Osama bin Laden spent 13 years in hiding from American intelligence forces, but he still had a job to do: Namely, plotting terror attacks, disseminating anti-U.S. rhetoric and managing a global network of Islamist suicide bombers.

Now, according to a new report from The Associated Press, a portrait of the reclusive extremist’s secretive life — long thought to be spent hiding in a network of caves on the Afghanistan-Pakistan border — is beginning to emerge, and it involves a surprising amount of e-mail.

Thousands of messages and a corresponding amount of e-mail addresses, to be exact.

According to the intelligence, bin Laden was a “prolific” corresponder, though he never actually sent or received any of his own messages. Here’s how he did it:

Stuck behind his walled compound in Abbottabad, Pakistan, bin Laden composed his messages on a computer with no Internet connection, saving them onto a flash drive. Once complete, he’d hand the drive off to a courier, who would then take the information to an Internet cafe, send and receive messages, and then return the info to bin Laden.

The time-consuming process — intelligence officials had actually believed bin Laden must have taken a more passive role in al Qaeda — may now backfire on the extremists as the U.S. government digs through the treasure trove of intel for help dismantling what remains of the terror network.

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