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Context of 'Shortly After January 23, 2004: CIA Interrogation of Al-Qaeda Leader Ghul Helps Search for Bin Laden’s Trusted Courier Ahmed'

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Al-Qaeda leader Hassan Ghul is caught at the Iraq-Iran border. Details are sketchy, both about the arrest and Ghul himself, who has never been publicly mentioned before. Several days later, President Bush will say: “[L]ast week we made further progress in making America more secure when a fellow named Hassan Ghul was captured in Iraq. [He] reported directly to [9/11 mastermind] Khalid Shaikh Mohammed.… He was captured in Iraq, where he was helping al-Qaeda to put pressure on our troops.” [Washington Post, 1/27/2004] Ghul had been living in Pakistan, but the Pakistani government refused to arrest him, apparently because he was linked to a Pakistani military group supported by Pakistani intelligence (see (2002-January 23, 2004)). Pakistan is reportedly furious when it is told he has been arrested in Iraq. [Associated Press, 6/15/2011] US officials point to his arrest as proof that al-Qaeda is heavily involved in the resistance in Iraq. One official says that Ghul was “definitely in Iraq to promote an al-Qaeda, Islamic extremist agenda.” [Fox News, 1/24/2004] The 9/11 Commission will later claim: “Hassan Ghul was an important al-Qaeda travel facilitator who worked with [al-Qaeda leader] Abu Zubaida assisting Arab fighters traveling to Afghanistan. In 1999, Ghul and Zubaida opened a safe house under the cover of an import/export business in Islamabad [Pakistan]. In addition, at Zubaida’s request, Ghul also successfully raised money in Saudi Arabia.” [9/11 Commission, 8/21/2004, pp. 64 pdf file] But despite acknowledgment from Bush that Ghul is in US custody, Ghul subsequently completely disappears, becoming a “ghost detainee.” Apparently, he will provide vital intelligence during US interrogation (see Shortly After January 23, 2004). The US will eventually transfer Ghul to Pakistani custody (see (Mid-2006)), and Pakistan will release him, allowing him to rejoin al-Qaeda (see (Mid-2007)).

Entity Tags: Khalid Shaikh Mohammed, Hassan Ghul, Abu Zubaida, George W. Bush

Timeline Tags: Torture of US Captives, Complete 911 Timeline

Hassan Ghul, an al-Qaeda leader captured in Iraq in January 2004 (see January 23, 2004), tells interrogators that Abu Ahmed al-Kuwaiti is a trusted courier who is close to Osama bin Laden. Abu Ahmed is an alias; his real name apparently is Ibrahim Saeed Ahmed, but at this point US intelligence only knows him by his alias.
Ghul's Mysterious Captivity and Interrogation - Ghul apparently is held in a secret CIA prison for the first couple of years of his imprisonment. The conditions of his interrogation during this time are unknown, but presumably they are very harsh and many may call them torture, based on how other prominent prisoners are treated in secret CIA prisons around this time. Officials will later claim that Ghul is “quite cooperative” and the use of any harsh techniques on him would have been brief. [Associated Press, 5/2/2011] However, a prisoner who is kept in a cell next to Ghul’s will later testify in Britain that Ghul told him the CIA transferred him to Morocco at some point. It is not known if this is true, or what may have happened to Ghul in Morocco, but some prisoners are transferred to countries like Morocco so that harsh torture techniques that the CIA is not approved to use can be used on them by other intelligence agencies. [Associated Press, 6/15/2011]
Ghul's Apparently Honest Account - Ghul reportedly tells his interrogators that Ahmed is a trusted courier who is close to bin Laden. He also says that Ahmed has been close to al-Qaeda top operational heads Khalid Shaikh Mohammed (KSM) and Abu Faraj al-Libbi. This is in contrast to the claims of other prisoners, including KSM, who have already said that Ahmed is either dead or unimportant. As a result, US intelligence analysts grow increasingly convinced that Ahmed is an important figure who could lead to bin Laden. Ghul adds that Ahmed has not been seen in a while. Analysts take this as another clue that Ahmed could be with bin Laden. Ghul either does not know Ahmed’s real name or does not tell it to his interrogators. In the wake of Ghul’s comments, KSM is asked again about Ahmed, and KSM sticks to his story that Ahmed is not important. [New York Times, 5/3/2011]
'Linchpin' in Search - Tracking Ahmed will eventually lead US intelligence to bin Laden (see Summer 2009 and July 2010). An unnamed US official will later say, “Hassan Ghul was the linchpin” in the hunt for bin Laden. [Associated Press, 5/2/2011]

