US intelligence will seek to achieve in the coming weeks “information dominance” over the al-Qa’ida network – taking advantage of what officials have called a “motherlode” of data found at Osama bin Laden’s compound in Abbottabad.
The tactic, developed by intelligence and special forces in Iraq, with heavy input from British forces, was described by the US Special Forces commander there, General Stanley McChrystal, as “building a network to destroy a network”.
It involves successive intelligence-led raids and immediate evaluation of the data gathered to create momentum so that the terror network has no time to react or adapt and begins to break down.
A former jihadist, Noman Benotman, who was a member of the Libyan Islamic Fighting Group and knew bin Laden from Afghan training camp, said that he failed a basic test of any terrorist network.
“You should always have a plan to destroy the computers,” he said.
Mr Benotman believes that bin Laden’s complacency must have stemmed from the belief he was being protected by Pakistani intelligence.
American officials have reportedly come away with a large number of computer drives. Mr Benotman said: “There is no way anyone can keep track of it all in their mind. You need laptops and documents.”
He said that al-Qa’ida produced internal assessment documents periodically. “They assess their own capabilities and operatives, their relationships with other groups, like the Taliban.
“I have seen these types of report. There would also likely to be information on financial arrangements, sources of funding and also point men in other organisations and franchises. How else can you keep in touch?”
The fact that the death of bin Laden was reported immediately has given the al-Qa’ida leadership time to respond but it must now restructure its systems of communication.
“They can’t stop using couriers, but they will have to change all the individuals,” said Mr Benotman.
“Ayman al-Zawahiri [bin Laden’s deputy], above, his movement, couriers, safe houses will be suspended.”
This is not the first time, though, that al-Qa’ida’s leadership has suffered such a blow.
In 2001 Western forces recovered several laptops from terror training camps. Mr Benotman said that it took the organisation two years to restructure.
The last resort of a terror network on the run is to destroy its database, as the Libyan Islamic Fighting Group did twice in the 1990s.
The al-Qa’ida network has loyal support in ungoverned space in the tribal lands of the Pakistan border.
However, analysts say that the need to reposition themselves in the coming days will bring a higher risk of exposure.
“Once terrorists begin to move then they leave a trace,” said Dr Tobias Feakin, an analyst at the Royal United Services Institute.
“The US will have every single intelligence device trying to track them.”