back to article Is there anything to find on bin Laden's hard drive?

US officials are already referring to the trove of computer drives and disks seized from Osama bin Laden's compound as “the mother lode of intelligence.” Such gloating is probably premature. As reported by Politico and others, the US Navy SEAL team that killed bin Laden on Sunday in Pakistan snatched computers, thumb drives and …


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  1. FozzyBear
    Black Helicopters

    Title Required

    Yep my money is on months/years down the track they crack it and find some weird fetish porn. Two girls one cup perhaps !

    1. Ian McNee

      More likely...

      ...two popes one grail? Sorry. No really: sorry!

    2. David Beeston


      I need never be reminded of the horror of watching that the first time. Even worse, one man one jar.

    3. Anonymous Coward
      Anonymous Coward

      Two Girls one Cup ???

      Don't know Bin Laden's erotic tastes. But I think that one is just you.

    4. LaeMing

      Extreme porn, Taliban style

      Women with their faces exposed.

  2. thecakeis(not)alie

    *NEVER* underestimate

    any group of people who measure thier computing power in acres.

    1. Destroy All Monsters Silver badge

      You were saying?

    2. Anonymous Coward
      Anonymous Coward


      Wouldn't they be farmers?

  3. Anonymous Coward

    They need a fleet of PS3s to crack this...

    ...just hook it up to the PSN. Oh wait...

    <-- Beer icon because that's something else they won't discover in his compound.

    1. Anonymous Coward


      Maybe the PS3 hacking gang has been found :)

    2. An nonymous Cowerd

      Whisky not beer?

      when I mended a local's video recorder in riyadh a while ago I was unexpectedly given a half-bottle of scotch. I don't think the guy was a paid-up member of the made-up AQ, but he was definitely a pillar of the community and no doubt a supporter of the neighborhood Commission for the Promotion of Virtue and Prevention of Vice. Being a normal Saudi local he was a bit bipolar on most issues. Kim Philby's dad, Harry Saint John Bridger Sheik Abdullah Philby stated that "(Saudi/Nejd) Arabs are the only people I know of who combine ignorance with arrogance"

      I also met a champagne salesman in riyadh, he said business was very good. The only beer available was tinnies of "Near" (zero alcohol flavored with cat's p!ss) but once the factory accidentally brewed real stuff.... I suspect UBL would have been a sweet-mint-tea persona

      1. senti mental

        wow that's strange

        Arabs are the only people I know of who combine ignorance with arrogance ....

        You've obviously never spent much time around evangelical christians in that case.

      2. peter 45

        A country of double standards

        Ever been on a flight out of Saudi. Full of ladies with full guiness bottle robes drinking orange juice. The pilot announces we are now out of Saudi airspace and there is a rush for the toilets. Several minutes later the ladies return in the shortest miniskirts I have seen outside a porn movie, and proceed to get staggeringly drunk.

        What is done officially and what is done privately are totally different.

      3. Cihatari

        Re Whisky, not beer?

        The British embassy sometime in the early eighties received a phone call from the Saudi authorities to inform them that "Their furniture was leaking." So I guess there was a certain amount of blind-eye turning going on for a while there.

        1. Anonymous Coward
          Anonymous Coward

          Leaking Furniture

          That was a quite a common report well before the 80s, a frequent one was that their grand piano was leaking as it was said that they regularly imported new ones as the heat made them go off tune...

          I did once see a container being packed for export,(not in this country) with the boxes being labelled as Navy Documents relating to 'another country'. The contents had to avoid clinking and the 'documents' were square section with a screw top, they were not for 'our' embassy but for delivery to the same Kingdom.

  4. Anonymous Coward
    Anonymous Coward

    'extracting' information

    Maybe if they hadn't killed him, they could have 'extracted' some data from him.

    1. ratfox


      You think he would have spilled the beans?

    2. Evil Auditor Silver badge

      Re extracting information

      Well, according to some govoff Osama was unarmed. Maybe, extracting information was exactly what they tried to do when he died?

    3. Anonymous Coward
      Black Helicopters

      conspiracy ahoy

      burial at see, a likely story!

      1. Destroy All Monsters Silver badge
        Paris Hilton

        The buried him in the Vatican?

        I would rather hoped for a honorable burial at sea.

    4. yakitoo


      was it fitted with a finger print reader by any chance?

    5. Anonymous Coward
      Anonymous Coward

      you sure they did?

      We've only got their word they killed him. If I was head of an intelligence service in the mood to use 'enhanced interrogation techniques' then not having people asking questions about where he is or what's being done to him would be a useful first step.

      1. Anonymous Coward
        Black Helicopters


        Even when they release photos, one can't be absolutely sure he's dead. But capturing him alive, torturing on sea and then killing and making photos would be rather hard to detect, unless of course someone finds some clues in the photos.

      2. Anonymous Coward

        in the movies, perhaps

        Not asking questions would be a useful step.

        But, on the ground in Pakistan is a bit different. I think it is more like a bird in the hand versus two in the bush.

        I do not doubt the report that he was given a chance to surrendar. Which he would naturally not take. Then, he gets popped a couple of times. MIssion accomplished. Now, let's get out of here with the body. And anything else that is not nailed down.

        We can work on anything that is not plain paper.

        The world may not be a safer place. But, it sure feels like it.

    6. Mephistro

      @ AC Wednesday 4th May 2011 06:09 GMT

      "Maybe if they hadn't killed him, they could have 'extracted' some data from him."

      Perhaps that's what they're doing right now. I mean, It would make sense to keep him alive without anybody knowing, and milk him for all the info he's got. It wouldn't surprise me if the 'secret burial at sea' was just a cover up. This way, they could get all the info they want from him without any outside interference from AI or the UN or whoever. It also would prevent his buddies trying to free him through some massive kidnapping.

    7. Flocke Kroes Silver badge

      All the good reasons to torture someone

      1) You are a sadist.

      2) You want this person to suffer.

      3) You have prepared a confession for his farther to sign that you can sell to the CIA.

      Getting accurate information from a torture victim only happens on TV.

      1. This post has been deleted by its author

        1. TheRealRoland
          Thumb Down

          Who is this 'we' I keep on hearing?

          Trying to figure that out - Donald Trump was bandying that word in his 'speech' in Las Vegas last week, in the 'news', and now here. Were you part of the 'we' that interrogated people?

