In a sophisticated effort to avoid detection, the alleged terrorist network of Saudi exile Osama bin Laden is using floppy discs, satellite phones, e-mail and Internet messaging to plan its moves, senior U.S. counter-terrorism officials told NBC News.
“WE NOW HAVE insight and understanding into how they operate, how they do business, how they communicate,” said one official. In fact, the official added, the “cyber-evidence” seized in these raids has proven more valuable than the often uncommunicative suspects under arrest.
Specifically, U.S. officials said they found a lot of what they know in computers, notebooks, address books, and videotapes seized from the dozen or so suspects arrested since the East Africa bombings of Aug. 7.
“We have learned a great deal ... you would be correct in assuming that,” said a senior intelligence official.
Officials said bin Laden uses a combination of high- and low-tech to communicate his orders. For example, he employs couriers to carry computer disks downloaded from laptops - his operation prefers Toshibas - with specific orders. He augments them with Internet-based e-mail. The floppies are carried from Afghanistan to third countries, where the disks are passed to another courier.
“It takes them time to get their stuff together as a result,” said one official.
NBC News obtained a transcript of one e-mail sent a year before the East African bombings in which Fazul Mohammed, believed to be the head of Al-Qaeda’s Nairobi cell and the mastermind of the bombings, describes security problems.
A PEEK INSIDE
At one point, he apologizes for printing out documents and sending them out, noting, “I know we had agreed to correspond with each other by discs.”
At another, Mohammed asks that his contact use either e-mail or fax to communicate.
“We ask you to keep in touch with us through the Internet from Pakistan, as we get a lot of information now about the Sheikh [bin Laden] from that network ... or you can follow Abd al-Sabburk’s example such as when he faxed his family from the border village next to you. We need to hear your good words and we are afraid to be in the dark and from taking any unapproved plans domestically since we do not have the necessary expertise regarding such difficult decisions; decisions which only you can undertake.”
In fact, officials described bin Laden’s network as so rigid that it has difficulty changing directions once missions have been launched. In addition, officials said, “The infrastructure does not operate well outside its base areas, where there are strong Muslim communities.”
“His planning is not robust,” said a counter-terror official at the Pentagon. “They are not agile. They have to reload and that takes months ... about four to six months.”
But the official said that could also be a strength. “They are very willing to trade time for operational security.”
Bin Laden had a more robust infrastructure prior to the embassy attacks. Kenyan authorities found a communications center at a villa Fazul Mohammed rented in a wealthy Nairobi suburb called Runda. The center included a satellite phone hook-up and other sophisticated links, officials said.
A few days after the bombings, U.S. officials heard bin Laden lieutenants talking about the success of their efforts over satellite phones from Pakistan. That apparently has unnerved bin Laden. In an interview last month, bin Laden told a Time magazine journalist that he no longer uses his phone out of fear the National Security Agency will be able to track the signal and target him for assassination.
Much of the gear was taken out of Kenya in the days before the bombing and brought back to Afghanistan, according to Kenyan authorities quoted last year in The Nation, a Nairobi newspaper.
NOT A COMPLETE SURPRISE
The U.S. has known about the bin Laden group’s use of computers for at least three years. In January 1995, Philippine police seized the Toshiba laptop of Ramzi Yousef, wanted after an aborted attempt to bomb Pope John Paul II’s motorcade during a state visit to Manila.
Among the data found on Yousef’s encrypted hard-drive and floppy discs were plans to blow up 11 U.S. airliners over the Pacific and a plot to kill President Bill Clinton when he returned to Manila in 1996. Clinton had been monitored two months before when visiting Manila.
In testimony last year, Dale Watson, chief of the FBI’s international terrorism section, described how important Yousef’s laptop was to the terrorist:
“While mixing chemicals at the Dona Josefa apartment on Jan. 7, 1995,” Watson said, “a fire broke out forcing Yousef and two co-conspirators, Abdel Hakim Murad and Wali Khan, to flee into the street. Concerned that he had left his laptop computer in the apartment, Yousef sent Murad back into the unit to retrieve it.”
Philippine police arrested Abdel Hakim Murad and were able to recover the computer intact. Wali Khan was arrested days later. Yousef successfully fled the Philippines and ultimately made his way back to Pakistan, where he was later arrested.
By decrypting Yousef’s computer files, investigators uncovered the details of a plot to destroy numerous U.S. air carriers in a simultaneous operation. Code named “BOJINKA,” the plot involved using a timing device made from an altered Databank watch. Flight schedules and a decrypted letter found on the computer indicated that five participants were to simultaneously plant devices on flights to the United States. After the bombings, four of the participants were to return to Karachi, Pakistan. The fifth was to return to Qatar.
Over the next few days, the U.S. ordered increased security on airliners flying over the Pacific. A month later, Yousef was arrested in Pakistan.
Robert Windrem is an NBC News investigative producer based in New York.