“I’m back with the people I was with before,” Abu Ahmed al-Kuwaiti told an old friend on the phone, according to the Washington Post. It was the spring of 2010, and Abu Ahmed, a Kuwaiti of Pakistani origin, was being deliberately vague in response to his friend’s queries about what he was up to, with good reason: he was one of Osama bin Laden’s key links to the outside world, serving as a courier. Any slipup from him could lead intelligence officials to the world’s most wanted terrorist.
“May God facilitate,” was the reply from the friend, as if he understood what Abu Ahmed wasn’t saying. It also made sense to U.S. investigators listening in on the conversation: they had been monitoring the friend in the hope of snagging the Kuwaiti. Now they finally had his cell phone number.
In early 2002 detainees at Guantánamo told us about the last time they had seen bin Laden: escaping from the Tora Bora mountain range as Northern Alliance troops (backed by U.S. forces) advanced, accompanied only by Hamza al-Ghamdi, a Saudi, and Yousef al-Qanas, a Kuwaiti. Prior to arriving at Tora Bora, bin Laden had reshuffled his bodyguards and picked a group of nine trusted aides to accompany him, among them his son Uthman and the Saudi and Kuwaiti nationals.
At the same time, we also learned that a Kuwaiti operative (who would turn out to be Abu Ahmed al-Kuwaiti) was playing a central role in bin Laden’s new, post–Tora Bora al-Qaeda. The CIA and others in the U.S. intelligence community put possible acquaintances and probable hangouts under surveillance, hoping to find Abu Ahmed. This paid dividends in the spring of 2010, and that recorded conversation gave investigators his cell phone number.
The number was monitored, and an investigation—using assets, sources, data mining, detective work, and both old-fashioned tailing by CIA operatives and sleek surveillance using the latest high-level technology—eventually led to a one-acre compound in the Pakistani city of Abbottabad.
The city, less than forty miles from the Pakistani capital, Islamabad, houses the Kakul Military Academy—a training academy often described as the Pakistani version of West Point or Sandhurst, the premier U.S. and UK military academies. Senior Pakistani officials, as well as important foreign visitors, often visit the academy. In February 2010, for example, U.S. general David Petraeus was a visitor.
Abbottabad was therefore, at first glance, one of the last places an al-Qaeda leader might be expected to hide, which, on reflection, is perhaps what made it attractive. While many intelligence analysts expected al-Qaeda’s leaders to be hiding in rural areas, several senior al-Qaeda members had already been captured in major cities: Ramzi Binalshibh, for example, was caught in Karachi, and his boss, KSM, in Rawalpindi.
The compound was surrounded by twelve-foot walls topped by barbed wire. It had no telephone or Internet connections, making it impossible for the National Security Agency to listen in on conversations going on inside. CIA officials, who had set up a monitoring base nearby, watched the Kuwaiti travel ninety minutes outside the compound before even putting a battery into his phone to make a call.
It was clear that someone important was in the compound, but was it bin Laden? Estimates given to President Obama ranged from 40 percent to 80 percent likelihood, and different options for how to proceed were presented to him. One was to use missiles to destroy the compound and kill the inhabitants—as had been done in November 2001 with the hideout of Abu Hafs al-Masri, al-Qaeda’s then military commander. One downside of such a plan was that it would be hard to confirm whether bin Laden was indeed in the compound and had been killed.
A second option would be to send U.S. Special Operations Forces into the compound to either capture or kill its inhabitants. That brought up memories of Black Hawk Down.
Plans for both options were drawn up: B-2 bombers, with their two-thousand-pound bombs, were put on standby, and Navy vice admiral William H. McRaven—the head of the Joint Special Operations Command (JSOC)—assigned a team of elite Navy SEALs, Team 6, to train for a possible mission. At 8:20 AM on Friday, April 29, 2011, President Obama approved the ground force option. “It’s a go,” he ordered. The next evening he donned his tuxedo and headed to the annual White House Correspondents’ Dinner, delivering his lines without giving away what was really on his mind.
On Monday, May 2, conditions were determined suitable for the mission, and two Black Hawk helicopters carrying the SEALs took off from Jalalabad, in eastern Afghanistan. En route, one of the helicopters stalled over the compound’s walls, forcing a hard landing. Those inside got out safely, but the helicopter was rendered unusable—so the SEALs destroyed it.
The entire raid lasted less than forty minutes. Bin Laden, one of his sons, and some aides were killed. Among the dead was Abu Ahmed, the courier. Upon exiting, the SEALs took with them computer drives and other hard evidence, and bin Laden’s dead body, and flew away in the one still-functioning helicopter.