          Otherwise, please don't generalize so much.

        2. John Gamble


          "And yet, the guys we waterboarded gave us the name of the courier that allowed us to get Osama."

          Really? We found him in 2006?


          Torture apologists, how predictable.

        3. J 3


          I know some types of people can't understand this, but here it goes:

          Interrogation != torture

          Until they say exactly who gave the info and under which conditions (fat chance), we won't know, of course. But we DO know, from the reports of ex-operatives, that non-violent, even friendly interrogation gives results while torture tends to get made up crap.

    8. Anonymous Coward
      Anonymous Coward

      The Scene We Didn't See

      Bin Laden: You expect me to talk?

      Special Forces: No, Mr Bin Laden, we expect you to die.

    9. Naughtyhorse


      hey you dont think that thats WHY they killed him?

      (lets face it, if he'd handed himself personally to Ban Ki-Moon at the UN he would been the tragic innocent bystander in a most un characteristic for manhatten, but _totally_unrelated, drive by!)

  5. skeptical i
    Thumb Up

    a downloaded copy of _Recruiting Jihadis for Dummies_

    From the "Tips and Tricks" section:

    Don't let on that you live in a swank walled compound with toilets and access to real food when those who would die in your name live in caves eating bugs. It's bad form and may cause resentment among your underlings.

    1. Naughtyhorse

      dunno mate...

      Luton is pretty grim, but caves?? bugs???... I dont think so

  6. jake Silver badge

    Gut feeling ...

    Dusty old 1970s "Rolex" porn ... There is most likely no useful intel.

    But I'll bet a couple dollars that the .fed will spend as much money as possible trying to decrypt random file system data, in the hopes of finding something that doesn't exist.

  7. rahul

    How about...

    ...a new BOINC project to brute-find the decryption key, using idle computing power the world over? Al-Qaeda decryption world wide effort.

  8. Ole Juul

    I bet there's nothing worthwhile

    He probably hasn't been involved in anything important for a number of years and likely didn't use his computer for anything much.

    Of course if they didn't find anything, what would they tell us?

    1. Naughtyhorse

      at last some sense...

      after 10 years of smashing his encryption with the worlds most powerful super computer array, the NSA today confirmed that they now have full access to bin-ladens world of warcraft account, the top 10 islamic i tunes and 9 1/2 years worth of downloads from bombay badonka-donks.

  9. KrisMac

    Anti-Symmetric Keys??? I the only one who read that line in the 'Mujahideen Secrets' image as 'Anti-Semitic Keys'?

    Or is the whole thing just a late Middle-Eastern April Fools joke.....

    1. Anonymous Coward
      Anonymous Coward


      I was too busy thinking that someone had missed the opportunity of calling it 'MujaHidden Secrets"

    2. Anonymous Coward
      Anonymous Coward


      "Islamic Software"

      There's not much point having Islamic encryption software if you can' t get an Islamic OS, Islamic picture viewer, Islamic browser, Islamic spreadsheet, Islamic mouse, Islamic processor, Islamic ISP, Islamic fan, Islamic power supply, Islamic monitor, Islamic Tetris etc.

  10. Danny 5


    he had no telephone and no internet access (right?), i don't think there'll be much of interest on those disks, but i guess time will tell. in any case, they have a great weapon with this, they can now bluff about having information.

    1. Anonymous Coward

      Ever heard of sneakernet?

      What do you think those couriers were couriering?

      IMHO, I think it's just as likely that there is a wealth of unprotected or lightly protected info on his machine as it being either empty or completely locked down like that suspected bank embezzler guy in Brazil. Bin Laden *might* not have spent as much time and effort considering/planning what happens when he was found and killed vs. trying not to get caught. The little I could find on Mujahideen Secrets ( seemed more geared towards data in transit (say, for e-mail) than data at rest (whole disk encryption).

      If I had to wager I'd bet that the thumb drives were encrypted but the machines themselves at best had whole disk encryption with a relatively weak password, if not completely unprotected.

  11. Glen Turner 666

    Key length will be too short

    You massively overstate the strength of encryption. It's only as good as the key management, and any of the products you mentioned have poor key entry (basically, they expect you to type it in), leading to key lengths maybe a hundred times less than required to resist any brute force attack for more than a few days.

    If you are right and there is a "trove" of items, then the likelihood is that they are not encrypted. Again it comes back to key management. Can you imagine OBL keeping track of 20 odd random passphrases in his head? It's easy to encrypt one item, harder to do two, and so on. The existence of a "trove" strongly suggests a lack of crypto or (even worse) key reuse.

    1. Il Midga di Macaroni
      Big Brother


      Furthermore, it's not at all unlikely that the US government would be able to gain access to a bank of Crays large enough to crack a 256-bit key within a reasonable timeframe. All it takes is grunt. And all that needs is money.

    2. Shakje

      I think it's a little naive to think he wouldn't be able to remember them

      It seems completely unlikely, especially if in the context of an everyday person, but he wasn't an everyday person. His computer may well hold secrets that could affect terrorist operations around the world, and they could also have been used as evidence if he was taken to a trial. If you're determined it's not difficult to force yourself to memorise about 20 different passphrases, just time consuming, so I'd guess for a smart (smarter than the average person I'd wager) guy who fears for his life and may even believe wholeheartedly in his cause and fear for it more, spending a few days or a week thoroughly planting them in his head wouldn't be too much of a chore.

      1. John G Imrie

        easy solution

        his pasphrases will be his favorite suras from the Qur'an

      2. Ocular Sinister

        Its easy to remember complex pass phrases

        I can remember the lyrics to many popular, and some less than popular tunes. A line or two from one of them would be sufficient. Music can be a powerful memory aid!

        Plenty of people can remember the opening or closing lines to famous novels.

        A more obvious (perhaps too obvious?) source would be a few lines from the Qu'ran, which presumably he would have already learnt by heart.

        In short: No, its easy to remember a pass phrase long enough.

    3. Sooner Boomer

      Key length will be too short

      "Can you imagine OBL keeping track of 20 odd random passphrases in his head?"

      No, but I can imagine him memorizing the entire Koran. How many passphrases, and of what length, do you think he could derive from that?

