Home News Stories 2008 March Passing Secrets at Sea
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Passing Secrets at Sea

Passing Secrets at Sea
To Terrorists, No Less


The USS Benfold. U.S. Navy photo.

As a bevy of U.S. warships steamed towards the Middle East in the spring of 2001 on a mission to patrol the Persian Gulf, a sailor aboard one of those vessels was pursuing an entirely different mission.

His name was Hassan Abu-Jihaad, and he was serving as a signalman aboard the USS Benfold. Little did anyone know at the time, he was also a homegrown radical who was secretly in touch with al Qaeda financiers, sharing classified details about the vulnerabilities and movements of the ships just six months after al Qaeda operatives had killed 17 Americans aboard the USS Cole in the port of Yemen.

Abu-Jihaad’s traitorous actions were recently recounted in a Connecticut court, leading to his conviction last Wednesday on twin national security crimes: espionage and material terrorism support.

We learned about Abu-Jihaad in December 2003, when British authorities raided the apartment of Babar Ahmad, a Briton later charged with raising money for al Qaeda through a London-based organization called Azzam Publications. Its former website, www.azzam.com, was hosted on servers in Connecticut.

In Ahmad’s flat was a floppy disk with a password-protected document detailing what was then classified information about the travels and security weaknesses of the USS Benfold and the sister ships in its convoy. That document, it was proved at trial, was sent by Abu-Jihaad while aboard the Benfold, endangering the lives of his own shipmates and countless others.

The investigation—worked jointly by the New Haven Joint Terrorist Task Force and the Connecticut Department of Homeland Security in close cooperation with FBI offices in Phoenix and Chicago and a host of partners in the U.S. and overseas—also uncovered a trail of e-mail messages sent by Abu-Jihaad expressing support for Usama bin Laden, praising the Cole attack, recounting a security briefing on his vessel, and ordering various jihadist videos and other materials from Azzam.

Using court-authorized wiretaps, we monitored Abu-Jihaad’s conversations following his honorable discharge from the Navy. Among what we learned:

  • In one conversation, Abu-Jihaad said that he hadn’t “been in the field of making meals” for more than four years; “meals” was his code word for his ability to provide inside information on U.S. military targets. He also warned associates not to talk about jihad over the telephone or Internet because they were “tapped.”
  • In Arizona, Abu-Jihaad roomed with Derrick Shareef, who later pled guilty to plotting to attack a suburban Illinois mall using hand grenades during the 2006 holiday season. Our wiretaps revealed that Abu-Jihaad discussed attacking military targets in Phoenix and San Diego with Shareef.

It was fortunate that the information Abu-Jihaad provided to terrorist supporters didn’t lead to the loss of any American lives. But it well could have…and Abu-Jihaad will now face up to 25 years in prison for his radically inspired actions.