Intelligence officers have seized information produced by Osama bin Laden which could reveal potential terrorist targets.
US intelligence officers have discovered unpublished statements produced by Osama bin Laden amid “a treasure trove” of computer hard drives, CDs, DVDs and papers seized from his safe house in Pakistan, an American government official has claimed.
They believe they may have also found communications between senior al-Qaeda lieutenants and Bin Laden which could reveal information about potential targets and strategic guidance about the direction of the terror organisation, and the whereabouts of its leadership and operatives.
US Navy Seals who raided the Abbottabad compound on Sunday and shot Bin Laden and two others dead took away a range of “removable media” such as computer disks. The US government believes some of the computer hardware could have been used to ferry messages to and from Bin Laden in the absence of an internet connection or phone link to the hideaway, a two-hour drive from Islamabad, the official said.
The White House counterterrorism chief, John Brennan, in a briefing, said: “What we’re most interested in is seeing if we can get any insight into any terrorist plot that might be under way so that we can take the measures to stop any type of attack planning. Secondly, we’re trying to look and see whether or not there are leads to other individuals within the organisation or insights into their capabilities.”
An urgent priority will be to find any evidence of attacks Bin Laden might have ordered in the event of his death, according to British sources familiar with the find. “The data could also help to clarify just how candid the Pakistanis have been about the knowledge of his movements,” a UK source said.
Whereabouts of Ayman al-Zawariri
Another central question which the cache of data may help answer is the whereabouts of Ayman al-Zawariri, al-Qaeda’s deputy leader, and the extent to which Bin Laden continued to communicate with the outside world on both strategy and operations, given the widely held belief he was unlikely to have been recently involved in detailed planning of attacks.
The US official familiar with the intelligence operation stressed the process of analysing the documents was at an early stage and would not say yet whether the Bin Laden statements they have discovered were written or recorded on audio or video, or how recent they were, only that they have not been seen before.
“There is a great deal of documents, computers, removable media and writings which have been removed from the compound and a team of analysts and intelligence officers are crawling through it meticulously for leads on potential threat information,” he said last night.
Video taken after the raid inside the house appeared to show broken computers in one room which had been stripped of their hard drives. The discovery of the cache of largely electronic data is being treated as a coup in intelligence circles which could prove to be a vital reference document on al-Qaeda for years to come.
It is understood that British computer forensics experts at GCHQ are on standby to help sift through what one US official described as “the mother lode of intelligence” to the Politico website.
The seized computer hardware is highly likely to have been used by Bin Laden during his stay at the house, and messages from other parts of al-Qaeda would have been ferried in by disk or hard drive and uploaded for him to read, US officials believe. They are hopeful of finding evidence of targeting plans, names and addresses of al-Qaeda members, Bin Laden’s correspondence and his directives.
British sources compared the job of handling the data to skimming through thousands of pages of printed material—an exercise in which experts from GCHQ could provide valuable help. Forensic analysts would later examine material in the computers in detail, a task that could take a long time.
“We may find out from this data how far Bin Laden has actually been at the centre of everything—how much he was a figurehead and how much he had a hands-on role,” said Gareth Price, senior research fellow at Chatham House thinktank. “But the key thing will be what it reveals about al-Qaeda’s relationship with Pakistan.”
Joint US National Security Agency and British GCHQ teams have been set up in the past to join forces in tackling complex decoding tasks, the official said.
It is not the first time western governments have obtained al-Qaeda data. US and British special forces seized computer material from the terror group’s compounds in 2001 and 2002 after Bin Laden and the Taliban fled the country to escape heavy US bombardment after the attacks on America on September 11 2001.
Experts with experience of US and UK code-breaking activities said that even discoveries relating to relatively distant events could still be useful now.
“Computer forensic specialists can dig through layers of encryption and retrieve data on hard drives,” one source said. Even if Bin Laden had hoped to cover his tracks by deleting files, forensic investigators may still glean valuable evidence, he said. - guardian.co.uk