      1. Dave Bell

        Text isn't random

        There's several complications here, to do with the languages used, but the core point is that text, whether English or Arabic, isn't random. There are sequences of characters which happen a lot, and sequences which never happen. So, while it can be remembered more easily, a password or key is easier to attack than its length would suggest.

        If he used a passage from the Koran, it would be relatively easy to brute-force. It's not that huge a key-space. Printed editions run between 200 and 400 pages, depending on edition, and it is roughly the same size as the Christian New Testament. An 8-character alphanumeric password list is a few billion pages long.

        (Checks page-count estimate)

        Lots bigger, if you want to get technical. OK?

  12. John Savard

    While It Could Have Caused Problems

    While the NSA, no doubt, wouldn't need that kind of help, I'm surprised that amateurs haven't hacked some of the various sites to which al-Ekhlass has had to migrate and uploaded a compromised version of Mojahedeen Secrets. Or that, just as there are viruses that look for "known" child porn images, there aren't viruses that target that program.

  13. Turtle

    Flash drive vs magnetic drive.

    "flash drives are dangerously hard to purge of data, making thumb drives a good starting point"

    Although I can't find it now, I am sure that I recently read an article stating that it was more difficult to extract overwritten data from a flash drive than from a standard magnetic drive. This statement and the article linked to seem to state otherwise. Which one is right?

    1. copsewood

      Different Flash data retention characteristics

      "Although I can't find it now, I am sure that I recently read an article stating that it was more difficult to extract overwritten data from a flash drive than from a standard magnetic drive. This statement and the article linked to seem to state otherwise. Which one is right?"

      Both are right. Flash drive wear levelling mechanisms routinely put overused physical blocks out of use by sidelining them without overwriting them, while preserving logical geometry by bringing spare blocks into play. Genuinely overwritten flash blocks will be resistant to rotating media forensic attacks based upon analog temperature variations of disk head position leaving residual magnetic evidence accessible using electron microscopy. What the flash industry needs to do to convince knowledgeable users to be willing to put high value confidential data on flash without requiring an expensive end of life physical destruction process, is to provide a full erase mode for the devices, including access to blocks market overused, and so out of normal use.

      1. greenmantle

        Copsewood: Are you sure...

        ...that you didn't just get this reply from the BOFH's amazing excuse calendar?

        *** Dummy mode on *** !

    2. A J Stiles


      Flash memory, being EPROM-based, is vulnerable to X-Rays in the same way that conventional EPROM is vulnerable to ultra-violet light. Photons with sufficient energy can dislodge electrons from the floating gate, changing the stored 0 back to a 1.

      As, incidentally, are OTP EPROMs; which are, electronically, just UV EPROM dies in cheaper, non-windowed envelopes. And almost any cheap diode (1N4007 or similar) can be used as a "photodiode" for X-rays.

      Exactly the same thing is happening on the drum of a laser printer, or in the image sensor of a digital camera, and it's not even that different from when a loud noise sends a precariously-balanced object tumbling. Everything obeys the same fundamental laws of physics -- in this case, waves can impart kinetic energy to something upon which they impinge.

  14. Big Al
    Black Helicopters

    We won't hear anyway

    "It will be interesting to learn just how adept bin Laden was at protecting the data stashed on his computer gear."

    Why on earth should we learn about it at all?

    The Spooks will certainly want to keep anything they find very deeply secret, so that they can make use of it before other potential targets are warned off.

    Given the need to rely on physical couriers, I highly doubt that there's any handy address book on there. Any 'leaks' from the Spooks which do occur will probably be misinformation designed to scare a reaction out of people they haven't been able to find.

  15. Tom 260

    Anything of interest...

    Will no doubt become outdated now they've told the world they have these hard drives, so anyone else who knows what is probably on them will be taking steps to move themselves and others to other locations.

    Imagine if it only has the family photo album and a digital copy of the videos that have already been released to the media though, less "mother lode" more "egg on face".

    1. Anonymous Coward
      Anonymous Coward

      RE: Anything of interest...

      Once a group of people are settled with good security and well laid plans for keeping a low profile, they are difficult to find.

      Having to quickly move all those groups and arrange new places new contacts and alike, is as likely to bring them to the attention of other security forces as quickly as breaking any encryption.

      1. Tom 13

        So if the drives were unencrypted and contained no useful information,

        the best strategy to try to locate some groups would be to go on worldwide tv and announce you just seized the keys to the kingdom eh?

  16. Trygve Henriksen

    Correct me if I'm wrong, but...

    Isn't the first rule of counter-intelligence, NOT to reveal that you have data?

    Now Al-qaida knows the US has the computers, and we must assume that those he had any contact with has some knowledge of what was stored on those media, and will be doing damage control accordingly.

    1. copsewood
      Black Helicopters

      Disclosure suits the interests of the discloser

      There are two possibilities:

      1. Bin Laden had computers and the US/NSA now have access to these.

      2. Bin Laden didn't have computers and the US are lying about him having them.

      If 1. is true, the few in Al Quaeda who would have known Bin Laden had computers didn't need the US to tell them that these were captured, they would have already known that these would have been captured in the raid, so nothing useful to them has been disclosed.

      if either 1. or 2. is true, it still suits US interests for those in Al Quaeda who didn't know whether or not Bin Laden had computers to be afraid that he had, and that further preemptive strikes against them will occur as a consequence.

      1. Matt Bryant Silver badge
        Thumb Up

        RE: Disclosure suits the interests of the discloser

        You're also forgetting that a large part of the fight against AQ is tracking down and blocking AQ's funds. Bin Liner didn't only use a large amount of the Bin Laden family fortune, he was of value to the Taleban and other fundamentalist groups becuase he organised conduits for funds to pass from "charities" in Saudi Arabia and other countries through to the groups. Whilst I'm not saying Bin Liner may have had a good memory, it is highly likely that he will have resorted to some form of book-keeping, and the sheer complexity makes it almost certain to have been stored on computers. Bin Liner probably didn't have phone and/or Internet lines just to stop people tracking his conversations but also to keep people from finding and hacking into his electronic ledgers.

        The fun bit for all those that made donations is now they have no idea whether they are about to lose their money and their liberty - has Uncle Sam got the dirty on them? There will be quite a few rich Saudis getting the sweats over this!

    2. Tom 13

      That's assuming somebody from co-int

      managed to get a word in edgewise amongst all the back slapping that they'd managed to get OBL.

