Arik Hesseldahl

Recent Posts by Arik Hesseldahl

What’s on Osama bin Laden’s Hard Drive? Hopefully a Lot.

Can you imagine what evil yet useful informational treasures might be found on Osama bin Laden’s computer?

As details about the daring raid on Abbottabad continue to emerge, we’re learning more not only about how Navy Seals found and killed their target, but about the potential for further clues that may help catch yet more terrorists still on the loose.

Historically, obtaining a computer used by a terrorist is almost as important as catching or killing the terrorist himself. When Khalid Sheikh Mohammed was nabbed in Rawalpindi, Pakistan, in 2003, agents with the CIA and Pakistani intelligence seized a computer whose hard drive was said to contain, among other things, three letters from Osama bin Laden, a list of safe houses that bin Laden had used, a pilot’s license belonging to 9/11 hijacker Mohamed Atta and information about the four planes hijacked that horrible day.

In Iraq in 2005, a seized computer found after a close call played a role in ultimately running to ground the terrorist Abu Musab al-Zarqawi. After being pulled over in a pickup truck by U.S. forces, he managed to get away, but was in such a hurry that he left his laptop behind. (I wrote about it at the time.) The computer yielded financial information and recent pictures of Zarqawi. It took another year, but he was eventually killed in 2006.

Clearly the walled compound wasn’t some Luddite hut where modern conveniences were banned. In some of the images of the compound you can clearly see a satellite dish, probably for TV. The Journal’s Tom Wright was among the reporters who got to tour the site. Initially described as a “mansion,” it seems from his description to have been nothing of the kind.

Among the items seized at Abbottabad, according to numerous reports, are hard drives, DVDs and other “electronic equipment.” CNN has a more detailed inventory here. The amount of information found is being described as “impressive” by CIA Director Leon Pannetta, and analysts are digging through it now to see who they can smoke out next.

Often it turns out that terrorists are just as sloppy as the rest of us when it comes to using computers. They make up easy-to-guess passwords, don’t go to the effort to encrypt their sensitive files and leave unencrypted documents in directories where they’re easy to find. With any luck, there is among the collected digital detritus something that will lead to several repeat performances by Seal Team Six.

It’s all part of the wider implications stemming from the dramatic close of the biggest manhunt in American history. I discussed them with Simon Constable and Spencer Ante of The Wall Street Journal during an extended all-bin-Laden edition of The News Hub yesterday. We talked about my story from yesterday on how it appears that bin Laden’s efforts to forgo the use of telephones and the Internet may have been a key clue that helped bring his hiding place to the attention of intelligence analysts. By trying to make himself digitally scarce, bin Laden may have ironically raised a red flag.