Tracking the Courier … Through Hassan Ghul

Adam Goldman and Matt Apuzzo have fleshed out the story I linked here, describing the threads of intelligence that led to the courier–whose name they report as Sheikh Abu Ahmed–who in turn led to Osama bin Laden. The story includes the following steps:

  • Khalid Sheikh Mohammed, months after he was waterboarded and via “standard” interrogation, admits he knows someone named Abu Ahmed al-Kuwaiti, but denies he has anything to do with al Qaeda.
  • Hassan Ghul, who was captured in Iraq in 2004, reveals that Abu Ahmed al-Kuwaiti was an al Qaeda courier
  • Under CIA interrogation, Abu Faraj al-Libi admits he learned he was replacing KSM through a courier, but denied knowing al-Kuwaiti so strenuously CIA figured he must be important
  • Via still unclear means, CIA learns Abu Ahmed’s real name
  • US picks up Abu Ahmed talking to someone else it was monitoring, speaking from a location away from the compound
  • US tracks Abu Ahmed back to compound

The story has many more details, so go read the whole thing and then come back for my long-winded discussion.

First, some general comments. This narrative still seems to be missing at least one step: how they learned Abu Ahmed’s real name. As I noted earlier, the senior administration official who briefed on this the other day said they learned that name four years ago, so sometime about a year after the time in 2005-2006 when al-Libi’s interrogation would have made it clear al-Kuwaiti was a key figure.

Further, the narrative the AP tells now makes it even more clear how ineffective the CIA program was. The AP’s sources specify that KSM did not admit he knew al-Kuwaiti while being waterboarded. But that sort of dodges the whole issue: in response to his torture, according to KSM, he made up false locations for OBL. At the same time he was shielding information that could lead to OBL–and he continued to shield it under “standard” interrogation (again, it’s a pity FBI’s KSM expert never got to interrogate him). And then al-Libi, when he was in the CIA’s interrogation program, managed to shield that same information even after the CIA recognized it was important.

The CIA program failed to do one of the most important things it set out to do, break through detainees’ efforts to hide OBL.

Now onto the most fascinating part of this story: the role of Hassan Ghul. Here’s how AP describes his role.

Then in 2004, top al-Qaida operative Hassan Ghul was captured in Iraq. Ghul told the CIA that al-Kuwaiti was a courier, someone crucial to the terrorist organization. In particular, Ghul said, the courier was close to Faraj al-Libi, who replaced Mohammed as al-Qaida’s operational commander. It was a key break in the hunt for in bin Laden’s personal courier.

“Hassan Ghul was the linchpin,” a U.S. official said.

I’ve written about Ghul a bunch, largely because his treatment in 2004 appears to have presented legal problems for the Bush Administration with regards to deportation from Iraq, relations between DOD and CIA, and torture itself, all of which bubbled over just as tensions about the interrogation program arose. Just as interesting, Ghul is widely understood to have been disappeared (and there were doubts about his identity). Given the Ibn Sheikh al-Libi precedent–where they disappeared and then suicided a detainee with the most inconvenient information–Ghul’s disappearance remains an key unexplained detail. I had, in the past, wondered whether claims that Ghul served as an envoy from al Qaeda to Abu Musab al-Zarqawi were overblown (which would provide one explanation for his disappearance), but Ghul’s knowledge of al-Kuwaiti (and the capture of al-Libi nine months after Ghul’s interrogation at least appears to have begun in earnest) would seem to confirm he did turn out to be who he said he was: someone with real ties to top al Qaeda leaders.

But here’s the other remarkable bit. Ghul was last heard of when the British al Qaeda figure Rangzieb Ahmed claimed to have been held with Ghul in Pakistan from 2006-2007, after which Ghul was moved. But at least according to a Goldman tweet from yesterday, after spending time in Romania, Ghul was freed. Particularly given the legal exposure the Bush Administration might have specifically with Ghul (I’ll explain this in a future post), I find that remarkable.

Marcy has been blogging full time since 2007. She’s known for her live-blogging of the Scooter Libby trial, her discovery of the number of times Khalid Sheikh Mohammed was waterboarded, and generally for her weedy analysis of document dumps.

Marcy Wheeler is an independent journalist writing about national security and civil liberties. She writes as emptywheel at her eponymous blog, publishes at outlets including the Guardian, Salon, and the Progressive, and appears frequently on television and radio. She is the author of Anatomy of Deceit, a primer on the CIA leak investigation, and liveblogged the Scooter Libby trial.

