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Alan Cullison, a reporter for the Wall Street Journal found himself in Afghanistan as the Taliban were evacuating from Kabul. On the way there his laptop computer was smashed. But he was in luck, profound luck, as it turned out. Cullison found an Afghani computer dealer who knew a second dealer who just happened to have two used computers in stock. Cullison was able to buy them both for $1100. You may argue that the computers were stolen or booty, but there is no arguing that they were not first-order prizes.

The Compaq laptop had been owned by one Muhammad Atef while the IBM desk top computer was owned by Ayman al-Zawahiri. Atef was bin Laden's top military commander; Zawahiri was bin Laden's deputy. On the hard drives, the organization of al Qa'ida was meticulously laid out along with plans, encrypted files, e-mail, and files having to do with every-day management of their enterprise. Among the planning documents, the name of Richard Ried of shoe bomber fame appeared. That was before Reid's attempted attack. Many other high level al Qa'ida operatives used one or the other computer. CIA agents quickly took possession of the computers.

The information Cullison was able to salvage still provides the best look at al Qa'ida available to the public. The press and the Administration have overblown the sophistication, discipline, and organization of al Qa'ida. It turns out that al Qa'ida had the same managerial problems that besets other organizations, bickering, banality, and gripes about conditions. From accurate plans that came to fruition, through bitter infighting, to questions regarding the legality of killing innocent women and children, the hard drives were a trove. High level operatives fought over tactics and strategies to be followed. The Egyptians especially were suspect.

Alan Cullison is a Moscow correspondent for The Wall Street Journal and a Nieman fellow at Harvard University.

For further information, see Inside Al Qaeda's Hard Drive, by Alan Cullison, The Atlantic, Sept 2004.

See also

Some excerpts from various sources


Like the early Russian anarchists who wrote some of the most persuasive tracts on the uses of terror, al-Qaeda understood that its attacks would not lead to a quick collapse of the great powers. Rather, its aim was to tempt the powers to strike back in a way that would create sympathy for the terrorists. Al-Qaeda has so far gained little from the ground war in Afghanistan; the conflict in Iraq, closer to the center of the Arab world, is potentially more fruitful. As Arab resentment against the United States spreads, al-Qaeda may look less like a tightly knit terror group and more like a mass movement. And as the group develops synergy in working with other groups branded by the United States as enemies (in Iraq, the Israeli-occupied territories, Kashmir, the Mindanao Peninsula, and Chechnya, to name a few places), one wonders if the United States is indeed playing the role written for it on the computer.


The Zubadi (ph) project or the Yoger (ph) project, yes. It was their chemical and biological weapons project. It had some limited success. They didn't really have a whole lot of money. I mean, one of the biggest revelations on the computer was basically that they were a pretty under-funded organization prior to 9/11.

The Zubadi (ph) project, I think the start-up costs was just a couple of -- or their budget was a couple of thousand dollars. They managed to get together home-brewed nerve gas and basic simple things like that, and gas and dogs testing -- at a testing field in Afghanistan. But they never really got anything very big. They were unable to develop a biological weapon.

....EMMER: Alan, some of the findings you talk about, too, is the surprising pettiness... and the dysfunctionality of that organization. Explain that to us.

CULLISON: Well, as any organization where there isn't a whole lot of money, people tend to fight over what scarce resources there were. So, a lot of the correspondence was over those resources, but also over the direction of the Jihadi cause in general. There were a lot of people who were dissatisfied with bin Laden and were not really happy with the strategy of going and attacking the West.

What they really wanted to do was to continue to attack Islamic or Arab governments that they didn't think were Islamic enough.

HEMMER: Alan, another thing here.... Outgoing mail from Ayman al- Zawahri questioning, why did you buy a new fax for $470? Where are the two old faxes? Did you get permission before buying a new fax under such circumstances? Please explain the cell phone invoice amounting to $756 when you have mentioned communication expenses of $300?

What does all of this suggest to you, Alan?

CULLISON: Well, this was correspondence between Kabul and Yemen. And after getting that memo, the head of the Yemen cell quit. This was all part of the fighting over the resources. It suggests that this was an organization that really needed to have things like terror acts in order to raise more money.

It runs a little bit contrary to the popular view of al Qaeda as an organization that had a lot of money, and therefore committed terror acts.

Hatchet jobber

"Think of al-Qaeda as a network, not a group. A network rather like the blob of sci-fi movie lore. They infiltrate other existing Islamic groups and use them in whatever ways they can to plan, finance, and execute missions.

