Signs Emerge that America's Technological Intelligence is Paying Off in Rooting Out al-Qaida
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 computer-savvy foe.
"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 hide.
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 picture file.
"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," Aaron said.
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 structures."
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 organization.
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 States.
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 December.
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 computer.
"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.