Al Qaeda E-Mail Still Invisible

In the days leading up to the first anniversary of al Qaeda’s September 11 outrages against America, US authorities detected a sharp spike in the volume of electronic traffic flying around its component groups, raising the specter of a repeat terrorist attack. Yet no intelligence expert has succeeded in decrypting those messages. Indeed, all that US intelligence knows is that al Qaeda uses the Internet extensively for its in-house communications. The failure to crack them accounts for the American government’s admitted ignorance of Osama bin Laden’s whereabouts, its inability to locate him and his associates or to discover what they are up to.
In its last issue of September 6, DEBKA-Net-Weekly intelligence sources dealt at length with this fatal shortcoming. After considering the possibility that al Qaeda was not using the Internet at all, the tight intelligence surveillance screen clamped down on al Qaeda cells in Afghanistan, Pakistan, Iran, Lebanon, Saudi Arabia and the Balkans, where active cells are known to based, showed the local commanders to be receiving fresh instructions every few days.
The traffic began to swell in mid-August with detectable consequences in at least one place: Macedonia. After one such directive was received, al Qaeda operatives in that tiny Balkan state headed for mountain village hideouts and hauled out 200 tons of heroin and opium smuggled in last winter through Central Asia, Bulgaria and Croatia. The drugs were handed over to the Albanian mafia for channeling to West Europe for Christmas. This gang’s outlets in London, for instance, are the city’s brothels, three quarters of which it has taken over.
The Macedonian operatives’ movements were picked up – not by “reading” al Qaeda’s electronic instructions, but by observing their responses to the messages they evidently received on their laptops. One year after 9/11, save for rare occasions when the network’s agents or allied terrorists have risked using satellite or cellular telephones, neither the US nor any Western intelligence agency has been able to intercept a single transmission or broadcast relating to the operational or financial activities of al Qaeda decision-makers or the organization’s affiliates.
DEBKA-Net-Weekly‘s intelligence experts say the last time electronic messages or satellite telephone calls were picked up from bin Laden himself was late November and early December, 2001, when US special forces, backed by local Afghan fighters, waged battle against al Qaeda in the Tora Bora cave complex of eastern Afghanistan. At the end of this fierce engagement, al Qaeda men dropped out of sight. American intelligence and scientific experts, combing through the detritus left in the empty caves, found a large number of computers, telephones and communications gear with hard disks, floppy disks and data cassettes in recorders containing pre-recorded messages worded so as to mislead US commanders and intelligence experts.
Since then, electronic surveillance of al Qaeda has drawn a blank.
The issue of al Qaeda and its use of e-mail came up last month at the trial of Zacarias Moussaoui, the only person charged in the 9/11 attacks. U.S. District Judge Leonie Brinkema ordered the FBI to provide an affidavit explaining why no comprehensive examination was made of the defendant’s electronic mail – whose address – – was similar to millions of others used in the United States and elsewhere. The angry judge in Alexandria, Virginia, demanded to know whether the FBI had even bothered to ask for help on the matter from the CIA and National Security Agency (NSA). Sources described in media reports as “familiar with the workings of the court” told reporters that when FBI agents arrested Moussaoui on immigration charges in Minnesota on August 16, 2001, the Justice Department turned down the bureau’s request to examine his computer. It issued a new request several weeks later after receiving intelligence information from France about the suspect, but was again turned down. In documents submitted to the court, the government said the agents tried unsuccessfully to access Moussaoui’s e-mail accounts. An affidavit filed by Hotmail said the company had no records of the xdesertman account.
DEBKA-Net-Weekly‘s intelligence and counter-terrorism experts note that in the Moussaoui case, the US government and its intelligence agencies have run into the same problem dogging them since Tora Bora: a failure to discover just how al Qaeda agents and allies move their electronic traffic and what it contains.
The experts are asking themselves if the Islamic fundamentalists have hit on a revolutionary technology for transmitting and receiving e-mail undetectably, when, to this day, not a single line has been found recorded on paper or on the Internet referring to the preparations made by the 19 hijackers of four US airliners to crash their planes on September 11 into the World Trade Center, Pentagon and a field in Pennsylvania.
Investigators have collected no more than fragmentary clues and oral information (First referred to in “A digital mole in the White House”, in DEBKA-Net-Weekly No. 30, September 21, 2001), but no significant breakthrough in uncovering al Qaeda’s methods for transmitting messages. The Islamic fundamentalist organization therefore remains virtually untouched by the intensive global drive to expose its command structure, logistical set-up and the ways it moves fighters, weapons and money. Its leaders can hope to stay out of reach for as long as they observe electronic invisibility and avoid the trap into which senior al Qaeda operative Abu Zubaydah fell last winter. He was located and captured in Pakistan after one of his men was persuaded to accept a cell phone from Pakistani agents to talk with his family.
Since then, in solitary confinement at the US naval base on the Indian Ocean island of Diego Garcia, this member of bin Laden’s inner circle has betrayed nothing significant to his American captors, according to our sources. Though responsible for recruitment and the administration of the group’s training camps, Abu Zubaydah is ignorant about the operational side of the organization or its secret communications systems. Compartmentalization – in which operatives are told no more than they need to know to carry out their own tasks – is religiously upheld in al Qaeda.
This is but an abbreviated version of a behind-the-scenes intelligence expose of the kind carried regularly by our electronic publication DEBKA-Net-Weekly. To find out how to place you order and join the select group of subscribers in the know, click <B<IHEREI>B>.

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