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Computer in Kabul holds chilling memos
 PC apparently used by al-Qaida leaders reveals details of four years of terrorism

By Alan Cullison and Andrew Higgins
Copyright © 2001 Dow Jones & Company, Inc.

      KABUL, Afghanistan, Dec. 31 —  Last May, someone sat down at an IBM desktop here 
and typed out a polite letter to a bitter foe of al-Qaida, the anti-Taliban leader 
Ahmed Shah Massoud. The writer tapped at the computer for 97 minutes, according to its 
internal record, then printed out the fruit of his labor: a request for an interview 
with Massoud, to be conducted by “one of our best journalists, Mr. Karim Touzani.”

                ON SEPT. 9, two men posing as journalists, one carrying a passport in 
the name of Karim Touzani, detonated a hidden bomb as they interviewed Massoud. The 
legendary Afghan commander was mortally wounded. Two days later came the suicide 
attacks on the World Trade Center and Pentagon.

Now, as al-Qaida, the group blamed for all of those lethal attacks, is uprooted from 
its Afghan sanctuaries, it is leaving behind cyber-fingerprints. The letter to Massoud 
is one of hundreds of text documents and video files in a computer evidently used for 
four years by al-Qaida chieftains in Kabul. Its hard drive is a repository for 
correspondence with militant Muslims around the world, portraying al-Qaida bosses 
struggling to administer, inspire and discipline the sprawling global organization.

       Dating from early 1997 through this fall, the files paint a picture of both 
ghoulish ambitions and quotidian frustrations within an organization that, despite its 
medieval zealotry, sometimes mimicked a multinational corporation. Memos refer to 
al-Qaida as “the company” and its leadership as “the general management.”

       The computer files don’t appear to detail the plotting of Sept. 11 or to 
contain any clear plans for future attacks. But hundreds of documents, ranging from 
the murderous to the mundane, illuminate issues bearing on America’s war on terrorism.

        Among them:
 Files outlining al-Qaida efforts to launch a program of chemical and biological 
weapons, code-named al Zabadi, Arabic for curdled milk. As part of the plan to develop 
a “home-brew nerve gas,” members were given a long reading list that included a study 
titled “Current Concepts: Napalm.”

 A video file in which Osama bin Laden speaks for 23 minutes, focusing on what he 
calls America’s anti-Muslim crusade and mentioning the Sept. 11 attacks. Another video 
shows a top al-Qaida cleric and spokesman, Sheikh Abu Gaith, appearing to acknowledge 
al-Qaida responsibility for the strikes. “God Almighty has enabled our brothers to 
carry out these strikes,” he says, “and make the enemies of God taste what they made 
our brothers taste.”

 A letter in which a militant using the name Abu Yaser stresses that “hitting the 
Americans and Jews is a target of great value and has its rewards in this life and, 
God willing, the afterlife.” The letter is addressed to top al-Qaida lieutenant Ayman 
al-Zawahri and the author says he has written to bin Laden separately.

 A memo referring to a “legal study” on “the killing of civilians.” The writer, 
acknowledging this is “a sensitive issue,” says he has found ways to keep “the enemy” 
from using the killing of “civilians, specifically women and children,” to undermine 
the militants’ cause.


       How a computer apparently stuffed with al-Qaida secrets came to light involves 
a combination of happenstance and the opportunism of war in a country schooled for 20 
years in conflict and chaos. The desktop was installed in a two-story brick building 
in Kabul that was used by al-Qaida as an office, according to a looter who says he 
grabbed it and a Compaq laptop from the office. He says he entered the building, which 
is now occupied by Northern Alliance soldiers, after a November U.S. bombing raid 
killed several senior al-Qaida officials in a nearby property.

        As surviving al-Qaida operatives fled Kabul ahead of the city’s fall, the 
looter offered the computers for sale to a local computer merchant. A Wall Street 
Journal reporter acquired them for $1,100, copying hundreds of files and getting some 
of them translated from the Arabic. U.S. officials confirm the authenticity of the 
files, most protected by passwords, and say they provide a trove of information about 
the inner workings of the secretive organization.

     Frequent users of the computer, who left their names or aliases on dozens of 
files, appear to include two top lieutenants of bin Laden: Zawahri and Mohammed Atef. 
Zawahri is a former Cairo surgeon who merged his own Egyptian terror outfit with 
al-Qaida in 1998, and is widely regarded as bin Laden’s chief strategist. Atef, killed 
in a November bombing raid near Kabul, headed al-Qaida’s military wing. U.S. officials 
believe he masterminded the lethal 1998 bombings of U.S. embassies in Kenya and 

       It is unclear whether bin Laden used the computer, though several texts stored 
on the hard drive make elliptical references to the Saudi exile, referring to “Abu 
Abdullah” and other bin Laden aliases.

       Users of the computer evidently didn’t make much use of e-mail. Afghan phone 
connections are poor and satellite links easily monitored. Instead, it appears they 
composed correspondence on the computer, then either copied it to a diskette or made a 
print-out to be delivered by hand. Notes in the computer frequently lament hitches in 
delivery of correspondence. The hard drive contains messages to or from activists in 
Western Europe and Asia, Albania, Yemen, Egypt and other outposts of the network.

