Why was key source on bin Laden’s courier freed?

The press has published several versions of the story of how US intelligence officials tracked Osama bin Laden’s courier, known by his nom de guerre: Abu Ahmed al Kuwaiti. Earlier this week, Reuters published its account. Like other versions of the story that have come out, this one says the critical 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 Reuters account 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 elicit information about bin Laden’s courier, there are other questions that should be asked.

Why was Hassan Ghul freed? Did US 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.”

Other leaked threat assessments contain references to Ghul, too. Hassan 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 stand out.

Al Kuwaiti is mentioned, for example, in the file for the would-be 20th 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, who led ultimately Osama bin Laden’s to 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 and the Senior Editor for FDD's Long War Journal.

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  • tayyab says:

    I guess the question should be WHY THE US HAS RELEASED HIM after all they have no intention of releasing/handing over other high level targets. Over the years we have seen that almost all the detainees handed over to pakistan/saudi arabia have been released so it should not be a surprise.
    In any case i believe his life in alqaeda would be long over once his name came with osama killing given their paranoia in killing/beheading spies.

  • Charu says:

    “And the Pakistanis freed him. Why?”
    And Brutus was an honorable man.

  • Infidel4LIFE says:

    I figure he’s a dead man walking.

  • destab says:

    [An communication intercept in near future]
    Hey Hassan mate!!-
    Long time no see inshallah etc-
    Wondered if you wanted to come over for a few beers tonght?-
    Just having a few old friends over, I don’t know perhaps you know them too.-
    Yeah, usual, dancing girls, tequila shots, good times, good times.-
    About 7-ish …………………..

  • tunde says:

    because he was an ISI asset ?
    i don’t have evidence beyond it being a hunch, but i’d be surprised if there are not those in the US IC whom are’nt socially mapping the relationships between AQ operatives and their pakistani auxiliaries/aides. i’s also hazard a guess that it is increasingly clear that the ISI has rogue elements in sufficently senior positions that give it the appearance of being a hostile intel organisation.

  • Fred says:

    He and many others were set free because the Bush administration lost its nerve. Yes the attacks on their Gitmo policy were relentless but now we find out just how valuable it was.
    Can you imagine how much further along we would be had we continued it?

  • brookie says:

    Fred can you imagine how much further along we would have been had we done the job right in Afghanistan in the first place and not went into Iraq to “nationbuild” ?
    Had we sent in the rangers (hooooah) instead of farming out the assault/blocking positions at Tora Bora ?
    Pretty unbelievable that you would look over those facts and then try to throw a dart at the best prez we have had for quite some time.


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