Image: Osama bin Laden's compound
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Pakistanis and members of the media gather outside the compound in Abbottabad where Osama Bin Laden was killed Sunday during a raid by U.S. special forces.
By Michael Isikoff National investigative correspondent
NBC News
updated 5/4/2011 9:42:02 PM ET 2011-05-05T01:42:02

The courier who led the CIA to Osama bin Laden’s doorstep was identified through years of painstaking detective work that included developing a composite “profile” of what an ideal courier for the al-Qaida leader would look like.

“It was like doing the profile of a serial killer,” said one U.S. official, who provided new details to NBC News about how the agency was able to track down the courier and, ultimately, bin Laden himself. The official, who spoke on the condition of anonymity, was one of the three U.S. officials to describe the intelligence community's search for the courier.

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As agency analysts sifted through tantalizing bits of information about bin Laden’s longtime aides in 2002, the official said, they concluded that one in particular — Shaykh Abu Ahmed al Kuwaiti, matched many of the attributes contained in their composite portrait.

As a Pakistani Pashtun, Abu Ahmed spoke Pashto. Having grown up in Kuwait in the Persian Gulf, he also spoke fluent Arabic. That meant he could communicate and move easily among both the “Afghan Arabs” who had flocked to Afghanistan in the 1990s to join al-Qaida and the Pakistani tribesman suspected of harboring bin Laden.

Moreover, Abu Ahmed had been described by detainees as having been a trusted protégé of  Khalid Sheikh Mohammed, al-Qaida’s No. 3 commander, as well as a top aide to Mohammed’s replacement, Abu Faraj Al Libi. Abu Ahmed, who was adept at the use of computers, had been with al-Qaida for years and appeared to be fiercely loyal to bin Laden’s cause. He was described by multiple detainees at the Guantanamo Bay detention camp as having last been seen by bin Laden’s side when the al-Qaida leader vanished through the mountains of Tora Bora in December 2001.

'He fit all the needs'
The CIA had concluded that any still active courier for bin Laden would have to meet the most extreme of loyalty tests. That meant he would likely have been serving bin Laden well before the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks against the U.S.

Once again, Abu Ahmed met the profile.

“He fit all the needs” of a perfect courier, the official said, describing how Abu Ahmed emerged as the most likely link between bin Laden and the outside world. “He was high on the short list.”

Slideshow: After the raid: Inside bin Laden's compound (on this page)

That “match” between the known details about Abu Ahmed’s background and the composite agency profile helped CIA officials cut through multiple conflicting accounts — and considerable misinformation — about the identity of bin Laden’s courier, the official said.

Once the match was made, the official said, analysts intensified their hunt for Abu Ahmed.  If they could find Abu Ahmed, they reasoned, they just might be able to find bin Laden himself.

The information about the use of  “profiling” fleshes out the story of how agency officials were finally able to locate bin Laden after a frustrating search that spanned nearly a decade. Those and other new details would appear to conflict with claims in recent days that waterboarding or other “enhanced interrogation techniques” produced some blockbuster piece of information that led to bin Laden’s death.

Slate: Myth of bin Laden in life and death

A mysterious, well-placed Kuwaiti
The story began in late 2002, when detainees at Guantanamo described a mysterious Kuwaiti man who seemed to be in bin Laden’s inner circle. As first reported by NBC, one of the first — if not the first — to do so was Mohammed Qahtani, the suspected  20th hijacker for the 9/11 attacks, who tried but failed to enter the U.S. at the Orlando airport in August 2001.

A Defense Department Joint Task Force assessment of Qahtani, released last month by WikiLeaks, describes the information provided by the prisoner they called “Maad al-Qahtani” after abusive interrogations that were later described by one senior Bush administration official as meeting the legal definition of torture.

Video: Curious neighbors peer into bin Laden compound (on this page)

The document contains multiple references to his interactions with a mysterious al-Qaida operative identified as  “Abu Ahmad al-Kuwaiti.” The document states that before being dispatched to board a plane to Orlando, Qahtani received computer training in Karachi, Pakistan, from the Kuwaiti operative "for his mission to the United States."

The document further states that Qahtani told interrogators that Khalid Sheikh Mohammed had directed Al-Kuwaiti to teach him how to use email and had taken him to an Internet café for his training. The Kuwaiti operative is further described in the document as a “senior al-Qaida facilitator” and “courier” who was a subordinate to Mohammed.

