How bin Laden E-mailed without being detected

His methods, described in new detail to The Associated Press by a counterterrorism official and a second person briefed on the U.S. investigation, frustrated Western efforts to trace him through cyberspace

May 13, 2011 03:32 pm | Updated December 04, 2021 11:43 pm IST - Washington

Al Qaeda leader Osama bin Laden. File photo: AP.

Al Qaeda leader Osama bin Laden. File photo: AP.

Using intermediaries and inexpensive computer disks, Osama bin Laden managed to send E-mails while in hiding, without leaving a digital fingerprint for U.S. eavesdroppers to find.

His system was painstaking and slow, but it worked, and it allowed him to become a prolific E-mail writer despite not having Internet or phone lines running to his compound.

His methods, described in new detail to The Associated Press by a counterterrorism official and a second person briefed on the U.S. investigation, frustrated Western efforts to trace him through cyberspace.

Bin Laden's system was built on discipline and trust. But it also left behind an extensive archive of E-mail 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 E-mail addresses, the AP has learnt.

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 E-mail and send it. Reversing the process, the courier would copy any incoming E-mail 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 marvelled 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.

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