How a Courier's Phone Call Led to the Killing of Osama bin Ladin

Inside Story of the Efforts to Track Al Qaeda Leader
A Pakistani man reads a newspaper with the front page displaying news of the death of Osama bin Laden at a stall in Lahore on May 3, 2011. (Getty)

On 2 May 2011 President Obama gave permission to the operation lead to the killing of Osama bin Laden, one of the most wanted people in American history. “Tonight I can report to the American people and 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.” (PHILIPS, 01/05/2011)

Neptune Spear Operation was the operation lead to killing of Osama bin Laden in a city 40 miles north of Islamabad called Abbottabad. It was one of the options that had been discussed by the American National Security Council. The way to find Abbottabad started with a fake name. A phone call which lasted a few minutes ended years of patience, intelligence efforts and frustrations. A lot of lives were lost, a lot of mistakes were made and billions of dollars were spent tracking Osama bin Laden hideout. 

Since 2001, the CIA made a lot of effort to track Osama bin Laden and they used a lot of HUMINT sources IMGINT, SIGNT. Also, they kept a lot of websites under observation to find clues or evidence about the place where he was hiding. In 2007, the CIA agents came up with a new idea about following Osama bin Laden. They asked themselves: if the AQ leaders did not use mobile phones and did not hold face-to-face or internet meetings, how did they communicate with each other?

The CIA agents came up with the idea of following the couriers and observing the way they were moving around and behaving. They wanted to find out how the couriers transferred information between the AQ leaders. They thought that if the CIA agents could infiltrate in the couriers’ system, one of the couriers might lead them to bin Laden.

The courier system was one of the main information systems used to feed Al Qaeda leaders with information. Also, it was used to transfer the information and the data between all the AQ members all over the world. The couriers were trustworthy people who were moving around constantly, transferring the information between the AQ leaders, taking the instructions from BL and delivering them to the AQ leaders. They were transferring information between the leaders and the fighters. Also, they were responsible for delivering the messages wherever there was an AQ operation or active group. Usually, the information they transferred was related to the attacking operations or contained targeting plans. Also, they transferred information containing instructions for the future strategy of the AQ.    

Certain criteria were necessary for anyone wishing to qualify to be an AQ courier. For example, they had to speak more than one language such as Arabic, Pashtun or Urdu. It had to be a minimum of two languages. Also, he had to have good telecommunication skills such as being able to use mobile phones and change sim cards every time he made a phone call. In addition, he had to know how to use the internet in a savvy way such as signing in to emails with shared passwords and saving messages in draft box without sending or receiving any emails. Some of the couriers who transferred messages between the AQ leaders used cut-out to cut-out systems. This meant that someone met another person to deliver a message without knowing each other or who the message was for. This happened until the message reached bin Laden without any of the couriers knowing who the message was going to. Only the messenger of Bin Laden knew that the message was for bin Laden. An example of cut-out to cut-out techniques was the exchange of information in a safe house, for example by using letters. This happened in a certain safe house used temporarily by AQ. The other courier would come in following day and receive the letter from the people in the house without knowing who lived in the house and who dropped the letter. Usually, these letters ended up in Osama bin Laden’s hand. It was very hard to track their numbers as they were always one step ahead of the intelligence collection.
After a long surveillance, the only mistake the CIA found regarding the couriers’ behavior was that they still had their own phone numbers and used their own numbers to make phone calls. In 2007, the Pakistan Intelligence Service provided the CIA with hundreds of mobiles numbers of the AQ members. Many of these numbers belonged to the couriers who worked for AQ. One of these numbers belonged to someone so called Abu Ahmed Al Kuwaiti. If we look at the surname of Abu Ahmed Al Kuwaiti, it would seem he is from Kuwait as most of jihadists use their own countries as a surname for them. However, Al Kuwaiti was not from Kuwait, he was from Pakistan and his original name was Ibrahim Saeed Ahmed. His ethnicity was Pashtun and his nationality was Pakistani. His parents lived in Kuwait and he grew up there with his brother Abrar. Since his childhood, Abu Ahmed Al Kuwaiti started speaking Pashtun and Arabic fluently as he was brought up in Kuwait. 

