Senior al Qaeda leader and former US detainee killed in drone strike in 2012

Hassan Ghul, a top al Qaeda leader who was in US custody for two years before being transferred to Pakistani custody and then promptly released, was killed in a US drone strike in Pakistan’s Taliban-controlled tribal agency of North Waziristan in October 2012. Ghul served as Osama bin Laden’s emissary to Abu Musab al Zarqawi, and while in US custody, disclosed key information that led to the killing of bin Laden.

Ghul’s death was reported by The Washington Post, which learned of his death from classified documents released by Edward Snowden, a former contractor for the National Security Agency who has since fled to Russia. Ghul was tracked by the NSA and the CIA, which launched the drone strike, by monitoring his communications with his wife.

Ghul and other al Qaeda leaders have been tracked after the NSA “draped a surveillance blanket over dozens of square miles of northwest Pakistan,” The Washington Post stated today. “In Ghul’s case, the agency deployed an arsenal of cyber-espionage tools, secretly seizing control of laptops, siphoning audio files and other messages, and tracking radio transmissions to determine where Ghul might ‘bed down.'”

Ghul was killed in the Oct. 1, 2012 drone strike that targeted a vehicle in the village of Khaderkhail in the Mir Ali area of North Waziristan. Two other jihadists, whose identities were not disclosed, were also killed when four missiles slammed into his vehicle. Mir Ali is a known hub for al Qaeda and a plethora of Pakistan and Central Asian jihadist groups. Despite the known presence of al Qaeda and other terror groups in North Waziristan, the Pakistani military and government refuse to launch an operation to regain control of the tribal agency.

Although al Qaeda has not announced Ghul’s death in its official propaganda, US intelligence is certain that he has indeed been killed.

Ghul, whose real name is Mustafa Hajji Muhammad Khan, “has acted as an al Qaeda facilitator, courier and operative since at least 2003,” the Treasury Department stated when he was added as a Specially Designated Global terrorist in 2011 [see LWJ report, US Treasury lists 3 senior al Qaeda leaders as terrorists]. He “once served as a messenger between al Qaeda and former al Qaeda in Iraq leader Abu Musab al Zarqawi.” He delivered a message from bin Laden to Zarqawi in 2003, but was captured in 2004 by Kurdish Peshmerga forces when he attempted to deliver Zarqawi’s response.

Ghul was transferred to US forces and interrogated and held at so-called CIA “black sites” for two years. During the interrogations, he disclosed the name of Abu Ahmed al Kuwaiti, a key courier used by bin Laden. The identification of al Kuwaiti ultimately led to bin Laden at his compound in Abbottabad, Pakistan.

Sometime in 2006, Ghul was transferred to Pakistani custody, but after nearly a year in custody, he was released. According to the Associated Press, “former CIA officers who targeted Ghul” said they believed he was released because “he had ties to the Lashkar-e-Taiba terror group,” the al Qaeda-linked terror group that is supported by Pakistan’s Inter-Services Intelligence Directorate [see Threat Matrix reports AP: Key source on bin Laden’s courier freed by Pakistanis, and Why was key source on bin Laden’s courier freed?].

The Treasury designation noted that Ghul returned to work for al Qaeda immediately after his release from Pakistani custody. Ghul helped al Qaeda “reestablish logistic support networks in Pakistan” in 2007. He also “recruited a facilitator who helped him move people and money between Gulf countries and Pakistan.” In addition, he had “facilitated activities for senior Pakistan-based al Qaeda operatives” by aiding with their travel and setting up meetings.

Bill Roggio is a Senior Fellow at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies and the Editor of FDD's Long War Journal.

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  • Dave says:

    Is the compromise of all these specific intelligence gathering tools, in just one leaked report about one individual, sufficient to give Snowden a life sentence?
    Do we know who (specific names) in the Paki government signed off on Guhl’s release? These people are “terrorist enablers” and belong on the State Department list.

  • James says:

    Dave, thanks for bringing up Edward Snowden. What I can’t understand, is why doesn’t the Justice Department prosecute this bozo in absentia?
    IMHO, (and especially from an intelligence standpoint), that would be an ideal way to prosecute someone like him since that the intel data leaks could be held to a minimum in doing so.
    Also, barring the rare event of a presidential pardon, we’d never have to worry about him being allowed back into the US because there would be a pair of handcuffs waiting for him the moment he set foot on American soil.

  • Devendra says:

    Reminds me of a beautiful song ( I have modified it a little). It goes something like this….

  • Paul D says:

    Why do we let gitmo detainees go back to country of origin when most go straight back to the battleground?
    Sending a Gitmo detainee to Saudi or Pakistan is like sending someone to a open prison with six months to freedom.

  • Jeff Edelman says:

    To me, this story raises lots of questions. Can it even be imagined what the US knows about other governments around the world? The US government probably knows whom our allies and enemies are within the ISI and Pak government. With the mentioned capabilities, not including the unmentioned capabilites of U.S. forces, is/did the US execute this war to the best of those capabilities? It doesn’t seem that this enemy could have lasted over ten years if it had or has. And, if not, why not? Who were the other al qaeda leaders tracked? Anyway. I bet the US knows the whereabouts of that one-eyed guy. (If I don’t use HTML tags, does that mean I don’t have any style?)

  • Scott J says:

    @Paul D
    So we can kill them.

  • Kent Gatewood says:

    Virgin dragons.

  • Birbal Dhar says:

    These drones are brilliant and they’re hitting the right targets. Of course there are drones that will kill civilians and of course there are no data on realistically how many have been killed by them, because luckily there are no independent verifiers in that region to count them, because it is so dangerous for an outsider to operate, unless you are of course an islamic terrorist, who have the free reign to operate.
    There is an argument on whether these drones increase islamic radicalisation in people in that region, but many forget that islamic terrorists in that region do kill innocent people, who they believe are spies and these innocent people’s relatives want revenge and therefore take revenge by co-operating more with the CIA and other operatives fighting against the islamic terrorists.

  • Tm says:


  • David Norton says:

    I was wondering how Ghul died. Seth Jones mentioned his death when he testified before Congress last March.


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