Saturday, May 14, 2011

Bin Laden's Supposed Spohisticated Email Operation Does It Really Suggest Very Inept Intelligence Agencies?

Forgive me for scratching my head, but bin Laden's supposedly spohisticated email technique strikes me of amateur night and suggests ineptness on the part of intelligence agencies tracking al Quaeda. Consider the AP report on how Osama operated:
His methods, described in new detail to The Associated Press by a counterterrorism official and a second person briefed on the U.S. investigation, served him well for years and frustrated Western efforts to trace him through cyberspace. The arrangement allowed bin Laden to stay in touch worldwide without leaving any digital fingerprints behind...
Bin Laden's system was built on discipline and trust. But it also left behind an extensive archive of email exchanges for the U.S. to scour. The trove of electronic records pulled out of his compound after he was killed last week is revealing thousands of messages and potentially hundreds of email addresses, the AP has learned.

Holed up in his walled compound in northeast Pakistan with no phone or Internet capabilities, bin Laden would type a message on his computer without an Internet connection, then save it using a thumb-sized flash drive. He then passed the flash drive to a trusted courier, who would head for a distant Internet cafe.

At that location, the courier would plug the memory drive into a computer, copy bin Laden's message into an email and send it. Reversing the process, the courier would copy any incoming email to the flash drive and return to the compound, where bin Laden would read his messages offline.
How does AP get off saying there were no digital fingerprints?

If this tale is to be believed, bin Laden sent out thousands of email messages. And if the intelligence agencies weren't before aware that bin Laden was sending emails out, that means that the intelligence agencies weren't monitoring the emails of anyone corresponding with bin Laden.

If they were aware, why weren't they monitoring the internet cafes that the courier was using?

Either we are getting more manufactured spin here, or intelligent agencies really aren't capturing all that much intelligence. I'm thinking if I monitored the activities of just one of bin Laden's correspondents so that I pick off his emails, even if he is using an internet cafe, I find bin Laden within 3 to 6 months.

How could you not?  Once you ID a correspondent dealing with bin Laden, and you have the billions of dollars in assets that US intelligence agencies have, you start monitoring all internet cafes in the region where the bin Laden emails are coming from. You eventually sync the emails going out as to time and location and you capture on video who enters and leaves the cafe (If you don't actually have a video in the cafe itself). Now, you have a pic of someone to look for entering these cafes and you follow him the next time he visits. How difficult is this, if you have the resources of the US government backing you up?

Something doesn't add up here.


  1. Your theory implies the US actually wanted to catch Bin Laden. Why do you think that is the case?

  2. Skeptic: Change your name to "Cynic".

    How dare you challenge the paradigm???

  3. Only 2 things you need to know:

    1) "African" was not a race in 1961.
    2) No evidence has been presented indicating that we got OBL.

    BHO is ROFL.

  4. It's pretty easy to setup military grade encryption with private and public keys. And it's free to boot.

    I'm surprised they weren't encrypting their emails. Looks like al qaeda is as stupid as our government.

  5. The OBL email system would be far harder to track that you suggest. OBL's couriers traveled in different directions up to hundreds of miles when they did this. There are probably thousands of Internet cafes in Pakistan, as many users can't afford their own computer and connection. Unless you can surveil each cafe 24/7, finding random couriers using them would be impossible. Pakistan is a large very populus country.

  6. Watch internet cafes? No need. Just make a deal with the ISI to install the same equipment they have installed in the USA to monitor internet traffic. Of course that requires certain assumptions about the purpose of the domestic program to believe it would have helped.

  7. The whole game of realpolitik reminds me most of a pub brawl of a bunch of congenitally retarded hillibillies.

  8. There's got to be an understanding that just because something is low tech, doesn't necessarily mean it can't be effective. If this was straight up sneaker-net, and it sounds like it was, I think it makes sense that it was hard to track.

    I've read that there's a battle over tactics in intelligence circles. There's already not enough people that speak the language and know the culture, in addition to the fact that the current trend is for signals intelligence at the expense of actually having people on the ground. So spending is weighted towards signals vs human beings. Problem is, what if the target doesn't use signals the way that's normally expected?

    Re: encryption. If an email is encrypted, it can send up a flag to anybody looking at traffic that there's something in there somebody doesn't want you to see. Of course, actually looking at all traffic is impossible to do. But there's filtering mechanisms that can be installed at internet service providers that processes and sifts out packets. The problem is, these are programs. They can be very, very stupid. And the level of traffic for an entire country, even one as backwards as Pakistan, has to be substantial. For a bot to try to sift through that and be accurate is hard.

    I have no idea what the contents of the emails actually was, but wouldn't the senders tried to code them and make them look innocuous? Something like, "Say, how's uncle Tim? I hear he's doing well, but haven't talked in awhile. Tell him to give presents to Marge," Translation: "Inform Agent X he needs to report in, but to complete his mission before doing so." Maybe I've seen too many spy movies, but I would be surprised if they didn't do this.

    This is cynicism speaking, but that the government couldn't track the emails or couriers of a underground criminal organization located thousands of miles away doesn't shock me.