After Osama bin Laden was killed in his Pakistani retreat by Navy Seals earlier this month, U.S. officials said the al-Qaeda leader's home had no phone or Internet service, a precaution taken by bin Laden to avoid leaving a digital footprint.
Yet despite living “off the grid,” the man behind the 9/11 attacks was able to communicate with his terrorist network via email. The Associated Press explains how he did it (based on comments from two sources, including a U.S. counterterrorism official):
Holed up in his walled compound in northeast Pakistan … bin Laden would type a message on his computer without an Internet connection, then save it using a thumb-sized flash drive. He then passed the flash drive to a trusted courier, who would head for a distant Internet cafe.At that location, the courier would plug the memory drive into a computer, copy bin Laden's message into an email and send it. Reversing the process, the courier would copy any incoming email to the flash drive and return to the compound, where bin Laden would read his messages offline.
This system worked for bin Laden right up until he was killed. And it worked because it flew under the radar of modern digital surveillance techniques, even though, as the AP writes, the “U.S. always suspected bin Laden was communicating through couriers.”
One hundred or so flash drives bin Laden used to send and receive emails via courier were seized in the raid on his compound and contain “thousands of messages and potentially hundreds of email addresses,” according to the AP.
This should send terrorists who had been communicating via email scrambling to devise another system that eludes electronic detection.