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Why Was Key Source on Bin Laden’s Courier Freed?

12:45 PM, May 13, 2011 • By THOMAS JOSCELYN
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Reuters has published its account of the hunt for Osama bin Laden. Like other versions of the story that have come out, this one says that the key information about the courier who unwittingly led authorities to bin Laden’s Abbottabad compound came from Hassan Ghul – an al Qaeda operative who was captured in Iraq.

Several key paragraphs of the story focus on the debate over the controversial interrogations of high value detainees, and whether those interrogations led to the intelligence that helped locate—and ultimately kill—bin Laden (emphasis added):

The debate is unlikely ever to be settled. But multiple U.S. intelligence officials told Reuters the real breakthrough that led to bin Laden came from a mysterious CIA detainee named Hassan Ghul. Ghul, who was not captured until 2004 at the earliest, was not subjected to waterboarding, the CIA's roughest and most controversial interrogation technique. It had already been phased out by the time he was captured. But two U.S. officials acknowledged he may well have been subjected to other coercive CIA tactics, possibly including stress positions, sleep deprivation and being slammed into a wall.

It was Ghul, the officials said, who after years of tantalizing hints from other detainees finally provided the information that prompted the CIA to focus intensely on finding Abu Ahmed al Kuwaiti, pseudonym for the courier who would lead them to bin Laden.

Much about Ghul remains obscure, including his nationality. Two U.S. officials told Reuters, however, that at some point the CIA turned him over to authorities in Pakistan. The officials said their understanding is that in 2007, Pakistani authorities released him from custody. The officials said the U.S. government now believes Ghul has once again become a frontline militant fighter.

While most of the coverage of this issue has focused on what techniques were or were not used to illicit information about bin Laden’s courier, there are other questions that should be asked.

Why was Hassan Ghul freed? Did U.S. authorities agree that he should be freed (doubtful), or did the Pakistanis unilaterally decide to free him?

Ghul not only provided key information regarding bin Laden’s courier, but also gave up information on other al Qaeda operatives. For instance, the leaked Joint Task Force Guantanamo (JTF-GTMO) threat assessment of Ahmed Ghulam Rabbani – a high-level al Qaeda operative who worked for Khalid Sheikh Mohammed and, along with his brother, ran guesthouses in Pakistan where many of the 9/11 hijackers stayed – refers to Ghul. The file lists Ghul as one of several high-level sources who identified Rabbani as a “member of al Qaeda.”

The file for top al Qaeda operative Abu Zubaydah references Ghul as well. In Zubaydah’s file, however, it appears that Zubaydah gave up information on Ghul. The Zubaydah file reads: “In December 2000, [Zubaydah] departed Kandahar for Karachi, PK, and sent Hassan Ghul to Saudi Arabia in an attempt to raise money for [Zubaydah’s] plans to conduct attacks against Israel.”

Ghul was one of al Qaeda’s top terrorists deployed to Iraq, so it is not surprising that he had these types of connections within the al Qaeda network.

It is surprising that he was freed.      

Reuters goes on to note that information about the courier, Abu Ahmed al Kuwaiti, is contained in other leaked threat assessments prepared at Guantanamo. Two examples that I previously reported stand out.

Al Kuwaiti is mentioned, of example, in the file for the would-be twentieth hijacker Mohammed al Qahtani. He is also mentioned, albeit with a fictitious name, in the leaked file for Abu Faraj al Libi, who replaced Khalid Sheikh Mohammed (KSM) as al Qaeda’s external operations chief. According to an account in the New York Times, al Libi didn’t directly name al Kuwaiti but instead invented a name for him. It was al Libi’s desire to cover up the courier’s true identity, according to the Times, that made CIA officials even more suspicious of the courier.

KSM also reportedly discussed the courier, referring to him by his nom de guerre.

It seems that numerous detainees discussed the courier, in one way or another, that was ultimately Osama bin Laden’s demise. But only one of these detainees was freed: Hassan Ghul.

And the Pakistanis freed him. Why?

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

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