 

Illustration of AQ courier system. (Supplied)

The first time Al Kuwaiti was mentioned to the CIA was 15 December 2001 when Mohamed Al Qahtani was arrested. This happened as he was trying to cross the border coming from Tora Bora where Bin Laden was last seen in 2001. Al Qahtani was handed over to the American custody, then he was sent to Guantanamo. Al Qahtani was among the missing 20 people of 9/11 events. He received full training from Khalid Sheikh Mohamed (KSM) who was the operational commander of 9/11 events. Afterwards he went to Saudi Arabia to get a new passport and then flew to California. Mohammed Atta (one of the 9/11 terrorists) was waiting for him at the car park in Orlando Airport. His duty was to be one of the “muscle” hijackers supposed to participate in the control of the passengers. He travelled on a one-way flight and spoke no English. This caused the immigration officer to be suspicious of the real reason of the travel and refused the entry of Al Qahtani into the US. During the investigation, Al Qahtani confessed that in July 2001, Khalid Sheikh Mohamed introduced him to Abu Ahmed Al Kuwaiti who started teaching him how to communicate covertly inside AL Qaeda. Also, he took him to an internet cafe in Karachi to teach him the methods of using the emails to communicate with AQ members. In addition, Al Kuwaiti gave Al Qahtani training in operational security and this was first time that the CIA officers knew that Al Kuwaiti was playing a role in AQ and that he was a trustworthy person of KSM. 

KSM (9/11 mastermind) was arrested on 1 March 2003. KSM told the interrogator that Osama bin Laden might be in Kunar Province in Afghanistan and the last letter he received was by courier. Also, he said that Abu Ahmed Al Kuwaiti and another man called Amin Al Haq helped bin Laden to leave Tora Bora. KSM did not say that Al Kuwaiti played a key role in AQ. Instead he said that Al Kuwaiti retired in 2003. KSM did not give any valuable information about Al Kuwaiti. The other prisoner who gave information about Al Kuwaiti was Abu Faraj Al Libi, bin Laden’s courier from 2003 till the time been captured in 2005. He was arrested in Peshawar inside Pakistan and handed to the Americans. He tried to deny Al Kuwaiti’s position inside AQ. He said Al Kuwaiti did not exist inside AQ anymore and he had nothing to do with AQ.  

The courier Hassan Ghul was arrested in the north of Iraq in January 2004 as he was on his way to Afghanistan. During the investigation, he mentioned that Al Kuwaiti was bin Laden’s courier and he was the one who travelled with bin Laden all the time. Also, he said that Al Kuwaiti was a very trusted person for KSM and Abu Faraj Al Libi. Hambali from Thailand was arrested in Thailand in 2003 and he was the AQ leader in the Southeast Asian affiliation. He was hosted by Al Kuwaiti in a safe house in Karachi in 2001. Mohamedou Ould Salahi, a Mauritanian, was arrested in Mauritania in 2002 and handed to the Americans. He was an AQ operator and facilitator. He said that Al Kuwaiti was an AQ operator and he was very important inside AQ. 

During the investigations, Al Kuwaiti name been mentioned by 6 people who were captured. The Americans knew that two of them were the top two leaders in AQ after OBL and AL Zawahiri: Khalid Sheikh Mohamed (KSM) and Abu Faraj Al Libi. The other four were AQ fighters and operators. The top two leaders confessed that Al Kuwaiti was not important person inside AQ and they tried to reduce his level inside AQ. This was despite the fact that one of these two leaders, Abu Faraj Al Libi, was working as a courier for bin Laden. The other four people confessed that AL Kuwaiti had big responsibilities inside AQ. One of these four was Hassan Ghul (AQ courier) and he described AL Kuwaiti as bin Laden’s courier. This was supposed to be a very important confession as the person who said it was captured as a courier transferring messages between AQ in Iraq and the AQ leader in Afghanistan. This meant that he was part of the courier system and knew the main things inside this system. This is because he was responsible for the delivery of messages for the AQ leaders. The CIA investigator concluded that Abu Ahmed Al Kuwaiti was a very trustworthy person for bin Laden and he played a big role inside AQ. He worked as a courier for Osama bin Laden and used his experience in telecommunications in his job as a courier for bin Laden.