Entity Tags: Osama bin Laden, Ibrahim Saeed Ahmed, Central Intelligence Agency, US intelligence, Abu Faraj al-Libbi, Hassan Ghul, Khalid Shaikh Mohammed

Timeline Tags: Torture of US Captives, Complete 911 Timeline

US intelligence analysts decide conflicting prisoner accounts about courier Ibrahim Saeed Ahmed must mean Ahmed is someone very important in al-Qaeda, and they increase their efforts to find out who he really is. At the time, analysts only know Ahmed by his alias Abu Ahmed al-Kuwaiti, and they have a good idea that he is a courier between al-Qaeda leaders. The most important question is if Ahmed could lead to someone like Osama bin Laden.
bullet 9/11 mastermind Khalid Shaikh Mohammed (KSM) told his US interrogators that Ahmed was not important (see Autumn 2003).
bullet Al-Qaeda operations chief Abu Faraj al-Libbi also told interrogators Ahmed was not important (see Shortly After May 2, 2005).
bullet But al-Qaeda leader Hassan Ghul said Ahmed was an important courier who was close to bin Laden, and that he was close to both KSM and al-Libbi also (see Shortly After January 23, 2004).
bullet Other important prisoners also gave wildly conflicting accounts on who Ahmed is.
The CIA concludes that KSM and al-Libbi are deliberately trying to deflect attention from Ahmed to keep some important secret, most likely bin Laden’s secret location. A US official aware of the CIA’s analysis will later say: “Think about circles of information—there’s an inner circle they would protect with their lives. The crown jewels of al-Qaeda were the whereabouts of bin Laden and his operational security.” [MSNBC, 5/4/2011]

Entity Tags: Ibrahim Saeed Ahmed, Abu Faraj al-Libbi, Hassan Ghul, US intelligence, Central Intelligence Agency, Khalid Shaikh Mohammed, Osama bin Laden

Timeline Tags: Complete 911 Timeline

Al-Qaeda leader Hassan Ghul is secretly transferred from US custody to Pakistani custody. The Pakistani government will later release him and he will apparently rejoin al-Qaeda. In early 2004, Ghul was captured in Iraq and put in the CIA’s secret prison system (see January 23, 2004). He became a “ghost detainee” because the US refused to admit they even held him. In 2006, the Bush administration decides to close most of the CIA’s secret prisons and transfer most of the important al-Qaeda prisoners to the Guantanamo prison. But Ghul is given to the Pakistani government instead, apparently as a goodwill gesture. According to a 2011 article by the Associated Press, “[T]he move frustrated and angered former CIA officers, who at the time believed Ghul should have been moved to Guantanamo along with 14 other high-value detainees” (See September 2-3, 2006). The ISI, Pakistan’s intelligence agency, promises that it will make sure Ghul is never released. But after only about a year, Pakistan will secretly let Ghul go and he apparently will return to working with al-Qaeda (see (Mid-2007)). [Associated Press, 6/15/2011] Ghul is given to Pakistan even though he is linked to a Pakistani militant group supported by the ISI, Pakistan’s intelligence agency, and the ISI had a history of protecting him from arrest (see (2002-January 23, 2004)). Also, Ghul is released even though he told US interrogators key information about Osama bin Laden’s courier that will eventually prove key to the discovery of bin Laden’s location (see Shortly After January 23, 2004 and Late 2005).

Entity Tags: Hassan Ghul, Central Intelligence Agency, Pakistan Directorate for Inter-Services Intelligence, Pakistan

