The courier: the multiple identities of the man who led U.S. to bin Laden

The CIA's decade-long effort to find Osama bin Laden caught a major break when agency operatives identified the al Qaeda courier who would eventually lead them to the al Qaeda mastermind's Abbottabad compound.

The courier's nom de guerre in al Qaeda's upper echelons was Abu Ahmad al-Kuwaiti, and he was described as a Kuwaiti-born Pakistani. But CIA officials did not know his real name or location for years.

But in 2004, they captured an al Qaeda militant named Hassan Ghul in Iraq. Ghul told his interrogators about al-Kuwaiti's growing role in the organization as a liaison to al Qaeda's operational commanders. "Ghul told the CIA that al-Kuwaiti was a courier, someone crucial to the terrorist organization," the Associated Press reported. "In particular, Ghul said, the courier was close to Faraj al-Libi, who replaced [Khalid Shaikh] Mohammed as al-Qaida's operational commander. It was a key break in the hunt for in bin Laden's personal courier." (See Marcy Wheeler for more on the Ghul case.)

The National Security Agency reportedly tracked phone calls between the courier Abu Ahmed al-Kuwaiti's relatives in the Persian Gulf to all numbers in Pakistan. And NSA surveillance eventually tracked Abu Ahmed al-Kuwaiti's location in Pakistan via one such phone call, the AP writes. Last August, they tracked al-Kuwaiti as he drove from Peshawar to the Abbottabad compound--and as analysts inventoried the facility's striking security features they became convinced that it housed a high-level al Qaeda figure.

So after all that, what did it turn out the courier Abu Ahmed al-Kuwaiti's real name was?

Sheikh Abu Ahmed, according to the AP:

"It took years of work before the CIA identified the courier's real name: Sheikh Abu Ahmed, a Pakistani man born in Kuwait. When they did identify him, he was nowhere to be found."

But according to CNN, the courier's name was Abu Ahmad:

"A diplomatic source told CNN that the courier who was in close contact with Osama bin Laden and who eventually led the United States to him was a Kuwaiti named Abu Ahmad."

Years of war, interrogation, surveillance, etc. to discover that real name of the courier who went by nom de guerre Abu Ahmad al-Kuwaiti is--Abu Ahmad from Kuwait? Really? Is the CIA just pulling everyone's leg?

And reporters now reconstructing the routine at the Abbottabad compound say the courier went locally by the name Arshad Khan, and his brother (or cousin as some neighbors thought) went by the name Tareq Khan. The Khans claimed to be ethnic Pashtuns from the town of Charsadda, in Pakistan's northwestern frontier province, and to have wealth from relatives who ran a hotel in Dubai (although some neighbors reportedly suspected they were drug smugglers). They moved to the compound in Bilal Town, Abbottabad in 2005. And they were two of the adult males killed along with bin Laden, bin Laden's son, and one of their wives, by a team of 29 U.S. Navy SEALS on Sunday.

UPDATE: More on the courier from NBC's Mike Isikoff, the role of police detective-style profiling to focus on him, and how torture of suspects provided false information that threw investigators off his trail for several years:

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. ...

But it wasn't until 2007 ... that they [CIA counterterrorism analysts] 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.

(Pakistan army troops remove canvas screens from outside a house, where al-Qaida leader Osama bin Laden was caught and killed in Abbottabad, Pakistan, on Tuesday, May 3, 2011. Anjum Naveed/AP.)