Yet another version of how U.S. intelligence officials identified Osama bin Laden’s courier has been published. Again, we need confirmation from intelligence officials to determine which details are true. It is not at all clear at this point how this went down.
The Associated Press reports that “detainees in the CIA’s secret prison network told interrogators about an important courier with the nom de guerre Abu Ahmed al-Kuwaiti who was close to bin Laden.” Khalid Sheikh Mohammed later “confirmed knowing al-Kuwaiti but denied he had anything to do with al-Qaida.”
A new tip came in 2004, when “top al-Qaida operative Hassan Ghul was captured in Iraq.” According to the AP’s account:
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.
Then, after al-Libi was captured in May 2005:
Under CIA interrogation, al-Libi admitted that when he was promoted to succeed Mohammed, he received the word through a courier. But he made up a name for the courier and denied knowing al-Kuwaiti, a denial that was so adamant and unbelievable that the CIA took it as confirmation that he and Mohammed were protecting the courier. It only reinforced the idea that al-Kuwaiti was very important to al-Qaida.
Is the Associated Press talking about one courier (al-Kuwaiti) or two in the above paragraph? It is not clear. The leaked Gitmo file on Abu Faraj al Libi mentions that he received a letter from bin Laden via courier in July 2003, but that courier was known as Maulawi Abd al Khaliq Jan. According to the leaked file, Osama requested that al Libi “take on the responsibility of collecting donations, organizing travel, and distributing funds to families in Pakistan.” This sounds like part of KSM’s role, but not all of it.
Returning to KSM, the AP reports:
Mohammed did not discuss al-Kuwaiti while being subjected to the simulated drowning technique known as waterboarding, former officials said. He acknowledged knowing him many months later under standard interrogation, they said, leaving it once again up for debate as to whether the harsh technique was a valuable tool or an unnecessarily violent tactic.
Well, the point of the CIA’s program wasn’t to make KSM talk “while being subjected…to waterboarding.” The point was to break him, so that he would be more compliant when discussing al Qaeda during debriefings. Say what you will about waterboarding, but the CIA’s interrogators certainly didn’t intend for KSM or either of the other two detainees who were waterboarded to give up bits of intelligence immediately between “simulated drowning” sessions. And other enhanced interrogation techniques were used, too—not just waterboarding. In fact, it has long been known that after the harsh interrogations measures were used is when the debriefers came in to question KSM and had, as the New York Times put it in 2008, “successes” in questioning him. Indeed, according to the CIA, KSM became the “most prolific detainee” on al Qaeda.
Note that there is no mention of 20th hijacker Mohammed al Qahtani or any other detainees who were initially sent to Gitmo (as opposed to the CIA’s sites) in the AP’s account.
The bottom line: We don’t know how this went down. There are two couriers who have been identified in the press’s reporting and leaked documents. The AP, like other accounts, fingers Abu Ahmed al-Kuwaiti as the courier who unwittingly did in his boss. The details of how his identity was learned are muddled.
But according to the press reporting thus far, the initial and corroborating intelligence came from either detainees at Gitmo, detainees in the CIA’s enhanced interrogation program, or both.
Thomas Joscelyn is a senior fellow at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies.