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.
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.
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.
Al-Qaida's Tentacles and Bin Laden's Successor
Al-Qaida is no longer a tight single organization but a transnational network. There are branches that are permitted to carry the al-Qaida name in Iraq, the Arabian Peninsula and North Africa. There are also independent militant networks that cooperate with al-Qaida in southern Asia and Somalia, for example, as well as in the Hindu Kush region, including the Pakistani Taliban (TTP) or the Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan (IMU). For a long time, Western intelligence agencies have suspected that bin Laden helped decide official appointments in al-Qaida branches. Did he also play a role in negotiating cooperation agreements?
In January, Pakistani security authorities arrested a suspected co-conspirator in the Bali attacks. He was apprehended close to bin Laden's compound, where he is now thought to have been going. Does the bin Laden data hold further clues about trails leading to other terrorists? Can conclusions be drawn from the data, regarding bin Laden's visions for Yemen, Saudi Arabia or Somalia? What regions did al-Qaida's head consider the most strategically significant?
Did Bin Laden Leave Behind a Legacy?
Bin Laden must have expected that he would be discovered or betrayed, sooner or later. Of course, he could be certain that he would be venerated as a martyr for the movement, irrespective of whether he ended up being killed or behind bars. But bin Laden was also vain: He enjoyed being in the limelight, and he wrote poetry. Is it possible that he left behind a book or collection of notes that could serve as a political or ideological legacy for his followers and future jihadists? If so, the US will likely keep it under wraps for some time, but it could still serve as a valuable source of information for analysts.
Clarification about Attacks
In recent years, there have been terrorist attacks that were clearly inspired by al-Qaida or Osama bin Laden, but which could never be definitively traced back to the terrorist network or its leader. One example is the bombings that rocked Madrid in April 2004, which were thought to be conducted by an Islamic extremist group acting on al-Qaida's behalf. The seized data could help analysts estabish concrete connections for the first time.
What did Bin Laden Know?
Supposedly there was neither telephone nor internet in bin Laden's hideout -- presumably for security reasons. But how much did the terrorist leader know about what was going on in the world? What did he read? What was he interested in? Did he have an idea of how much -- or how little -- the US knew about him? How did he receive his information? In his audio messages, bin Laden occasionally cited Western authors. Where did he gain this knowledge from?
Video and Audio
Osama bin Laden's influence on the jihadist scene remained significant, even while in hiding, thanks to the audio messages he sent out every couple of months. It would be interesting if the materials seized from his compound provided information as to how these messages were created. Did he make them on his own? Had they been edited or created in collaboration with other leaders? What form did the cooperation with al-Sahab, al-Qaida's propaganda department, take? Why have there been no videos released for years? At least one last audio message has been found in the compound. Its forthcoming release has already been announced by jihadist websites.
Indications of Conflict
Among the weapons that the US employed in its fight against al-Qaida was so-called "strategic communication." Possible points of conflict within the terrorist network were quickly made public, for example. In the past, the terror network was divided over, for example, questions such as the high number of Muslims among attack victims. Should bin Laden's data provide any information regarding previously unknown divisions within al-Qaida, US authorities could use this as ammunition.
As with much of the information that may be found in the materials, however, the media and general public are likely to demand that the original documents be made available. The US authorities would be unlikely to release any information that could be relevant to American security. But earlier data stashes, for example from Iraq, have been made available in large parts later on. Given the huge amount of confiscated storage media, researchers could find enough material to keep them busy for years -- provided that the documents are readable and relevant. And at the moment, only a handful of people know if this is the case.