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[infowar.de] 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=
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=
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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