In August 2010, a phone call been intercepted by American National Security Agency (NSA), was made from a city in the north of Pakistan from Abu Ahmed Al Kuwaiti, to someone who was in Kuwait, and he was asked Al Kuwaiti insistently what he was doing. Al Kuwaiti informed him he was back to work with the same person. They passed the information to CIA straight away. The call was only a few minutes long and the person was asking for money. Also, it informed the person in Kuwait that the person in Pakistan was back to work with the same person. NSA and CIA tracked the call and found out that the mobile number which generated the call belonged to Abu Ahmed Al Kuwaiti. They tracked him to the place where he was living – it was a big compound in Abbottabad, 40 miles north of Islamabad and only 300 hundred meters away from The Pakistan Military Academy in Waziristan province. 

CIA established a collection plan to collect the information about the compound. They made a surveillance plan around the house. They started using safe houses near the compound as there was only one dirty road leading to the compound. Also, they started using drones connected to 24/7 satellites in order to watch any people living inside the house. They asked the signal intelligence to observe if any phone calls were made from the house or if the internet had been used inside the house. These three main things were used to watch the house and the people who lived inside it. 

They found out that Abu Ahmed Al Kuwaiti lived in the compound with his wife, his kids, his brother Abrar (who also lived with his wife and kids). The compound had 3500 m sq., it contained three floors and was secured by a wall around 5 meters high topped with 2 foot barbed wire. It had two security gates and there were 20 meters between each gate. The second gate was the only access to the house. There was no security technology at the compound, no internet or TV antenna. No technologies were set up around the house and no mobile phones used inside the house. Abu Ahmed Al Kuwaiti drove for around 160 miles just to make a phone call and came all the way back. When he intended to use the internet he drove to another city to use the internet. When he finished, he cleaned all the computers, left the internet café and drove all the way back. From the IMGINT, they found out that there is person walk every day inside the compound and never left for any reason.   

Abu Ahmed Al Kuwaiti used the pseudonym Arshad Khan in Abbottabad and his brother Abrar used the pseudonym Tariq Khan. They used these names as a cover to live in Abbottabad. Al Kuwaiti used one of the neighbors. His name was Zain Baba, he was 84 years old and his son Shamrez Khan worked as a night watchman for Abu Ahmed AL Kuwaiti. They had been inside some parts of the house many times, but they said they did not see any one only Al Kuwaiti and his brother or children inside the house. After the ride, these two people were arrested by Pakistani intelligence for two months and then released. 

Illustration of Osama bin Laden’s hiding place in Abbottabad, Pakistan. (Supplied)

Abu Ahmed Al Kuwaiti bought the land in 2004 for the amount of $50,000 which was paid in four instalments until 2005. Al Kuwaiti mentioned to the land lord that he bought the land for his uncle. Al Kuwaiti used a local architect called Junaid Younes to design the house and obtained the planning permission from the local authority for a two-story house with four bedrooms on each floor. The third floor was added later on without the permission from the local planning board and it was supposedly designed by Osama bin Laden himself. Al Kuwaiti lived separately in a one floor house inside the compound with his wife Maryam and his kids. Al Kuwait wife did not know that the person who lived in the big house was Osama bin Laden. For six years, she was not allowed to go to the big house unless she had to clean. Once she heard someone speaking in Arabic and then she realized that an Arabic person lived in the big house. However, she did not know it was bin Laden. 

Al Kuwaiti and his brother received their salary from bin Laden- it was 12,000 Pakistani rub which is a little more than $100 a month each. This made them sell some gold to Abrar’s wife in Rawalpindi for the amount of $1500 to live till the end of the month. 

Abu Ahmed Al Kuwaiti came from a very big tribe in Pakistan and his family was very poor. They worked in Kuwait where Al Kuwaiti grew up. Al Kuwaiti could not afford to live in a very expensive compound worth hundreds of thousands of dollars. At the same time if he was hiding inside his tribe it will be very difficult chase him as he got support from his own community. This led the CIA analysts to believe Al Kuwaiti was covering someone in the compound and this person could very likely be Osama bin Laden. 