The document includes this note: “Al Kuwaiti was seen in Tora Bora and it is possible al-Kuwaiti was one of the individuals … accompanying UBL (Osama bin Laden) in Tora Bora prior to UBL’s disappearance.”

When U.S. intelligence officials first heard this information in late 2002 and early 2003, they had no idea who “Al Kuwaiti” really was. And they soon received conflicting reports that threw them off the trail.

Did harsh interrogations work?
Because U.S. military officials later concluded that Qahtani was subjected to abusive and “degrading” interrogations — including being chained to a leash and forced to perform dog tricks — his case could provide ammunition to defenders of such methods.

But Defense Department records and interviews with U.S. officials show that three other detainees who were also subjected to extremely rough interrogations provided misleading or false information about the Kuwaiti courier.

One of them, according to documents reviewed by NBC News, was Mohamedou Ould Slahi, a Mauritanian who had been active in Islamic militant circles in Germany and who, according to the 9/11 commission report, had encouraged three of the 9/11 hijackers to fly to Afghanistan for training.

Read more reporting by Michael Isikoff in "The Isikoff Files"

Slahi, according to two government reports, was subjected to steadily escalating rough interrogations approved by Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld. Among them: being threatened with death, deprived of sleep, exposed to “variable lighting patterns” and subjected to blasting rock music, including Drowning Pool’s “Bodies,” with its chorus of “Let the bodies hit the floor!” according to a detailed account in the Washington Post.

Yet when Slahi was questioned about the Kuwaiti courier, he told a story that turned out to be false: He reported that Abu Ahmed “was wounded while fleeing Tora Bora and later died in the arms” of another detainee, according to this Defense Department Document.

When Khalid Sheikh Mohammed was captured in Pakistan in early 2003, he was flown to a CIA black site prison in Poland and waterboarded 183 times. At first, he wasn’t even asked about Abu Ahmed. When he was months later, he described Abu Ahmed as a  minor figure who was “retired,” said the U.S. official. “He played down his significance.” He was, said another U.S. official, protecting Abu Ahmed, refusing to give up “the crown jewels.”

No such person
In 2005, when the CIA captured Mohammed’s replacement, Abu Faraj Al-Libi, and subjected him to “enhanced interrogation techniques,” he too misled his interrogators, two U.S. officials said. He told them that bin Laden’s “designated” courier and “official messenger” was another man: Malawi Abd al Khaliq Jan. CIA officials later concluded that no such person even existed — and that Al Libi, like Mohammed, was trying to conceal Abu Ahmed’s role in order to protect bin Laden.

Story: Plenty of al-Qaida targets remain after Osama bin Laden's death

As first reported by The New York Times, to the extent that there was a breakthrough, it came from the interrogation of yet another al-Qaida detainee, Hassan Ghul. Ghul, who had been captured in Iraq in 2004 and who may have also been subjected to some rough interrogations (but not waterboarding), described Abu Ahmed as a “trusted” messenger of bin Laden who was extremely close to Mohammed and al Libi and who had “disappeared.” By late 2005, the sharp discrepancies with their accounts caught the attention of agency interrogators and caused them to redouble their efforts to figure out Abu Ahmed’s identity.

When they did, they began to match up the slivers of details about him from multiple detainees with the agency’s internal “profile” of a bin Laden courier and were struck by the match, the U.S. official said.

Video: US official: American could become al-Qaida leader (on this page)

But it wasn’t until 2007 — four years after Mohammed had been waterboarded — that they were able to figure out his identity. And it wasn’t until 2009 that they were able to locate him in Pakistan, thanks to electronic intercepts of cell phone calls and emails. At that point, Pakistani operatives working for the CIA began to trail him and eventually traced him to the compound in Abbottabad where he and the al-Qaida leader were killed on Sunday.

"If it really had been waterboarding that had produced the key piece of information that led us to Osama bin Laden," one U.S. official said,  "we would have been having this conversation years earlier — not in 2011."

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Video: Curious neighbors peer into bin Laden compound

  1. Closed captioning of: Curious neighbors peer into bin Laden compound

    >> let's go to the scene of the raid in pakistan where high level officials arrived at the compound north of islamabad. tonight, there are more pictures from inside the hideout where the s.e.a.l.s made the raid that killed osama bin laden . stephanie gosk is there for us tonight.

