Shadowy couriers were Osama’s strength, until one gave him away

An extensive and complex communication network formed al-Qaeda's backbone.

May 14, 2011 12:59 am | Updated May 15, 2011 09:14 am IST

Activists of Pakistan's Islamic party Jamiat Ulema-e-Islam carry placards as they shout slogans during a protest rally on Friday against the U.S. special forces operation in Abbottabad.

Activists of Pakistan's Islamic party Jamiat Ulema-e-Islam carry placards as they shout slogans during a protest rally on Friday against the U.S. special forces operation in Abbottabad.

Despite his status as the world's most hunted man, Osama bin Laden managed to evade the counter-terrorism forces of numerous countries for a decade before being detected and killed by U.S. forces in Pakistan earlier this month.

Detainee files from the United States' Guantanamo Bay prison, released by WikiLeaks last month, help shed some light on the logistics of bin Laden's al-Qaeda regime. However, the information may not be entirely reliable as it was obtained, in many cases, through brutal and coercive interrogation techniques.

Going by the files, its seems much of bin Laden's success in maintaining control of al-Qaeda while on the run came from an intricate communications system, which, according to senior al-Qaeda facilitator, Mohammadou Ould Slahi, included “radio relay, couriers, encryption, phone boutiques, and satellite communication links to laptops” (Gitmo file: 760) .

But the backbone of the system was the extensive and complex network of couriers on which al-Qaeda was “increasingly dependent” to communicate, the U.S. Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) noted in April 2003, according to a footnote in one of the files (Gitmo file: 216) .

In fact, the organisation used couriers for much more than simple communication; the typical al-Qaeda courier had many more duties and responsibilities than the average FedEx man.

Couriers “provided financial and logistical services” for bin Laden and al-Qaeda, often “serving as a courier, accountant, and treasurer” and working “in various offices” for the organisation, as was the case with Ibrahim Ahmad Mahmoud al-Qosi, who also functioned as one of bin Laden's bodyguards (Gitmo file: 54) .

A courier was regarded as “a special representative” of the organisation and many, like senior al-Qaeda member Abu Zubayda, found themselves a “part of” bin Laden's “inner circle” (Gitmo file: 10016) .

Couriers swore “ bayat ” to al-Qaeda and its supremo; bayat is defined as “an oath of allegiance to a perceived senior” in an analyst's note (Gitmo file: 1457) . “Some individuals met privately with” bin Laden “to swear bayat,” according to Mashur Abdullah Muqbil Ahmnad al-Sabri, who had sworn bayat himself (Gitmo file: 324) . All were expected to be loyal to both bin Laden and al-Qaeda.

These couriers were “associated with senior al-Qaida leadership,” enjoyed “close personal relationships with” bin Laden “and his family,” and the top-most, such as al-Sabri, “a guesthouse facilitator (a position of trust and authority),” were treated with what an interrogation analyst notes was “an uncommon, high level of trust” (Gitmo file: 321; Gitmo file: 324) . Many, such as Mohammed Ahmed, were among bin Laden's “most trusted associates”; and some, like Mohammed Soliman, he considered “a personal friend” (Gitmo file: 54; Gitmo file: 567) .

According to “mid to high-level Al-Qaida operative” Ali Abdullah Akhmed, couriers were entrusted with “funds for personnel, terrorist operations, and logistical support,” passports, travel documents, communications and other equipment produced abroad as well as operational orders and plans. They were also in close touch with other couriers and senior al-Qaeda and Taliban members, including bin Laden, and had knowledge of “methods of travel and transportation” and “Operational Security and covert techniques” (Gitmo file: 69) .

Couriers were familiar with several al-Qaeda associated guesthouse and safe house facilities, their personnel, and related activities, and also had an understanding of “sources, recipients, and use of funds couriered,” according to U.S. agent notes (Gitmo file: 689) .

Both al-Qaeda and the Taliban served as sponsors for couriers' travels, giving them large sums of money and knowledge of “extremist financial practices, methods, and other facilitators,” Mohammed Akhmed Salam al-Hatabi told U.S. agents. Couriers “traveled using both authentic and falsified travel documents,” “moved around a lot,” and “had unidentified responsibilities” (Gitmo file: 708; Gitmo file: 321) . Such “frequent travels” were “unusual for a fighter,” an agent noted, helping identify those who had worked as couriers (Gitmo file: 256) .