          Identifying the authors of texts stored on the computer is often difficult. 
Most use code names or aliases. There are frequent references, for example, to “Abdel 
Moez” or “Nur al-Din” — names U.S. authorities list as among aliases for Zawahri. 
“Salah al-din,” another name that appears frequently on the files, also appears to be 
an alias for Zawahri.

     A series of files stored in a folder labeled “Hafs” appears to contain documents 
of Atef, who, according to a U.S. indictment relating to the embassy bombings, used 
“Abu Hafs” as his primary alias.

       Sometimes, real names appear. The computer was used to compose a sign for an 
office, reading “This is a work place! For those who do not work here, please do not 
enter at all. Dr. Ayman.”

       Many of the documents stored on the computer focus on housekeeping matters, 
particularly funding and personnel problems. Complaints about money and unpaid 
salaries turn up frequently. “I am almost broke,” wrote one operative. “The money I 
have may not last until the feast. Please send money or bring it to us as soon as 
possible.” Another pinched activist was told to find a house for just $30 a month.

       Other files offer practical if chilling advice. A bomb-making guide provides 
tips on the use of dishwasher timers, alarm clocks and digital watches. There is also 
a table giving recommended lethal doses for various poisons: how much it takes to kill 
people of different body weights.

       The computer files also show al-Qaida leaders celebrating. A homemade video 
file made after Sept. 11 features television footage of terrified Americans fleeing 
the flaming World Trade Center, overlain with a soundtrack of mocking chants and 
prayer in Arabic.

      And, after the East Africa embassy bombings in 1998, a congratulatory message to 
Zawahri praised “what you did and all the works and the labors that you did to plague 
the enemy of God.” The message, stored in the computer as a Microsoft Word document, 
is signed “Abu Yaser.”

       The bombings killed at least 224 people, mostly local Africans rather than 
Americans, and injured more than 5,000. Apparently emboldened by the death toll, the 
writer of the message advised: “We should not look for the easier targets, but we 
should look for the more strategic places, the targets which will harm the enemy and 
exact revenge upon them.”

       Soon after the African bombings, the computer files show al-Qaida embarking on 
potentially its most deadly project: the “curdled milk” biological- and 
chemical-warfare program. A memo written in April 1999, apparently by Zawahri, notes 
that “the destructive power of these weapons is no less than that of nuclear weapons.”

       The memo laments al-Qaida’s sluggishness in realizing the menace of these 
weapons, noting that “despite their extreme danger, we only became aware of them when 
the enemy drew our attention to them by repeatedly expressing concern that they can be 
produced simply.”

       As a first step, the memo suggests, militants must brush up on their reading. 
The memo gives a detailed precis of an American history of chemical and germ warfare. 
It lists a catalog of exotic killers, from anthrax to Rocky Mountain spotted fever.

       A May 7, 1999, file indicates that by that time, al-Qaida leaders had earmarked 
$2,000 to $4,000 for “start-up” costs of the program. In a letter dated May 23 and 
written under one of Zawahri’s aliases, the author reports discussing some “very 
useful ideas” during a visit to Abu Khabab, the alias of an elderly Egyptian 
scientist. “It just needs some experiments to develop its practical use.”

          Particularly encouraging, the letter in the computer files said, was a 
home-brew nerve gas made from insecticides and a chemical additive that would help 
speed up penetration into the skin. The writer said Khabab had supplied a computer 
disk that gave details of “his product” in a WinZip file, and “my neighbor opened it 
by God’s will.”

     U.S. officials, citing satellite photos and intelligence gathered from local 
residents, say Abu Khabab experimented with nerve gas on dogs and rabbits at a camp 
near the eastern Afghan city of Jalalabad. The camp, one of several in the area hit by 
U.S. bombs after Sept. 11, was known as Abu Khabab in honor of the scientist.

       In a letter dated May 26 and stored in the computer under the same alias as 
earlier correspondence, the author says he was “very enthusiastic” about the Zabadi 
project and was especially pleased with Abu Khabab’s “significant progress.”

       It isn’t clear how far al-Qaida got in making nerve gas. A June 1999 memo found 
on the hard drive and addressed to “Abu Hafs” — Atef’s alias — gave instructions for 
building a laboratory, ordering that walls be covered with oil paint and floors with 
tiles or cement “to facilitate cleaning with insecticides.” But, noted the memo, 
“construction should not start until electricity is installed.” It also called for 
evasive action to avoid detection: “Periodically (for example about every three 
months) one of the locations is to be canceled and replaced by another.”

       A progress report complained that the use of nonspecialists had “resulted in a 
waste of effort and money,” urging the recruitment of experts as the “fastest, safest 
and cheapest” route. A June 1999 memo said the program should seek cover and talent in 
educational institutions, which it said were “more beneficial to us and allow easy 
access to specialists, which will greatly benefit us in the first stage, God willing.”