  17. yeahyeahno


    No telephone and no internet, I bet the hardrives are full of games, how else to fill the hours of boredom?

    1. Havin_it

      That explains everything

      The SEAL team were actually in the employ of UbiSoft.

      1. Anonymous Coward


        So this was a copyright enforcement action?

    2. Anonymous Coward
      Anonymous Coward

      Don't know how ..

      Newton, Einstein, Mozart etc. managed I really don't

  18. neb

    did they...

    ...look under his keyboard for the post-it note with his كلمة السر on it?

  19. Anonymous Coward
    Anonymous Coward

    More to the point...

    ... when will all this data in the hands of the US government, now appear on Wikileaks?

  20. Filippo Silver badge


    Or maybe, well, since he was probably out of the loop by now, it just doesn't hold anything really useful at all. The man had serious health issues and had been on the run for a long time, he was probably only used as a symbol and to make videos.

  21. spaceyjase

    What are the US...

    ...going to do with 100 million PS3 gamer details?

  22. Anonymous Coward
    Anonymous Coward

    Or maybe they've got nothing

    Given how hard they're pushing the "intelligence mother-lode" thing, I wouldn't be at all suprised to find out they actually had naf-all data, and are just bluffing. If they actually had this treasure trove of data, they'd be keeping it really quiet so as not to spook their targets before they were ready to take them down.

    Note that if you don't have any useful information, boasting, plausibly, about how you've broken all your targets security is a very valid tactic - the most likely response if for the targets to hurriedly change all their codes and security procedures, and if they're doing it in a panic, some of them will likely screw it up and reveal themselves or their new codes and procedures in the process. Not to mention, it'll totally screw up their organisation's coordination whilst they make all those changes, so they won't be able to do anything useful for a while, which is handy if you're looking to derail a bunch of kneejerk revenge attacks.

    1. Anonymous Coward

      perhaps, but 40 minutes?

      It is possible they got nothing.

      However, the fire fight apparently only lasted about 5 minutes. And they were on the ground about 45 minutes. That allows about 40 minutes to collect "nothing"? I am sure they were not hanging around having mint tea. It was grab and go.

      It is possible nothing was there. And it is possible that they spent 40 minutes looking.

      But, if they planned on never having visitors the chances are fairly good that they were less careful about keeping things clean. Perhaps no plans to leave suddenly. Moving around will just get yourself discovered.

      But, all that being said, I like the idea of claiming to have captured the lot. That should force everyone that was not aware of the place being clean to have to jump up and move.

      I am sure the Seals are ready for a whack the mole game.

      And it is possible that they get collect a fair amount and still wanted to see who jumps up. It is not going to be easy to carry out a number of similar raids in Pakistan. But, if everyone moves, you have much better targets.

      You have to keep in mind that they said they did not really know Bin Laden was there. And I think that is a true statement.

      Having good solid intelligence is really hard to come by.

      I trust the military and the CIA is playing this kind of game with some skill and intelligence regardless of what it looks like. Perhaps too much to ask of the military but the CIA has a few smart people on this.

      I only hope they can do what they are hired to carry out.

      1. Tom 13

        Realistic assessment as opposed to my usual DA stance:

        The drives are worthless, but since AQ knows that's what the West focuses on, you play that up in the media. This also falsely boosts AQ confidence that their real secrets are safe. The real treasure trove are the pieces of paper the 40 man team gathered in those 40 minutes before they took off again. Being a paper system, it isn't as inherently secure as a robust computer system is. NSA should be able to break those quickly and move on them. As an added bonus, anyone who does change their codes and processes in a panic can also get flushed. Wins all around for the intelligence community.

      2. Goat Jam

        "Collect nothing"

        AKA "Searching"

  23. Goffee

    PGP crack

    You're assuming the Langley/NIA spods don't already have backdoor access to PGP or other systems... even if they don't, a quick BinLadenAtHome project will soon see us through - I'd dedicate some cycles to that.

    1. A J Stiles

      PGP Backdoors

      You do realise that the source code for PGP is available?

      If there were backdoors, someone would have found them by now.

      1. Liam Johnson

        Still not enough

        Reflections on Trusting Trust

        Ken Thompson

        Unless you build the thing yourself out of discrete transistors, you still have to trust the people who made the processor.

        1. Chemist


        2. A J Stiles
          Thumb Up


          Oh, please. Everyone who calls themself a computer security researcher has read and understands the implications of that paper.

          If you can trust the processor, you have three choices.

          One is simply to reimplement PGP in assembly language, so you don't need a potentially-untrustworthy compiler. Assembly language source code is as clean as it gets.

          The second, more involved method is to write a C interpreter in assembly language. It only has to be good enough to run the compiler interpretatively while it compiles its own source code. It will be slow, for sure, but it only has to be done once; the compiler it compiled is definitely "clean".

          Or, of course, you can manually examine the disassembly of the compiled compiler -- this is likely to be the slowest method.

          If you're paranoid enough (or have a good enough reason) not to trust the processor, and want to build your own, valves probably would be a better choice than transistors.

          1. Liam Johnson

            @A J Stiles

            >>Everyone who calls themself a computer security researcher has read ... that paper.

            Quite probably, but this it not apparent from your first comment. After asserting that checking the PGP source code is sufficient to find back doors, you have gone on to mention three ways to go one step further. So I don't se the reason for "Oh. Please".

            >>If you're paranoid enough

            Someone who has the NSA as an enemy probably needs to be that paranoid.


            Why valves, unless you want to make it EMP proof at the same time???

  24. Pete 2 Silver badge

    If it wasn't there originally ...

    ... it sure as hell will be after "they" have finished processing it.

    I expect the merkins have a whole trove of intelligence that they can't attribute to anyone, without blowing their cover or causing even more political ructions, or even stuff they'd like to be true - if only it could be assigned to a credible (preferably dead, so they can't refute it) source.

    What better than to "find" all this stuff on Osama's hard drive. It would effectively give them carte-blanche to carry out as many purges - wherever they please. All based on the transparently dodgy "it came from OBL computers, so it must be true". Don't be surprised if one of the first things to be "found" will be a list of credit card numbers/mobile phone numbers - that will belong to people the yanks don't like, but couldn't touch, before this.

