Inside Al-Qaeda’s Hard Drive

Budget squabbles, baby pictures, office rivalries—and the path to 9/11
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Sidebar:

"Tips for the Traveling Terrorist"
"Underwear should be the normal type that people wear, not anything that shows you're a fundamentalist." Suggestions lifted from the laptop on how to pass unnoticed in the West.

In the autumn of 2001 I was one of scores of journalists who ventured into northern Afghanistan to write about the U.S.-assisted war against the Taliban. As I crossed the Hindu Kush to cover the fighting for The Wall Street Journal, my journey took what looked like a fatal turn: the battered black pickup truck I had rented—which in its better years had been a war wagon for Afghan gunmen—lost its brakes as it headed down a steep mountain path, careened along the edge of a gorge, slammed headlong into the back of a Northern Alliance fuel truck that was creeping down the mountain, and slid to rest on its side in the middle of the road. My bags spilled down the mountainside or were crushed beneath the pickup.

Fortunately, none of the pickup's occupants—a Japanese journalist, two Afghan interpreters, the driver, and a shoeless boy who had been riding on the roof and wiping dust from the windshield—was seriously injured. Only my interpreter, a Russian-speaking Afghan, seemed to be hurt; he clutched his side and said that something had hit him in the ribs. We nursed some cuts and bruises, and climbed aboard a Northern Alliance truck carrying wooden crates of Kalashnikov ammunition.

Sidebar:

"Letters From a Young Martyr"
Farewell letters and poems found on the laptop from a young man selected for a suicide mission.

The wreck might have been just a minor bump in my travels through a land where inhabitants display a whoopsy-daisy attitude toward fatal accidents and killings. But a day later, after bedding down forty miles north of Kabul, I asked my interpreter what had hit him in the ribs. He said it was my computer, which he'd always held in his lap for safekeeping. I got up and removed the computer from its black bag, opened its lid, and saw that the screen was smashed. In the coming weeks, living in a fly-infested hut, I scrawled stories by candlelight with a ballpoint pen and read dispatches to my editors over a satellite phone.

That crash became memorable for reasons I never expected. When the Taliban's defenses crumbled, in November of 2001, I joined a handful of malnourished correspondents who rushed into Kabul and filed stories about the city's liberation. We pounced like so many famished crows on the first Western staples we had seen since leaving home: peanut butter, pasteurized milk, and canned vegetables, all of which we found on Chicken Street, Kabul's version of a shopping district. We raided the houses where Arab members of al-Qaeda had been holed up during their stay in Afghanistan, grabbing whatever documents were left in their file cabinets. But unlike most correspondents, I needed to spend some time getting to know Kabul's computer dealers, because I wanted to replace my laptop. It took about an hour to shake hands with all of them.

The regime that had forbidden television and kite-flying as un-Islamic had also taken a dim view of computers. I searched through the bazaars and found Soviet-era radios and television sets, but the electronics dealers had never even seen a computer, and certainly didn't know how to wire one to a satellite phone.

I found my first computer dealer in a drafty storefront office in downtown Kabul, near the city's central park. He worked alone and didn't have a computer in his office, because, he said, he couldn't afford one. He bragged that he was the sole computer consultant for the Afghan national airline, Ariana. This impressed me deeply—until I learned that Ariana had only one computer and only one working airplane.

He told me about another dealer, who ran a computer training school on the second floor of a building overlooking the park. I fumbled my way up a decrepit, unlit stairwell and along a dusty hallway to an office: a long room with a threadbare couch and a desk with a computer on it.

The second dealer told me that he had serviced computers belonging to the Taliban and to Arabs in al-Qaeda. I forgot about my own computer problems and hired him to search for these computers. Eventually he led me to a semiliterate jewelry salesman with wide-set eyes and a penchant for gold chains. This was the man who that December would take $1,100 from me in exchange for two of al-Qaeda's most valuable computers—a 40-gigabyte IBM desktop and a Compaq laptop. He had stolen them from al-Qaeda's central office in Kabul on November 12, the night before the city fell to the Northern Alliance. He wanted the money, he said, so that he could travel to the United States and meet some American girls.

My acquisition of the al-Qaeda computers was unique in the experience of journalists covering radical Islam. In the 1990s the police had seized computers used by al-Qaeda members in Kenya and the Philippines, but journalists and historians learned very little about the contents of those computers; only some information from them was released in U.S. legal proceedings. A much fuller picture would emerge from the computers I obtained in Kabul (especially the IBM desktop), which had been used by al-Qaeda's leadership.

On the night before Kabul fell, Taliban officials were fleeing the city in trucks teetering with their personal effects. The looter who sold me the computers figured that al-Qaeda had fled as well, so he crawled over a brick wall surrounding the house that served as the group's office. Finding nobody inside, he took the two computers, which he had discovered in a room on the building's second floor. On the door of the room, he said, was the name of Muhammad Atef—al-Qaeda's military commander and a key planner of 9/11. Each day, he said, Atef would walk into the office carrying the laptop in its black case. The looter knew he had something good.

So did the U.S. military when it heard what I had bought. The offices of The Wall Street Journal, just across from the World Trade Center, had been destroyed on 9/11. Our New York staff, which was working out of a former warehouse in Lower Manhattan, was acutely aware of potential threats; it was carefully screening mail for anthrax. Thinking that the computers might hold information about future attacks, my editors called the U.S. Central Command, which sent three CIA agents to my hotel room in Kabul. They said they needed the computers immediately; I had time to copy only the desktop computer before handing them both over. Atef's laptop was returned to me two months later, by an agent named Bert, at a curbside in Washington, D.C. The CIA said that the drive had been almost empty, but I've always wondered if this was true.

The desktop computer, it turned out, had been used mostly by Ayman al-Zawahiri, Osama bin Laden's top deputy. It contained nearly a thousand text documents, dating back to 1997. Many were locked with passwords or encrypted. Most were in Arabic, but some were in French, Farsi, English, or Malay, written in an elliptical and evolving system of code words. I worked intensively for more than a year with several translators and with a colleague at The Wall Street Journal, Andrew Higgins, interviewing dozens of former jihadis to decipher the context, codes, and intentions of the messages for a series of articles that Higgins and I wrote for the Journal in 2002.

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