The terrorist network
Al Qaeda suspected of using everything from advanced steganography over the Internet to couriers carrying messages across the desert.
Chechen leader Dzokhar Dudayev knew he needed to limit the time he spent using the satellite phone given to him by his Islamic allies in Turkey. It was the spring of 1996, and the survivor of two Russian assassination attempts was wary of Russia's ability to home in on his communication signal - and his location.
But on the evening of April 21, Dudayev, baited by Russian President Boris Yeltsin's offer of peace talks, called an adviser in Moscow to discuss the impending negotiations.
This time, Dudayev stayed on the phone too long.
More on steganography
Disaster recovery: then and now
Security takes center stage
How ready are the nation's networks?
Lehman Brothers' network survives
Planning for the worst: Bring in the best
American spy satellites, trained on Iraq and Kuwait, were quickly turned north to the Caucasus mountains and Chechnya, according to a former communications specialist with the U.S. National Security Agency (NSA). The satellites pinpointed the Chechen leader's location to within meters of his satellite phone signal, and the coordinates were sent to a Russian Sukhoi Su-25 fighter jet.
Dudayev was killed by two laser-guided air-to-surface missiles while still holding the phone that gave him away.
This deadly lesson, which the U.S. has never officially confirmed, was not lost on Osama bin Laden, a purported Chechen ally who fed money and weapons to their fight against the Russians. That lesson was complete when bin Laden subsequently received word that U.S. spy satellites, perhaps the very same that located Dudayev, had eavesdropped on his own satellite phone conversations. And members of the NSA played the tapes for visitors.
"Bin Laden knows what has happened and he's a smart man," says Wayne Madsen, a security consultant and former communications specialist with the U.S. Navy and the NSA. "He's learned his lesson... and he knows technology is a double-edged sword so he's using it carefully."
Today bin Laden is believed to school his soldiers in high-tech tools of communication. E-mail, online dead drops, satellite phones, cell phones, encryption and digital camouflage called steganography (see story, next page) are all tools of Al Qaeda, bin Laden's terrorist network. Those high-tech tools enable members of Al Qaeda to communicate with terrorist cells (or groups) hidden around the world.
But bin Laden himself uses none of it.
Instead, he has fallen back on ancient methods of communication, denying the U.S. and its allies the chance to track electronic footprints, satellite signals or even the radiation emissions from cellular phones. A grid of trusted human couriers, foot soldiers melding in with civilians, crisscross Afghanistan and flow into neighboring countries carrying written and whispered messages that are then electronically shot around the world.
"It's a hybrid organization," says Frank Cilluffo, chairman of the Committee on Combating Terrorism with the Center for Strategic and International Studies. "We're talking very high tech and we're talking rudimentary. . . . Messages are given to couriers who go to Pakistan or Iran or Iraq or London and they send out the messages from there. It makes law enforcement and intelligence questions very difficult."
So difficult that U.S. forces have not yet ferreted bin Laden and some of his lieutenants out of hiding. Security analysts and former military personnel say the top members of Al Qaeda, who are well educated and skilled, know where high-tech tools will help the cause and paranoid enough to distance themselves personally.
"We haven't taken any action [against bin Laden] yet and that means we haven't been able to locate him," says Marc Enger, executive vice president for Digital Defense, and a former colonel in the U.S. Air Force and director of operations for the Air Intelligence Agency. "If we had an electronic footprint of where he was, we'd be there giving him a wake-up call, so to speak."
Out of the cave
The fact that a group of militant religious radicals, who largely are hiding in caves in a land ravaged by 20 years of war and a four-year drought, have access to, let alone expertise in, state-of-the-art communication tools doesn't surprise security analysts and former U.S. and Israeli military officials.
Members of Al Qaeda are not limited, experts add, by Afghanistan's rudimentary telecommunications infrastructure that only supports about 30,000 landlines in the whole country - most of them in the cities of Kabul and Kandahar.
Terrorist organizations worldwide cover the entire spectrum when it comes to technical savvy, according to Jay Hetherington, a 33-year veteran of the CIA who managed the National Signals Intelligence Department. High-ranking members of Al Qaeda - some of whom are doctors, computer scientists and mathematicians - are on the top end of that spectrum. Many security analysts say bin Laden, formally schooled in economics and business management, has excellent computer skills.
Far from laying low in mountain hideouts, Al Qaeda leaders have set up businesses that serve as fronts to buy needed technology, send messages, cover up Al Qaeda-related travel and raise money to fight their global Jihad.