Marcy has a PhD from the University of Michigan, where she researched the “feuilleton,” a short conversational newspaper form that has proven important in times of heightened censorship. Before and after her time in academics, Marcy provided documentation consulting for corporations in the auto, tech, and energy industries. She lives with her spouse and dog in Grand Rapids, MI.

  1. RAMA says:

    So the obvious question is, how much sooner could they have found bin Laden had they not tortured their two sources in the first place? Are we talking years, here?

  2. klynn says:

    Boy, you must be making heads spin EW. They cannot keep up with you and continue to send out releases (used by the MSM as “news”) to counter your points. It’s pretty interesting.

    See here.

  3. Jim White says:

    This narrative still seems to be missing at least one step: how they learned Abu Ahmed’s real name.

    Note that in his WaPoo piece this morning, Pakistani President Zardari said:

    And we in Pakistan take some satisfaction that our early assistance in identifying an al-Qaeda courier ultimately led to this day.

    Looks to me like Zardari is trying to credit Pakistan with that important step.

  4. radiofreewill says:

    I’m going to guess that Abu-Ahmed ‘dropped out of sight’ into a secret state-sponsored Pakistani Protection Program, along with OBL, around the time the ‘mansion’ was built in 2005.

    If that’s true, then the thought of a nuclear-armed state-protector of Terrorism – whom we supposedly call an ally – would really be something to think about…

    • rugger9 says:

      Worth examining, but also remember Musharraf was in power then, and he is not now. That might explain the changed attitude, as well as the curious sequence of actions before, during, and after the raid that could only have been done with government approval.

      Does anyone really think that a 40 min firefight could have gone without Pakistani response that close to India [3 wars to date] and their Army college without collusion? Factionalism can explain quite a bit here.

      Still it was police work and not torture that worked. Also, until Obama came into office, OBL was the useful bogeyman even if W quit looking for him in March 2002.

  5. klynn says:

    This timeline evolving is quite interesting. Question, why did they listen to LPanetta from Langley? Why didn’t they watch it in the situation room?

  6. harpie says:

    Official Bin Laden Story Changes in Various Places; David Dayen; FDL; 5/3/11


    **For all the talk of the efficacy of torture or interrogation or NSA wiretapping, the fact that Pakistani locals working for the CIA found the courier and got his license plate seems to have been the most crucial piece of information. However, other reports claim it was satellite phone calls that drew the intelligence operatives to Abbottabad.

    **While there was no phone or Internet in the compound, there apparently was a satellite dish, and bin Laden had at least one satellite phone. […]

    He links to the NYT and the CSM for those two points.

    • earlofhuntingdon says:

      That’s interesting because while cell phones can be located, assuming the GPS device still operates, and land lines tapped, satellite phones show up like a tree in a field of wheat in a spectrum analysis. That is, if anyone’s looking. That was brought home to executives in China, who thought that using them would decrease, not increase, the ease with which their negotiations could be monitored.

  7. almcq says:

    The healine could be: Bin-Laden trail goes cold as waterboarding progresses. That said, I’d like to frame it more like ‘how did waterboarding work’ rather than just ‘it doesn’t work’. Kinda like asking ‘how does a criminal enterprise work?’ or ‘why did criminals like Bush and Cheney do such bad work?’.

  8. Pragmatic Realist says:

    Or they could have just asked the cleaning lady who went in and out of the damn place every day. Has anybody here lived in a town where it is not true that people know everything about everybody?

    Hell, I can take you to the front gate of the hyper-secret Underground Pentagon (Site R, also known as Mr Cheney’s “Undisclosed Location”) just south of Fairfeld, Pennsylvania, and I used to know the UPS driver who delivered to Camp David. Anybody who wants to know “secret” stuff like this can find out without all this secret-squirrel bull crap.

    I have not a doubt that both the US and Pakistan knew exactly who was in that compound, and they have known for a long time. The only secret thing is “Why just now?”. And I think it is pretty clear: Election time is coming! Here in West Virginia they send out the crews to patch potholes and cut the weeds by the side of the road the summer before the election. At least we get something productive out of it instead of some big dramatic blood-shedding adventure to make the President look like a brave hero.

