Cloak and Drone: The Strange Saga of an Al Qaeda Triple Agent
There are no publicly available photos of Hassan Ghul, no written statements by him. Yet over the past decade, Ghul, a native of Pakistan and member of Al Qaeda, was one of the most important players in the war between the United States and its terrorist enemies. American officials say he knew the 9/11 masterminds and was a key liaison to Qaeda-linked groups in Iraq; that he was a prisoner at the CIA’s black sites, where he experienced the agency’s harsh interrogation techniques; and that the intel he divulged was crucial in helping the U.S. track and kill Osama bin Laden.
Ghul’s story hardly ended there. In fact, sources say he was central to perhaps one of the boldest missions in the complex spy games between America, Al Qaeda and Pakistan. Officials with knowledge of the case say that after being treated brutally in U.S. and Pakistani custody, Ghul agreed to become a double agent and work against Bin Laden’s deadly terror network. Slipped back into Pakistan’s lawless tribal regions, he became part of a high-stakes mission to penetrate Al Qaeda.
But several years ago, sources say Ghul vanished, turned triple agent and once again embraced his terrorist allies. In the end, a CIA drone strike killed him in the fall of 2012. But unraveling the tangled story of his final years shines new light on U.S. secret prisons, harsh interrogation methods, morally ambivalent spy games and America’s tortured relations with Pakistan. It’s a rare if murky window into the world of global spycraft.
Ghul’s saga begins in 2004, near the Kurdish town of Kalar along Iraq’s northeastern border. Alerted by American intelligence, Kurdish security officials reportedly arrested Ghul—a large man wearing a shirt with an open collar. Among the items in his satchel: two computer disks and a flash drive.
Soon enough, Ghul’s name became internationally known. “Al Qaeda Figure Captured,” read the headline in the Washington Post. “Senior Associate of Bin Laden Found in Iraq.”
That day, President George W. Bush crowed about the operation: “We made further progress in making America more secure when a fellow named Hassan Ghul was captured in Iraq. Hassan Ghul was—reported directly to Khalid Shaikh Mohammed, who was the mastermind of the September the 11th attacks. He was a killer.”
Within weeks, Ghul’s capture became a major propaganda coup for U.S. authorities. They had discovered a 17-page letter on one of Ghul’s computer disks, a rambling missive to Bin Laden. Yet Ghul hadn’t written the letter; its author was none other than Musa Abu Zarqawi, the most wanted man in Iraq. And he was offering a partnership in terror with Al Qaeda. “We stand ready as an army for you to work under your guidance and yield to your command,” Zarqawi allegedly wrote.
The letter on Ghul’s disk came at a fortunate time for President Bush. For months it had been clear that there were no weapons of mass destruction in Iraq, and the White House was flailing to explain why American troops had invaded the country, why they were fighting and dying in places like Baghdad and Fallujah, Basra and Tikrit.
There was no evidence that Al Qaeda had any real presence in Iraq before the war began, but the Zarqawi letter gave the Bush administration the PR edge it needed; it was solid evidence that Bin Laden had gotten involved in the conflict, and it offered new purpose for the American mission.
As for Ghul, in March of 2004 he became a detainee in Iraq and seemingly disappeared. He was shuffled from prison to prison, as U.S. authorities hid him from the International Committee for the Red Cross, which was supposed to have access to prisoners in Iraq and Guantanamo Bay. Put simply, he had become a ghost.
Ghul had been swept into the CIA’s network of White House-approved, secret international prisons. In these facilities, waterboarding, sleep deprivation, hunger, extreme cold, blaring sounds and other harsh interrogation techniques—long banned by the military and law enforcement—were used to elicit information from high-value terror suspects.
Ghul’s first stop after Iraq appears to have been Afghanistan’s “Salt Pit.” Officially, of course, much about the program is still classified—and for that reason, the Senate Select Committee on Intelligence hasn’t released its report about it. But Jose Rodriguez, a former senior CIA official, appeared to be alluding to Ghul when he wrote in his book Hard Measures:
“Initially he played the role of tough mujahedeen and refused to cooperate. We then received permission to use some (but not all) of the EIT [enhanced interrogation techniques] procedures on him. Before long he became compliant and started to provide some excellent information.”
Over the years, bits and pieces of Ghul’s story have emerged. A May 2005 Justice Department memo released after the election of President Barack Obama indicates that a detainee named “Gul” was subjected to interrogation methods such as “attention grasp, walling, facial grasp, facial slap, wall standing, stress positions and sleep deprivation.” The same memo provides evidence that CIA investigators at least considered using even harsher techniques, like withholding his food, taking away his clothes and dousing him with water.
Like others in “the program,” Ghul eventually became “compliant,” and sources say the agency began treating him better. Like other cooperative inmates, he was assigned “homework” in his cell, writing up lists of contacts—terrorists he knew of, code names, safe house diagrams, training camp layouts, bank accounts, any names he could think of that might one day be useful.
For roughly two years after Ghul’s capture, the program continued and U.S. authorities held Ghul and a few dozen others in a CIA netherworld—ghost prisons that American authorities controlled even though they weren’t located on U.S. soil.
By 2006, the CIA’s clandestine facilities in places like Romania, Thailand, Poland and Lithuania were no longer a secret. After journalists exposed the use of waterboarding and other harsh techniques, President Bush publicly acknowledged the program, and though he defended it, he ordered the CIA to shut it down by the end of the year.
The result: The agency had to transfer 14 of what it called “high-value detainees” to an American military prison at Guantanamo Bay. But Ghul, a man Bush himself once called a “killer,” whose capture meant “one less enemy we have to worry about,” was not transferred there.
