March 6, 2015: Strategy Page
The U.S. recently revealed that in October Afghan and American commandos raided a remote village where a much-sought al Qaeda leader was reported to be hiding out. The raid was a success, but even more important than the al Qaeda leader was the capture of his laptop computer, intact. After years of fighting Islamic terrorists the U.S. has learned the importance of quickly examining such finds and exploiting information found.
For over a decade now the U.S. Department of Defense has urged American firms for help in developing better tools for quickly analyzing captured electronic data (cell phones, storage devices, and specialized military electronics). Since 2006 the military has been using similar tools developed for police departments. For example, in 2007 troops began taking a hacker analysis tool (COFEE, or Computer Online Forensic Evidence Extractor) with them on raids in Iraq. Microsoft developed COFEE for the police and military, followed by a similar tool that enables a non-hacker to analyze wireless network activity and determine which targets can be attacked with a variety of hacker tools and weapons. Since the late 1990s DARPA (Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency) has been developing similar technologies. Details don’t get released, as that would aid potential targets.
In addition to data extraction and analysis devices the troops can carry with them on raids, there has also been an increase in the intel analysis capabilities at all levels (battalion up to the very top). This was the result of adapting tools (mainly software) and techniques from the commercial BI (Business Intelligence) industry, which has developed a lot of powerful research and marketing tools that have direct military application. This is all very geeky but the simple description is software that can quickly find patterns to huge quantities of data or activity. Thus the urgency with which troops grab enemy laptops or even large piles of paper records (even al Qaeda keeps lots of records). The troops know that quickly putting this stuff through a scanner followed by translation and analytics software will usually produce some new suspects to go after and often a current address as well.
The October raid was apparently rapidly exploited using these analysis tools in conjunction with huge databases of known Islamic terrorists and their methods. This led to a noticeable increase in similar raids for the rest of 2014. The military kept quiet about what was behind this spike and were relieved when most media pundits decided this was the result of a decision by the U.S. government to “unleash” American special operations troops in Afghanistan. When the military finally revealed the real reason behind all those additional raids they also described the October laptop as nearly as valuable as the computers and documents seized in the 2011 Osama bin Laden raid.
After October the data in that laptop led to more raids on al Qaeda and Taliban targets, mainly because the data identified a lot of key al Qaeda people and what they did. That provided links to the Taliban and other terrorist organizations. The people identified were usually already known and there was existing data on where they were. By using the BI tools on the new data a lot of new connections were uncovered which also provided a list of people who had key jobs (and probably carried around valuable information in their heads or in their electronics devices.) Capturing these people alive was particularly important because the October laptop contained data that made it easier to interrogate the captured terrorists (because the interrogators already knew the answers to many of the questions they were asking and thus could quickly determine if the subject was lying.)
Finally, the capture of this laptop came right after a new president was elected in Afghanistan, who quickly lifted all the restrictions his predecessor had placed on night raids. The laptop also contained a lot of data on al Qaeda operations in Pakistan and that led to more UAV reconnaissance and missile attacks on key al Qaeda personnel there.