After it was confirmed that the body was indeed bin Laden’s, the White House alerted media outlets that President Obama would be making a big announcement that evening. Rumors soon began circulating that bin Laden had been killed, and impromptu crowds gathered outside the White House, at ground zero, and at other significant locations to celebrate the news. Euphoria, as well as a sense of relief, filled the air.
I was at home with my wife, Heather, putting our newborn twins to sleep, when old colleagues—both from U.S. government agencies and services across the world—called, texted, and e-mailed to celebrate the historic moment. Some recalled my 1998 memo, and others the pivotal interrogations of 2002.
“Tonight, I can report to the American people and to the world that the United States has conducted an operation that killed Osama bin Laden, the leader of al-Qaeda, and a terrorist who’s responsible for the murder of thousands of innocent men, women, and children,” President Obama told an estimated 57 million Americans who watched him speak from a podium in the East Room of the White House.
The investigation into bin Laden that had begun in 1996—when FBI special agent Dan Coleman opened a case on him—was closed. An era of my life was over, too: following bin Laden had been a hobby in the early 1990s, and then turned into a mission when I joined the FBI in the mid-1990s. It had been almost twenty years of my life.
It was fitting that the man who motivated so many to commit violent acts by preaching that America was weak and would flee when attacked was killed in his home in Pakistan by American forces. It wasn’t America that had been in retreat and hiding. The al-Qaeda leader had essentially been a prisoner in his compound for the final years of his life, able to communicate with the outside world only through couriers who brought him information on thumb drives. Videos meant for dissemination found in the compound showed him practicing, and often messing up, his lines.
Bin Laden’s body was wrapped in a kafan (a white burial sheet), placed in a bag with heavy stones, and dropped into the North Arabian Sea on the day of the raid.
The same day, backers of coercive interrogation techniques began claiming that their use had led investigators to bin Laden. Similar false claims had been made following the capture of other al-Qaeda members, such as KSM, Khallad, and Jose Padilla. The great British prime minister Winston Churchill once remarked that “a lie gets halfway around the world before the truth has a chance to get its pants on,” and that was true in this instance, too.
The American people soon learned that when KSM was waterboarded in 2003, and when al-Qaeda’s operational chief, Abu Faraj al-Liby, was subjected to coercive techniques (but not waterboarding) in 2005, they were asked about Abu Ahmed. They denied knowing his true identity and downplayed his significance in al-Qaeda. This denial, which was patently false, was “proof” for defenders of EITs that the Kuwaiti was important to al-Qaeda, and their “proof” that EITs work.
We already knew in 2002—through the use of traditional interrogation methods with detainees—that the Kuwaiti was important. And the fact that KSM and Abu Faraj lied about knowing him showed yet again that the EITs didn’t work. A successful interrogation is one in which detainees cooperate and confess, not lie. That may seem obvious, but apparently not to EIT supporters.
Not only did KSM know Abu Ahmed, the Kuwaiti was the 9/11 mastermind’s protégé. They had similar backgrounds, and KSM entrusted him with management of the al-Qaeda guesthouse in Karachi, Pakistan: it was through that guesthouse that key al-Qaeda operatives and many of those involved in 9/11 passed, including Hambali, Khallad, Mustafa al-Hawsawi, and Ammar al-Baluchi. They also went through the EIT program and didn’t reveal valuable information about the Kuwaiti either. Abu Ahmed was the perfect operative for KSM and bin Laden to use: he was an Arab and spoke the local language, understood the culture, and blended in easily.
More details about the Kuwaiti came from the Pakistani al-Qaeda operative Hassan Ghul, who was questioned by the CIA in July 2004. Senator Diane Feinstein, the chair of the Senate Intelligence Committee, said that Ghul gave up the information before he was subjected to harsh techniques.
A question I was asked after bin Laden’s death was: why did it take so long to get him? We had the first important clue in 2002; why did we only get to him in 2011?
The reason is that professional interrogators, intelligence operatives, and investigators were marginalized, and instead of tried and tested methods being used, faith was placed in EITs. The highest-ranking al-Qaeda detainees in U.S. custody—the likes of KSM, Nashiri, and Khallad—all of whom would most likely have known Abu Ahmed and other couriers, or would themselves be in communication with bin Laden, were given to the EIT users to question.
