Staying one step ahead in the war on terror

David Usborne on how technology helped Bin Laden run al-Qa'ida

When investigators learned that Osama bin Laden had been sending emails not by clicking "send" but by assigning his aides to take them to a web cafe on a memory stick, the first reaction of the tech-savvy observer might have been to marvel at how an old-fashioned approach had stymied the authorities.

Compared to earlier generations of terrorists, though, Bin Laden and his cohorts have benefited from an extraordinary technological advance that renders any search for their actions akin to that for a needle in a haystack. The al-Qa'ida leader's simple evasion of his enemies' attentions is only the latest chapter in an online revolution that has transformed terrorism, and left modern governments with a more complex investigative problem than any of their predecessors have faced.

For those who plot terror, on the other hand, the world of information technology means a dilemma. Digital messages can be sent to the most far-flung corners of their networks in an instant. A message posted to a website by al-Qa'ida over a week ago lamenting the death of Osama bin Laden, for example, was the best and quickest way its remaining leadership had to galvanise followers in multiple countries to rise up and fight back.

But what was true in the past remains so today: every time you send out a communication, whether scribbled in code on a tightly folded wad of paper or in an email, someone may be trying to trace it back to you.

How to capture what is said over phone lines, via Skype or in emails is something western governments spend untold hours and sums of public money trying to figure out. It is a peril that Bin Laden understood well. Not only did he have no internet connection at the Pakistani lair where he was killed, he didn't even dare have a phone line. He still found a way to keep communicating with his troops via email and stay in charge of his network's operations.

How he managed it, though, did not exactly depend on a sizzling grasp of the latest hardware and software. His solution was so basic, that probably folk at the National Security Agency never thought about it despite billions spent on intelligence-gathering.

That the lords of Jihad are specialists of the Koran not of computers should surprise no one, however. Detailed reporting recently by the New Yorker magazine into the pre-incarceration life of Khalid Sheikh Mohammed, the accused mastermind of the 9/11, revealed that in the weeks prior to the attacks – almost 10 years ago now– he used a free email account to stay in touch with his various co-conspirators. What did the terrorist genius choose for his password? Hotmail.

According to top US intelligence sources speaking anonymously to the Associated Press, Bin Laden was a diligent sender of emails. Computer blogs were filled yesterday with suggestions from enthusiasts and experts on how he might have stayed in email contact with other operatives with minimal risk of detection. You can be as devious as you like but if you have no internet connection none of it will help very much.

He did it via a system of old-fashioned legwork and patience. Bin Laden would write the emails in draft form and download them on a digital storage device known as a thumb drive that he would then give to a trusted courier.

The latter would then carry it out of the compound to a far-away internet café. There he would plug the device in, retrieve his master's latest missives and send them off. He would retrieve responses the same way and use the same thumb drives to take them back to Bin Laden. "Does al-Qa'ida really not have an IT department?" a writer for Wired magazine asked mockingly on a blog yesterday. But the solution to his communications problems was simple and, amazingly it worked just fine for almost six years.

Two things were not so clever: it was the absence of a phone and internet connections that first made American spies suspicious about the compound.

More importantly, when the elite Navy Seals went in they found about 100 of those thumb drivers lying around the compound, filled with Bin Laden's communications, the responses to them and, an array of email addresses of those people that he was in touch with.

Porn cache found at Bin Laden compound

Reuters

*A stash of pornography was found in the hideout of Osama bin Laden by US commandos, US officials said yesterday. The pornography recovered at Bin Laden's compound in Abbottabad, consists of modern, electronically recorded video and is fairly extensive, the officials claimed.

It was not clear precisely where in the compound the pornography was discovered and the officials said they did not know if Bin Laden himself had acquired or viewed the materials.

Reports from Abbottabad have said that Bin Laden's compound was cut off from the internet or other communications networks. It is unclear how compound residents would have acquired the pornography. But a video released by the US administration confiscated from the compound showed Bin Laden watching pictures of himself on a TV screen, indicating the compound was equipped with video playback equipment.

