back to article How bin Laden thwarted US electronic surveillance

Osama bin Laden didn't have a phone or internet connection, but for years he was a prolific user of email who frustrated Western efforts to track him by saving messages to a thumb drive and having them sent from a distant internet cafe, the Associated Press reports. The process was so tedious that even veteran intelligence …


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  1. Mephistro

    The recession is over in the Middle East

    At least for moving companies and plastic surgeons.

  2. Charles Manning

    Not much different to UUCP then...

    ... just using a mechanical link.

    Still faster than regular post.

  3. Aaron Em

    Only tedious by comparison, I think

    The way he was doing it doesn't sound like it'd be any slower than postal mail, at worst. It seems tedious to us because we regard postal mail as a quaint and adorable holdover from a millennium in which people in the developed world were mostly more or less human.

    Besides, so what if it is tedious? Being shot dead in your own home is probably pretty damn exciting, if perhaps only briefly, but I don't know that I'd consider it *preferable*.

    1. ElReg!comments!Pierre

      Not even

      I made the mistake to create a few mailing lists with a small company that was later gobbled by Yahoo!, for personal projects involving semi-anonymous 1-way communication (nothing pedorrist, it's all about art *), and I can tell you, sending USB drives by courrier has to be less tedious than solving the captcha required by Yahoo to send e-mails to multiple hidden recipients!

      *and doesn't even involve nudity. So innocent, I won't even post this anon. Except for the shame of not managing these mailing lists locally; but again, for semi-anonymous stuff people tend to trust adresses in @yahoo.* more than those in

  4. Martin Eddington


    Also RFC1149...

    1. Annihilator
      Thumb Down


      No... wait...

    2. Wize

      I might have given a thumbs up for the RFC1149 post, but...

      ...down for anyone doing a 'first'

  5. Someone Else Silver badge
    Big Brother

    Of course...

    "The cache of messages is so big that the government has enlisted Arabic speakers from around the intelligence community to pore over them."

    Of course, at least here in the States, Arabic translators of the GLBT persuasion need not apply...

    1. Patrick O'Reilly


      Anyone in the USA that can speak Arabic has already been locked up as a "terrorist"

    2. R.P.Charlie

      Not only GLBT

      but Arabic speaking Jews as well.

      After 9/11 they refused the services of those Jews, originally from Arab count0ries, so as not to offend the Muslims working with the FBI; but some of those Muslims objected, anyway, to interrogating other Muslims and refused to record the "interviews".

      1. Mephistro

        The icon says it all

        "...but some of those Muslims objected, anyway, to interrogating other Muslims ..."

        So they thought they were being hired to translate between Finnish and English, and perform interviews only Vietnamese?

  6. miknik

    Only tedious for the runner

    For Bin Laden it wouldn't be much different to clicking send and waiting for a reply

    1. Anonymous Coward
      Anonymous Coward

      Yes, but...

      I guess, Osama didn't surf much on the interwebs then...

      1. Wyrdness


        AC, let me guess, you're an American Republican, right?

        1. Anonymous Coward
          Anonymous Coward


          Neither am I 'merkin nor republican but it's funny how you came to this conclusion.

      2. mark 63 Silver badge

        web broswe

        "I guess, Osama didn't surf much on the interwebs then"

        Lucky for the runner!

    2. Anonymous Coward

      Over... AOL connection? :)

  7. Anonymous Coward
    Anonymous Coward

    You heard it here first.

    The next tool for intelligence agencies will be thumb drives with GPS receivers hidden in them.

    1. Anonymous Coward

      If they did that,

      ...and I was a "Terrorist" (TM) I would gladly go around armed with a pack of these and a pack of blu-tack and start sticking them to random vehicles, dogs collars etc :)

      1. Fr Barry

        The title is required, and must contain letters and/or digits.

        Leave my dog collar alone please...

      2. Graham Marsden
        Black Helicopters

        @Jim Booth

        Even better, put them in Geocaching sites!

        Obviously it's a "dead drop" and the security services can spend ages watching them and then following the people who a) pick them up and b) leave stuff behind...

    2. ravenviz Silver badge
      Black Helicopters

      Re: You heard it here first.

      ...and Wi-Fi!

  8. Anonymous Coward

    To the good side ...

    ... OBL did receive regular notice of the deaths of heretofore unknown distant relatives mostly Nigerian Oil Ministers with huge cash estates stuck in-country.

    He lived for ten years, and my spam filter has been throwing them out for as long ... How could I have been sooooooo stupid!

  9. ElReg!comments!Pierre


    That is absolutely not tedious, actually quite straightforward and intelligence services should be ashamed if they were really fooled by that strategy. I believe this is called sneakernet, it's been around for ages, and it's always been used by intel / underground types.