    >> reporter: a look inside the hideout. ransacked and definitely lot luxurious. everyday belongings mixed in with the aftermath of a bloody struggle, including a yemeni passport apparently belonging to bin laden 's fifth and youngest wife. this video was shot not long after the precision assault sunday by u.s. navy s.e.a.l.s. what happened in this house that night and the years leading up to it has captivated the world and shocked the people who actually live here. today, a homeowner next door briefly gave access to his roofp roofptop. dozens of neighbors climbed up, eager to see what they could. this is one of the best views we have had of the compound. the house is large, but really, in comparison to the other houses in the neighborhood, it's not that big. there's a rumor that security forces are eventually going to destroy it. residents are sharing what they rer78 of two brothers, owners of the house. they used to come to these small shops buying milk and pepsi, often in bulk. we now know one of them was the infamous courier faollowed for years. this man remembered seeing the brothers in town but never the wives.

    >> did the women ever and out of the house?

    >> no, no women. you don't see here the women.

    >> reporter: many people here don't believe bin laden was killed. they don't even believe he was here. does anyone here believe that osama bin laden was in that house? nobody? overhead today, helicopters flew by. not a rare sight in a military town, but when they heard the sound of choppers late sunday night, it didn't sound right. he started tweeting, having no idea what was really happening. helicopter hof eer hovering over aboughta bod at 1:00 a.m . is a rare event. go away. i hope it's not the start of something nasty. he wads the only person reporting the capture of bin laden as it happened. how many followers did you have on twitter on that moment?

    >> almost 800, 900.

    >> now how many do you have?

    >> more than 100,000.

    >> reporter: an instant internet celebrity who moved his family here from lahore last year to escape the terrorists.

    >> i came here to escape all the bombings and now i find myself living in the same town as him.

    >> a small town once far removed from the fight on terrorism. now the site of one of its most important battles. nbc news pentagon correspondent jim miklaszewski reports that u.s. officials are providing a clearing picture of the firefight that happened here. it wasn't an intense back and forth but mostly one-sided. mostly the s.e.a.l.s doing the shooting. a proscission-clearing operation.

Photos: The compound

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  1. Pakistani boys while demolition takes place on the compound where Osama bin Laden was slain in 2011 in the northwestern town of Abbottabad on Feb. 26, 2012.