The surveillance showed there were no social relationships with the neighbors. The children inside the compound did not attend school and did not play with the neighbor’s children. When the children played football and the football fell into the compound by mistake, they knocked on the door for about 20 minutes till someone opened the door for them. Usually, they did not get the football back, but they received money instead. The people living in the compound did not put the rubbish outside the house, but they burnt it inside the compound instead. This was a very unusual thing to do. They slaughtered two goats a week and the cows inside the compound were used for milk. Also, they kept hundreds of chickens for egg. They had honey from bees in the hive and an olive carton of Quaker oats bought locally was found. 

There was one person who the CIA called the Pacer, as he was suspected by CIA to be Osama bin Laden. They could not prove he was OBL as they could not have a clear picture of him. The CIA used the best drone at that time which they called Qandahar Monster – they used it to observe the house 24/7. This person did daily walks inside the compound. The CIA tried to measure his height by measuring the shadow of the pacer and compared it with Osama bin Laden, but they could not get the actual reading of the shadow. Osama bin Laden was 1.90 cm tall. There was another young man who was about 23 years old. He lived in bin Laden’s compound. It was his son, Khalid Bin Laden, and was killed in the American raid on the compound later on, along with the three wives of Osama Bin Laden and his other sons. 

Osama bin Laden was not happy with the way Al Kuwaiti worked for him. He explained that in a three-page letter sent to his wife Khairiah, his first Syrian wife. He mentioned they started to be lazy. He was thinking of changing his place and leaving Al Kuwaiti and his brother behind. The reason for this was because they were exhausted of living with him and managing his security. Many times He asked them to do a certain thing to him, but they did not do it. 

There was the duty of a group of CIA officers to track bin Laden on a day to day basis. They studied many successful manhunt operations such hunting Eichman, the Nazi officer hunted by Israel Mossad in Argentina. Also, they studied the hunting of Pablo Escobar, the Colombian drug dealer, and tried to find common mistakes or common ideas about how they managed to hide for so many years. In addition, they studied what sort of mistakes were made in their cases and tried to compare this with bin Laden’s case. They learned that successful manhunts were possible because of the mistakes that family members made – that led to the target. All the evidence around the Abbottabad compound showed that Osama bin Laden was alive and living there. The CIA analysts believed that Osama bin Laden could not make new friends, and all his old friends were either in jail or had been killed in American raids. Osama bin Laden had to stick to whoever was able to stay alive and was trustworthy. Al Kuwaiti managed to stay alive and was a close old friend of bin Laden, so bin Laden did not have a lot of options. 

CIA was briefing the President Obama on a daily basis about the situation in Abbottabad compound. The CIA analysts started to believe that Osama bin Laden lived in the house in Abbottabad, but they did not know for sure as no one was able to see OSB in the compound despite the 24/7 surveillance around the house. It was still not confirmed that OBL lived there. The CIA decided to use a private intelligence analyst to get another opinion and despite all the information and evidence, the private intelligence analyst concluded that it was 30-40 % that OBL lived in Abbottabad. President Obama believed it was a 50% chance that OBL lived in the compound. The White House had to make a decision based on chances varying from 30 to 60 %.  At the same time, they had to decide what type of attack should be launched on the compound. 

In this handout image provided by The White House, the then President Barack Obama, Vice President Joe Biden, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton and members of the national security team receive an update on the mission against Osama bin Laden in the Situation Room of the White House May 1, 2011 in Washington, DC. (Getty)

 

In January, the director of CIA, Panetta, and the main intelligence analyst met with President Obama and requested strong recommendations about taking action regarding the compound in Abbottabad. They said that the intelligence would not get any better from what they had at the time and Al Kuwaiti and the Pacer might not still be there in the next months, so they had to act straight away. DCI Panetta insisted that they had to make a move or the intelligence effort might dissipate. President Obama requested different options from the DCI and Vice Admiral Mc Raven – they were instructed to give military options to the president. Vice Admiral Mc Raven had to think of a fast and effective operation which could carry out the job without any mistakes. There were a lot of political issues The White House had to deal with after the operation. 

On 14 March 2011, President Obama chaired a meeting of the National Security Council, and they briefed the president about the four available options. 

First option: Bombing the compound and killing everybody. However, this could affect the people living around the compound and many civilians living in the area would be killed. Also, bombing the compound could cause the loss of very important evidence and information which was in the house. Most of the National Security Council did not support the option of bombing the house.

