WASHINGTON – Intelligence agencies combing through computers and storage devices found at Osama bin Laden’s compound expect a “gold mine” of data that could expose terror plots, Al-Qaeda figures’ locations and funding sources, ex-US officials said Wednesday.
The trove of material hauled away after bin Laden was killed in a US raid on Sunday — about five computers, 10 hard drives and 100 storage devices — represents a dramatic intelligence breakthrough for the United States in its fight against Al-Qaeda, said the experts.
“I’ll be very surprised if this isn’t a gold mine for us,” said John McLaughlin, a former CIA deputy director.
“I think we’re probably going to find reports of potential plotting. We’ll probably find something about funding. We may learn something about whatever relationship he did or didn’t have with Pakistan. We’ll learn about key aides,” he told CNN.
US officials said a task force of experts from the Central Intelligence Agency, the National Security Agency, the Justice Department and other agencies had begun scouring the material, in a task that would last months and possibly years.
The initial search will focus on “detecting ongoing threats” and information pointing to “other high-value targets within Al-Qaeda,” Michael Leiter, head of the National Counter-terrorism Center, told National Public Radio.
The government would “probably” be adding names to its terrorist watch list as a result of the information gleaned from Bin Laden’s computer files, Attorney General Eric Holder told a Senate hearing Wednesday.
Cyber specialists will first dismantle the hardware, taking care for possible booby traps or triggers that would erase files. Then they will extract and copy all the stored data, sifting through temporary files and trying to crack encryption codes, analysts said.
“They’ll try to wring every drop out of this stuff. There’s a first layer of data they might be to get at quickly, and then there are additional layers that more technical analysis would provide,” James Lewis, a former State Department official who worked on security and technology, told AFP.
“It usually takes a long time to go through these things,” said Lewis, a fellow at the Center for Strategic and International Studies.
The painstaking search is unlikely to unearth large batches of explicit information on Al-Qaeda but instead “hundreds of thousands of tiny details” that will then be fit into a larger mosaic of intelligence, said David Lindahl, a research scientist at the Swedish Defense Research Agency in Stockholm.
“I don’t think they’re going to find lists of addresses. They might find code names and oblique references,” Lindahl said.
“If they can get even one bank account, then they can start to unravel many, many things.”
Apart from text and numbers in computer files, a digital forensic analysis might also provide other insights such as who was using the machine and when, according to Lewis.
“There might be not only the data itself, but things that you’d want to know that are associated with the data,” Lewis said. “When was it written? Was it written on the same machine? Is there something that indicates it came from someone else?”
As a wanted fugitive keenly aware of a global manhunt, bin Laden would have almost certainly used encryption to protect at least some of his computer files, Lewis and other experts said.
The Al-Qaeda chief’s large compound had no telephone or Internet connection, a possible explanation for the large number of DVDs and thumb drives at the house.
US spy agencies believe that soon after the September 11 attacks of 2001, bin Laden sought to avoid American surveillance by relying on CD-ROMs delivered by courier instead of logging on to computer networks, Lewis said.
It was possible he stuck to that tactic, he said.