Treasure Trove for Spooks: What Bin Laden's Seized Data Stash Could Reveal

By Yassin Musharbash

The data and documents secured after the killing of Osama bin Laden could be a treasure trove for intelligence analysts. For the first time, there is hope that they may find answers to some of their most pressing questions about al-Qaida's organization and leaders.

Osama bin Laden's compound in Abbottabad. US intelligence is hoping to gain valuable information from the data they seized. Zoom
AFP

Osama bin Laden's compound in Abbottabad. US intelligence is hoping to gain valuable information from the data they seized.

It's a running joke among intelligence analysts and police that they often come across pornography while going through evidence against terrorists and terror suspects. Experts in the field find themselves at conferences seriously discussing whether such discoveries should be announced publicly. Maybe, so the thinking goes, the exposure of this double standard can undermine, for example, Islamic extremists' narratives about fighting the decadent West.

After the storming of Osama bin Laden's hideout in Abbottabad, Pakistan on Sunday, US Navy Seals secured large quantities of data and documents. American media have reported the discovery of five computers, in addition to 10 hard drives and some 100 data storage devices, most likely CD-ROMs and flash drives. It's still unclear whether bin Laden personally used these devices. Similarly, it is not known if the devices actually contain any relevant information or whether the data is encrypted or otherwise protected.

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The hope, at least, is that the discovery will allow for insights into previously obscure corners of al-Qaida's world. According to sources in Washington, analysts from the CIA and other agencies are already reviewing the material at a secret location in order to get a general overview of the contents as quickly as possible. Some of the information contained therein may be urgent, for example if it pertains to pending attacks.

Al-Qaida has been a top priority for intelligence services around the world for years. However, many questions have remained unanswered, often leaving analysts and those who must make decisions based on their recommendations to rely on conjecture and speculation. SPIEGEL ONLINE provides an overview of the most pressing questions that bin Laden's data stash may help answer.

Bin Laden's Address Book

Who was the al-Qaida founder in contact with during the last few years? Previously, most analysts had presumed that bin Laden and his second-in-command, Ayman al-Zawahiri, were hiding in different locations and minimizing communication in order to lessen the risk of being eliminated simultaneously. The first part of this conjecture has now been confirmed.

Now, analysts want to find out quickly whether possible communication trails can lead them to the hideout of al-Zawahiri, the presumed heir to the al-Qaida leadership. This information, if it exists, would be extremely urgent -- it's likely that al-Zawahiri is already planning his relocation for security reasons.

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Photo Gallery: The Hunt for Bin Laden
Bin Laden's contacts to other top al-Qaida officials are also of great interest. Does the data include information about the whereabouts of Abu Yahya al-Libi, an al-Qaida rising star who is the organization's chief ideologue? What about terror planner Ilyas Kashmiri, or top military trainer Saif al-Adel, who is thought to have returned to the Pakistan region from Iran? It is likely that bin Laden would have encrypted or otherwise protected such information. But analysts may still be able to reconstruct some of the pieces of the puzzle.

Current Plans for Terrorist Attacks

Intelligence experts will also be urgently seeking information about possible terror attacks that are currently planned in the region or abroad. It had previously been thought that bin Laden was no longer involved in al-Qaida's day-to-day operations so as not to endanger his safety. But after a preliminary review of some of the data seized at bin Laden's hideout, American intelligence discovered that he was aware of at least some al-Qaida operations.

This information included the revelation that al-Qaida had contemplated an attack on US railroads just last year. The American media has reported on the existence of a handwritten notebook that contains details of a possible plan, such as tampering with tracks to derail a train, possibly on a significant date like the anniversary of the Sept. 11, 2001 attacks. Although there was no evidence of an actual plot, this information goes to show that bin Laden had not retired to the simple role of figurehead, as some had previously thought.

Links to Pakistani Intelligence Agency ISI

Bin Laden's hideout lies on the border of a garrison town of the Pakistani army and is surrounded by properties allegedly owned by former Pakistani generals. This increases suspicions that members of the Pakistani intelligence agency ISI may have known where the al-Qaida chief was. ISI has long had a somewhat dubious reputation, and for good reason. Parts of the service more or less openly side with Afghanistan's Taliban and other terrorist groups. Should bin Laden's seized possessions uncover a smoking gun, US-Pakistan relations could change significantly, inspiring the US to exert massive pressure on Islamabad.

The Money Trail

Dispatches from the US Department of State published by WikiLeaks show, among other things, how desperately the US has been trying over the past decade to identify al-Qaida sources of funding. Wealthy businessmen from the countries of the Arabian Peninsula, as well as dubious charity organizations, have repeatedly come under suspicion.

One of the reasons that bin Laden was important for al-Qaida was because, as a symbolic figure, he was in a position to generate donations. Information pointing to such al-Qaida supporters could be used to dry up the terrorist network's funding.

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