KABUL, Afghanistan — Last May, someone sat down at an IBM desktop here and typed out a polite letter to anti-Taliban leader Ahmed Shah Massoud, a bitter foe of al-Qaida. 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: Dr. 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 Tanzania.
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 printout 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 United States U.S. authorities list as among aliases for Dr. Zawahri. "Salah al-din," another name that appears frequently on the files, also appears to be an alias for Dr. 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."