Exclusive: Abu Zubaydah wanted to 'bring America to its knees' after 9/11

The Guantanamo detainee's diary reveals complexity of Al-Qaeda'€™s milieu in months leading up to the Sept. 11 attacks

Smoke billowing after attacks on the Twin Towers in New York on Sept. 11, 2001.
Marty Lederhandler/AP

Zain Abidin Mohammed Husain Abu Zubaydah, one of the highest-value detainees in Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, was building a network to wage a war that would "bring America to its knees" before he was captured in 2002, his personal diaries show. In the document, Abu Zubaydah recounts the chaotic aftermath of the 9/11 attacks on the United States and the toppling of Afghanistan’s Taliban regime, which provided shelter for men like him and Osama bin Laden.

After describing how he helped fellow fighters flee from Afghanistan to Pakistan, Abu Zubaydah writes of forming a network of trainers capable of teaching skills like bomb making in a new organization with ambitious plans to attack Israel. He notes that he returned to Afghanistan with $50,000 "to participate in any jihadist operation against the Jews" that he intended to carry out in Iran or Pakistan.

"I took them with me, from the flood, one or two individuals from each military science, just like Noah … two pairs from each … An instructor or two from each military subject, they are the nucleus of my future work, and I am starting from zero … I am preparing a safe location for us, so that we can start," he writes.

That failed plot is just one of the revelations to emerge from the diaries, a government translation of which has been obtained exclusively by Al Jazeera America from a former U.S. government intelligence official who worked with the CIA and FBI on Al-Qaeda’s rise to power. Despite being coveted by security analysts and journalists because of their participant-observer’s account of the decade before the 2001 attacks that claimed almost 3,000 lives, the diaries have never been officially released. They have been repeatedly cited by U.S. officials as key evidence for holding Abu Zubaydah and dozens of other Guantanamo prisoners.

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Abu Zubaydah, a high-profile figure among Arab volunteers who had gone to Afghanistan to enlist for jihad a decade earlier, was captured in Pakistan in 2002. The U.S. government says the man who wrote the six volumes of diaries was a senior member of bin Laden’s Al-Qaeda. He is mentioned 52 times in the 9/11 Commission Report. The U.S. says Abu Zubaydah, whose diaries were captured alongside him, fingered Khalid Sheikh Mohammed as the mastermind of the Sept. 11 attacks. President George W. Bush once characterized Abu Zubaydah as a "top operative planning death and destruction."

Abu Zubaydah's relationship with bin Laden is far from clear or simple. In his diary he writes of how the Taliban closed his camp in order to consolidate all the jihadist volunteers in Afghanistan under bin Laden — something that was clearly a blow to Abu Zubaydah’s ambitions. In an entry in 2000 he writes, “They closed our military camp … It’s different when you’re the one calling the shots than being a wheel that’s moving mechanically with other wheels as part of a specific machine.”

Elsewhere he writes of his frustrations over being lumped with bin Laden. In an entry on Feb. 4, 2002, he complains, "For five years (the media) has been attempting to connect me to anything, and the matter is growing bigger, until they lately said that I am the heir of bin Laden for the leadership of the Al-Qaeda organization. I hope they know that I am not even a member of Al-Qaeda, so how can I become their leader?”

The diaries show how Abu Zubaydah and his fellow fighters felt about the 9/11 attacks. “Happiness was not enough,” he writes. “As soon as the news came out on the radio, lambs were slaughtered, and juice and sweets were distributed for several days. News on the radio reflected American threats and preparation (for retaliation), close to a world war, while we were in a state of elation that God only knows.” That directly contradicts his March 2007 hearing at Guantanamo, which was called to determine his status as an enemy combatant. At that time, he claimed to have condemned the 9/11 attacks in his diary.

The volumes contain much extremist language and fantasies of violence, as well as many mundane details of Abu Zubaydah’s life and intimate reflections on his family and his emotions. In the document, he writes to “Hani 2,” an invented older, wiser version of himself. He uses that device frequently to complain about the hardships of his life’s path, his strong longing for his family and even his struggles to suppress his sexual desires. But he also admits — to the future version of himself — that he is self-censoring.

“My secret is well kept,” he writes in October 1998. “I cannot even divulge to you, for it is very wrong that in my situation, I should have a diary.”

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