Second option: A bomb launched from a drone in order to hit the Pacer as he was walking inside the compound. This operation was risky as well. If they made mistakes, they could lose bin Laden and it might be take another 10 years to get the same opportunity. 

Third Option: A helicopter assault using a US special operation unit. This would attack the compound and kill or arrest the people in the compound. 

Fourth Option: A joint operation with the Pakistani forces which would involve attacking the house. This operation could cause a leak of information. This could lead to Osama bin Laden’s escape from the compound before the raid. 

These four options were discussed during the meeting. Vice Admiral Mc Raven offered to bring to the next meeting (which took place three weeks later) the feasibility assessment of the third option. This involved having a US special operation raid on the compound. He needed three weeks for training and thought that launching the raid on the compound would not be difficult. 

On 29 March 2011, during the main meeting, President Obama realized that many of the NAC members supported Neptune Spear Operation. He then asked Vice Admiral Mc Raven four questions in regards to the decision they had to make. The first two questions were about the operation timeline: how long it would take them to get in there and how quickly could they move. The other two questions were about what they could do in case there was a safe room. What would they do if Osama Bin Laden was not there? How would they get Osama bin Laden out of there? The president expected Vice Admiral Mc Raven to answer these questions.

During the April meeting, all the NSC members agreed to go ahead with the Neptune Spear Operation as it was the most convenient and the least dangerous. The operation team, Seal Team 6, started training on compound models in North Carolina and Nevada. Mc Raven briefed the president about the Neptune Spear Operation and assured him it was similar to the operations launched many times in Afghanistan and Iraq. The only challenge this time would be navigating through the Pakistani borders and the issues of penetrating the Pakistani sovereignty. 

On 25 April 2011, CIA decided to contact the red team to have the final assessment. The red team generated three hypotheses. The first one was that Osama bin Laden lived in the compound and Al Kuwaiti was staying with him. The second hypothesis was that the compound belonged to one of the AQ leaders and bin Laden was not in the compound. The third hypothesis was that the compound did not belong to AQ and Abu Ahmed Al Kuwaiti was working for one of the criminal associations that had nothing to do with AQ. The third team concluded that the first hypothesis was the most convenient one and they all decided to go for it. 

On 28 April 2011, President Obama chaired the last meeting for NSC. Vice Admiral Mc Raven briefed the president about the latest update of the attack options and about the result of the red team hypothesis. President Obama was convinced 50% that bin Laden was living in the compound. At the end of the meeting, President Obama wanted some more time to take the decision and requested Vice Admiral Mc Raven to meet him that afternoon. During the afternoon meeting, Mc Raven assured the president that the operation would be successful and that it had been done many times in Afghanistan and Iraq. On 29 April 2011, President Obama chaired a meeting with NSC and announced the launch of the Neptune Spear Operation. 

Neptune Spears Operation was launched in the early morning of 01 May 2011 Pakistan time, 3pm Washington time. The NSC held a meeting inside the White House to watch the operation through a drone on top of the compound. The black hawk crossed the Pakistani border from Jalalabad into Afghanistan towards the Abbottabad compound. The team arrived at the compound 30 minutes after crossing the border. The whole operation took 40 minutes inside the compound to complete. One of the Seal team 6 announced that while they were inside the compound, Geronimo K-IA, meaning Osama Bin Laden, was killed in action. At 11:35pm the President Obama made an announcement stating that the Neptune Spear Operation was successful and Osama bin Laden was killed. 

Neptune Spear Operation was one of the most successful intelligence collection plans ever carried out in the US intelligence history. It was ideal from the point of view of the intelligence analyst in terms of handling the information and the intelligence requirements. The source analysis provided information about Abu Ahmed Al Kuwaiti since the first evidence against him and the evidence was evaluated on a regular basis. The intelligence used surveillance around the house 24/7 and the same on the ground. Also, the intelligence used drones, IMGINT and the signal intelligence to intercept any phone calls generated by Al Kuwaiti. The intelligence was able to follow Abu Ahmed Al Kuwaiti and track him to the compound where he lived by listening to a small phone call and in particular one phrase which Al Kuwaiti said on the phone: “I am back with the same old friend”. This is a very simple example of how very small information should not be ignored because it might lead to historical hunting. This is what happened in Neptune Spear Operation: little information and accurate source analysis lead to Geronimo being killed.