Vladimir was sitting in his office going through the faxes he had received from Lenny. He sent most of them on to Dimitri and told Dimitri to contact Lenny directly. They should be able to obtain an apartment easily enough. He knew Dimitri’s people owned several buildings. The visa was a matter of greasing the correct set of palms to expedite the process.
Once that matter was dealt with, Vladimir turned to the email messages copied from the al-Qaeda hub accounts. He knew the team was focusing mainly on the messages coming in. They were trying to locate more cells to take down and possibly another email hub. Vladimir had been a covert geek long enough to know the outbound messages were going to hold the most useful information.
He had a particular interest in the trainer. Perhaps it was brought on by some geek bravado due to how long it took Nikolaus to actually get a simple Trojan installed on the operator’s machine. Indeed, if the trainer hadn’t been stupid enough to allow a trusted connection and account for the person he was training, Nikolaus might never have gotten in. Whoever it was, they had everything locked. They had even plugged the tens of thousands of security holes known to exist in Microsoft operating systems and products they were running. Nickolaus had to give whomever it was credit, they had managed to do what even the Evil Red Empire couldn’t do.
Another thing which had piqued Vladimir’s interest in the trainer was the analysis Hans had just sent him. Apparently the Brit thought the trainer might be on his way up in the organization. If that was true, then they couldn’t allow anything to happen to the trainer or let him get suspicious. The odds were very high any new inductee into the inner circle of al-Qaeda would be granted a face-to-face pow-wow with bin Laden himself. All they needed to do was plant some tracking devices on the guy: His computer, a bag he normally carried, possibly even the heel of a shoe he wore. People had been chasing rumors in the mist trying to find that piece of shit called bin Laden, and this email operator could serve as a homing beacon for the missiles.
Vladimir then had a horrible thought. He had to write it down and email Hans.
We need to plant some passive reflective tracking devices on the trainer. His computer, a bag he carries, etc. Your team should be able to gain entry easy enough.
It is most important that if he is elevated in the organization we do not inform the higher-ups. Be sure the Brit knows. Don’t even tell the man in the suit. He will be obligated to tell Pakistani intelligence and they will either warn bin Laden or run to the Americans who will want to capture him alive to stand trial. Either way the puddle of shit will get away once again.
If he is elevated, let this guy be a homing beacon. I will take care of getting missiles sent to dispose of him.
With that little bit of venting taken care of, Vladimir returned to skimming through the outbound messages from the trainer. Handling his email was easy. He had somehow transferred nearly all of the cells he was handling to his two trainees. Vladimir wished he had been trapping this person’s outbound emails before they had managed to complete the transfer. Nobody on this team knew how the cells in the field were informed of a new email hub transfer. They were too busy trying to find cells to round up a new email hub.
They weren’t looking for the tool that would give them all of the hubs. Vladimir was looking for the Rosetta Stone. He suspected that some message was sent with a special phrase embedded in it telling the receiver to send to a new email address. Vladimir needed that phrase. He knew of one team in America that was storing every suspected terrorist email in a huge disk farm. The incoming system which filtered spam had a 500TB disk farm. The back-end system had four disk farms of 1,000TB each. The cooling and power consumption must be astronomical. Vladimir didn’t currently have a contact with that covert team, but he could get one. He knew the team existed and he knew both Hans and the Brit had contacts in American covert Ops. The trick was in finding the phrase.
Finally Vladimir could take this line of thought no more. He picked up a disposable cell phone and made an international call to Hans.
“Yes,” answered Hans, not wanting to give anything away.
“It’s Vlad, Hans.”
“Just reading your email. Are you serious about this?” “Deadly, but that isn’t what I called about.” “What has you in a dither?”
“Do we know if this trainer was handling cell sites in America before he transferred things to the others?”
“We are certain of it.”
“What are the possibilities of you bagging Nedim for a session of questioning again?”
“Me, personally, damned low. The suit is looking for reasons to stay in Pakistan, so he might be up for it. Why?”
“You guys are letting the Rosetta Stone slip through your fingers. There is some message sent out to cells in the field which tells them to use a certain hub email account. All we have to do is identify what that phrase is and we can shut these two trainees down.”
“OK, slow down. What the hell are you talking about?” “Nedim was handling a certain group of American email addresses. When Nedim was outed those addresses went to this trainer, correct?” “Yes.”
I suspect another email was sent to those addresses, either directly or indirectly, which told them the new email hub to use. We have the email addresses, what I need is the phrase.”