According to insiders, Ghul took part in one of the least known aspects of the CIA’s detention program: the effort to turn suspected terrorists against Al Qaeda. The idea was that once terrorists were cooperative, some might be willing to become double agents in exchange for their freedom.
In 2006, the U.S. sent Ghul back to Pakistan, where he was taken into custody by the Inter-Service Intelligence agency, the country’s version of the CIA. The next year, the ISI quietly set him free, with the full agreement of American intelligence authorities, according to a Pakistani insider. “He was released and both parties agreed on this,” he says. “Both countries were on board in releasing him.”
The insider declined to discuss Ghul’s status as an informant. But three intelligence sources with knowledge of the issue say Ghul was one of those who agreed to cooperate and provide information about terrorists if he was released.
The CIA declined to comment on the matter. “As a general rule,” the agency’s spokesman, Dean Boyd, says in an email, “the CIA does not confirm or deny whether a person may have served as an Agency source.”
“Agent recruitment is about as sensitive as it gets,” one intelligence official adds.
It’s unclear if U.S. authorities released Ghul to become an ISI informant or if he was working primarily for American intelligence. But the distinction is important. “Their rules of control would be very different than ours,” a former CIA official says. U.S. case officers have far more oversight of their agents in the field than the Pakistanis do. Though he would not discuss Ghul specifically, the former CIA officer says that Pakistani intelligence officials may well have sent Ghul undercover on their own, and simply told the Americans about the plan afterwards.
Yet another source says that Ghul initially agreed to the project while he was still in American custody, before he was released to the Pakistanis. “Hassan Ghul,” says one former counterterrorism official who is familiar with the case but declined to discuss it in depth, “may have been, probably, one of the highest penetrations of Al Qaeda.”
Last year, Adam Goldman and Matt Apuzzo of the Associated Press reported that in the early days of the Guantanamo Bay Detention Center, CIA officers screened and recruited detainees who had been captured in Afghanistan, and sent back a handful as informants.
But the agency wasn’t in control of Guantanamo back then—the military was and is in charge, and there was plenty of bureaucratic competition. So it was at the CIA’s black sites like the ones where Ghul was held that agency operators appear to have most effectively recruited spies from suspected terrorists. In fact, one source says recruitment was one of the successes of the agency’s controversial black sites.
Another former American intelligence official who worked on terrorism issues related to Pakistan and Afghanistan during this period says he has no firsthand knowledge of the Ghul matter, but he argues that it would have made sense for the CIA to hand him over to the Pakistanis to run the mission. “This was something the Pakistanis would be good surrogates for,” he says. “Turning internal screws so he doesn’t go into a rat hole and they can keep control.”
The challenge was to convince jihadis that Ghul was still trustworthy. “How do you get him back on the inside?” the former American intel official asks. “That’s a delicate piece for the ISI to play.”
However things worked, in early 2007, more than a year before Obama won the presidential election, Ghul was released from captivity. In many ways, however, he remained a ghost. He produced no jihadi videos and wrote no missives about his alleged mistreatment by the U.S. “I tried to get in touch with Ghul about the program,” says Asim Qureshi, research director for Cage Prisoners, a London-based nonprofit group that tries to expose extrajudicial counterterrorism detentions at Guantanamo and elsewhere. “And I was never able to.”
Four years later, with Obama in the White House, Navy Seals killed Osama bin Laden with the help of U.S. intelligence agencies in the terrorist’s secret compound in Abbottabad, Pakistan.
A day after Bin Laden’s death, Ghul’s name resurfaced, as some U.S. officials said he was the original source who gave them a crucial tip in 2004 in the hunt for the world’s most wanted man. “Hassan Ghul was the linchpin,” a U.S. official told the Associated Press.
It turns out that Ghul had delivered more than just that 17-page letter, which was such useful propaganda for the Bush administration. Ghul had also told his captors the identity of a special courier named “Al Kuwaiti”—who acted as a liaison for Bin Laden. Tracing “Al Kuwaiti” for years led to the successful operation against the world’s most wanted man.
At the time, Ghul was living among jihadis in Waziristan, a place where Bin Laden was largely revered. Yet publicly, he remained silent, even as American officials praised his role in the war on terror.
Whatever Ghul’s agreement with the Americans or Pakistanis, by the time Bin Laden was killed, it appears to have ended. One Pakistani source with knowledge of the case says that Ghul eventually “vanished” and that “the deal was rescinded.” Yet he would not say anything about exactly when after his release Ghul lost contact with the ISI.
Finally, four months after Bin Laden’s death, the U.S. made a public announcement about Ghul. The Treasury Department called him a terrorist who had acted as an “al-Qa’ida facilitator, courier and operative since at least 2003.”
The Office of Foreign Assets Control called him a “specially designated global terrorist,” which meant that if he had money in U.S. bank accounts, it could be frozen. And U.S. intelligence agencies were now looking for him, dead or alive.
On Oct. 1, a U.S. drone fired four missiles at a vehicle in the Khadar Khel area of Mir Ali in Waziristan. Three people were killed, but the press simply called the targets unnamed “rebels.” U.S. officials remained silent about their identities. Yet one of these men may very well have been Hassan Ghul.
There’s little question that Ghul was killed in a drone strike in Waziristan on that date. But many details remain murky. What we do know comes from the secret documents released by Edward Snowden, the former National Security Agency contractor.
Using those documents, last year the Washington Post revealed that the CIA and NSA tracked down Ghul’s wife’s computer from an email she sent, and then homed in on Ghul himself. The Post cited a blunt NSA document summarizing the intelligence: “This information,” the document said, “enabled a capture/kill operation against an individual believed to be Hassan Ghul on October 1.”
That same day, in the same region in which Ghul was killed, the Pakistani Taliban announced it had executed five tribesmen. Their crime: spying on behalf of the CIA and the ISI.