    • cbl says:

      interesting tidbit from the one of the two* Abbotabad real time tweeters –

      clearly, local residents knew the compound was occupied by “militants”

      * @Mohcin Shah tweets from Lahore, but was communicating w/family in Abbotabad – “unwittingly” providing details of the raid

    • nextstopchicago says:

      You should have gone and hunted bin Laden yourself. You obviously could have shown them a thing or two.

      By the way, since Obama was never going to have a credible primary opponent, his next election is still 18 months away. If politics was a consideration, his team is utterly incompetent. He should have either done this 3 and a half weeks before the midterms, or in late September of next year.

  9. almcq says:

    One time I’ll take W at his word he just didn’t really care about bringing Bin Laden to justice; that mission was better unaccomplished. When did the security state become aware of the compound? At least: Was it before or after it was built? It’ll be interesting to see how the ‘we didn’t think it was Bin Laden because it wasn’t heavily guarded’ line holds up.

  10. Cynthia Kouril says:

    I think we should remain focused on Marcy’s point that torture and waterboarding specifically backfired in terms of gaining actionable intelligence and good old fashioned gumshoe detective work solved the case of “Where’s Osama?”

    Something the FBI and DOJ have been trying to explain to the fraidy cats in the media and at NYC Community Board 1 for quite a while now.

    Law enforcement methods work, torture just generates false leads which divert resources to unproductive busy work.

    • onitgoes says:

      Law enforcement methods work, torture just generates false leads which divert resources to unproductive busy work.

      Agree. That’s the “tell” that I’m taking away from all of this. I’d dearly love to see torture eradicated from the list of apparently “acceptable options” the USG employs to gain info. Hope this important FACT can continue to play a starring role in this ongoing saga.

      Thanks for the usual excellent reporting, EW. Spot-on!

      • leftdcin72 says:

        The “courier” story is just as likely a cover for how Bin Laden’s whereabouts were determined. It is just as likely that the disclosure was effected by Saudi or Pakistani informants. The notion that we somehow identified the “last mile” courier as the sole source of locating Bin Laden’s whereabouts sounds way too simplistic.

    • VORE says:

      I think we should remain focused on Marcy’s point that torture and waterboarding specifically backfired in terms of gaining actionable intelligence and good old fashioned gumshoe detective work solved the case of “Where’s Osama?”

      You don’t know that is specifically backfired.. pehaps it softened him up, perhaps not, perhaps the threat of having it done again made him open up; no one really knows.

      You all are speculating and have an agenda just like those in favor of these methods. Regardless, there are degrees of gray here and both sides spin it to prove their point.

  11. WilliamOckham says:

    Leaving aside the horrible moral dimensions of torture, the practical problem with it is not so much the information you don’t find out (false negatives, so to speak), but the false information you do find out (i.e. the false positives). The false positives are the things the tortured person believes you want to hear. And that means you generally are psychologically primed to believe that false information.

    Now, it is certainly true that the very skilled ethical interrogator (Sherwood Moran is the best example) can often elicit information that even the most vicious torturers can’t get at. But I still think that the false information gathered costs more in lives, reputations, and dollars.

    • Jeff Kaye says:

      Yes, the false positives are the real problem. But don’t forget to add in, as rb137 noted at Daily Kos yesterday, that sometimes the torture victim confabulates, because of the psychological state they are in. In such cases, they lie but they believe the lie (or do while they are saying it, thereby defeating their voice stress detectors and other deception machinery, including the videotape-computers measuring micro-expressions).

      Finding bin Laden was always a detective story. The whole torture apparatus was not about finding bin Laden or even bringing down Al Qaeda. It was and is a manifestation of a degraded cultural, nationalist mind-set, and meant to impress with “shock and awe” those who are to be ruled, and terrorize the populace. In the meantime, with the bodies they had, they sometimes tried for intel, used them for false confessions and false intel when they needed that (as for WMDs), for propaganda purposes (show trials, as with Khadr, or false confessions that could then be used to justify the security apparatus’s existence, to scare some individuals into spying for them, and finally, to fine-tune the machinery of torture itself, using the prisoners as guinea pigs.

      Transferred to other countries, it was used as it always was, to terrorize and build the power of the security police of client states, like in Iraq, where the U.S. implemented FRAGO 242 and like orders, all the while building up the terror squads of the new Iraq state.

