"It was a slow, toilsome process. And it was so meticulous that even veteran intelligence officials have marveled at bin Laden's ability to maintain it for so long."
How did the world's most wanted terrorist managed to maintain email communication with his far-flung web of associates without being detected by US spooks, who were working awfully hard to sniff his headers out?
With an epic sneakernet. We know now, because after assassinating him, the US Navy SEALs departed bin Laden's Abbottabad home with about 100 flash memory drives that officials say appear to archive emails between bin Laden and his al Qaeda network around the world. From a report published today by the Associated Press:
Holed up in his walled compound in northeast Pakistan with no phone or Internet capabilities, bin Laden would type a message on his computer without an Internet connection, then save it using a thumb-sized flash drive. He then passed the flash drive to a trusted courier, who would head for a distant Internet cafe."How bin Laden emailed without being detected by US" (Adam Goldman and Matt Apuzzo, reporting for AP)
At that location, the courier would plug the memory drive into a computer, copy bin Laden's message into an email and send it. Reversing the process, the courier would copy any incoming email to the flash drive and return to the compound, where bin Laden would read his messages offline.
Related reading: This Time article ventures analysis on what bin Laden's family life was like. The short version: Big Love.