Start your day with The Independent, sign up for daily news emails
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
News
ebookA unique anthology of reporting and analysis of a crucial period of history
Arts and Entertainment
Reimagined: Gwyneth Paltrow and Toni Collette in the film adaptation of Jane Austen's Emma
books
Arts and Entertainment
Jesuthasan Antonythasan as Dheepan
Cannes 2015Dheepan, film review
Sport
sport
News
Richard Blair is concerned the trenches are falling into disrepair
newsGeorge Orwell's son wants to save war site that inspired book
Arts and Entertainment
The pair in their heyday in 1967
music
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating
and  

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Guru Careers: Software Developer / C# Developer

£40-50K: Guru Careers: We are seeking an experienced Software / C# Developer w...

Guru Careers: Software Developer

£35 - 40k + Benefits: Guru Careers: We are seeking a Software Developer (JavaS...

SThree: Trainee Recruitment Consultant / Resourcer

£18000 - £23000 per annum + Commission: SThree: As a Trainee Recruitment Consu...

Ashdown Group: UI Developer - (UI, HTML, CSS, JavaScript, AngularJS)

£25000 - £40000 per annum: Ashdown Group: UI Developer - (UI, JavaScript, HTML...

Day In a Page

Abuse - and the hell that came afterwards

Abuse - and the hell that follows

James Rhodes on the extraordinary legal battle to publish his memoir
Why we need a 'tranquility map' of England, according to campaigners

It's oh so quiet!

The case for a 'tranquility map' of England
'Timeless fashion': It may be a paradox, but the industry loves it

'Timeless fashion'

It may be a paradox, but the industry loves it
If the West needs a bridge to the 'moderates' inside Isis, maybe we could have done with Osama bin Laden staying alive after all

Could have done with Osama bin Laden staying alive?

Robert Fisk on the Fountainheads of World Evil in 2011 - and 2015
New exhibition celebrates the evolution of swimwear

Evolution of swimwear

From bathing dresses in the twenties to modern bikinis
Sun, sex and an anthropological study: One British academic's summer of hell in Magaluf

Sun, sex and an anthropological study

One academic’s summer of hell in Magaluf
From Shakespeare to Rising Damp... to Vicious

Frances de la Tour's 50-year triumph

'Rising Damp' brought De la Tour such recognition that she could be forgiven if she'd never been able to move on. But at 70, she continues to flourish - and to beguile
'That Whitsun, I was late getting away...'

Ian McMillan on the Whitsun Weddings

This weekend is Whitsun, and while the festival may no longer resonate, Larkin's best-loved poem, lives on - along with the train journey at the heart of it
Kathryn Williams explores the works and influences of Sylvia Plath in a new light

Songs from the bell jar

Kathryn Williams explores the works and influences of Sylvia Plath
How one man's day in high heels showed him that Cannes must change its 'no flats' policy

One man's day in high heels

...showed him that Cannes must change its 'flats' policy
Is a quiet crusade to reform executive pay bearing fruit?

Is a quiet crusade to reform executive pay bearing fruit?

Dominic Rossi of Fidelity says his pressure on business to control rewards is working. But why aren’t other fund managers helping?
The King David Hotel gives precious work to Palestinians - unless peace talks are on

King David Hotel: Palestinians not included

The King David is special to Jerusalem. Nick Kochan checked in and discovered it has some special arrangements, too
More people moving from Australia to New Zealand than in the other direction for first time in 24 years

End of the Aussie brain drain

More people moving from Australia to New Zealand than in the other direction for first time in 24 years
Meditation is touted as a cure for mental instability but can it actually be bad for you?

Can meditation be bad for you?

Researching a mass murder, Dr Miguel Farias discovered that, far from bringing inner peace, meditation can leave devotees in pieces
Eurovision 2015: Australians will be cheering on their first-ever entrant this Saturday

Australia's first-ever Eurovision entrant

Australia, a nation of kitsch-worshippers, has always loved the Eurovision Song Contest. Maggie Alderson says it'll fit in fine