      That’s how it stands in 21st century America, and bin Laden’s death, legal or illegal, desired or despised, will not change the facts above one whit. And when the ghost of bin Laden finally fades from our computer screens, the torture state will remain.

  12. Broadstreetbuddy says:

    I am glad to hear that torture did not produce the desired results and will now know anytime i hear a republican saying the contrary that they are lying. Though they do lie alot, but now we have proof of this fact.

    Question: If bringing Ghul to court or even military trial would present legal problems for Bush, why did they let Ghul free and not just detain him indefinetly? He had proven that he did know Al-qaida higher ups, what could have been the rational for letting him go?

  13. bobschacht says:

    Why did they let Ghul go?

    To follow him? And see who he contacted?

    With today’s technology, I wouldn’t be surprised if they didn’t implant a chip in him…

    Bob in AZ

  14. stryx says:

    What about the Asia Times story Atrios linked to this morning?

    Basically, Osama was thrown to the wolves by the people who knew where he was all along in order to further a larger struggle among the powers of the Middle East/South Asia, and the US is providing a plausible cover story.

    I’d also like to hear about the role A.Q. Khan played in this. He supposedly was Osama’s banker/property manager when Osama first went to jihad in Afghanistan. Khan was released from “house arrest” in 2009.

    Since it seems difficult to connect the last dot- to how did we get the name of the courier from people we know are in lockup- there may actually be another explanation.

    South Asia Analysis Group finds an explanation in small town ethnic recriminations.

  15. papau says:

    Seems waterboarding supporters have taken a hit that MSM is trying to hide via Condi and others saying Bush built the infrastructure that caught OBL – meaning he allowed waterboarding. But eventually the waterboarders will have to deal with the fact that the “best” information came after the waterboarding stopped.

    Meanwhile anti detention without charge Anti-Guantanamo activists have to deal with the fact that the “best” information came from illegal detention centers, including Guantanamo.

    • NMvoiceofreason says:

      Via still unclear means, CIA learns Abu Ahmed’s real name

      With more agents in the field, the C.I.A. finally got the courier’s family name. With that, they turned to one of their greatest investigative tools — the National Security Agency began intercepting telephone calls and e-mail messages between the man’s family and anyone inside Pakistan. From there they got his full name.

      BTD’s answer via NYTimes

      But eventually the waterboarders will have to deal with the fact that the “best” information came after the waterboarding stopped.

      It’s worse than that, papau. Waterboarding doesn’t get you the truth, it gets only the lies necessary to get the torture to stop. It also leaves the prisoner more resistant to actual interrogation. This delayed getting the answers we needed by YEARS. All those people who died – everyone who lost a favored body part – all because some republicans thought they were above the law. It’s not the “best” information, papau. It is the only information that mattered in the real world.

  16. stryx says:

    Jacob Zenn has an interesting story on the front page of AsiaTimes:

    Umar Patek, the man who masterminded the 2002 Bali bombing, was captured by Pakistani forces on January 25 in the formerly innocuous city just 60 kilometers north of the capital Islamabad.

    He goes on to sketch out how Patek and bin Laden could be connected, and gives a plausible theory on how others arrested with Patek could have given up the name of the courier while under arrest.

  17. nextstopchicago says:


    (previous misinformation edited out) I think I was remembering the wiretap that you point out led to their being able to pursue him, but it sounds like they had his real name already.

    The Miami Herald reports that the name came from al-Libi, but they give no source, merely saying “the name … appears to have come”.:

    >The name of bin Laden’s designated courier, al Khaliq Jan, appears to have come
    >from al Libi during 2005 and 2006 interrogations. Al Libi was in CIA custody
    >from shortly after his capture until he was transferred with 13 other “high-value
    >detainees” to Guantánamo in September 2006.

  18. nextstopchicago says:

    By the way, NPR led it’s 3:00 (CST) news with a quote, from a woman’s voice, possibly Hillary:

    “Based on a cursory review, none of the intelligence used resulted from harsh* interrogations.”

    I had to leave the pickup truck, and assumed this quote would be everywhere, when I came to the net, but I don’t immediately find it. The implication was this was a high official with access and the “cursory review” was the administration’s review. Wish I stayed in the truck.

    (* may have been another word that was a euphemism for torture. I can’t remember exactly. But the clear meaning was that the info didn’t come from torture.