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Outside editorial: The real terror coup

Posted: May 4, 2011 - 8:27pm

The following editorial first appeared in the Chicago Tribune:

Clustering at their predetermined departure site, the two dozen American commandos juggled one heavy piece of carry-on baggage, a souvenir from their lightning visit to Pakistan. It was the lanky cadaver of a much-wanted global terrorist. But the two helicopters — the healthy Sikorsky Black Hawk and the backup Boeing Chinook — that choppered the raiders to Afghanistan also carried a delicious trove of electronic booty that may prove more valuable.

Tantalizing reports suggest that Osama bin Laden, one more baby boomer who liked digital toys, unwittingly bequeathed to his killers oodles of secret information.

CNN reports that Navy SEAL Team Six escaped with 10 hard drives, five computers and more than 100 storage devices such as DVDs, disks and thumb drives. Politico, meanwhile, quotes U.S. officials as saying the data devices hold “the mother lode of intelligence.” One unnamed source says, “They (the commandos) cleaned it out. Can you imagine what’s on Osama bin Laden’s hard drive?” Another delightful-to-read boast from an intel source: “Hundreds of people are going through (the data devices) now,” reportedly in Afghanistan and at CIA headquarters in Langley, Va.

Think about the implications. We don’t know whether bin Laden was a hoarder — one of those clutter-hugging people who can’t part with old sandals. But he apparently has spent six years inside what’s now the world’s most notorious hideout. If Saddam Hussein had to kill time in that dark little spider hole, bin Laden has had the run of a house packed with computer gear.

What are the odds that bin Laden’s impromptu estate included lots of intriguing info about his associates, their locations and their plans? We’d like to think those odds are excellent. So it wasn’t surprising to read a Time magazine interview Tuesday in which CIA Director Leon Panetta acknowledges capturing an “impressive amount” of fresh intelligence.

Imagine you’re one of bin Laden’s most-wanted associates. Some of those folks are capable of executing deadly retaliations. All of them, though, have to be scared. They recall better than most of us that, when U.S. and Pakistani operatives rolled up al-Qaida mastermind Khalid Sheik Mohammed in 2003, his computer hard drive reportedly included a wealth of carelessly stored data — including a list of bin Laden’s safe houses. And that was one computer.

How satisfying it would be to find in bin Laden’s files some clue to the whereabouts of his top aide, Egyptian physician Ayman al-Zawahri, or another of the senior al-Qaida terrorists who remain on the loose.

The faster that happens, the better. The death of bin Laden has done more than behead al-Qaida. More important, perhaps, the early repose of his soul is a crushing embarrassment for a group whose brand of Shariah-driven religious fanaticism has been falling from whatever favor it held in the Arab world. The motivation for bin Laden’s survivors to strike is strong. Surely they are mulling whatever assets they possess or dream they can procure — maybe a stray Russian nuke, a less sophisticated dirty bomb, or the viral makings of a smallpox epidemic.

This long-lasting threat of retribution from al-Qaida makes us all the more appreciative of the commandos who lit up bin Laden’s lair on Sunday morning. Panetta says the U.S. also considered flattening the compound with a high-altitude run by B-2 bombers, or launching a “direct shot” with cruise missiles. Those options, he says, were ruled out because they would cause too much collateral damage.

Obliterating the compound also would have denied U.S. warriors whatever intel they now glean from bin Laden’s gear. Here’s hoping that gear — and not that carry-on corpse — proves to be the raiders’ real terror coup.

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