Timeline Tags: Torture of US Captives, Complete 911 Timeline, War in Afghanistan

In 2009, US intelligence locates Ibrahim Saeed Ahmed (a.k.a. Abu Ahmed al-Kuwaiti), a trusted courier working for Osama bin Laden, somewhere in northwest Pakistan. This is done by remote monitoring of his cell phone calls and e-mails, after his full real name was discovered in 2007 (see 2007). His brother Abrar, who is also involved with al-Qaeda, is discovered as well. However, their exact location in Pakistan is still unknown and will not be discovered until 2010 (see July 2010). [CNN, 5/2/2011; MSNBC, 5/4/2011]
Assistance from Pakistani Government - The Washington Post will later report that the Pakistani government has been secretly assisting US intelligence with data collection for a number of years. The US can collect wireless phone calls on its own in Pakistan, but the Pakistani government helps the US collect landline calls and e-mails as well. In 2009, the ISI, Pakistan’s intelligence agency, allegedly notices several suspicious calls spoken in Arabic to the Middle East. The phone number is discovered to belong to Ahmed. An unnamed US official will later say: “The Pakistanis indeed provided information that was useful to the US government as it collected intelligence on the bin Laden compound. That information helped fill in some gaps.” [Washington Post, 5/11/2011]
Ahmed's General Location Discovered; Exact Locale Is Still a Mystery - However, Ahmed normally drives an hour or two before inserting the battery in his cell phone, and he frequently changes the SIM cards in his phone. As a result, US intelligence concludes he is living somewhere in northwest Pakistan, but it cannot figure out exactly where. One of these calls comes from the general vicinity of Abbottabad, where Ahmed will eventually be found to be living with Osama bin Laden (see August 1, 2010). But since other calls come from other towns, intelligence analysts cannot limit their search to just Abbottabad. [Washington Post, 5/11/2011; ABC News, 5/19/2011]
Extensive Surveillance Effort Begins - A senior Obama administration official will later say the two brothers’ “extensive operational security” keeps investigators from determining exactly where they live. “The fact that they were being so careful reinforced our belief that we were on the right track.” This official will add, “We couldn’t trail [Ahmed], so we had to set up an elaborate surveillance effort.” [CNN, 5/2/2011]

Entity Tags: Pakistan Directorate for Inter-Services Intelligence, US intelligence, Ibrahim Saeed Ahmed, Abrar Ahmed, Osama bin Laden

Timeline Tags: Complete 911 Timeline, War in Afghanistan

A key mistake by Osama bin Laden’s courier Ibrahim Saeed Ahmed (a.k.a. Abu Ahmed al-Kuwaiti) lead US intelligence to exact location of bin Laden’s hideout in Abbottabad, Pakistan (see May 2, 2011). US intelligence already had a good idea that Ahmed was a courier working for bin Laden, and in the summer of 2009, he used a cell phone that allowed analysts to determine he was living somewhere in northwest Pakistan (see Summer 2009). But he drove an hour or two before making his calls, and he changed the SIM cards in his phone, making it impossible to pinpoint his exact location. After a flurry of calls in the summer of 2009, he did not use his phone for nearly a year. [ABC News, 5/19/2011]
Phone Call Is Key Mistake - But then, around July 2010, he accepts a call that provides the key intelligence breakthrough. The call is from an unnamed old friend, but the friend’s calls are already being monitored by US intelligence for his al-Qaeda links. The friend asks Ahmed innocuous questions, like where have you been and what are you doing now. Ahmed vaguely replies, “I’m back with the people I was with before.” Bob Woodward of the Washington Post will later report, “There was a pause, as if the friend knew that [Ahmed’s] words meant he had returned to bin Laden’s inner circle, and was perhaps at the side of the al-Qaeda leader himself. The friend replied, ‘May God facilitate.’” [Washington Post, 5/6/2011]
Exact Neighborhood Is Located - According to one account, when Ahmed takes this call, apparently he is in or near the town of Peshawar (about 120 miles from Abbottabad). He is soon spotted there, and then continually monitored. It will take several weeks before he returns to Abbottabad, and the exact location of bin Laden’s hideout there is discovered. [New York Times, 5/2/2011] According to another account, Ahmed is either inside bin Laden’s compound or very close to it when he takes the call, because the NSA is quickly able to determine the exact neighborhood where the call was received. From there, the CIA and National Geospatial-Intelligence Agency search aerial satellite photographs and deduce which house in the neighborhood likely belongs to bin Laden. [ABC News, 5/19/2011] Either way, apparently his hideout will be discovered by US intelligence on August 1 (see August 1, 2010).
Bin Laden's Compound Already Known to CIA? - According to the Associated Press, the CIA had already known “for years” that bin Laden’s compound was linked to al-Qaeda, but they had dismissed it as not very important since there were no security guards patrolling it. In any case, the compound is located (or relocated), and US intelligence starts to monitor it. [Associated Press, 5/2/2011]

Entity Tags: US intelligence, National Geospatial-Intelligence Agency, Ibrahim Saeed Ahmed, Central Intelligence Agency, Osama bin Laden

Timeline Tags: Complete 911 Timeline, War in Afghanistan

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