    How is it more tedious than sending regular snail-mail? Yet my grandparents, prolific mailers, have "maintained it for" the past 32 years (and repordely longer, my memories from before that are a bit hazy though, possibly due to my not being born at the time). I'm glad to learn today that my grandparents' tenacity would blow the mind of the world's best intel brains.

    Seriously, that attempt to excuse the delay in finding OBL by presenting him as an evil genius is ridiculous.

    1. Ian Ferguson

      Not fooled

      The intelligence services weren't 'fooled' by the strategy - in fact, it's this very strategy that revealed his location.

      All the Americans did was identify his trusted courier and follow him.

    2. Kubla Cant


      Sandalsnet, in this case?

  10. Denarius Silver badge
    Big Brother

    sounds like Oz

    About as fast as Oz ISP, especailly bigswamp, which has been oozing even more slowly that usual lately. Might be the spooks searching for global warming denialists, since thats the latest threat to all right minded panic merchants.

  11. MacroRodent

    not encrypted then?

    A few days ago, an El Reg article speculated that the trove of data would be mostly useless due of encryption, but apparently OBL had considered it too much hassle -- just like most normal computer uses do (unless forced to to use a performance-killing encrypted laptop drive by corporate security).

  12. Eddy Ito


    We used floppys when we ran a sneaker-net in the bad old days. I suppose bin Laden's mildly updated version would be called driver-net or something.

    So on to the important question, is this "trusted courier" like plain courier... you know, non-kerned serif?

    1. Tom 38
      Thumb Up

      @Eddy Ito

      Awesome font gag

  13. Danny 14


    no/weak encryption on the thumb drives then? Oh dear.

  14. amanfromearth

    BAck in the days of floppies

    This method used to be called "Sneakernet"

  15. JDX Gold badge

    "so tedious that even veteran intelligence officials have marveled

    One might hope intelligence officials would have more patience than that. A courier has to travel between 2 places... oh the tedium.

  16. Kevin7

    Non story?

    If you were one of the world's most hunted men, you'd hardly be sending messages from your own PC would you? It used to be called a "dead letterbox" and has existed for as long as espionage has.

  17. peter 45


    Hire tha courier to work for our Government Departments. He knows how 'not' to loose a USB stick withimportant data on it.

    1. Chris 244

      Loose, lose...

      ...oh why do I even bother?

      I believe you mean "lose". "Loose" means not tight.

      1. John 62


        information wants to be free!

        conjugate 100 times: luein - luo, lueis, luei, luomen, luete, luousi

        loose is also a verb, so perhaps he did mean 'intentionally to loose' as in 'to set free' or 'to unbind' rather than 'unintentionally to misplace'

  18. ysth


    That's how Stallman works too, I understand :)

    1. John Sturdy
      Black Helicopters

      Knuth is even more extreme

      Knuth stopped using email at the start of 1990. He must be up to something!

  19. Rob Crawford


    At least it made him less likely to send a spur of the moment angry email to anybody

    1. Robert Carnegie Silver badge

      Pause for thought

      "At least it made him less likely to send a spur of the moment angry email to anybody"

      Hmm, yes... you wouldn't want that, Osama bin Laden getting angry with you and sending you a recklessly worded e-mail. What could be worse than that.

      Incidentally, I haven't heard of these fellows using biological or chemical weapons, is it against their religion? If you don't count persuading stupid farm kids to carry suicide bombs as a biological weapon. Imagine for instance if they went about spreading foot and mouth disease amongst livestock., which I presume they didn't, it spread like it did because that's what happens. Or swine flu. Of course they very much don't like swine, but is that all that stopped them?

  20. Patrick O'Reilly

    Degrees of Security

    The real question is how were the emails transfered?

    Were they plaintext on the USB key, or were they pre-encrypted by Osama himself using PGP or something similar.

    Even if they can't decrypt the messages themselves, the haul must include a long list of email accounts which can now be monitored and access logs probed to better understand what remains of the organisation.

    1. ravenviz Silver badge

      Re: Degrees of Security

      It doesn't matter, it seems they were never intercepted, or if they were their significance was not realised. After all, why would one of the world's most wanted terrorist organisations communicate with thumb drives?

  21. Jim 59


    It doesn't sound very secure, unless the courier was using a different internet cafe every time. Otherwise the authorities could catch the guy by keeping a watch on the place. And if all such places were "driveable" from Bin Laden's home, that raises other tracability questions. Also there is no mention of encryption. I guess we won't know the truth until perhaps 50 years from now.

    1. TheOtherHobbbes

      Well, er...

      I see you've discovered the minor flaw in the plausibility of this story.

      It really makes no sense at all. If it was supposed to be the same Internet cafe every time - that's obviously pants when you have the NSA supposedly monitoring everyone and everything.

      If it was a different cafe, you're right - "driveable" gives anyone watching a good hint about the geographical location of the source.

