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Did Enhanced Interrogation of the 20th Hijacker Help Identify Bin Laden’s Courier?

8:00 AM, May 3, 2011 • By THOMAS JOSCELYN
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The exact identity of Osama bin Laden’s courier, who unwittingly led to his boss’s demise, remains to be confirmed, but CNN reports that it was a Kuwaiti known as Abu Ahmad al Kuwaiti. If that’s true, then obviously it wasn’t the courier mentioned in the leaked Gitmo file written for Abu Faraj al Libbi’s case. We’ll have to wait for more details from intelligence officials in the coming days before concluding this is right, but CNN’s reporting makes sense. Here’s why.

Mohammed al Qahtani

Obama administration officials have told the press that the courier was connected to two high-level al Qaeda operatives: Abu Faraj al Libbi and Khalid Sheikh Mohammed. Yesterday, Michael Isikoff reported that “20th hijacker” Mohammed al Qahtani began cooperating with U.S. intelligence officials after being put through a series of humiliating interrogations. According to an unnamed U.S. intelligence official cited by Isikoff, Qahtani “started to cooperate and, for a while, provided a wealth of information about al-Qaida, including references to the courier in question.”

Picking up on this thread, Elise Labott and Tim Lister of CNN say their “diplomatic source” stated the courier in question was “Abu Ahmad.” CNN then cites the leaked Gitmo file for Mohammed al Qahtani. Obama administration officials have described the courier as KSM’s “protégé” and the contents of Qahtani’s file jibe with that description.

Qahtani “received computer training from al-Qaida member Abu Ahmad al-Kuwaiti in preparation for his mission to the US,” the file reads. KSM “had al-Kuwaiti teach [Qahtani] to send email” because KSM “informed [Qahtani] when someone went on a mission, he would need to know how to send messages and email was safer than talking on the phone.” This is consistent with how the other 9/11 hijackers were trained to send emails (using code words and the like) prior to their deployment to the U.S. “Al-Kuwaiti took [Qahtani] to a local internet cafe for his training.”

Abu Ahmad al-Kuwaiti is described as a “senior al-Qaida facilitator and subordinate of” KSM in the file. Al-Kuwaiti worked in “the al-Qaida media house operated by KSM” and “served as a courier.”

Another al Qaeda facilitator stated that al-Kuwaiti traveled with Osama bin Laden and Gitmo’s analysts surmised that he may be “one of the individuals” Qahtani identified as accompanying Osama bin Laden prior to the escape from Tora Bora in late 2001.

Press reports say that KSM and Abu Faraj al Libbi gave up information on the courier, including his nom de guerre. In addition, other reports say that “detainees” at Gitmo gave up information on the courier. And now there are at least two accounts fingering Qahtani as the Gitmo detainee who told authorities about the courier. It is possible that all versions of the story are true, with multiple detainees giving up information on the courier. We’ll have to wait and see.

Either way, this is sure to “rekindle” (as the title of Isikoff’s piece says) the debate over interrogations. KSM and al Libbi were initially held in CIA black sites and subjected to enhanced interrogation techniques before being transferred to Gitmo. Qahtani was subjected to a specially-approved interrogation regime at Gitmo – one of the few ever implemented there – after the FBI repeatedly failed to get any information out of him.

Thomas Joscelyn is a senior fellow at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies.

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