By Aliya Sternstein 05/02/2011
While details remain sketchy on the operation that took down the man who set in motion the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks, some former U.S. cyber-forensic officials said a cellphone slip-up last year by one of Osama bin Laden's middlemen may have confirmed earlier tip-offs as to his whereabouts.
Federal agents in thepast have been able to follow terrorist activity by tracing suspects' phone calls, cellphone locations and computer network addresses. But while bin Laden and his co-conspirators were adept at spreading their religious beliefs via the Internet, they took the precaution of avoiding communicating with each other directly online and over the phone.
"He probably went offline in that regard as early as2002," said Michael Jacobs, former information assurance director at the National Security Agency. "He moved information by courier because the telecommunications he was using was a beacon."
For U.S. intelligence agents, the trick was to find the third parties, the associates bringing bin Laden food and medical supplies, who were more likely to be wired, he added.
"Those around him may have hadtheir own cellphones on," said Jacobs, now a private consultant. "The other possibility is he made a mistake and he felt too secure and began to use the phone again."
U.S. efforts to monitor conversations among those in his inner circle through Internet chat rooms may have proved nonproductive, he added. People can mask their IP addresses, or network access points, by using phony identifiers,Jacobs said.
Al Qaeda operatives often communicated via encrypted, or secretly coded, messages that U.S. agents could not decipher, said Darren Hayes, computer information systems program chairman at Pace University. Hayes entered the field of computer forensics in 1990, working in the World Trade Center office of financial services firm Cantor Fitzgerald that was later destroyed in the Sept. 11attacks.
"Ironically, for such a strong proponent of technology communications, Osama bin Laden appears to have largely refrained from the direct use of satellite telephone technology and the Internet," Hayes said. "Therefore, the focus for the CIA and the U.S. government would have been on intercepting the communications of his couriers."
Satellite imagery likely was very important to keeping aneye on activity at the bin Laden compound, Hayes said.
President Obama late Sunday night announced that U.S. officials had retrieved the body of the al Qaeda leader after killing him in a gunfight earlier that day. Obama had authorized an operation to capture bin Laden Friday morning. The globally sought fugitive had been residing in a $1 million mansion with no Internet or phone service about 35miles outside the Pakistani capital of Islamabad.
"We applied the full range of our capabilities, collecting intelligence through both human and technical means and subjecting it to the most rigorous analysis by our government's leading experts on bin Laden and his organization," CIA Director Leon Panetta said in a statement on Monday.
A willingness to wait may have been just as critical ashigh-speed technology in pinpointing bin Laden's living quarters, some experts observed. "The patience pays off when you find somebody that in the course of normal business becomes enamored with the technology and starts using it," Jacobs said. "You've got to get lucky. In this particularly case it was an element of bad luck for bin Laden and good luck for us."
Other former federal investigatorsagree that a technological mistake by al Qaeda, supplemented by face-to-face questioning of associates, may have yielded bin Laden's coordinates.
"With the Internet, people forget that what they reach out and touch, touches them back and leaves evidence in this respect," said Tom Talleur, a former cyber criminal investigator at NASA's Office of Inspector General and the Defense Department. "Bin...