    I wonder if, in further efforts to smear him, they will "discover" material of dubious moral values too - or would that be over-egging it?

  25. Dom 3

    This 'ere "Islamic" program

    is probably just a wrapper to standard libraries, so is presumably as secure as any other.

    1. Anonymous Coward

      Re: Dom 3

      It's possible to take secure standard libraries and wrap them in a way that's insecure. Encryption is very subtle...

  26. Jacqui


    I mean you take a 80y/o senile gent and a 14y/0 boy and torture them for years but when a leader with probably critical information is found you put TWO shots through his head. OK they could never put him in court and his very, very rich saudi family woudl pull strings to get him out of GITMO but turning him into a martyr? Stupid political decisions. I can only assume the merkins WANT reasons to keep the war on oil^Wterror going.

    1. Robert Hill


      If the US were keep him alive, all that does is invite extremists to capture, torture and hold for ransom large numbers of Westerners, in the hope that they would get him released. That saga has played out repeatedly in the Middle East, usually against the Israelis - they still have two soldiers being held for ransom by Hezzbolah in Beruit, in the hope that Israel will release Hezz operatives that they have in prison.

      Holding on to high-value prisoners just doesn't work when you have terrorists involved.

      1. Mayhem
        Black Helicopters

        and so the simplest solution...

        Would be to use a convenient replacement to act as the body before it is hurriedly disposed of at sea for 'religious reasons', while the real person is shipped off to a nice black holding cell somewhere.

        After all, he's now dead. And live interrogation beats hard disks every time.

        1. Simon Neill


          You can interrogate people by beating them with hard disks.

  27. Anonymous Coward
    Anonymous Coward

    I reckon he retired years ago

    There won't be anything of interest. In particular, I suspect there will continue to be no evidence to connect him to 9/11, but US politicians will continue to let the more ignorant members of the general public believe that Bin Laden "masterminded" 9/11 without actually saying so. Just like with the so-called "weapons of mass destruction".

    Bin Laden did, of course, participate in the 1998 bombings of US embassies so it is possible that he was planning something else along those lines. However, I'd put my money on him having basically retired several years ago.

  28. Alan Firminger

    Cultural baddies are fiction

    Osama bin Laden was a source of funds, ideology, strategy and initiatives.

    He did not work fifteen hours every day plotting the next atrocity. He occasionally gave someone a cheque drawn on a bank located on a small island in the Caribbean, in the real world enough to settle a decent mortgage, outlined the purpose and said "Get on with it.."

    He communicated through a few trusted colleagues.

    He had to observe the world, so he read newspapers like you or I.

    His hard drives are empty of intelligence.

  29. Graeme 7

    It's all in the head

    I would assume it unlikely he would have kept anything of relevance on a computer. Perhaps some reference material but nothing about planned attacks, places or people, that would have all been just remembered.

    I even very much doubt he was even involved in anything of relevance any more. He was just a figurehead who would say well done. If he had been involved in more recent attacks they probably would have tracked him down a lot sooner than this. The best way for nobody to find you is to not tell anyone how to contact you (or apparently have a smart phone).

    1. Dave Bell

      Plausible, but...

      Do you want to depend on that bet winning?

  30. liquidphantom
    Paris Hilton


    because when you have no internet connection you need a good stockpile.

    Paris because thats probably Osama's most watched vid.

  31. Anonymous Coward
    Anonymous Coward


    Don't under estimate the resources of the NSA. If they throw all their computing resources at this challenge (unlikely), I'd guess (as the author says, no one knows exactly what their capabilities are) the information will be extracted within a couple of months

    This assumes the task is given to the NSA from the military in Afghanistan.

  32. Vladimir Plouzhnikov


    Q: “Can you imagine what's on Osama bin Laden's hard drive?”

    A: Yes, lots of porn.

  33. John Smith 19 Gold badge
    Black Helicopters

    Obvious tactic would be to clone the date first

    Run the encryption software on a script and keep brute forcing it. Crude, slow and stupid but will work. Eventually.

    I'd guess if the drives are encrypted using this Islamist software the NSA has been studying it for some time already looking for implementation weaknesses. Uncleared buffer that caches last password you entered perhaps?

    Of course they could get lucky and find the password was on the postit note he was trying to swallow when they shot him.

    Black helicopter because for once they really were sent out.

  34. TRT Silver badge

    Did the marine...

    remember to also grab all the post-it notes he (or she) could find?

    1. Tom 13

      Yep, and

      got it all on video to boot. And it was a SEAL, not a Marine. No need to disrespect both groups in one shot.

      1. MeRp

        To be fair...

        Seal Team 6 (as it is formerly known) has a fair number of Marines in it; given that it is the Spec Ops destination of choice for the entire Dept. of the Navy, of which Marines are a part.

  35. Zolko Silver badge
    Paris Hilton

    no proof then ?

    Oh, so *this* will be the excuse for not finding - and revealing - anything substantial about Ben Laden's computer.

    - no photo : he was shot in the head you know, so he's not recognizable

    - no corps : he was dumped into the sea couple of hours later to not to leave any mausoleum

    - no info from his computer : he used strong encryption, you see

    - no information : we tracked him thanks to informants who are in prison in Guantanamo since 5 years

    This gets fishier every day. From the Hitch-Hiker's Guide to the Galaxy: "Now that I actually get to tell the story ... I mean, does it strike you as odd, Number 2 ?"

    1. Test Man


      You made up the last two, so the only fishy thing here is your post.

  36. Il Midga di Macaroni
    Paris Hilton

    Porn... mmm.

    No, seriously - if there was porn on Osama's hard drive it would tarnish his reputation with his followers. That would actually be a highly effective way of ending the war on terror, if their revered leader was indulging in one of the evil pastimes of the western infidels, what's left to fight for?

    It's like the security measure they proposed just after 9/11 - legislate that a stripper be rostered onto every commercial flight. If there's a hijacking, she goes into action. Muslim men aren't allowed to look on the body of a woman, so they'd have to cancel the hijacking. As a bonus, every businessman in the world would want to fly just in case there's a hijacking - free striptease!

    Paris because... isn't it obvious?

    1. BorkedAgain
      Paris Hilton


      ...but would a religous zealot consider himself permitted to execute a harlot for the glory of the sky-fairy? Given that they're already hi-jacking a plane full of folks, you know...