Things only really changed when CIA director Leon Panetta completely ended the coercive interrogation program and closed down the black sites. It’s not without coincidence that the eventual death of bin Laden came after the traditional methods of intelligence and investigation were resumed. The professionals were put back in control. We just lost important years, and knowledge and skills, in the years in between.
With bin Laden at the compound, and in the room with him during his final moments of life, was his Yemeni wife. It was the same wife whom Guantánamo detainee No. 37, the Yemeni al-Qaeda operative named al-Batar, knew well. He had helped facilitate her five-thousand-dollar dowry from bin Laden. Salim Hamdan had advised al-Batar to cooperate with me, and he had agreed—on condition that, like Hamdan, he be allowed to phone his family to let them know he was okay.
CITF and FBI commanders at Gitmo requested permission from General Miller, the head of the base, but he refused, saying he wouldn’t allow it without permission from Paul Wolfowitz, Rumsfeld’s deputy secretary of defense. When that approval never came, we pleaded again for permission, telling him that bin Laden’s Yemeni wife could probably lead us to bin Laden. Our pleas were ignored.
Bin Laden’s death followed the so-called Arab Spring of 2011, during which citizens of countries like Egypt, Tunisia, Yemen, Libya, Jordan, Algeria, and Syria challenged their rulers. I was in the Middle East during that period, and one of the most striking things about the protests was the absence of al-Qaeda rhetoric among the demonstrators.
Al-Qaeda differs from many other Islamic extremist groups in that its leaders urge people to focus on the United States (the far enemy) rather than the rulers of their own countries (the near enemy). Bin Laden had been very successful in convincing other groups to ally with al-Qaeda and focus on the United States—claiming that was the best way to topple the regimes they opposed. But the Arab Spring showed that, contrary to al-Qaeda’s narrative, hated rulers can be toppled peacefully without engaging the United States. In fact, people saw the United States even supporting their efforts, further ruining al-Qaeda’s claims. It also became apparent that those rulers used the threat of al-Qaeda to justify to other nations their oppressive reigns and to settle scores with other countries and opponents.
This solidified a drift away from al-Qaeda that had been occurring during the previous few years among former supporters in the Muslim world. Those people had grown increasingly sick of al-Qaeda’s merciless killings and terrorist attacks—the majority of al-Qaeda’s victims are Muslims—and had come to realize that the group doesn’t have any political program or long-term ideas; it only kills.
Bin Laden’s death was another blow to al-Qaeda. Not only was he the leader, but he embodied its members’ belief that their version of Islam was correct, that terrorism was the right weapon, and that they would ultimately be victorious—as they believed the black banners hadith predicted. It was his personal appeal that was central to al-Qaeda’s recruitment and fund-raising. With a bullet from a SEAL’s gun, al-Qaeda suffered a mortal blow, losing its greatest asset.
On June 16, 2011, al-Qaeda–General Command announced that bin Laden’s deputy, Ayman al-Zawahiri, would take charge of the group. (Saif al-Adel had been the interim leader after bin Laden’s death.) Zawahiri, however, brings with him a host of problems for the group: he is seen as a divisive figure who lacks bin Laden’s appeal and charisma, so he won’t be able to pull in recruits and funds or keep everyone in line, as bin Laden did. The fact that he’s an Egyptian will also count against him, given the rivalry between al-Qaeda’s Egyptian and Gulf Arab members.
While bin Laden’s death and Zawahiri’s promotion weakened al-Qaeda, neither event killed the group. Some of al-Qaeda’s leadership council members are still at large.They command their own followers and are trying to launch operations to prove al-Qaeda’s continuing relevance. And with al-Qaeda on the decline, regional groups that had aligned themselves with it may return to operating independently. This in many ways makes them deadlier—as they’re harder to monitor and have a wider scope of operations. That the Zawahiri announcement came from al Qaeda–General Command rather than just from al-Qaeda hints that such divisions may already be emerging.
To ever fully defeat al-Qaeda, or the subsequent new groups that emerge, we need to realize that military operations, interrogations, and intelligence successes are only half the battle. The other half is in the arena of ideas—countering the narratives and recruitment methods that extremists use. We can keep killing and arresting terrorists, but if new ones keep joining, our war will never end.
As the Saudi king demonstrated with the “devil’s box,” and as Sun Tzu taught in The Art of War, understanding your opponents, and using that knowledge to undermine them, is the key to ultimate victory. Since I’ve left the government, countering the propaganda and rhetoric that al-Qaeda and other groups use to entice people to join them has become my new hobby.