      The system would be more successful if you had a chain of couriers who could pass encrypted mails to each other and email them from different countries.

      But if you're going to do that, you may as well skip the email part and simply pass the thumb drives around by hand and/or by post, with a standard pick-up point.

      If you were really clever and had the kind of huge and terrifying James Bond Villain network of minions Bin Laden was supposed to have, you could use each courier exactly once.

      But running some guy in an old car ragged driving to the same cafe each time - "Hello Muhammad - your usual this week?" - isn't exactly the epitome of cyber tradecraft.

      1. Zolko Silver badge

        then why have a satellite (or WiFi) dish ?

        This USB drives stuff doesn't make any sense. Especially that there seems to have been some sort of remote connection with some sort of dish, but that doesn't look to the sky:

      2. nyelvmark


        I agree, but I can't see why anyone bothers to speculate. Almost everything that we plebs know about Osama Bin Laden - including his very existence - originates with the US intelligence services. That's not, experience suggests, a very reliable source.

  22. Anonymous Coward


    Osama's response times sound to be on a par with the piss-awful Outlook system which the Thought Police oblige us to use here in the Tower of Barad-dûr. Note to lusers: please do not use poncy stationery effects as it may result in a prolonged experiment to determine the exact temperature at which you rface catches fire.

  23. Adam T


    Maybe Bin Laden had never sat in front of a computer connected to the internet before, and just understood that "this is how email works".

  24. Emperor Zarg

    Bet this happens...

    How long until USB thumb drives are labelled as instruments of terrorism - just like bottles of any liquid over 100ml?

  25. Nigel R

    Its all a conspiracy

    if I were US intelligence I'd be de-emphasising any mention of a 'big haul' of info gained. The fact that the haul is being trumpeted so much is suspicious in itself.

    1. Shane Orahilly

      The problem with admitting to gaining a lot of Intelligence... you're simultaneously admitting how little you had before.

  26. Stephen Gray

    Best not fill this order then

    I just had an email request for 10 crates of USB drives from Mr Al Kyeeder, delivery address The Yemen

  27. Stephen Gray
    Thumb Up

    @ Actually

    Lovin the Tolkien ref! Sounds exactly like the place I left.

  28. nsld
    Paris Hilton

    No encryption?

    Osama needs ot be careful, he might get a slap on the wrist from the ICO fo that!

  29. Graham Bartlett


    Given where he is, perhaps "sandalnet"...?

  30. Anonymous Coward


    We used to call it frizzbienet.

    I guess we were even fat and lazy by nerd standards... :(

  31. Pahhh

    Funny... # Stallman....

    "That's how Stallman works too, I understand :)"

    Well, guess both are unwashed, bearded and fanatical men with no fix abode.

    There is a big difference though. Osoma wasnt completely mental.....

  32. NoneSuch Silver badge

    Mad as hell...

    (Rant on)

    Let's have an authoritative step-by-step guide published by the press based on Intelligence Service sources on "How to avoid detection as a Terrorist" and post it for the world to see.

    Then tomorrow when we cannot catch the next bad guy those same people will be complaining how we cannot catch them. Well, DUH.

    The reason BL was safe in that compound for so long is the press announced they were tracking his radio and cell use at Tora Bora in December 2001. Guess what happened? Yes, he stopped using them. Same with Internet, email and the rest. And then years later the press took the same intelligence services to task for not being able to find him. Who is to blame? The press and blabby mouth intel types.

    Throughout the last twenty years intelligence methods have been broadcast to the world by the press citing anonymous intelligence sources almost the day after they happen. These puffed up "experts" adopt an "Oh look how smart we are" attitude and spill the beans on how they did what they did.

    Enigma allowed the allies to spy on portions of German cipher traffic in WW2, shortening the war by literally years. That secret was finally outed in 1975. Keeping intel secret saves lives. Period, full stop.

    Stop declaring intelligence methods publicly, stop leaking info with a wink and a nod and start using the Espionage Statutes for those who do. Its all fun and games until someones kids are blown up by a car bomb.

    (Rant off)

    1. Steen Hive

      "Keeping intel secret saves lives. Period, full stop"

      Huh. Certain Apache gunship victims would disagree. Nice pandering to the blown-up kids worriers, though.

    2. Ross 7

      Re: Mad as hell

      There is of course the possibility that the SS provide such information to the press intentionally as it's utter codswallop. You honestly think that if there was such a problem with the press publishing top secret and above information that it wouldn't be fixed within days?

      Disseminating false info is an age old SS tactic. You let it be known that you are tracking OBL in the Tora Bora caves (when you know full well he's nowhere near there), he thinks "lolz - stupid Westerners are looking in totally the wrong area!" giving you more time to narrow down your search. Even if he figures out your ruse, if something real is ever leaked, how can he know with any certainty that it isn't just fake info?