      I know I probably wouldn't volunteer for the stripper job. Mind you, I wouldn't be qualified being the wrong side of thirty-five and male.

    2. Destroy All Monsters Silver badge

      "That would actually be a highly effective way of ending the war on terror"

      I hate to break it to you, but the "War on Terror" is actually waged by "us".

      It's not going to end anytime soon. We have politicians endulging in control freakery, talking heads in remunerated fearmongering, neocons in imperial wankfests and defense industry mavens in money hoovering...

      Hell no, it's not going to end. Ever.

  37. Mephistro
    Thumb Down

    "I have a cunning plan"

    They're probably trying every paragraph in the Koran as a passphrase right now. Added bonus: for Muslims it's a terrible blasphemy to change anything when copying their 'Book', so no trickery with the passphrases (i.e. substituting whitespaces with series of numbers, or swapping 'a's with 'e's).

    Yes, using something from the Koran as a passphrase is totally dumb, but the guy was -supposedly- a religious bigot, and they're quite often blind to reality and logic.

    If that was the case, it would be true poetic justice.

    The thumbs down icon? I don't like extra judicial executions. Now that I think of it, I don't like executions, full stop.

  38. Anonymous Coward

    bread and circuses

    Hoorah! The wicked witch is dead. And two chinless wonders got married at the taxpayers' vast expense last week too. Double ding dong hoorah.

    What a wonderful distraction from the fact the western world is pinned down in two wars it cannot win, the locals in our 'friendly' Arab dictatorships are toppling their western-backed dictators who give us the oil on the cheap and the western world is teetering on the verge of bankruptcy and default while the Chinese march ever onwards towards world domination.

    But we shot a bad guy who was hiding in a house with no phone lines and no internet who communicated the odd message with the outside world via a runner.

    Of course it's good news, and it probably makes the world a marginally better place. But it seems our leaders are pretty good at tossing us media morsels of joy to detract from the fact that the western world is heading for the buffers, or possibly the bottomless precipice beyond.

    Beer, because in the end let those who want bread and circuses have them... I'll stick to beer to cheer me up.

    1. Anonymous Coward

      Two wars?

      I think you forgot Libya. With Afghanistan and Iraq, that makes three wars...

      1. BorkedAgain

        I guess I'm confused.

        I thought they were just different regions in iraquistanya. But then geography was never my strong point.

  39. Clive 3

    If they are clever!!!

    They will crack the encryption but say they cannot so al-Qaeda will continue to use it.

    We did this in the 2nd world war with the enigma machine

    But we are talking about the American intelligence services here

    1. John Smith 19 Gold badge

      @Clive 3

      "They will crack the encryption but say they cannot so al-Qaeda will continue to use it.

      We did this in the 2nd world war with the enigma machine"

      The Americans were more focused on the Japanese following their surprise visit to Pearl Harbor.

      They did break the Japanese Purple cipher.

      The Japanese did *not* find out.

      1. Snapper
        Big Brother

        Pearl Harbour

        If you check, I don't think many modern historians consider Pearl Harbour was a surprise to the top people, just convenient at drawing Japan into a war it could NOT win and letting the USA hold sway over Western Europe and the Pacific for over 60 years.

        War is good for business.

  40. saleekmadiq

    given the amount of storage devices they claim to have seized

    There's a lot of data. It's a matter of whether any of it is actually useful or decipherable.

    Also, two infidels one cup

  41. spudmasterflex
    Thumb Up

    I know whats on his machine.

    A copy of Crysis, unplayed of course due to lack of hardware

  42. Jim 59

    Hard Drive

    Intersting conjecture as to what might be on the hard drive. If it was not internet-connected, the PC would be limited in its usability for terrorist activity and planning. The only output would be hard copy, and Bin Laden would be unlikely to print anything out. He might have sent orders via USB stick, but this seems unlikely also. On the other hand, the PC might have just been for "civilian" use, and contain nothing intersting. Or it might be disguised to look like that.

    The most valuable thing on there might be the address book. Al Qaeda top brass, along with any spies in operation, might be worring right now.

    As for the encryption, who knows ? If Bin Laden was lax, they might break it. I rather think that if the PC contains stuff that needs to be protected, BL will have the best possible security and the very longest passwords.

  43. Anonymous Coward

    Hmm, encryption...

    ... this could take a little longer.

    Isn't that what they always say on CSI?

    1. BorkedAgain
      Thumb Up

      Ah, an XKCD fan...

      (I had the same thought... ;)

  44. Drefsab


    Im wondering just what they will find if would be funny if this was protected using a decent encryption system it takes massive effort and time to break then when the finally get it they find its just a video if osama saying to kiss his ass or something. If the guy spent that much time avoiding leaving digital footprints he probably wouldnt even use the computer for anything important.

    Then again he could just have been that dumb it there's a good chance there's nothing to find.

    Whats the bet that they are using something like AES encryption one of the best out there using a 256bit key it would take upto 50,955,671,114,250,100,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000 years to brute force it using a system that was trying 2^56 permutations per second. Obviously a key may found within that time. Given that AES 256 is considered military grade and used by companies like Microsoft.

    Theoretically AES could be used with larger keys though that would take a good programmer to write that but anyone saying that there aren't programmers among the terrorists is delusional.

    Id love to see keys of that strength broken be brute force, or if a decent attack can be found that would be a great step for cryptography breaking the most used common standard :)

  45. The Fuzzy Wotnot


    My ToDo List by Osama

    1. Wash Turban

    2. Make new video to taunt US pig-dogs

    3. Pick-up Dry cleaning

    4. Send thank-you card to Aunt for birthday prezzie

    5. Buy guns

    6. Crush American aggressors and win holy war ( end of the week possible? )

  46. Michael 28

    Nobody's even mentioned the important stuff...

    .. What O/S was he using?

    1. BorkedAgain


      or possibly RedTurban?

  47. Jock in a Frock
    Big Brother

    Has anyone asked Assange....

    ... if the password is in the Wikileaks dump? Apparently everything else was.

  48. g e

    Yeah yeah yeah...

    I predict that after waiting a plausible amount of time (say 4-8 months) it will be announced that the official plans for the WTC attacks have been discovered and decrypted 'proving' for once and for all that Osama planned and executed it.