    More photos from Abbottabad one year after Osama bin Laden (Aamir Qureshi / AFP - Getty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
  2. An aerial view shows the residential area of Abbottabad, Pakistan, where Osama bin Laden was found and killed by U.S. commandos. (Asif Hassan / AFP - Getty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
  3. A general view of the town of Abbottabad, May 6. Bin Laden was living in a large house close to a military academy in this garrison town, a two-and-a-half hour-drive from the capital, Islamabad. (Khaqan Khawer / EPA) Back to slideshow navigation
  4. Supporters of Pakistani religious party Jamaat-e-Islami rally to condemn the killing of bin Laden, in Abbottabad on May 6. (Aqeel Ahmed / AP) Back to slideshow navigation
  5. A Pakistani woman photographs her daughter on May , at a gate of the compound where bin Laden was caught and killed. (Aqeel Ahmed / AP) Back to slideshow navigation
  6. School girls pass by armed Pakistani policemen guarding the sealed entrance to the compound in Abbottabad, May 5, in which bin Laden had been living. (MD Nadeem / EPA) Back to slideshow navigation
  7. Part of a damaged helicopter rests in the compound after U.S. Navy SEAL commandos killed bin Laden, May 2, in a photo made available on May 4. (Reuters) Back to slideshow navigation
  8. Boys herd sheep past the compound where U.S. Navy SEAL commandos killed Osama bin Laden in Abbottabad May 5. (Akhtar Soomro / Reuters) Back to slideshow navigation
  9. Pakistani security officials arrive at the Osama bin Laden compound in Abbottabad on Wednesday, May 4. (Aamir Qureshi / AFP - Getty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
  10. Local residents gather outside a burned section of bin Laden's compound in Abbottabad. (Aamir Qureshi / AFP - Getty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
  11. A Pakistani police officer gestures at a checkpoint along a road leading to a house where bin Laden was captured and killed in Abbottabad. Area residents were still confused and suspicious about bin Laden's death, which took place before dawn on Monday. (Anjum Naveed / AP) Back to slideshow navigation
  12. Pakistani children look out from a high vantage point at bin Laden's compound on Tuesday, May 3. (Aqeel Ahmed / AP) Back to slideshow navigation
  13. Pakistan army troops remove canvas screens from outside the compound's house. (Anjum Naveed / AP) Back to slideshow navigation
  14. Neighbors and news media gather around the compound, right, after authorities ease security around the property. (Aqeel Ahmed / AP) Back to slideshow navigation
  15. A satellite image, taken June 15, 2005, shows the Abbottabad compound, center, where bin Laden was killed in on Monday. (DigitalGlobe via Reuters) Back to slideshow navigation
  16. A Pakistani soldier secures the compound. (T. Mughal / EPA) Back to slideshow navigation
  17. The compound is seen in flames after it was attacked early May 2 in this still image taken from cellphone video footage. (Reuters) Back to slideshow navigation
  18. Part of a damaged U.S. MH-60 helicopter lies the compound. The helicopter was destroyed by U.S. forces after a mechanical failure left it unable to take off. (Reuters) Back to slideshow navigation
  19. A still image from video obtained by ABC News shows blood stains in the interior of the house where bin Laden was killed. (ABC News via Reuters) Back to slideshow navigation
  20. Aerial views released by the Department of Defense show the area in Abbottabad in 2004, left, before the house was built, and in 2011, right. (Department of Defense via Reuters) Back to slideshow navigation
  21. A graphic released by the Department of Defense shows the compound where bin Laden was killed. (Department of Defense via Reuters) Back to slideshow navigation
  22. Pakistani soldiers and police officers patrol near the house, background, where bin Laden had lived. (Anjum Naveed / AP) Back to slideshow navigation
  23. The hideout of bin Laden is seen the day after his death. (Farooq Naeem / AFP - Getty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
  24. Students look toward the compound from a nearby religious school in Abbottabad. (Faisal Mahmood / Reuters) Back to slideshow navigation
  25. Pakistani security officials survey the walls of the compound where bin Laden was killed. The outer walls were between 10 and 18 feet high. (MD Nadeem / EPA) Back to slideshow navigation
  26. Pakistani soldiers stand guard near the compound May 2. (Anjum Naveed / AP) Back to slideshow navigation
  27. Boys collect pieces of metal from a wheat field outside bin Laden's house, seen in the background, on May 3. People showed off small parts of what appeared to be a U.S. helicopter that the U.S. says malfunctioned and was blown up by the American team as it retreated. (Anjum Naveed / AP) Back to slideshow navigation
  28. Pakistani security officials stand guard at the main entrance to the compound on May 3. (MD Nadeem / EPA) Back to slideshow navigation
  29. An image from video seized from the walled compound of al-Qaida leader Osama bin Laden in Abbottabad, and released by the U.S. Department of Defense, shows Osama bin Laden watching TV. He is said to have spent his last weeks in a house divided, amid wives riven by suspicions. On the top floor, sharing his bedroom, was his youngest wife and favorite. The trouble came when his eldest wife showed up and moved into the bedroom on the floor below. (Department of Defense via AP) Back to slideshow navigation
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  1. Image:
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    Above: Slideshow (29) After the raid: Inside bin Laden's compound - The compound
  2. Image:
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    Slideshow (81) After the raid: Inside bin Laden's compound - World reaction
  3. Image:
    Timothy A. Clary / AFP - Getty Images
    Slideshow (81) World reacts to death of Osama bin Laden - World reaction
  4. Image:
    Aamir Qureshi / AFP - Getty Images
    Slideshow (29) World reacts to death of Osama bin Laden - The compound
  5. Image: Protest against US drone strikes in Pakistan
    Shahzaib Akber / EPA
    Slideshow (154) Pakistan: A nation in turmoil - 2013
    Arif Ali / AFP - Getty Images
    Slideshow (160) Pakistan: A nation in turmoil - 2012
  1. Image: A man, injured from the site of a bomb explosion, is brought to a hospital for treatment in Quetta
    Naseer Ahmed / Reuters
    Slideshow (193) Pakistan: A nation in turmoil - 2011
  2. Image: Supporters of various religious parties take a part in a rally in support of the Pakistani blasphemy law in Karachi
    Athar Hussain / Reuters
    Slideshow (123) Pakistan: A nation in turmoil - 2010
  3. Image: Activists of Pakistani Islamist organisa
    Tariq Mahmood / AFP - Getty Images
    Slideshow (56) Pakistan: A nation in turmoil - 2009

Timeline: A timeline of Osama bin Laden's life

Considered enemy No. 1 by the U.S., the Saudi millionaire is the perpetrator behind the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks. Click on key dates to learn more about the founder of al-Qaida, an international terror network.


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