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[] Independent 17.1.02: Has an old computer revealed that Reid toured world searching out new targets for al-Qa'ida?,

Has an old computer revealed that Reid toured world searching out new=
 targets for al-Qa'ida?
By David Usborne in New York
17 January 2002

When a young man with unkempt hair sauntered into the British consulate in=
 Amsterdam in July and asked for a new passport, the officials wanted to=
 know what had happened to the old one. He gave a fairly credible answer: he=
 had put the document into the washing machine after drinking too much, and=
 it was ruined.

You might think it strange, however, that the same man was able to get yet=
 another replacement passport five months later, but this time at the=
 British consulate in Brussels. He gave no particular reason this time,=
 except that the one he had received in July had become ragged and was=
 missing a few pages. He surrendered it, as required, and took the new one=
 away with him.

This eager traveller was Richard Reid, 28, who is now in Boston as a guest=
 of the US justice system, for allegedly trying to blow up an American=
 Airlines passenger jet bound for Miami from Paris on 22 December. He was=
 flying with the British passport issued the same week in Brussels. In=
 between, he is known to have visited Israel, Egypt, Turkey and Pakistan.

All of this, you might imagine, would be enough to cause red faces at the=
 Foreign Office. But the affair becomes significantly more serious when you=
 consider information coming to light that suggests Mr Reid, far from a=
 deranged loner with a grudge against America, may well have been working=
 for al-Qa'ida, the terror network of Osama bin Laden.

The evidence for this supposition, which has yet to be proved, comes from=
 the hard drives of two computers that used to belong to senior figures of=
 al-Qa'ida, which fell into the hands of two reporters for The Wall Street=
 Journal who were in Kabul late last month. The drives have provided the=
 paper =AD and US investigators =AD with a trove of new information about=
 the inner machinations of the terrorist group.

The drives contain more than 17,000 files. Though all of them are related to=
 al-Qa'ida in some way, many are humdrum and dull. Others are not. The=
 interesting files tend to be protected by sophisticated passwords or are=
 encrypted, and the Journal is still working to decode them. One file, in=
 particular, took five days to crack, using several computers. The reporters=
 gained access to it on Sunday.

What they found was a report, written by an unidentified author, detailing=
 the recent labours of someone working for al-Qa'ida, who was travelling the=
 globe scouting out possible targets for terrorist attacks. He had attempted=
 in particular to consider the possibility of striking at the Israeli=
 airline, El Al. There are also references to possible plans for attacks=
 against US soldiers stationed near the Canada border.

The journalists also noted that the travel schedule of the al-Qa'ida scout,=
 who is identified as Abdul Ra'uff, matched almost exactly what we know of=
 the wanderings of Richard Reid, the accused "shoe bomber", since July.=
 American intelligence officials, the newspaper said, have already decided=
 that Abdul Ra'uff and Mr Reid "may well be" the same man. Israeli officials=
 are "positive" this is true.

"This is very significant," said Andrew Higgins, a one of the authors of the=
 Journal report and a former long-time foreign correspondent of The=
 Independent. "This may turn out to be the first conclusive proof we have=
 that Reid was not a hapless drifter but rather an al-Qa'ida operative," he=
 said. Mr Reid is a British-Jamaican who converted to Islam while he was=
 serving time in a British young offenders' institution.

Mr Higgins and another Journal writer, Alan Cullison, found themselves in=
 Kabul with a broken lap-top computer last month. They needed to buy a=
 replacement. What they eventually bought for $1,100 (about =A3800) was a=
 new laptop and a desktop computer that, as it turned out, had been looted=
 from a building in the city that had been an al-Qa'ida office before it=
 fell to the Northern Alliance on 7 December.

The extent to which the activities of Richard Reid and Abdul Ra'uff match is=
 compelling. Both men =AD if they are not one =AD visited the same four=
 countries in the same order in July. Both of them acquired a new passport=
 from the British consulate in Amsterdam. Both of them flew first to Israel,=
 buying ticket on an El Al flight on the date of departure. Both were=
 grilled by Israeli agents before boarding. Both entered Egypt from Israel=
 at the same border crossing.

The Foreign Office did not address the issue of Mr Reid's real identity last=
 night. But a spokeswoman defended the action of the consulate staff in=
 Brussels and Amsterdam in giving him new passports twice in such short=
 order. "You can have a new passport issued every day of the year if you=
 like, so as the old one is properly invalidated, which happened here," she=
 said, emphasising that all normal procedures had been followed by officials=
 at the office. "They know what they are doing," she said.