    Expect also 'intelligence' from the recovered gadgetry to be used as pretext for further offensive actions, including (I should imagine) action / stance-taking against Iran.

    No doubt I'll be labelled a cynical and a crazed conspiracy theorist... today. Happy to be proven wrong but it doesn't *usually* end up that way.

    1. Anonymous Coward

      Happy to be proven wrong

      Err... you do realize that a conspiracy can (by definition) never be proven wrong, don't you?

  49. Barney Carroll

    You're over-analyzing

    Before we get into idle theory about how intel/counter-intel REALLY operate (no but for serious) and speculation on what kind of cryptography may be at work on this 'mother lode', one might take time to survey the political aspect of this incident, which most people acknowledge is a fairly well-established and important part of the puzzle, to say the very least.

    The War on Terror is a huge self-justifying, self-perpetuating PR machine to frame the latest iteration of the neo-Conservative-led era of 'targeted killings', wholesale invasions, the various interventions that lie somewhere between the two, and new legislation and police procedures on home soil that allow the defenestration of previous established civil rights.

    Al Qaeda is a nebulous entity which does not need or require any central leadership, expertise, or information. In all serious analysis of mujahideen strategy and tactics, whether they be aggressively defensive warriors on the ground in occupied territories or kamikaze plotters planning ideological mass murders for reasons of pseudo-spiritual vengeance, these are not people who require a vast network of intelligence. In fact anything other than immediate local intelligence is utterly irrelevant to them.

    Seriously, we've had this long to reflect on it — what on earth do you think bin Laden would want, regardless of security concerns, at his disposal in terms of intelligence that would be useful to the enemy?

    For more on this, research 'asymmetrical warfare', and if you're feeling a bit flippant, 'Foundation and Empire' (Al Qaeda = Arabic for Foundation).

    This is pure PR. Killing Osama bin Laden is an entirely pyrrhic victory for anyone who isn't a US official justifying themselves to their superiors in the light of their predecessors. Now they just have to mythically embellish the significance of his death. The US needs every opportunity it can get to at least create the impression of progress if not success after committing to this ongoing violent and exhausting project with no established escape or success clauses.

    1. John Smith 19 Gold badge

      @Barney Carroll

      "This is pure PR. Killing Osama bin Laden is an entirely pyrrhic victory for anyone who isn't a US official justifying themselves to their superiors in the light of their predecessors."

      Yes. But it's likely to be an entirely *real* victory for Obama when he's up for re-election.

      Americans have quite a tendency to fall in love with any leader who shows just a hint of successful dictator. They're quite prone to the old my-country-right-or-wrong routine.

      Obama's decision to send in humans, rather than missile (who might have been *killed*, like that's not part of a soldiers job description) was what has scored most PR points in the US.

  50. Anonymous Coward

    This is not a tv show

    The encryption is the last thing any cryptanalyst would ever try to break. As the original post noted, the feds are more interested in finding implementation flaws or side channel attacks. Or maybe OBL's password was simply "allahu akbar" or other.

  51. Anonymous Coward
    Black Helicopters

    Eyes swivelling wildly

    They will find proof that:

    a) Elvis is dead.

    b) The moon landings really happened.

  52. Anonymous Coward
    Anonymous Coward

    Bin Laden's plan to take over the world maybe?

    LOL. He won on 9/11/2001 when the US acted the way it did. He spent say $1million to kill 2500 people? The US has spent $1.3 trillion to kill him and has been suckered into a war that it can never end.

    1. Jim 59

      "LOL. He won on 9/11/2001 when..."

      OBL tried mass murder and it didn't work. The USA is still the worlds richest nation. Meanwhile he is face down on the seabed, his organisation hated and obsolescent, and the Arab world turning towards freedom. Some victory.

  53. Anonymous Coward

    Weapons of Mass Destruction

    Perhaps they will find out the reasons for invading Iraq on this Pakistani-suburb dwelling Saudi Arabian?

  54. Ocular Sinister


    If there was anything useful on those disks bin Laden would have found a way to physically destroy the disk, even if it meant tearing the thing apart with his bare hands.

  55. David Haig

    Only beta copy of DNF found on OBL laptop

    This will set the 'Duke Nuke em Forever' launch date back a bit.

  56. Anonymous Coward
    Anonymous Coward

    Another View

    In some ways there may be no real reason to decrypt the data.

    Just for openers there were said to be a range of data storage devices. E.g. trace their origin, trace any other aspects of their physical nature, such as serial numbers. Perhaps even look for silly things like fingerprints, DNA, pollen, dirt, etc. Some of this might well be 'CSI basic' stuff but a huge number of real cases have always been detected by pattern recognition, often without ever discovering what the chatter actually carried.

    Were the thumb drives always used, once only? If the devices were not new then partially removed but 'hidden by wear levelling' data could be 'useful'.

    It should be born in mind that with no internet or phone access(?) shoe-net has its value and allegedly messenger-net gave away a lot of the game.

    Above all we can all have a field day making up stories and guesses, some of us might even wish to muddy the far from clear waters.

  57. Cunningly Linguistic

    Are we sure...

    ...that the Navy SEAL team didn't forget to pick up the Post-It (stuck on the monitor) with Bin Lid's passphrase on?

  58. IsJustabloke

    I refuse to enoble a simple forum post!

    Well, I reckon that if I was a spook and had a bunch of HD from the leader of a terrorist organisation, I'd be jumping about rubbing my hands in glee and generally gloating about all the underlings I was about to capture regardless of whether or not I expected to get anything off those discs.

  59. Major Variola

    Vi or Emacs?

    Vi or Emacs?

    1. Anonymous Coward


      Since he was an evil man, clearly it would be Emacs (dons flamesuit at this point). Presumably on a 72 character green screen, to remind him of the number of virgins he was expecting to meet up with and green being the color associated with Islam.

      It'll be really depressing if the West's nemesis has been plotting attacks using Word 97 or something like that. Visions of jihadi Clippy: "I see you're trying to blow up some infidels. Would you like help with that?"

      1. Michael H.F. Wilkinson Silver badge


        = Venom Incarnate!


        Fully paid-up member of the Church of Emacs


  60. John Smith 19 Gold badge

    BTW Was anyone thinking "Patriot games"

    At the description of watching the events in real time?

