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Bin Laden goes low-tech to avoid a trace

By CNN's Kristie Lu Stout

HONG KONG, China (CNN) -- Osama bin Laden, prime suspect in the U.S. terror attacks, is outfoxing intelligence agencies with his low-tech communication methods.

Simon Reeve, the author of "The New Jackals: Ramzi Yousef, Osama bin Laden and the Future of Terrorism," said bin Laden has ditched his satellite-linked phones, mobile handsets and Internet access in favor of "Stone Age" messaging techniques to elude law enforcement.

"Bin Laden is not now using any sophisticated communications technology," the London-based Reeve said.

"The American National Security Agency (NSA) has devoted huge resources trying to trace him through his old satellite and portable phones, but he no longer uses them to avoid being targeted and attacked."

"Instead he has reverted to the Stone Age and simply receives emissaries and issues his orders in person," Reeve added.

Absence of communication

For the last five years, U.S. law enforcement has been unable to find bin Laden, who is a member of the FBI's Ten Most Wanted list.

Before Tuesday's plane attacks, bin Laden already had a $5 million reward on his head for allegedly masterminding the terrorist attacks on the U.S. embassies in Kenya and Tanzania in 1998 that killed more than 200 people.

The Saudi dissident and his network are believed to be operating in at least 34 countries, according to a recent report by terrorism researcher Kenneth Katzman of the Library of Congress' Congressional Research Service.

"It's a group very aware there are a lot of intelligence agencies trying to monitor their activities," said Harry Godfrey, regional managing director for Kroll Associates in Hong Kong.

"There is an absence of communication -- they are not using e-mail, telephones or cellular. In this day and age of technology all those systems are vulnerable."

Katzman said bin Laden is estimated to have about $300 million in personal financial assets to fund his Al-Qaeda network of as many as 3,000 operatives.

Cells of the network have been identified or suspected in countries throughout the Middle East and Africa as well as in Malaysia, the Philippines, Ecuador, Bosnia, Albania, Britain, Canada and even the United States.

Locked messages

Though bin Laden now maintains low-tech contact with his operatives, his followers are understood to correspond with each other via encrypted Internet messages.

"His supporters, however, are another matter," said Simon Reeve. "They are believed to be using sophisticated encryption software to cover their tracks when sending e-mails and coordinating their movements."

U.S. officials have acknowledged Web encryption as the latest mode of communication used by bin Laden's Al-Qaeda and other terrorist networks to avoid detection.

"Uncrackable encryption is allowing terrorists -- Hamas, Hezbollah, Al-Qaeda and others -- to communicate about their criminal intentions without fear of outside intrusion," former FBI Director Louis Freeh said last year before a Senate panel.

"They are thwarting the efforts of law enforcement to detect, prevent and investigate illegal activities."

Even if an encrypted message is uncovered, it is impossible to decode without the use of a government supercomputer and, the most scarce resource, time.

"Encryption software is often crackable, but it takes a lot of time, which is the last thing American investigators have at the moment," said Reeve.

• National Security Agency

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