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
Life and Style
love + sex A new study has revealed the average size - but does that leave men outside the 'normal' range being thought of as 'abnormal'?
Arts and Entertainment
TV
Voices
The Palace of Westminster is falling down, according to John Bercow
voices..says Matthew Norman
Sport
Steve Bruce and Gus Poyet clash
football
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
ebooks
ebooksA special investigation by Andy McSmith
News
Graham Norton said Irish broadcaster RTE’s decision to settle was ‘moronic’
TV
Arts and Entertainment
Jake and Dinos Chapman were motivated by revenge to make 'Bring me the Head of Franco Toselli! '
arts + ents Shapero Modern Gallery to show explicit Chapman Brothers film
Arts and Entertainment
Kurt Cobain performing for 'MTV Unplugged' in New York, shortly before his death
music Brett Morgen's 'Cobain: Montage of Heck' debunks many of the myths
Life and Style
life
Sport
Brendan Rodgers
football The Liverpool manager will be the first option after Pep Guardiola
News
Amazon misled consumers about subscription fees, the ASA has ruled
news
Arts and Entertainment
Myanna Buring, Julian Rhind-Tutt and Russell Tovey in 'Banished'
TV Jimmy McGovern tackles 18th-century crime and punishment
Arts and Entertainment
Paul Whitehouse as Herbert
arts + ents
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

Recruitment Genius: Lettings and Sales Negotiator - OTE £46,000

£16000 - £46000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This is an opportunity to join ...

Recruitment Genius: Home Care Worker - Reading and Surrounding Areas

£9 - £13 per hour: Recruitment Genius: This is a great opportunity to join a s...

Recruitment Genius: Key Sales Account Manager - OTE £35,000

£25000 - £35000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: Have you got a proven track rec...

Recruitment Genius: Sales Executive - OTE £40,000

£15000 - £18000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This is a great opportunity for...

Day In a Page

Syrian conflict is the world's first 'climate change war', say scientists, but it won't be the last one

Climate change key in Syrian conflict

And it will trigger more war in future
How I outwitted the Gestapo

How I outwitted the Gestapo

My life as a Jew in wartime Berlin
The nation's favourite animal revealed

The nation's favourite animal revealed

Women like cuddly creatures whilst men like creepy-crawlies
Is this the way to get young people to vote?

Getting young people to vote

From #VOTESELFISH to Bite the Ballot
Poldark star Heida Reed: 'I don't think a single bodice gets ripped'

Poldark star Heida Reed

'I don't think a single bodice gets ripped'
The difference between America and Israel? There isn’t one

The difference between America and Israel? There isn’t one

Netanyahu knows he can get away with anything in America, says Robert Fisk
Families clubbing together to build their own affordable accommodation

Do It Yourself approach to securing a new house

Community land trusts marking a new trend for taking the initiative away from developers
Head of WWF UK: We didn’t send Cameron to the Arctic to see green ideas freeze

David Nussbaum: We didn’t send Cameron to the Arctic to see green ideas freeze

The head of WWF UK remains sanguine despite the Government’s failure to live up to its pledges on the environment
Author Kazuo Ishiguro on being inspired by shoot-outs and samurai

Author Kazuo Ishiguro on being inspired by shoot-outs and samurai

Set in a mythologised 5th-century Britain, ‘The Buried Giant’ is a strange beast
With money, corruption and drugs, this monk fears Buddhism in Thailand is a ‘poisoned fruit’

Money, corruption and drugs

The monk who fears Buddhism in Thailand is a ‘poisoned fruit’
America's first slavery museum established at Django Unchained plantation - 150 years after slavery outlawed

150 years after it was outlawed...

... America's first slavery museum is established in Louisiana
Kelly Clarkson: How I snubbed Simon Cowell and become a Grammy-winning superstar

Kelly Clarkson: How I snubbed Simon Cowell and become a Grammy-winning superstar

The first 'American Idol' winner on how she manages to remain her own woman – Jane Austen fascination and all
Tony Oursler on exploring our uneasy relationship with technology with his new show

You won't believe your eyes

Tony Oursler's new show explores our uneasy relationship with technology. He's one of a growing number of artists with that preoccupation
Ian Herbert: Peter Moores must go. He should never have been brought back to fail again

Moores must go. He should never have been brought back to fail again

The England coach leaves players to find solutions - which makes you wonder where he adds value, says Ian Herbert
War with Isis: Fears that the looming battle for Mosul will unleash 'a million refugees'

The battle for Mosul will unleash 'a million refugees'

Aid agencies prepare for vast exodus following planned Iraqi offensive against the Isis-held city, reports Patrick Cockburn