AP
This image of Osama bin Laden was taken from video released by Qatar's Al-Jazeera televison broadcast in 2001. Despite having no Internet access in his hideout, Osama bin Laden was a prolific email writer who built a painstaking system that kept him one step ahead of the U.S. government's best eavesdroppers.
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updated 5/12/2011 3:14:08 PM ET 2011-05-12T19:14:08

Despite having no Internet access in his hideout, Osama bin Laden was a prolific email writer who built a painstaking system that kept him one step ahead of the U.S. government's best eavesdroppers.

His methods, described in new detail to The Associated Press by a counterterrorism official and a second person briefed on the U.S. investigation, served him well for years and frustrated Western efforts to trace him through cyberspace. The arrangement allowed bin Laden to stay in touch worldwide without leaving any digital fingerprints behind.

The people spoke to the AP on condition of anonymity to discuss the sensitive intelligence analysis.

Bin Laden's system was built on discipline and trust. But it also left behind an extensive archive of email exchanges for the U.S. to scour. The trove of electronic records pulled out of his compound after he was killed last week is revealing thousands of messages and potentially hundreds of email addresses, the AP has learned.

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.

It was a slow, toilsome process. And it was so meticulous that even veteran intelligence officials have marveled at bin Laden's ability to maintain it for so long. The U.S. always suspected bin Laden was communicating through couriers but did not anticipate the breadth of his communications as revealed by the materials he left behind.

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.

Al-Qaida operatives are known to change email addresses, so it's unclear how many are still active since bin Laden's death. But the long list of electronic addresses and phone numbers in the emails is expected to touch off a flurry of national security letters and subpoenas to Internet service providers. The Justice Department is already coming off a year in which it significantly increased the number of national security letters, which allow the FBI to quickly demand information from companies and others without asking a judge to formally issue a subpoena.

Officials gave no indication that bin Laden was communicating with anyone inside the U.S., but terrorists have historically used U.S.-based Internet providers or free Internet-based email services.

The cache of electronic documents is so enormous that the government has enlisted Arabic speakers from around the intelligence community to pore over it. Officials have said the records revealed no new terror plot but showed bin Laden remained involved in al-Qaida's operations long after the U.S. had assumed he had passed control to his deputy, Ayman al-Zawahri.

The files seized from bin Laden's compound not only have the potential to help the U.S. find other al-Qaida figures, they may also force terrorists to change their routines. That could make them more vulnerable to making mistakes and being discovered.

Copyright 2011 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

Video: Suicide bombers kill at least 80 in Pakistan

  1. Closed captioning of: Suicide bombers kill at least 80 in Pakistan

    >>> the deadly suicide attack in pakistan. peter alexander is in islamabad with details. good morning.

    >> reporter: good morning to you. this was an awful early morning attack. at least 80 people are dead and more than 150 others wounded. this is the first major terrorist attack here since navy s.e.a.l.s killed osama bin laden nearly two weeks ago. this morning the taliban claimed responsibility saying the attack was in retaliation for bin laden 's death. it's the kind of violence al qaeda warned would follow the death of their leader, osama bin laden . two coordinated suicide bombings targeting recruits as they left a training facility outside peshawar. they were about to start a ten-day leave with families.

    >> i saw my colleagues off, this soldier says. when i returned to my room, we heard a blast and started collecting the dead and injured. police they is explosive vests were packed with ball bearings and nails. close allies of al qaeda are fighting to bring down the government and impose their own islamist rules. we are getting a clearer picture of how bin laden controlled from his compound. despite having no internet access he was reportedly a prolific e-mail writer. nbc news learned he used an elaborate system of trusted couriers and thumb-sized flash drives making him nearly impossible to track for years. here's how it worked. bin laden would write e-mails on his computer while off line, saving them to a flash drive . then his couriers wouldle drive to distance cafes, plugging them in and sending the e-mails. then they would repeat the same process in reverse. u.s. officials say the couriers showed skill in getting the flash drives back and forth for years. varying patterns. but the system left behind a comprehensive archive, a digital library of e-mails and contacts. on roughly 100 flash drives seized by navy s.e.a.l.s in last week's raid. al qaeda operatives are known to change e-mail addresses. it's unclear how many active accounts the intelligence may yield. again, right now the hospitals in peshawar are filled with victims of the attack. more than 150 wounded, many in critical condition. pakistanis are bracing for more violence today.

    >> peter alexander , thank you very much.

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