Owing to the intimate and important nature of a courier's work, “advanced training in operational security tradecraft,” in addition to the “basic training course” given to all new recruits, was required for al-Qaeda couriers, “particularly those with international travel,” detainee Jamil Ali al-Ka'bi told U.S. agents (Gitmo file:216) .

Because of this training, couriers, unlike fighters, used code words in their communications, including “milk” for a type of machine gun and “oranges” for hand grenades (Gitmo file: 52) . Some, like Issaa al-Murbati, continued to use these terms in letters home while detained. The use of this jargon was another indicator to U.S. agents trying to identify which of the detainees had worked as a courier.

The majority of detainees in Guantanamo Bay appear to have worked as money couriers, ensuring there would be no record of the money transfers al-Qaeda made to fund its operations.

Most carried smaller amounts of money, and for a courier to be entrusted with a large sum of money lent “credence to his status as a courier/facilitator in al-Qaeda,” a U.S. agent notes (Gitmo file: 551) . Still, couriers typically carried more cash than fighters, which provided U.S. agents with another clue as to their identity.

Different couriers employed different methods to transfer funds to the intended recipient, but a few were commonly used. Some couriered “money under the guise of dawa (charitable) donations,” which was then used “to acquire weaponry” (Gitmo file: 52) .

Detainee Abdul Salaam, who had family ties to the hawala business, “the only way known to send money to fellow family members” in Afghanistan, told interrogators how it was also used to route money for al-Qaeda (Gitmo file: 826) . According to the file, money would be delivered to a hawala or “money exchange/forwarding business,” in a country such as the United Arab Emirates. From there, it would be transferred to a hawala agent in Pakistan where it would be collected by a courier who would take it to an al-Qaeda-owned shop in Afghanistan, the file says. The shopkeeper would then hand the money over to an “accountant...who stores the money in a safe and hands out the money to the appropriate recipients.”

Another method of money changing hands was for couriers to contact an operative on his cell phone; the latter would arrange to meet in a public place and accept the funds (Gitmo file: 10014) . The operative might then courier the money to a higher-up.

Couriers, thus, “would have had names and telephone numbers of contacts,” a fact which U.S. agents found very useful in tracking down other suspected al-Qaeda operatives (Gitmo file: 551) . Captured cell phone numbers are repeatedly used, according to the records kept in the Guantanamo Bay files, to track down those with ties to the Taliban and al-Qaeda — and it was a courier's phone call that eventually led U.S. agents to bin Laden.

In addition to money and communications directives, couriers often transported passports for al-Qaeda. Al-Qaeda fighters retreating “from Afghanistan to Pakistani tribal areas near Parachinar” were not allowed “to carry their passports while escaping along this route,” said Khalid Adullah Mushad al-Mutayri, who “coordinated the escape” (Gitmo file: 213) . Many of those “fleeing Afghanistan” “discarded” their passports, but others entrusted them with the organisation, which would “send their documents later via couriers,” according to the file.

Typically, when identifying a good candidate to serve as a courier, al-Qaeda looked for “cover arrangements and lack of a documented criminal record or known ties to terrorists,” because such a person could pass undetected through airports and other counter-terror hotspots (Gitmo files: 216) .

As a courier had to make several international journeys, al-Qaeda also sought to recruit for this job those with “medical conditions which could be exploited to obtain a valid medical visa for travel” (Gitmo file: 117) . While abroad, operatives would “not seek or receive medical treatment,” as they were merely taking advantage of the fact that “travel permission (visa) was easier to obtain if the traveler claimed to be entering a country for medical treatment,” the file notes.

Others “worked as a courier for al-Qaida operatives, using dawa (Islamic missionary duty) as a cover” (Gitmo file: 216) . Missionary work for Jama'at Tablighi (JT), “a proselytizing organization” that was used “to facilitate and fund the international travels” of al-Qaeda members, was “a common al-Qaida cover story,” and several operatives were even recruited by JT (Gitmo file: 196; Gitmo file: 52) .

On the backs of this army of couriers rested the logistical integrity of al-Qaeda's mission. Without them, the organisation could not have functioned, and bin Laden could not have survived for so long. Equally, if not for one such courier, Abu Ahmed al Kuwaiti, who gave himself away with a phone call in 2010 after Gitmo detainees tipped the U.S about his existence, the al-Qaeda supremo may have still been living. The strength of al-Qaeda thus became its weakness.

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