Government prosecutors during this year's trial of the 1998 terrorist bombings of two U.S. embassies in Africa contended that top Al Qaeda officials led two lives, running the terrorist network while operating businesses selling gems or sugar cane or even operating a juice bar.
From these businesses, they passed cryptic messages using land lines and fax machines, prosecutors said. One fax, intercepted by the U.S., was sent from the Islamabad Marriott in Pakistan. They even bought Adobe Acrobat software to manipulate images to make fake passport stamps. And under the cover of legitimate business, in 1996, an Al Qaeda member bought a satellite phone - and prepaid minutes - that was ultimately shipped to bin Laden.
In February 1998, before bin Laden gave up phone communication completely, he used that satellite phone to issue the fatwah, or edict, to kill American civilians.
"They've long used their businesses to communicate," says Thomas Gouttierre, who worked in Afghanistan with the United Nations and now is director for the Center for Afghanistan Studies at the University of Nebraska at Omaha.
"And they know we have the capability to intercept calls. They know and they make adjustments every day. . . . Calling someone and saying, 'I've got 17 tons of cane to go,' could mean it's time to take militant action. You wouldn't know that if you didn't already know the code," he says.
Organized and clandestine
Government prosecutors, during the U.S. Embassy bombing trial, said Al Qaeda was organized around committees. And to keep its communications clandestine and secure, Al Qaeda even has a communications committee that decides which types of technology will be used to communicate internally and with those outside the group. Prosecutors said Al Qaeda even runs its own newspaper.
"There's this stereotype that they're Stone Age cavemen," says Richard Horowitz, a New York attorney and a former captain in the Israeli Army. "But they're professionals. These people are smart. . . .Just because they don't have skyscrapers doesn't mean they're not good at high-tech things."
And Al Qaeda members have access to strong encryption software that gives their enemies two hurdles to overcome if their messages are intercepted - first decoding the digital encryption and then cracking cryptic code words and phrases that the encryption hides. Different cells would most likely use different forms of communication, different technology and different devices - all based on what is available in the area they have infiltrated. If cell phones are common in one area, that technology will be used so a call will be hidden in the noise coming from the millions of other calls in the region.
Some analysts, such as Enger, the former Air Force colonel, say some terrorist cells may be sending messages using steganography. Others could be putting a digital twist on an old spy game - dead drops.
Dion Stempfley, principal security engineer at security firm RipTech, and a former Emergency Response Team member with the Department of Defense, says terrorists are suspected of finding open file servers on corporate systems and turning them into a diabolical messaging service, leaving communications that can be retrieved and deleted without company IT workers even knowing they were there.
But most cell operatives probably are trained in more simple forms of secretive messaging, says Madsen, a 10-year Navy veteran.
A terrorist could set up a Web site of seemingly innocent family photos. If the normally blue background turns to green or if a picture is moved from the top to the bottom, it could be a warning that government investigators are closing in or it could be instructions to carry out an order, Madsen says.
The myth of bin Laden
But no one is convinced that the old spy games have all gone digital.
"Great claims are part of the myth behind bin Laden," Madsen says. "Remember that the tools they used to conduct the Sept. 11 operation were Stone-Age tools - knives, wire transfers, written messages on pieces of paper. . . . The one reason they were successful in pulling this off is that they didn't use a lot of technology."
Whatever technology the members of Al Qaeda are using, the U.S. is using every technology within its grasp to scan for it.
"In almost every case, there is some sort of technical footprint that will help," says RipTech's Stempfley. "We just need to figure out how they are communicating. Once we know that, we can exploit it."
Stempfley says the U.S. and its allies are certainly using high-tech imaging tools and spy satellites to track ground movement of people and vehicles. He also says trackers are monitoring lines of communication all over the world, as well as scanning the Afghan countryside for any electronic or cellular emissions.
And to help follow the money trail, monitoring software identifies unusual trading patterns, and may have helped notify investigators that terrorists had worked the stock market to profit from the Sept. 11 attacks.
It's technology's double-edge sword that has Al Qaeda members nervous and continuously changing the means they use to communicate with one another.
"It starts low-tech at the top rungs and then goes high-tech the further you get out from the core," says Harvey Kushner, a military studies professor and author of "The Future of Terrorism: Violence in the New Millennium."
"They know how to use technology but ultimately they're afraid it will get them in trouble," he says. n