Adam Goldman and Matt Apuzzo of the Associated Press have a new piece out explaining how, according to US officials, Osama bin Laden emailed with members of his network.
Holed up in his walled compound in northeast Pakistan with no phone or Internet capabilities, bin Laden would type a message on his computer without an Internet connection, then save it using a thumb-sized flash drive. He then passed the flash drive to a trusted courier, who would head for a distant Internet cafe.
At that location, the courier would plug the memory drive into a computer, copy bin Laden’s message into an email and send it. Reversing the process, the courier would copy any incoming email to the flash drive and return to the compound, where bin Laden would read his messages offline.
…Navy SEALs hauled away roughly 100 flash memory drives after they killed bin Laden, and officials said they appear to archive the back-and-forth communication between bin Laden and his associates around the world.
Disclosing the details of the haul captured in bin Laden’s compound like this could jeopardize the intelligence community’s ability to exploit its contents. Then again, you can bet that the al Qaeda network has taken a number of evasive measures to cover whatever trails they can. Goldman and Apuzzo correctly note that al Qaeda operatives change their email addresses frequently anyway, “so it’s unclear how many are still active since bin Laden’s death.”
There is another question that has been nagging at me, though. The CIA and NSA have analyzed the contents of al Qaeda computer files after a number of other high-profiled raids in Pakistan and elsewhere. But the data captured can be a jumble of names, aliases, bank accounts, phone numbers, and email addresses — all seemingly inexplicable unless someone in custody knows the explanation. This is why high-value detainees in US custody were previously questioned about the computer files, etc., that were captured with them.
So, who is going to unlock the mystery of bin Laden’s files for American analysts? Some of those secrets can be learned, with time, anyway. But some will undoubtedly remain clouded in mystery.
This is not an argument for keeping bin Laden alive during the raid, by the way. This is just one problem that intelligence officials may run into.
Finally, the 100 flash memory drives captured indicate that far from being a mere figurehead or symbol — bin Laden was still operationally active.
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