. Moreover, he and his accomplices were apparently in the midst of planning additional assaults in and around Paris when they were killed. Abaaoud almost certainly wanted to go out in a blaze of glory, but — importantly — not quite yet.
So how’d we find this terrorist mastermind? NSA? CIA? Code-breaking? Stipulating again that reports are early, the answer appears to be through a discarded cellphone the Bataclan murderers used to notify him that they were about to begin. The message, importantly, was completely unencrypted, and led authorities directly to Abaaoud’s current location. It required nothing more than what normal police would do in the course of any other investigation.
Think about it this way: Even if Abaaoud’s name, history, and association with the Islamic State were completely unknown, authorities would still have been able to find him just as fast as they actually did, thanks to this cell phone. All our intelligence agencies’ efforts — including the trolling of billions of communications in what should be a clear violation of the Fourth Amendment and the demands that we surrender access to encryption technology — did not give us as much information as a single cell phone discarded by a terrorist after the fact.
Indeed, there is very little evidence to suggest that Abaaoud’s group — the most successful terrorist cell in Europe in over ten years, largely consisting of young, French, and Belgian-born nationals trained in Syria by a terrorist state with hundreds of millions of dollars — were using any of the encryption technologies our security services and some presidential candidates believe should be compromised in the name of national security. And again, even if there were, it wasn’t their use of this technology that led to the terrorists’ downfall, even after their identities had been revealed. (H/T: Scott Shackford.)
The Paris attacks confirmed once again that Islamic terrorism is a deadly and important threat, and that even a group with some serious vulnerabilities can cause enormous damage and loss of life. But let’s examine what tools actually work against it before we endorse the most ambitious and far-reaching tools to combat it.