Osama bin Laden’s Internet connection

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.

Thomas Joscelyn is a Senior Fellow at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies and the Senior Editor for FDD's Long War Journal.

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  • Ben Haraami says:

    You bring up some interesting questions. One that is bugging the hell out of me– and this seems like a good place to bring it up due to the speculative nature of your discourse on this post– is: “Why was the US so quick to disclose the death of Usama bin Laden?”
    It would make sense to hide the death of UBL until 1) it was revealed by al Qaida insiders or 2) there was actionable intelligence pulled from the data cache. These would have given more time and opportunity to start monitoring and taking action against AQ operators. It seems like the difference between killing some random ants in your house or following them back to their nest and killing them all.
    Thanks for reading,

  • Vienna,13-05-2011
    The message is clear that Pakistan

  • Luca says:

    HAMZA is still with us and I believe he’s very “thirsty in Bagram” and being helped to more than a mouthful of water. He’s probably being asked politely to corroborate or confirm many addresses and aliases. Otherwise it would be pretty fruitless to sort through a thick, jumbled mass of numbers names and encrypted pictures.

  • Charu says:

    And why wasn’t email traffic from internet cafes in Pakistan being closely monitored by the NSA? I still question why the presence of this intel trove was so readily released.

  • My2Cents says:

    The answer to your question “Why was the US so quick to disclose the death of Usama bin Laden?” is that it was a political decision made by the Whitehouse to enhance Barak Obama

  • Bruce says:

    My guess is that the original plan, pushed by Panetta in particular, was to do the whole operation in secret. Sneak in, kill UBL, and sneak back out with his body and all the intel material in 20 minutes or less. Zip back across the border and make no public statements. The Pakistanis would be too confused and embarrassed to make a fuss. Then we would take a month or two to sort through the intel and hopefully chase down other key AQ leaders. At the appropriate time, the administration would announce the whole operation, proudly showing off how they had wrapped up AQ. That was the plan, and that’s how they got President Obama to sign off on it.
    But the minute the chopper crashed in the compound, they knew that the secret cover was blown. So, the WH went into panic mode, revealing the operation worldwide within a few hours, to keep the political upper hand as the news spread. That’s why the news handling was so confusing and they seemed so unprepared in those first few days.
    So, the early exposure of the mission may have cut off some of the potential to catch others by surprise, but overall, it was still a huge success. It sure sounds like they carried off far more hard intel than they had expected to find.

  • villiger says:

    Bruce sounds very credible!

  • madashell59 says:

    A little twist from Bruce’s theory. They were planning on taking UBL alive until the helicopter went down. They had no time to fuss with a resisting prisoner. They shot the woman/wife? in the leg I would think they could have done that with UBL too. They did not want another Carter moment so their back up plan at this point was to get the target immediately out of the compound and into a chopper and get everyone out of there before the Pak army wakes up. The fastest way would be to take him out like a bag of intel and throw it in the chopper.


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