“Don’t you also need the email?”
“You can get that for me.”
“Sure, I’ll just shit it out right here on the desk for you, no problem.” “Never talk about shit to a man who rides a wheelchair.” “Sorry, but you know what I meant.” “Yes, and I need your full attention. There is a covert team in America which has some massive disk farms. Their mission is to archive every suspected terrorist email message. If the American public ever found out about it they would go ballistic.” “That’s a lot of email. How are they getting it all?” “There are only a couple of international backbones going in and out of that country. These sites sit on them and snag a copy of every email going through. They have an up-front system which filters out the known spam. The text-only messages are run through a keyword system to see if they need to be archived. Any email message containing an image is archived. Any email message containing a compressed file or an image is archived.” “That’s a lot of storage.”
“They have several disk farms of more than 1,000TB each. Of course they use some form of data compression, but yes, eventually it spills over.”
“How does this help us, exactly?”
“We have a list of email addresses in their country. If we have the phrase or keyword which tells someone to change communications hubs, we should be able to give them both and have them do a search of all email messages going to those addresses. They should be able to do the image extraction and search for the keyword or phrase. We even know the email address they are using for the hub now, so we could give them that to make certain the information we have is correct.”
“How does this help us, exactly?”
“Once we verify it and they come back with the hit, they can scan all other suspected emails in their database for this keyword or phrase, then hand the hub email address over to us. It also means the cells for the hub formerly in the Khyber Pass can lead us to a new hub. It helps us because we can simply off this new guy and see where his people get routed.”
“Say we squeeze this phrase out of Nedim, the Americans magically go along with your request, and they verify the phrase is correct. What happens when we take out the current new hub and those cells go nowhere?”
“If we take him out in a way that doesn’t alert suspicion it means that they haven’t managed to get more hubs in the field. We can take the trainer at will, leaving them completely blind. They will have to go back to direct emails and cell phones until they can come up with something else. We already know how to inflict casualties on them when they communicate in that manner.”
“I will run this by the suit and see what he thinks. Too bad you didn’t come up with this idea before he got outed. My suspicion is that Nedim is currently under too much surveillance from too many groups to risk bagging him. Everyone is waiting for al-Qaeda to kill him.”
“That was my suspicion as well.”
“Run this past the Brit as well. He might be willing to risk it even if the suit says no. Then again, if he has this idea in his head it will stop him from offing the current hub until after we’ve tried to squeeze them.”
“There is another option. If I’m able to make contact with the Americans, I can give them a couple of the email addresses which we know switched, and tell them to pull five days’ worth, from a specific date forward, of email messages sent to them on deciphering images looking for this new hub’s email address, then ask them to share this information with us and run the same search across their entire database. It might have gone out in a simple text message, and it might have been done via phone call.”
“True. The information would be more valuable if we managed to obtain it without going the Nedim route. If he really is being watched that closely the risk is high.”
“If it turns out you are correct, what do you propose we do?” “The new operator must die in a very public and ordinary way. Hit by a truck, office fire, be standing within the blast circle of a suicide bomber or something like that. Something which cannot be tied back to this operation yet showy enough to make the news … unless you can figure out a way for him to have a heart attack while talking with his trainer.” “How often do you think something like that will work?” “Depends how creative we get. It all hinges on the transfer being sent in an email, though. If it is a phone call we will be pumping a dry well.” “Agreed.”
With that, Vladimir hung up and returned to scanning through the outbound emails. The need to find out what this trainer was up to burned strong in him. He couldn’t explain why. You simply develop a sense about these things once you had spent a long time in covert operations. He spent nearly an hour going through the accumulated outbound messages, then he came across one using an image he hadn’t seen before.
What is this? He thought. He went searching through the network directory which held all of the known baseline images. It turned up nothing. He tried some software he had searching for single bit errors in the file and found quite a few. Now he had the long, drawn-out process of trying to reconstruct the baseline message. He sent a quick email containing the message to Hans and asked him to keep an eye out for a baseline image or another of this image in an email. He was certain this image contained something dramatically important. It had originated from the trainer’s machine, but had not come in.
The trial-and-error process went on for hours. Even with all of the software and knowledge at Vladimir’s disposal, it was difficult to pull a message out of a photo if you didn’t have the baseline image. The baseline image would have been the raw photograph with a simple word or sentence encoded in it already. After that you simply had the bit differences between the two images. Finally Vladimir managed to pull out what he believed was the message.
Need new identity kits for myself and team. Operation to move forward soon.
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