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Indeed, in Volume 6 of his diaries, Abu Zubaydah writes about such a relief agency, or “school,” as he also refers to it, in London, operated by “one of the brothers … who cooperates with us.”
“The school was established without anyone’s knowledge of its link to us, such as Khaldun,” he writes.
The identity of the relief agency is unknown at this time. U.K. intelligence officials did not respond to several requests for comment.
The time frame in which Abu Zubaydah returned to Afghanistan and writes about bin Laden’s unspecified “new operation” closely matches the 9/11 Commission’s conclusion that U.S. officials became aware of a possible attack in the months before Sept. 11.
Indeed, the commission report states that in May 2001 the intelligence community had been alerted that “operatives might opt to hijack an aircraft or storm a U.S. embassy” and that Abu Zubaydah could be behind those attacks:
Other reporting mentioned that Abu Zubaydah was planning an attack, possibly against Israel, and expected to carry out several more if things went well … On May 29, (counterterrorism czar Richard) Clarke suggested that (National Security Adviser Condoleezza) Rice ask (Central Intelligence Director George) Tenet what more the United States could do to stop Abu Zubaydah from launching ‘a series of major terrorist attacks,’ probably on Israeli targets, but possibly on U.S. facilities.
“When these attacks occur, as they likely will, we will wonder what more we could have done to stop them,” Clarke writes to Rice and her deputy, Stephen Hadley.
Clarke’s warnings to Rice about Abu Zubaydah were the result of intelligence the FBI shared with him that had been gleaned during a May 2001 interrogation of Ressam, who had agreed to cooperate in exchange for a reduced sentence.
Ressam made wildly exaggerated claims about Abu Zubaydah, even characterizing him as bin Laden’s equal in the movement. Years later, he recanted all his statements.
Nonetheless, Ressam’s testimony earned Abu Zubaydah a special mention in the infamous Aug. 6, 2001, presidential daily brief that warned President George W. Bush, “Bin Laden determined to strike in U.S.”
Though in 2002 Bush characterized Abu Zubaydah as a “top operative planning death and destruction,” U.S. officials acknowledged in 2010 that Abu Zubaydah played no role in planning the 9/11 attacks. Still, his diaries offer important insights into the milieu where the attacks originated.
Regardless of whether Abu Zubaydah had any hand in 9/11, its aftermath would fundamentally alter the course of his life. On Sept. 28, 2001, he was in Khost “in the setting [up] of the security and military preparation platform which Sheikh Bin Laden is doing,” bracing for a U.S. military strike.
“Work is at its highest degree, buying weapons, arming those without a weapon, storing weapons, preparing locations and lines of confrontation, and preparing ambushes.”
By the time Abu Zubaydah penned his next entry, Oct. 14, 2001, the U.S. had invaded Afghanistan. He describes events from the perspective of a senior figure coordinating his activities with Al-Qaeda leaders, responsible for “security protection” of cities through which he and other leaders moved.
“The aerial strikes are still ongoing on Afghanistan, and more victims from the civilians are falling, even though in small numbers compared to the amount of missiles used … And until now, none of the Arab terrorists, as the Americans and their allies call them, are killed … and none of the Taliban officials … The dead are within the poor populace.”
Abu Zubaydah moved to Kabul five days later.
In one entry, he describes the carnage of a U.S. attack on a vehicle carrying women and children, wives and fathers of the “brothers.” He writes about a man who “carried a number of children feet … while the beautiful shoes were still attached to them.”
He writes on Oct. 29, 2001, that the U.S. bombardment “is increasingly audacious in killing the civilian population.”
(He had no such compassion, of course, for the civilians killed on 9/11, whose “screaming and crying” he had celebrated.)
The invasion disrupted planning for more attacks. Abu Zubaydah writes that the “long plan” he was forced to postpone may have to be carried out “in Pakistan or through Iran, in order to work against the Jews inside Pakistan.”
The 9/11 attacks made it difficult for him to proceed because the U.S. “announced the names of those wanted by her … and my name was within them, of course.”
At his CSRT hearing in March 2007, Abu Zubaydah said his plans were “hypothetical” and he never intended to follow through. But, again, his diaries suggest he was impatient to move forward with them.
The gathering gloom raises issues of mortality in his mind, particularly after one of his comrades tells him of a dream in which he was killed.
“I swear to God I wish for martyrdom, even though I don’t want to see the Americans rejoice, by killing one of the Mujahidin,” he writes, “and I wished to see America’s fall and destruction, and the destruction of the State of Israel, and I wished to torture and kill them myself with a knife.”
Abu Zubaydah vows that if he survives the war, he will continue to fight until a “strong and modern state is established for Islam.” All around him, however, the medieval state created by the Taliban was collapsing into unbridled chaos.
On Nov. 14, 2001, Abu Zubaydah wakes up to “really bad news.” Mohammed Atef, the military leader of Al-Qaeda, who is identified by the alias Abu Hafs, was killed in a drone strike on his home in Kabul, along with a “number of our other brothers.”
Abu Zubaydah’s diaries offer additional details about the operation.
