by Dafna Linzer, Associated Press
In the tiny towns that dot the Pakistani mountains
east of the Afghan border, small shops that seemingly
offer residents little more than dusty packs of
cigarettes and canned goods are stocked with one more
essential - computers with Internet access.
It is from this area, in northwest Pakistan, that
U.S. intelligence in recent weeks has picked up on
increased communications among al-Qaida members,
according to U.S. officials.
Shortly after Sept. 11, intelligence experts argued
that America should have been infiltrating groups such
as al-Qaida instead of sinking its budget into
satellite imagery, communications interception and
reconnaissance equipment. But as the war on terrorism
enters its seventh month, America's technological
expertise may be paying off as it tries to root out a
"Abu Zubaydah used the Internet from Faisalabad in
Pakistan when he was captured," said Vince
Cannistraro, a former CIA counterterrorism chief. Abu
Zubaydah, the no. 3 in Osama bin Laden's terrorist
organization, is the highest ranking al-Qaida member
in U.S. custody.
He was caught by Pakistani and U.S. authorities in
a joint raid on a hide-out in Pakistan on March 28.
Pakistani intelligence officials have said quietly
that a mobile phone call Abu Zubaydah made to al-Qaida
leaders in Yemen led to his arrest.
When the suspected kidnappers and killers of Wall
Street Journal Reporter Daniel Pearl sent e-mails that
included his photographs in January, U.S.
investigators traced the communication to an Internet
service provider in Karachi whose computer logs led
them to a key suspect.
Fahad Naseem denied sending any e-mails on Jan. 27
and Jan. 30, the same dates that the Pearl photographs
were sent. But the records showed otherwise and when
police confiscated his computer they found the e-mails
on his hard drive. He was arrested Feb. 3, three days
after the second e-mail was sent.
During interrogation, Naseem gave police the names
of three other suspects, including Ahmed Omar Saeed
Sheikh, the British-born militant thought to have
orchestrated the kidnapping.
Knowing where Pearl was abducted helped narrow the
search. But with al-Qaida cells allegedly operating
around the globe, the search can be much harder,
especially when the Internet offers so many ways to
Providers of free e-mail, such as Yahoo and
Hotmail, require no real information from a user.
Messages can be kept secret with encryption, a digital
technology that encodes the information on one end and
reads at another using a special algorithm.
Even messages that seem meaningless to terrorism
trackers can be treacherous. Experts have said that
al-Qaida may be using steganography, a process that
hides one message within another or somewhere in a
"You need some kind of intelligence, such as in the
Pearl case," said Chris Aaron, the editor of Jane's
Intelligence Review. "In the past, the focus was on
identifiable targets such as Iraq or Russia, whereas
when dealing with a target such as al-Qaida, it's
harder to know what to target. You still need the
human intelligence in order to know what to target,"
Electronic mission aircraft being used in
Afghanistan can detect, pinpoint to a certain area and
jam satellite uplinks. But unless the call is
intercepted, there is no way to know if the satphone
user is an al-Qaida member in a cave or a journalist
calling in a story from a valley nearby.
The transmissions coming from Northwest Pakistan,
where many of bin Laden's foot soldiers are believed
to have fled, may be more definitive.
"There is a concentration of al-Qaida in Pakistan
along the border areas and if Internet use there is
up, it's only because of the large numbers of al-Qaida
there," Cannistraro said.
And the signs that supporters are trying to keep
the organization alive are growing
The FBI's cybersecurity unit posted a bulletin on
its Web site in January warning that "a computer that
belonged to an individual with indirect links to Osama
Bin Laden contained structural architecture computer
programs that suggested the individual was interested
in .... dams and other water-retaining
The National Infrastructure Protection Center's
site also said that "al-Qaida members have sought
information on water supply and wastewater management
practices in the U.S. and abroad. There has also been
interest in insecticides and pest control products at
several web sites."
In early February, the London-based Al-Quds
newspaper published excerpts from an Arabic-language
Web site that claimed to represent al-Qaida. An
article on the site, hosted by Geocities, which is
owned by Yahoo! Inc, bragged that the group carried
out the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks, warned of further
violence and outlined an ideological future for the
The author of the article had not been previously
identified, but intelligence experts say that the
writer may be less important than the message.
"This a blueprint for the future of al-Qaida, and
it indicates that there are a lot of people out there
still ready to support its aims," said Yigal Carmon,
the former head of Israeli counterterrorism and the
president of MEMRI, a research institute which
translates, disseminates and analyzes Arab media.
Al-Qaida operatives were computer savvy before PCs
were household fixtures in the United States -
something which has helped them and helped the United
In 1995, authorities in the Philippines seized a
computer from Ramzi Yousef - the mastermind of the
1993 World Trade Center bombing - and found a treasure
trove of information and plans, including one to
attack a nuclear facility in the United States.
A computer purchased by a Wall Street Journal
reporter in Afghanistan included the movements of an
al-Qaida operative which were similar to those of
Richard Reid - accused of trying to ignite explosives
in his shoes during a trans-Atlantic flight in
Ahmed Ressam, convicted of plotting to bomb the Los
Angeles airport in 1999, said during court testimony
that the one thing a colleague needed to pack when
heading off to Afghan training camps was a
"Internet communications have become the main
communications system among al-Qaida around the world
because its safer, easier and more anonymous if they
take the right precautions and I think they're doing
that," Cannistraro said.