Until 1998, U.S. intelligence agencies could track Osama bin Laden's movement through his use of satellite telephones. But after he narrowly escaped a cruise missile attack that year, bin Laden apparently decided that telephones were too dangerous. From that point on, he communicated the old-fashioned way — through messengers.
Intelligence officials had to adapt; finding and tracking bin Laden's couriers was far more challenging, but there wasn't much of an alternative.
Juan Zarate, who worked as a counterterrorism specialist under President George W. Bush, tells NPR that cuing on the courier network was key. "This was then used as the analytic framework by which to construct a plan, a theory, a strategy to try get to bin Laden," he says.
That focus on bin Laden's couriers continued into the Obama administration, and it paid off.
U.S. officials are not identifying the courier in whose house bin Laden was found to be living, nor will they get too specific about how exactly they tracked that courier down.
But we do know this: For years, one of the most important sources of information about bin Laden's couriers was the suspected al-Qaida members who were detained at Guantanamo or in secret CIA prisons. When those men were interrogated, sometimes using procedures that were arguably tantamount to torture, the questions often focused on what detainees knew about the bin Laden courier network.
The Interrogation Debate
Secret Guantanamo documents obtained by NPR and other news organizations show that U.S. intelligence agents were especially interested in an alleged courier who went by the name Abu Ahmed al-Kuwaiti. One detainee said al-Kuwaiti traveled with bin Laden in December 2001 to the Tora Bora area along the Afghanistan border, where bin Laden narrowly escaped a U.S. military sweep.
Al-Kuwaiti was identified variously as a senior- or mid-level al-Qaida operative who facilitated the movement and safe havens of senior al-Qaida members and their families. One detainee report identified him specifically as one of bin Laden's couriers and a close associate of Khalid Sheik Mohammed, the mastermind of the Sept. 11 attacks.
The man known as Abu Ahmed al-Kuwaiti was apparently never caught himself. But over the years, more and more information was gathered about him, some of it during the infamous enhanced interrogations in secret CIA prisons.
Could he have been the courier who finally led the U.S. to bin Laden's hiding place? It is not clear. But the idea that knowledge of him was gleaned through interrogations has revived the debate about whether brutal interrogations actually yield results.
Former Vice President Dick Cheney made that argument Monday, as he did former Bush aide Karl Rove.
But others are not convinced that critical information leading to bin Laden's killing came from enhanced interrogations.
"To the best of our knowledge, based on a look, none of it came as a result of harsh interrogation practices," says Sen. Dianne Feinstein (D-CA), chair of the Senate Intelligence committee. "We're going to find out all that there is to find out about it, but at the present time, I think it was good intelligence — a piece here, a piece there, put together."
Abusive interrogations ended more than five years ago, secret CIA prisons are no longer in use, and the Obama administration has promised not to revive them.
At the White House on Tuesday, presidential spokesman Jay Carney forcefully challenged the idea that the successful tracking of bin Laden's courier shows that it may be time to rethink interrogation and detention policies.
"Reporting from detainees was just a slice of the information that's been gathered by incredibly diligent professionals over the years," he says. "It simply strains credulity to suggest that a piece of information that may or may not have been gathered eight years ago somehow directly led to a successful mission on Sunday."