    Which turned out to be complete nonsense.

  61. Greemble
    Black Helicopters

    "sent to a secret location in Afghanistan"

    So, they took the body to a US carrier where it could be dumped overboard and took the hard disks for examination to a place 'full' of the best cryptographers / hackers with the latest equipment.

    Sure, that will stop anyone speculating what (who) they might have stashed away - NOT on US soil, where any inconvenient human rights / lawyers / newspapers may apply / be watching / asking too many questions...

  62. joe.user

    PS3 Cluster using GPU

    Start there

  63. Anonymous Coward
    Anonymous Coward

    Now I know.

    "Ever been on a flight out of Saudi. Full of ladies with full guiness bottle robes drinking orange juice. The pilot announces we are now out of Saudi airspace and there is a rush for the toilets. Several minutes later the ladies return in the shortest miniskirts I have seen outside a porn movie, and proceed to get staggeringly drunk."

    Apart from the staggering drunk bit, I've seen exactly the same thing happen on a Emirates flight from Dubai to Rome - I was wondering if it was a one-off or a regular event.

  64. Anonymous Coward
    Black Helicopters


    Has anyone considered something like encrypted RAID?

    the idea being that 8 drives all contain part of the data but to a casual observer it would look like random noise.

    Assemble it correctly using the interferometric light trick (anyone seen "National Treasure") and it should be simple.

    Also might be worth looking on the "blank" sheets in the printer as under normal room lighting or even UV they would be totally blank .

    AC, because this might be useful to a certain Three Letter Agency...

  65. John Savard

    Fast Work

    A news report said that the computers, minus their hard drives, were left behind.

    I'm surprised the time was taken to remove the hard drives - although perhaps there was concern the computers might be booby-trapped, like World War II cipher machines. While the hard drives are the important parts, I would have imagined detailed study to determine which keys on the keyboards were used more often, for example, in order to help guess passwords.

  66. Anonymous Coward

    Makes one wonder if there was any stuff

    I wonder if this is just a big ruse of CIA.

    Lets say they found some stuff:

    1. Don't publish the fact and use the info to get the terrorist caught.

    2. Publish we got harddrives and while we read the info all terrorist change places

    Lets say they didnt find anything:

    1. Don't publish that they didn't find anything, or publish it, terrorist are going to be a bit wary but nothing basicly changes.

    2. Publish that they found a ton of intel, terrorists go on a full scramble to move ammo, explosives and operator making them more likely to be caught.

    By logic the most likely scenario is that they didn't find anything and are hoping with lying to get terrorist to scramble from their hiding places to new places, and cut contacts between cells.

  67. Anonymous Coward

    nothing there.. move on

    Habeas corpus... no body, and lack of non-US independent confirmation = field-day for conspiracy theories. ?

    As for whats on OBL's PC, well no internet and no phone lines... does NSA +/- US Govt (+/- others) have sniffers on GlobalStar/Thuraya/iridium sat phones?

    Also, AES is useless compared to GSM rolling key transfer (out-of-internet-band).

    Bin Ladens PC was not a server so don't expect the mother lode of information... maybe his Al- Quaeda buddies elsewhere have the server and he just used sandboxed IE as a remote viewer? Citrix had better start praying for their share price that the US Military or the NSA don't find an ICA client installed...

  68. Paranoid Infosec Guy

    Mac, Windows or Linux?

    Does anybody know what operating system captured Al Qaeda computers have been running? In particular the ones captured in Afghanistan or Pakistan.

    I would have thought they would not trust a computer operating system developed by a US Corporation.

    1. Michael 28

      and more importantly...

      ..... where did he get his tech support????

      Somebody in a call centre might be going to jail.... THATS gonna put a crimp in your KPI's!!

  69. WinHatter

    An early edition of ...

    Tetris !!!

    He must have been bored to death in his complex.

  70. gollux

    You heard it first here...

    After 10 years of analysis it will be realized that the 10 gigs of over 850,000 PGP encrypted files were all random sized output from /dev/random. However due to staring at it too long, snow ghosts will be seen in the randomness that will get extrapolated into Osama being pissed because of an Iranian rebuff, Chad developing the bomb, Syria discovering uranium in their hills, the second coming of Osama and the Jihadi Death Star, the beginning date of the battle of Armageddon in the Plains of Megiddo, Israeli porn star videos and goats.

  71. Pet Peeve
    Thumb Up

    Don't be so quick to scoff

    Even if we make the assumption that these couriers carried encrypted drives, that doesn't mean they stayed that way. Bin Laden's camp was physically firewalled from the internet - he may well have worked on the concept that if his security was defeated there, it's game over anyway, and not kept his local hardware so well secured.It's hard to protect against a physical compromise of a computer, short of the old thermite on the hard drive trick, which didn't happen.

    And also remember, not all intelligence is in the messages themselves. It may be even more important just to know where the messages came from, and where they were going.

  72. Adam T


    I'll put 50p on those phone numbers sewn into his clothing...

  73. uhuznaa

    Just doesn't make any sense

    I mean, if they have found lots of data and hope to get their fingers on more of those people, why talk about that and warn them? They would rather keep quiet, learn from the data what they can and act. But if they haven't found anything to speak of, then suddenly talking about loads of data makes sense: This will cause some people to panic and to run. You may catch them easier then.

    1. Vladimir Plouzhnikov

      Yes it does

      Look, they went to another country without visas, lost an expensive helicopter, didn't manage to get the guy without knocking his and his wife's brains out, dropped the body in the ocean on the way back, lost the photos...

      They need to show the tax payers at least something for all that trouble...

  74. Heathroi


    Let the infidel law enforcement goons find a few thousand quids worth of flash drives. Let them waste 1000s of man hours pouring over the encrypted works of koranic scholars and and a few pirated Jennifer Anniston rom-coms.

  75. bobsyeruncle

    Anybody here care to backpedal on all your super-smart pronouncements?

    Author of the article? Commenters? In your rush to praise the operational expertise of Osama bin Shithead while trying to appear ever-so-clever yourselves, you filled up quite a daunting scenario. One thing about scenarios though - useless if you're not right. And none of you were, so your posts were so much pissing in the wind. Congratulations..

    And - seriously? "....didn't manage to get the guy without knocking his and his wife's brains out?" As if there were ever any other plan.

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