       The computer files show leaders in Kabul trying to keep a tight leash on 
militants abroad. “The general management shall be consulted on issues related to 
joining and firing from the company, the general strategy and the company name,” 
intoned a lengthy report on the wayward ways of an al-Qaida cell in Yemen. A member of 
the cell, the report complained, had been overheard talking “in an unsuitable way” 
with a woman on the telephone and had then tried to dodge questions about the 
relationship by “pretending to be busy reading the Quran.”

       An activist code-named “Abbas,” apparently under a cloud for talking too much 
and other infractions, sent groveling messages from an unidentified outpost promising 
to stick to “orders issued by the management” and “refrain from giving any interviews 
to the press or the radio ... without consulting with you and taking your permission.”

       In a stern note warning against lax security, a message bearing what appears to 
be Zawahri’s code name ordered someone called “Hamza” to stop “writing my name on 
messages as he did” and start using two envelopes. “Place my name on the inner 
envelope,” he instructed.

        Islamic militants in Egypt, meanwhile, were grilled over their 1998 decision 
to declare a truce with the government in Cairo and give up violence. Several files on 
the computer focus on this quarrel over strategy. “Noble brother, I hesitated in 
writing this letter when it was announced that you had called for a stop to all 
military operations,” reads a letter from Zawahri to a leader of Egypt’s Islamic 
Group. “Does that position apply to inciting people to perform jihad against 
Americans? And does it apply to Israel as well?”

       Another headache was al-Qaida’s relationship with the Taliban. A July 1998 
report stored in the computer details what seems to have been a near rupture in 
relations between Afghanistan’s then leaders and bin Laden’s network. Addressed to 
Ayman — apparently Zawahri — the report describes an angry meeting between the Taliban 
leader, Mullah Mohammed Omar, and “Abu Abdullah.” This could be a reference to bin 
Laden, since that was one of his aliases. The report blames the quarrel on a “bankrupt 
failure to achieve any real external victory.” It warns that Arabs operating in 
Afghanistan risk losing access to their training camps, just as they were earlier 
expelled from Sudan, bin Laden’s main base until 1996.

       Discontent sometimes nearly bubbled over into mutiny. The unnamed author of a 
June 1998 memorandum outlined a catalog of 21 gripes presented to “the doctor.” They 
suggest an organization swamped by feuds and petty back-biting: Why has Yunis been put 
in charge of the archives? Why did a hard drive with “important documents relating to 
the company” get lost in Sudan? How much money was spent on a trip to Malaysia? What 
was the point of a visit to Chechnya?

      In a final burst of disgust, the author questioned “management methods that have 
led to the departure of some brothers from the company and nearly led to the 
temptation of others.”

       A more mundane concern, fund raising, evidently prompted a project to which 
Atef, the al-Qaida military chief, lent his name free of aliases. Its goal: to cash in 
on bin Laden’s notoriety. In October 1998, shortly after U.S. cruise missiles slammed 
into an al-Qaida training camp in retaliation for the Africa embassy bombings, the 
Kabul computer was used to create letterhead for a fictional company, Challenge for 
Media Services, and to draft letters to ABC, CNN and CBS. Each was signed Dr. Mohammed 
Atef and offered a business deal: cash for film of bin Laden and his bomb-destroyed 
training camp at Khost in eastern Afghanistan.

       The letters promised the networks footage in which bin Laden “openly threatened 
U.S. and Israeli troops” and urged the networks to send representatives to Kabul or 
Jalalabad, to ensure “priority in getting the material and easiness in negotiation.” 
But the letters don’t appear to have been sent. They were left in a folder marked “not 
sent” on the computer’s hard drive. ABC, CBS and CNN say they never received any 
letters nor bought any videos from Atef.

         More sinister was the missive drafted early this summer to Massoud, who was 
the leader of the Taliban’s only significant opposition in Afghanistan. “We ... are at 
your service in the hope that our collaboration will be long and fruitful,” read the 
letter, written in clumsy French in the name of an obscure, London-based Islamic 
information agency. It outlined what it said were plans for television reportage on 
Afghanistan. The interview request carried the name of Yasser Al-Siri, director of the 
Islamic Observation Center in London. Al-Siri was arrested in London in October and 
last month charged with conspiring to murder Massoud. He has denied any involvement in 
the assassination.

    Though written under Al-Siri’s name, the letter, according to the Kabul computer’s 
internal properties, which give the user’s name in Arabic, was crafted by Mohammed 
Zawahri. It is unclear whether this refers to Zawahri, who is known to speak French 
and sometimes goes by the alias “Abu Mohammed,” or possibly to his brother, Mohammed 
Zawahiri, a fellow Islamic militant who helped set up a terror cell in Albania in the 

       The two men who posed as journalists to interview Massoud Sept. 9, both 
French-speaking Arabs, carried stolen Belgian passports. One died immediately after 
setting off a hidden explosive. The other, wounded, was shot dead by guards. Witnesses 
say they detonated the bomb moments after asking Massoud one of the questions from a 
list proposed in a French-language document contained in the Kabul computer: “How will 
you deal with the Osama bin Laden issue when you are in power and what do you see as 
the solution to this issue?”

       Hugh Pope and Christopher Cooper contributed to this article.

       Copyright © 2001 Dow Jones & Company, Inc.
All Rights Reserved.

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