WASHINGTON – The U.S. is tracking possible new terror targets and stepping up surveillance of operatives previously considered minor al-Qaida figures after digging through the mountain of correspondence seized from Osama bin Laden’s hideout, officials say. The trove of material is filling in blanks on how al-Qaida operatives work, think and fit into the organization, they say.
The new information is the result of five weeks of round-the-clock work by a CIA-led team of data analysts, cyber experts and translators who are 95 percent finished decrypting and translating the years of material and expect to complete the effort by mid-June, two U.S. officials say.
Al-Qaida operatives worldwide are feeling the heat, with at least two of them altering their travel plans in recent weeks in apparent alarm that they might become the targets of another U.S. raid, one official said.
All officials spoke on condition of anonymity to describe the review of bin Laden files taken by U.S. Navy SEALs in a May 2 raid on his Abbottabad, Pakistan, hideout.
The items taken by the SEALs from bin Laden’s second-floor office included a handwritten journal, five computers, 10 hard drives and 110 thumb drives.
Copies of the material have been distributed to agencies from the FBI to the Defense Intelligence Agency to continue long-term analysis, one official said. The material is now classified, greatly limiting the number of people who can see it and making any detailed public accounting of the contents a crime.
FBI Director Robert Mueller told Congress on Wednesday that one of the early assessments is that al-Qaida remains committed to attacking the United States.
“We continue to exploit the materials seized from bin Laden’s compound” and “we are focused on the new information about the homeland threat gained from this operation,” Mueller told the Senate Judiciary Committee, which is considering legislation that would extend Mueller’s job for up to two more years.
There is nothing in the bin Laden files so far to indicate an imminent attack, three officials said. The U.S. has increased its vigilance regarding some of the targets bin Laden suggests to his operatives, from smaller U.S. cities to mass transport systems, to U.S. embassies abroad and even oil tankers in the Persian Gulf.
A law enforcement official briefed on the process said investigators have been analyzing raw digital data found on multiple hard drives and flash drives, and that some of it consists of sequences of numbers. Investigators were trying to discern potential bank account or phone numbers that might point to al-Qaida contacts in the United States or elsewhere, or codes that could produce other leads, said the official, who was not authorized to publicly discuss the analysis and spoke on condition of anonymity.
Especially useful in the communications between bin Laden and his followers from Asia to Europe to Africa is the light they shed on the personalities of known al-Qaida operatives and what drives the various terrorist commanders who corresponded with bin Laden, officials said.