Bin Laden's villa lacked Internet, phone service

Absence of communications was one key tip-off to U.S. intelligence officials

The absence of Internet and telephone service at Osama bin Laden's $1 million hiding place helped tip off intelligence experts that the Al Qaeda leader was indeed there.

The compound in the outskirts of Abbottabad sits near homes of professionals who drive Toyotas and use wired and wireless phones and computers, according to various reports.

Policemen walk past a compound surrounded in red fabric in Abbotabad, Pakistan, where a firefight took place that killed Al Qaeda leader Osama bin Laden. (REUTERS/Faisal Mahmood)

An IT consultant in Abottabad, the town where bin Laden was killed, inadvertently "live blogged" an early sign of the military operation on Twitter, without realizing its importance until much later.

As such, a walled-in compound without basic communications essentials would certainly stick out, and it indeed drew the attention of U.S. intelligence officials during months of surveillance, according to reports in the New York Times and CNN based on interviews withofficials in the Obama Administration.

Another sign of what was inside: Trash wasn't put out for collection -- it was burned, these officials reported.

Bin Laden apparently kept touch with with the outside world from the compound in Pakistan in a decidedly non-tech way -- using a trusted courier who would arrive and leave the facility with messages.

That courier first came to light when detainees in Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, gave the courier's pseudonym and said he was a student of Khalid Shaikh Mohammed, who confessed to hatching the Sept. 11 attacks.

Intelligence officials finally tracked the courier last August to the Abbottabad compound, which sits about 35 miles from Islamabad, the capital of Pakistan. Using satellite photos and other intelligence, CIA officials developed the theory Bin Laden was hiding inside. The absence of telephone and Internet evidently bolstered their suspicions.

Not having telephone and Internet service would arouse suspicions much in the same way that fictional detective Sherlock Holmes took note of how a dog did NOT bark at an intruder. In that example, from "The Adventure of Silver Blaze" by Arthur Conan Doyle, a famous race horse was stolen and its trainer killed at a stable where the dog slept and the dog obviously knew the intruder well or would have barked, Holmes reasoned.

"Intelligence work is about taking all the evidence you have, even obscure details, and building a case," said Craig Mathias, a communications analyst for Farpoint Group.

"So if you were to look at a $1 million villa with no phone or Internet and the surrounding homes did have those things, that that would be interesting," he added. "It didn't mean, obviously, that Obama was there, and they had to have a great deal ofinformation to conclude that. The more information you have, the better, but sometimes inference is all you can get."

Al Qaeda is still considered an international threat without Bin Ladin, and it's likely the terrorist group won't rely on sophisticated communications to stay connected, Mathias said.

"The scary thing is that Al Qaeda is large distributed group that was loosely held together under Obama," Mathias said. "Fanatical groups don't need much [technology] to get along well. They just need to know the right people. Unfortunately, we'll all be in a heightened state of alert for a while."

Matt Hamblen covers mobile and wireless, smartphones and other handhelds, and wireless networking for Computerworld. Follow Matt on Twitter at @matthamblen, or subscribe to Matt's RSS feed . His e-mail address is mhamblen@computerworld.com.

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Matt Hamblen

Computerworld (US)
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