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GlobalSecurity.org In the News

Associated Press December 31, 2001

Kabul computer reveals files of top Al Qaeda officials

By D. Ian Hopper

WASHINGTON -- A computer used by Osama bin Laden's agents in Afghanistan could be an intelligence bonanza pointing to future methods of attack and inside information about how the al-Qaida terrorist network operates, former military officials and analysts said Monday.

A U.S. intelligence official confirmed that a computer bought by The Wall Street Journal in Kabul apparently had been used by al-Qaida. It contained memos of the terrorist group's chemical and biological weapons program, justifications for killing civilians and a propaganda video made from footage of people fleeing from the World Trade Center, the Journal reported.

Increasingly, officials told The Associated Press, computers are replacing confidential memos as a prime target when looking for intelligence left behind by a routed enemy. The faster the enemy is destroyed, the juicier the information.

"It's like in the old days when you have safes, you'd have hand grenades laying around to take out the safe," said Marc Enger, former director of operations at the Air Intelligence Agency, the Air Force's intelligence arm. "These guys were more intent on getting out than worrying about information left behind."

Enger said American forces retrieved valuable information from computers in Iraq and Kuwait during the Persian Gulf War as well as in the 1989 invasion of Panama.

"We got good data there," Enger said, citing evidence of financial transactions and drug trafficking. "It was in (Panamanian Gen. Manuel) Noriega's personal underground command center. They found computers in there that had all kinds of stuff."

A looter in Kabul said he got the desktop computer after a U.S. bombing raid in November that killed several senior officials of al-Qaida, the Journal said. The newspaper said it bought the machine from the looter for $1,100.

The terrorist group functioned like a multinational corporation, with memos referring to al-Qaida as "the company" and its leadership as "the general management," the newspaper said.

One memo referred to a "legal study" of the killing of civilians, in which the writer said he had found ways to keep "the enemy" from using the killing of "civilians, specifically women and children," to undermine the militants' cause, the Journal said.

A letter addressed to top al-Qaida lieutenant Ayman al-Zawahri said "hitting the Americans and Jews is a target of great value and has its rewards in this life and, God willing, the afterlife," the Journal said. The author of the letter said he had written to bin Laden separately.

While the Journal said many of the files were protected by passwords, Enger said American technicians have had little problem overcoming those kinds of technological obstacles.

The computer also contains a video file made after Sept. 11 that uses television footage of people fleeing the World Trade Center, combined with a sound track of mocking chants and prayers in Arabic, the newspaper said.

The creation of the video "shows an intermediate level of technical sophistication," akin to a drug cartel, said analyst John Pike of Globalsecurity.org. But unlike a drug network that constantly pushes money and narcotics around, a terrorist group can be silent for months.

"That's why this type of primary source material is so valuable because there aren't as many opportunities to get this sort of insight into their operation," Pike said.

The U.S. intelligence official would not comment on whether the United States had access to or a copy of the computer's hard drive.

Text files include an outline of an al-Qaida project to develop chemical and biological weapons, code-named al-Zabadi, Arabic for curdled milk, the newspaper said.

One memo laments the slow progress of the weapons development and adds that "we only became aware of them when the enemy drew our attention to them by repeatedly expressing concern that they can be produced simply."

Al-Qaida's euphemisms for chemical weapons and other terms could be used to find more intelligence, analysts said.

"Historically, that's been a real big problem you have with drug operations," Pike said. "The drug runners come up with new nicknames for drugs faster than the cops can learn them. So understanding their code names is extremely valuable."

Unlike battlefield intelligence which usually focuses on troop movements and strengths in a particular area, the al-Qaida computer files pertain to strategy as well as tactics. This may help U.S. strategists to better protect the country against future attacks.

"If we're going to be successful in securing the homeland we need to put ourselves in the bad guy's shoes," said Phil Anderson, a retired Marine and analyst at the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington.

"There's so many vulnerabilities that we have to address," Anderson said. "Anything that's going to help us focus our attention is going to be useful."

Copyright 2001 Associated Press