      Staying hidden is surpisingly easy if you are willing to live the life of a camel herder in some p*** poor region. The world is a pretty huge place when you're looking for one man without a credit card, mobile phone, inet conn, etc.

      I'm not really sure about the link between SS methods and children being rent assunder by car bombs tbh. If someone really wants to blow up your car they shouldn't really struggle regardless of their knowledge of SS methods (unless you are the PM or somesuch, in which case your car tends to get checked for such issues - I personally just turn the key whilst wincing a little and hope fir the best. Worked perfectly so far!)

  33. bitmap animal

    Re: Mad as hell

    Indeed, very well put.

    Reminds me of when one of the prince’s was out in Afghanistan. He'd been there some time and a newspaper, American I think, was about to publish a 'scoop' on him being there and where he was. Most reporters knew he was there and understood the consequences of publishing.

    Disinformation is a lot harder these days with the global press and Internet. There are always 'whistle blowers' who think it's really cool to have a scoop, not considering the wider consequences.

  34. Zippy the Pinhead


    How about FIDONET which I used on my BBS back in the day

  35. Tom 13

    A few years back I did much of my work for a volunteer group the same way.

    Download the mail to Eudora before leaving work, read and reply to messages while on the train, send messages when I got home. It worked really well until they decided email was too archaic and they needed a web message board. Yes visiting a different internet cafe for each transaction adds a level of annoyance, but not difficult. Even if you include time for configuring a client for the USB drive, I don't think it would be much more than 15 minutes to configure, upload/download, disconnect, and wipe the configuration at the cafe. Plenty of time to get back out before a tail is dispatched to catch you.

  36. Ryleh
    Thumb Up

    good bandwith thou....

    32GB USB stick - let's assume the internet cafe is 1h away that means he had 72Mbit/s bandwith upstream and same downstrim - not bad at all.

    PING was sh*t thou.... :)

  37. Dave Barnhart

    Thwarted? um,no

    Thwarted? Ummmmm...... No. Intelligence agencies tracked people for hundreds of years before there was an internet.

  38. joe.user

    You know what is embarrasing about this...

    They used our own technological cavalier attitude against us!

    Meanwhile, I am taking my shoes off at the airport, getting X-rayed naked in the body scanner, having all my internet traffic vacuumed up and sent through a Narus box directly to the NSA. We have tracking devices that don't fall under the 4th Amendment stuck to our cars, our banking activities are all reported...

    So, who has really cost us our freedom? Our own Government or the Terrorists?

    At least the protesters after Vietnam did something.

    1. nyelvmark

      Yep, that's terrorism

      There was a publication in the 60's, I think, which explained the purpose of terrorism, which was to cause the opposing government to introduce measures which would alienate their own citizens. Being arrested at an airport for possession of a nail file seems to be a good example of a success for the terrorists.

  39. Yet Another Anonymous coward Silver badge

    @Not only GLBT

    >Anyone in the USA that can speak Arabic has already been locked up as a "terrorist

    Not so far from the truth - back in the day MI5 screened BBC recruits for security risks.

    One of the factors for potential enemies of the state was studying an enemy language (or given that this is England - possibly any foreign language). It all came out when they listed an historian as having possible links to communism because they had a PhD in medieval Chinese.

    1. nyelvmark


      Go look at your passport. England is a football team, not a state.

  40. Dylan Fahey

    You're telling me...

    You're telling me that in 5 years when OBL lived in that shithole, NO ONE in the American Intelligence community never intercepted a single courier or tapped the Internet Cafe's access lines in Pakistan?

    Yup, that's what I'm paying my tax dollars for. Ineptitude on the scale that only the U.S. HomeyLanz Zecurity Agenzy (DHS) could perpetrate.

    I'm embarrassed, but no surprised, at all.

  41. maclovinz

    Such a marvel!!!!

    I marvel at the fact that WE "marvel" at such a simple process....and one that was so easily detected.

    1) Courier Arrives at a compound....

    2) Courier Leaves Compound

    3) Courier arrives at an internet cafe

    4) Email from bin Laden sent

    5) Courier leaves internet cafe

    Rinse and REPEAT....over and over and over.....

    How often did this happen? Maybe a "couple" of times....

  42. Jades

    Yep, Bin done

    Why are some people so surprised about sending emails via removable media? When I was at Sunderland Uni in the late Nineties this was exactly what I had to do because my digs didn't even have a phone line. I used to transfer my email from my PC to the Internet and back via dedicated floppy disks for each account and Netscape 3. The only challenging aspect was finding a server where the IT department hadn't disabled SMTP for no obvious reason - as part of that I out found that the servers' names were intriguingly themed along the names of Blake's 7 characters or assorted pantheons of gods.

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