Center for Strategic Communication

Hassan Ghul, a top al Qaeda leader who was in US custody for two years before being transferred to Pakistani custody and then promptly released, was killed in a US drone strike in Pakistan’s Taliban-controlled tribal agency of North Waziristan in October 2012. Ghul served as Osama bin Laden’s emissary to Abu Musab al Zarqawi, and while in US custody, disclosed key information that led to the killing of bin Laden.

Ghul’s death was reported by The Washington Post, which learned of his death from classified documents released by Edward Snowden, a former contractor for the National Security Agency who has since fled to Russia. Ghul was tracked by the NSA and the CIA, which launched the drone strike, by monitoring his communications with his wife.

Ghul and other al Qaeda leaders have been tracked after the NSA “draped a surveillance blanket over dozens of square miles of northwest Pakistan,” The Washington Post stated today. “In Ghul’s case, the agency deployed an arsenal of cyber-espionage tools, secretly seizing control of laptops, siphoning audio files and other messages, and tracking radio transmissions to determine where Ghul might ‘bed down.'”

Ghul was killed in the Oct. 1, 2012 drone strike that targeted a vehicle in the village of Khaderkhail in the Mir Ali area of North Waziristan. Two other jihadists, whose identities were not disclosed, were also killed when four missiles slammed into his vehicle. Mir Ali is a known hub for al Qaeda and a plethora of Pakistan and Central Asian jihadist groups. Despite the known presence of al Qaeda and other terror groups in North Waziristan, the Pakistani military and government refuse to launch an operation to regain control of the tribal agency.

Although al Qaeda has not announced Ghul’s death in its official propaganda, US intelligence is certain that he has indeed been killed.

Ghul, whose real name is Mustafa Hajji Muhammad Khan, “has acted as an al Qaeda facilitator, courier and operative since at least 2003,” the Treasury Department stated when he was added as a Specially Designated Global terrorist in 2011 [see LWJ report, US Treasury lists 3 senior al Qaeda leaders as terrorists]. He “once served as a messenger between al Qaeda and former al Qaeda in Iraq leader Abu Musab al Zarqawi.” He delivered a message from bin Laden to Zarqawi in 2003, but was captured in 2004 by Kurdish Peshmerga forces when he attempted to deliver Zarqawi’s response.

Ghul was transferred to US forces and interrogated and held at so-called CIA “black sites” for two years. During the interrogations, he disclosed the name of Abu Ahmed al Kuwaiti, a key courier used by bin Laden. The identification of al Kuwaiti ultimately led to bin Laden at his compound in Abbottabad, Pakistan.

Sometime in 2006, Ghul was transferred to Pakistani custody, but after nearly a year in custody, he was released. According to the Associated Press, “former CIA officers who targeted Ghul” said they believed he was released because “he had ties to the Lashkar-e-Taiba terror group,” the al Qaeda-linked terror group that is supported by Pakistan’s Inter-Services Intelligence Directorate [see Threat Matrix reports AP: Key source on bin Laden’s courier freed by Pakistanis, and Why was key source on bin Laden’s courier freed?].

The Treasury designation noted that Ghul returned to work for al Qaeda immediately after his release from Pakistani custody. Ghul helped al Qaeda “reestablish logistic support networks in Pakistan” in 2007. He also “recruited a facilitator who helped him move people and money between Gulf countries and Pakistan.” In addition, he had “facilitated activities for senior Pakistan-based al Qaeda operatives” by aiding with their travel and setting up meetings.