Osama bin Laden's email store found on USB sticks

Osama bin Laden (CIA)
By Richi Jennings. May 13, 2011.

U.S. intelligence staff have uncovered Osama bin Laden's body of archived email, stored on USB flash sticks. It seems he used an elaborate process of couriers and Internet cafes to communicate with his al Qaeda network. In IT Blogwatch, bloggers pull on their sneakers.

Your humble blogwatcher curated these bloggy bits for your entertainment. Not to mention an Angry, nicotine-addicted kitteh...

Matt Apuzzo and Adam Goldman talk to those in the know:

His system was painstaking and slow, but it worked, and ... frustrated Western efforts to trace him. ... But it also left behind an extensive archive of email exchanges for the U.S. to scour ... revealing thousands of messages and potentially hundreds of email addresses. ... Navy SEALs hauled away roughly 100 flash memory drives after they killed bin Laden ... [which] appear to archive the ... communication between bin Laden and his associates.


Bin Laden's system was built on discipline and trust ... [a] courier would plug the memory drive into a computer, copy bin Laden's message into an email and send it. ... [Then] the courier would copy any incoming email to the flash drive and return to the compound. ... It was so meticulous that ... intelligence officials have marveled at bin Laden's ability to maintain it.  

Dean Takahashi fills in the blanks:

Osama bin Laden ... would write a message and save it to a thumb drive. A trusted courier would take it to a distant internet cafe. ... That pretty much guaranteed that bin Laden couldn’t be located by ... his email address or his internet connection.


It isn’t clear if the flash drives were encrypted or not. But as the intelligence experts uncover the ... details, they can query internet service providers via subpoenas. That could lead to exposure of more agents of Al-Qaeda.  

Xeni Jardin has a pithier description of ObL's process:

How did the world's most wanted terrorist managed to maintain email communication ... without being detected by US spooks?


With an epic sneakernet.  

So Christopher W. Hacker adds 2+2:

This simple method is ... effective. It greatly extends the effort needed to trace the source. ... Even if they managed to nab a courier in the act of sending Osama's emails ... that would only ensure that Osama disappeared immediately and so wouldn't really help.


The courier ... inevitably would have ended up with some sort of pattern in his usage that the CIA could track. ... We know they knew Osama was in the house for at least a few months before. ... We know they found out because of the couriers.


But, yeah, as described it's pretty lame. Perhaps that was the intent, to imply that Osama wasn't that smart.  


And Finally...

Angry, nicotine-addicted kitteh

[hat tip: Josh Halliday; no cats were harmed in the making of this video]

Bonus link: I Want... to adopt a kitteh

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Richi Jennings, your humble blogwatcher

Richi Jennings is an independent analyst/consultant, specializing in blogging, email, and security. He's also the creator and main author of Computerworld's IT Blogwatch -- for which he has won American Society of Business Publication Editors and Jesse H. Neal awards on behalf of Computerworld, plus The Long View. A cross-functional IT geek since 1985, you can follow him as @richi on Twitter, pretend to be richij's friend on Facebook, or just use good old email: itbw@richij.com. You can also read Richi's full profile and disclosure of his industry affiliations.

Copyright © 2011 IDG Communications, Inc.

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