The report drawn from the computer drive and apparently written on 19 August=
 explains that the excuse about having put the passport in the washing=
 machine was part of a wider ruse by Abdul Ra'uff to disguise his religion=
 during his 10-day stay in Amsterdam by pretending to drink and smoke. "At=
 the hotel he would take empty alcohol bottles from the street and put them=
 into trash containers in his room," the computer report notes.

The report's author, who apparently was fresh from debriefing Abdul Ra'uff,=
 also describes his visit to the British consulate. "He said, 'I was drunk=
 and washed my passport.'" The author notes that Abdul Ra'uff had indeed put=
 his passport in the washing machine, as a means of washing away a Pakistani=
 visa sticker that might have caused problems on his travels. This is a=
 trick that al-Qa'ida recommends to its operatives, as long as they do it=
 just once.

The text also focuses on the journey Abdul Ra'uff subsequently made to Tel=
 Aviv on an El Al jet. At the gate, Israeli security personnel searched him,=
 his shoes and his hat. Once on board, he was "seated in the last seat away=
 from the pilot's cabin" and was under the "watchful eye" of the cabin crew.=
 Israeli officials have already confirmed that on his El Al flight, Mr Reid=
 was also seated in the back of the plane.

The scout was enthusiastic about what he found in Israel. He offered details=
 on how to bomb public transport, including the railway station in Haifa, in=
 the north. He also noted that having a British passport was particularly=
 helpful, saying, for example, that it had been enough to stop anyone=
 searching his bags when he travelled from Bethlehem to Jerusalem.

The computer reports says: "It appears that brothers with European passports=
 are able to move about in Israel with great freedom and can be treated as=
 Israeli." There are no direct references to the World Trade Centre and=
 Pentagon attacks of 11 September. But at one point, the report suggests=
 that terrorists dress well when boarding aircraft and take seats in first=
 or business class "to be near the pilot's cabin without arousing=
 suspicion". Many of the hijackers involved in the September suicide attacks=
 had first-class seats.

Abdul Ra'uff, whoever he ever he was, left Israel and did similar=
 reconnaissance work in Egypt that apparently left his debriefer=
 unimpressed. The report says a second trip to the country would have to be=

It remains possible that the similarities between the movements of the man=
 called Abdul Ra'uff and Mr Reid are coincidental. But that is hardly=
 reassuring. "If not Reid, who is it?" Mr Higgins asked last night. "That=
 would mean there were two people out there with British passports we didn't=
 know about."=20

How they cracked the terrorists' code=20

Getting to the heart of the documents contained in the al-Qa'ida computer =
=AD bought by chance by the Wall Street Journal's reporter in Kabul =AD=
 meant cracking the encryption of Microsoft's Windows 2000 operating system=
 installed on the machine, which had been used to protect the data.=20

That is not a trivial task. Microsoft will only say that if you lose the=
 password that controls entry to a Windows 2000 system, your best option is=
 to remember it =AD or simply to wipe the machine and start again. And its=
 Encrypting File System (EFS), which had been used to encode the files, is=
 just as strong.=20

But the files were too valuable for that. Instead, the team embarked on the=
 task of breaking through the encryption, which jumbles the contents of the=
 files so that even someone reading the individual bytes of data stored on=
 the actual hard disk (rather than trying to access them through the=
 operating system, which had locked them out) would simply find rubbish.=20

Cracking the encryption meant finding the digital "key" that had previously=
 been used to unlock it. That was not stored in any readable file on the=
 machine, for it was itself encrypted.=20

The only way to reproduce it was to generate the key from first principles:=
 by trying various combinations of random bits and trying to decrypt the=
 file with them, and seeing if it produced sense =AD or gibberish.=20

Luckily, the PC had a version of Windows 2000 with an "export-quality" key =
=AD only 40-bits long, rather than the "US" quality, which being 128-bits=
 long would have been billions of times harder to crack.=20

Even so, it took the equivalent of a set of supercomputers running for five=
 days, 24 hours a day, to find the key. But find it they did.=20

The irony that the terrorists used a product made by one of the US's biggest=
 corporations to protect plans it was making against it may not be lost on=
 an administration that recently relaxed rules on the export of "strong"=
 encryption. Tighter controls may follow.=20

By Charles Arthur=20

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