What is in the Bin Laden treasure trove? Data captured in killer’s hideout likely to boost US war with Al Qaeda
If diplomats from the United States and Pakistan are revisiting the strategic relationship between their two countries in the wake of the death of Osama Bin Laden, so are intelligence agents as they pour over data and documents captured in the raid on the deceased Al Qaeda leader’s Pakistani hideout.
What the intelligence analysts find could well shape the diplomatic review as well as future US covert operations in Pakistan and elsewhere.
The hunt for intelligence in what is expected to be Bin Laden’s information treasure trove comes at one of the most sensitive moments in the history of US-Pakistani relations. It is the often less overt or even covert side of diplomacy.
Pakistan has been at pains in recent days to fend off mounting US suspicions that the terrorist could not have gone into hiding in a Pakistani town close to the capital Islamabad and home to a key military academy without some degree of complicity and acquiescence of senior officials. Hard evidence of Pakistani involvement in Bin Laden’s capture could significantly alter US attitudes toward Pakistan.
Although Bin Laden was apparently careful to limit his communications with others to messages and materials delivered by trusted couriers, one of which unwittingly led US Navy Seals to his hideout, intelligence officials will be plumbing his data and documents for clues of who in Pakistan may have aided and abetted him.
The 79 SEALs, according to press reports, captured five computers, 10 hard additional hard drives and some 100 data storage devices, including CD-ROMs and flash drives. It was not immediately clear whether and if so, how many of the devices were used by Bin Laden himself. Similarly, it was unknown whether the devices were encrypted and how difficult it would be to break the encoding.
As important as Bin Laden’s possible connections to Pakistani officials, will be any information intelligence agents can glean about Al Qaeda plans for future attacks as well as the extent of its network and operations. That information takes on particular importance with Al Qaeda threatening to retaliate for the death of their iconic leader.
The US Department of Homeland Security and the FBI released an alert last Thursday saying that since February 2010, Al Qaeda was discussing a terrorist operation against trains. They said the scheme was designed to derail a train in the United States.
US officials said the alert stemmed from a handwritten notebook from February 2010 that was recovered from the home of Bin Laden. The notebook included passages about tampering with rail tracks to derail a train on a bridge, possibly on Christmas, New Year’s Day, the day of the State of the Union address or Sept. 11, according to The New York Times.
Although the alert did not list any targeted cities, material gathered from bin Laden’s home indicated that Al Qaeda was focused on striking Washington, New York, Los Angeles and Chicago, the officials said.
The discovery of the rail plot has already led intelligence officials to revise their analysis of Bin Laden’s role in Al Qaeda operations. They believed prior to the raid on Bin Laden’s hideout that he was largely cut off from communications as result of the US manhunt and that he was thus more of an inspirational figure with little operational involvement. The rail plot indicates that Bin Laden remained a party to discussions about the group’s operations.
For US intelligence agents mining the data recovered from Bin Laden’s hideout is also a matter of extreme urgency so that they can enable the US government to exploit the severe blow that Al Qaeda has suffered with the loss of its leader. That blow goes far beyond the need to ensure continuity with the appointment of a successor and a demonstration of operational capability.
The ability of US covert agents to track Bin Laden’s trusted courier and ultimately locate his hideout highlights the group’s vulnerability. It takes militant groups far longer to recover from the effects of infiltration or defection than it does from the loss of a major figure because the group does not know whether other secrets it harbors have been compromised. With significant numbers of Al Qaeda operatives incarcerated in Guantanamo Bay and elsewhere, and the loss of Bin Laden’s information treasure trove, Al Qaeda leaders are likely to be scurrying to reconfigure their logistics, including their safe houses.
The assumption of US officials that Bin Laden and his deputy, Ayman Zawahiri, were hiding in separate locations to avoid being captured at the same time was confirmed by Mr. Zawahiri’s absence during the raid in which the Al Qaeda leader was killed. US officials will be looking for clues of Mr. Zawahiri’s whereabouts in a bid to locate him before he is able to relocate to a venue he feels has not been compromised.
Similarly, US intelligence officials will be looking for any indication of the whereabouts of other Al Qaeda leaders, particularly Mr. Zawahiri’s suspected rivals as successors to Bin Laden: Saif al-Adel, a former Egyptian special forces officer who heads the group’s military operations, and Abu Yahya al-Libi, one of its major ideologues.
By the same token, Bin Laden’s treasure trove could provide evidence for US suspicions that Al Qaeda enjoyed continued funding from people in the Gulf. If found, the evidence would allow the United States to further complicate Al Qaeda’s access to funding.
If the capture of earlier Al Qaeda information stashes such as data discovered in Iraq is anything to go by, Bin Laden’s treasure trove is likely to prove to be an intelligence gold mine that will also deepen understanding of the inner workings of the group and potential divisions within in it.
The treasure trove for now puts intelligence officials in the driver seat. What they glean from the captured data could well shape US diplomacy towards Pakistan and others and inform future covert operations.
(James M. Dorsey, formerly of The Wall Street Journal, is a senior researcher at the National University of Singapore’s Middle East Institute and the author of the blog, The Turbulent World of Middle East Soccer. He can be reached via email at: email@example.com)