Osama bin Laden’s death was the culmination of a decade of painstaking intelligence work, made all the more difficult by the terror chief’s insistence that nobody near him use a telephone or the internet.
Wanted poster for Osama bin Laden printed by a newspaper after the September 11 terror attacks
Bin Laden became America’s most wanted terrorist after the September 11 attacks
The al Qaeda leader was so secretive that footsoldiers and even high-level operatives did not know where he was based.
However, during the 10-year hunt for the terrorist, the CIA realised that his weakness lay in his reliance on trusted couriers, who carried messages for him so he did not need to rely on traceable technology.
Shortly after the September 11 attacks in the US, detainees held in the CIA’s secret prison network told interrogators about a courier who was particularly close to bin Laden.
But they could only give his nom de guerre, Abu Ahmed al Kuwaiti, which still left him impossible to identify.
Khalid Sheikh Mohammed is shown in this file photograph during his arrest on March 1, 2003.
Khalid Sheikh Mohammed did not give up the courier under torture
His existence was confirmed by al Qaeda’s number three in command, Khalid Sheikh Mohammed, after he was captured in 2003, although he claimed the shadowy figure had nothing to do with al Qaeda.
It was top operative Hassan Ghul, who was captured in Iraq in 2004, who told US officials that the courier was vital to the organisation and particularly close to Mohammed’s replacement, Faraj al Libi.
A US official described Ghul as a “linchpin” and said his information provided a key breakthrough in the hunt for bin Laden.
It was not until May 2005 that al Libi was finally captured and told interrogators that he had received word about his promotion following Mohammed’s capture through a courier.
Soldiers keep guard around the compound within which al Qaeda leader Osama bin Laden was killed in Abbottabad
US officials knew of the Pakistani compound but had no idea Bin Laden was there
However, he made up a name for the messenger and adamantly denied knowing al Kuwaiti – a claim apparently so unbelievable the US took it as confirmation the courier was so important to the organisation that he was being protected by his seniors.
One particularly interesting insight into controversial intelligence-gathering techniques which has emerged from the story of bin Laden’s demise, is the apparent success of “standard interrogation techniques” compared to torture.
Mohammed apparently did not discuss al Kuwaiti while being subjected to waterboarding – a torture technique that simulates drowning – but only acknowledged the courier months later during regular questioning.
The revelation could serve to support arguments against the use of violent interrogation methods on terror suspects.
Guantanamo Bay detainee with soldiers
Prisoners kept in US “black sites” like Guantanamo provided key information
After years of in-depth intelligence work, the US finally identified al Kuwaiti by his real name, Sheikh Abu Ahmed, a Pakistani born in Kuwait.
But he was untraceable and one Guantanamo Bay detainee even claimed he was dead.
However, the courier was finally tracked down when he made a phone call to a man who was being watched by the CIA and in turn became a main focus of their surveillance, according to an official speaking on condition of anonymity.
In August 2010 he unknowingly led them to a compound in the northeast Pakistani town of Abbottabad, where al Libi had once lived.
The president had to evaluate the strength of that information and then made what I believe was one of the most gutsiest calls of any president in recent history.