"Judging from these e-mails, they are not nearly as well organized as American popular imagination thinks they are. They squabble over justifying expenses and seek clarification as to how their faith justifies the killing of innocent civilians.

"The more I learn of al-Qaeda, the less afraid of it I become. Their kind is not new in history. Many of them have doubts about themselves and their tasks that are resolved by charismatic leaders such as bin Laden. For the time being and foreseeable future, they will be able to successfully carry out attacks against targets of their choosing.

"I have a plan. Let's split al-Qaeda between those who truly believe everyone would be better off living under bin Laden's interpretation of Islamic law and the foot soldiers. People like Osama bin Laden excel at recruiting angry young men from the Arabic world. These men want to see their culture at the center of the world again. They are angry at the United States because of its relationship with Israel and its policies against Iraq for the past 15 years. Osama bin Laden and company take these hopeless men and indoctrinate them.

"Step one of Plan Shadoweyes is to start removing bin Laden's talking points. Start pulling U.S. troops out of the Middle East (this impacts many other things, but I'm going to stay on topic). Bin Laden loves reminding everyone how many infidels are chillin in the Holy Land. Take that away. Work toward actual peace between Israel and Palestine for every house and road Israel has in the West Bank and Gaza, the Palestinians get one in Israel proper. Historical injustices cannot be remedied: it is time to move on.

"Step two is already in progress. Find bin Laden and other charismatic terrorists. I know this next point will get me in trouble with many liberals so be it. When bin Laden is found, the soldier that finds him, shoots him dead. Trials and juries be damned. New rule: when you brag and laugh about killing more than 100 people in any act, you aren't guaranteed a speedy trial.

"This plan does not end terror. Terror cannot be ended. Only children and childish adults talk about such things. Terror can be reduced by preventing charismatic terrorists from breathing and/or recruiting. As their correspondence indicates, al-Qaeda is not a fearsome monolithic entity capable of taking our freedoms from us. They are a club that can be stopped."

Swarthmore College - Timothy Burke

"Cullisons account fills what I feel is an extraordinary gap in our nationalindeed, our internationaldiscourse about al-Qaeda in specific and militant Islamacists in general....

"Cullison discovered some interesting things on the laptop he acquired that finally begin to flesh out the complex reality more meaningfully. On one hand, it seems to me that defenders of the Bush Administrations war on terror can actually come out of the article armed with some new support for their views. First, its very clear that 9/11 was not a strategic aberration, and that the current security alerts may well be warranted and legitimate, that al-Qaeda, whatever it is and however it is constituted, intends to attack the United States, Western Europe and indeed Western influences wherever it can, however it can. If 9/11 wasnt convincing enough, Cullisons information should convince more: al-Qaedas plans for terrorism are serious, substantial and of long-standing.

"More to the point, much of what Cullison found tends to confirm something that George Bush and his associates have said since 9/11, and sometimes been mocked for saying, that al-Qaedas principal motivations for planning attacks against the West have a great deal to do with abstract hatred for Western freedoms. Cullison found, for example, that news broadcasts from the West were carefully saved and compiled on the laptop by al-Qaeda observers, but that the image of female newscasters was always covered over. More generally, I see considerable evidence in what Cullison describes of a non-negotiable philosophy of total struggle against the West. Theres nothing as tangible and achievable as a simple withdrawal from Saudi Arabia or a simple ending of support for corrupt Arab autocracies here. It might be that those moves would undercut the larger popular enthusiasm for Islamcism in parts of the Arab world, but they would do nothing to placate the core of al-Qaedas membership as it stood in late fall 2001. There's also some very interesting and sometimes rather funny material that indicates that al-Qaeda has been actively trying to figure out how to obscure the differences between its members and other Muslims or Arabs and has given serious thought to how to move unmolested across borders and through airports.

"Now on the other hand, you cant just take what you want from the article and ignore the rest. If you go to it and find support for the proposition that the fight against al-Qaeda really is total war, and that a tight focus on homeland security is justified, you have to also deal with another fact that the article extensively documents: that the strongest hope that some al-Qaeda members took into planning for 9/11 is that the United States would respond over-aggressively and clumsily to the attack and entrap itself in a no-win war close to where Islamicist insurgents might inflict heavy and continuing damage on the Americans. In other words, what many critics of the Iraq War said before the invasion, that the Iraq War would turn out to serve al-Qaedas interests, to grant al-Qaeda's fondest wish, appears to be something that al-Qaeda also believed....

... I think the article, read seriously and honestly, is yet another nail in the coffin of the war in Iraq, and yet more confirmation that anyone serious about the war against terrorism should have been against that war from the outset, and should turn against it now.


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