Europe and bin Laden: No intel is good intel?

May 13, 2011 - 1:44 PM

LONDON (AP) — European security officials have lots of questions about the intelligence being analyzed from Osama bin Laden's compound but so far they've seen very little of it.

British officials say the United States has shared some information with them but a huge cache still needs to be evaluated. Other European intelligence agencies say they've asked U.S. officials for data but haven't seen anything yet.

Some have assumed that no news is good news, that the al-Qaida leader's luxury compound in Pakistan had little new information about possible terror plots in Europe.

"I'm sure they would share information that they would understand that we would need quite fast," one European intelligence official said Friday, speaking on condition of anonymity because of the sensitivity of his work. "But as far as I know, they haven't sent out anything yet."

Bin Laden died in a May 2 U.S. raid in Abbottabad, a garrison town in Pakistan. On Friday, a pair of Taliban suicide bombers attacked paramilitary police recruits about three hours away, killing 80 people in the first act of retaliation for bin Laden's slaying.

Bin Laden, the mastermind of the Sept. 11 attacks, wasn't the same sort of boogeyman in Europe as he was in the United States. But if details emerge that show bin Laden had more of a role in planning attacks in Europe, it could raise questions over whether intelligence agencies should have been casting a wider net outside of al-Qaida's affiliate groups and whether bin Laden's role in radicalizing locals should have been investigated.

"We don't have a clear picture yet what the journal or the flash drives mean for Europe," said a British government official who spoke on condition of anonymity because of the sensitivity of the intelligence-sharing relationship. "The key questions are whether he had a central role in planning, whether he was making strategic decisions, whether he was sending out instructions and importantly — whether anyone was listening."

In Brussels, officials and diplomats at NATO said they expected to be briefed on any new intelligence gleaned from the Abbottabad raid. One diplomat said the allies expect the first insight into that intelligence in about 10 days.

"In the past the U.S. has shared information regarding al-Qaida with its allies, and there's not reason to believe they won't do the same with the intelligence extracted from this operation, especially when you consider that al-Qaida has attacked not just the U.S. but also several European cities," said another official, who could not be identified because of the sensitivity of the matter.

The first envoy said the most immediate repercussion was a fresh warning by NATO leaders and the U.S. delegation that bin Laden's death did not mean the war in Afghanistan was over and that the allies could start heading for the exits.

NATO allies were again asked to remain committed to the 2014 deadline when NATO is scheduled to end its combat role and hand over security responsibility to the Afghan army and police, said the diplomat, who spoke under the same constraints.

As of last week, Germany had not yet been given any access to the information acquired by the U.S.

WikiLeaks' release of hundreds of confidential U.S. diplomatic exchanges last year has made some European officials reluctant to talk about anything they've gotten, however incremental. And American officials have grown a bit wary after British judges recently forced the release of secret U.S. intelligence exchanges over a terror case.

Americans officials have painted an initial picture of how bin Laden continued to spread his message while in hiding. His methods, described to The Associated Press by a counterterrorism official and a second person briefed on the U.S. investigation, frustrated Western efforts to trace him through cyberspace.

Holed up in his walled compound in northeast Pakistan with no phone or Internet capabilities, bin Laden would type a message on his computer without an Internet connection, then save it using a thumb-sized flash drive. He then passed the flash drive to a trusted courier, who would head for a distant Internet cafe.

At that location, the courier would plug the memory drive into a computer, copy bin Laden's message into an email and send it. Reversing the process, the courier would copy any incoming E-mail to the flash drive and return to the compound, where bin Laden would read his messages offline.

The experts spoke to the AP on condition of anonymity to discuss the sensitive intelligence analysis.

Navy SEALs hauled away roughly 100 flash memory drives after they killed bin Laden, and officials said they appear to archive the back-and-forth communication between bin Laden and his associates around the world.

Military leaders say it could take months before the material is fully analyzed.

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Also contributing to this report were Karl Ritter in Stockholm, Melissa Eddy in Berlin and Slobodon Lekic in Brussels.