“A filthy thing that one of the hypocrites definitely did, as he pinpointed the location in a certain way, with electronic chips thrown at the location, so the airplanes detect its frequencies, or something like that ... When they took out the bodies of the brothers from the rubble of the building, which the American airplanes struck with 12 missiles, and the body of Sheikh Abu Hafs Al-Masri was in it … the bodies were completely whole, not torn to pieces as usual … And Sheikh Abu Hafs looked like he was smiling, praise God.”
Death comes knocking for Abu Zubaydah, too, on Nov. 17 near Kandahar, where he has joined a meeting with Sayf Al-‘Adl, a top Al-Qaeda military official who remains at large, “other brothers” and Al-Tayyib Agha, the secretary to Taliban leader Mullah Omar, “so that we can meet Mulla ‘Umar, in order to understand the situation.”
The meeting was short-lived.
“Without any introduction, a missile (airplane missile) fell among or around us, and the ceiling fell on us. I came about and the dirt was all over me, so I stood up straight and did not feel anything but I felt like I was dying.”
Everyone survived the blast, Abu Zubaydah writes. But their decade-old way of life in Afghanistan was over. Amid the mounting carnage and chaos, he writes that Afghanistan “has become a strange jungle.”
Still, he believed, even if hundreds of fighters were killed, their beliefs would endure.
“Our stupid enemies do not learn,” he writes. “No matter how many Muslims they kill and no matter how long we delayed in our retaliation … we will avenge and kill 10 of them for each one of us … The events of September prove that.”
But those words were written in retreat. The Taliban was driven from Kabul in November of 2001 and lost control of its birthplace, Kandahar, the following month, effectively ending the movement’s regime in Afghanistan.
“Poor Americans, all they did was topple the state of the Taliban,” Abu Zubaydah consoles himself in his diary. “And bringing it back to power is easy.” Not quite, although that observation was partly true: The Taliban was scattered rather than destroyed; 12 years into the longest war in U.S. history, Washington has been forced to negotiate with the Taliban.
But Abu Zubaydah’s own forced exit from Afghanistan came a lot sooner. On New Year’s Day 2002, he writes that he was smuggling his comrades and their families — sometimes in disguise — out of Afghanistan and into Pakistan.
“The issues of smuggling the brothers outside of Afghanistan is still continuing, with God’s grace, through many roads, under my supervision, and with the support of a lot of loyal Pakistanis and Afghans,” he writes on Jan. 8, 2002. “We have arranged with the Pakistani and Afghan Mujahidin brothers, in order to take them in Pakistani cities, and then send out those who want to travel, and arrange with other brothers for those who want to go for foreign operations, and a specialized group might remain in Afghanistan, in special, hidden location, in order to support any movement” by the Taliban. “I will be following them out of Afghanistan, in order to keep them safe, and then I will proceed to my work.”
He continues, “In the recent past (measured by years), I used to wangle in order to bring or smuggle the brothers into Afghanistan, by all means, even with women’s clothes, for the blacks and the blondes, or those whose faces are not similar to the faces of the Afghans. And today, I wangle to bring them out of Afghanistan, all of Afghanistan, and by all means. Praise God.”
Bin Laden was still hiding out in the mountains, “in a very safe location,” guarded by a group of six Al-Qaeda operatives, while the “rest [officials] are spread around the world.”
In early February 2002, a CIA and FBI team set up shop in Pakistan, just as Abu Zubaydah had entered the country and moved into a safe house with people he had smuggled out of Afghanistan.
Perhaps mindful of the growing danger that his diaries could be seized, he writes in a Feb. 4, 2002, entry, “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?”
In a later entry he complains, “The Pakistani newspapers are saying that I’m in Peshawar, trying to reorganize Al-Qa’ida Organization, for war against the Americans, and that I am the heir of Bin Ladin, and Time [magazine] is saying that I know the Organization and those collaborating with the Organization more than Bin Ladin himself … I wish they know that I am not with Al-Qa’ida, to begin with, and that I am with them in ideology and body.”
Regardless of whether he had sworn an oath of loyalty to bin Laden — which would make him a member of Al-Qaeda — Abu Zubaydah was clearly a trusted and very senior operative in the broader movement that had Al-Qaeda at the center. He was, as he said, “with them in ideology and body.”
“The problem is not Al-Qaeda … or any organization, no matter how big or small, old or new, and the problem is not in Bin Laden, nor it is in any other individual,” Abu Zubaydah writes. “Their problem is in Islam itself.” He writes, apparently about the 9/11 attacks, that it was the “right time to wage a war against America.” But he’s critical of the operation in that it was “only a declaration of war.” Waging a war “means to work on many dimensions.”
According to him, that includes instigating racial violence; timed explosions at various locations; forest fires and fires at buildings, factories, schools and corporations; explosions at banks, public transportation depots and gas stations; and, finally, using nuclear weapons.
To that end, Abu Zubaydah was building in Pakistan an ark of sorts, assembling the most skilled explosives experts and others in the movement capable of teaching the vital skills necessary to regenerate the movement.
“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.”
On March 20, 2002, Abu Zubaydah writes his final diary entry as a free man, “Nothing new.” Eight days later, at exactly 2 a.m., CIA, FBI and Pakistani intelligence operatives raided 14 houses in Faisalabad, Pakistan, and captured 52 suspects, including Abu Zubaydah.
Abu Zubaydah, who attempted to escape, was shot in the groin, thigh and stomach. About a week later, he was whisked to a CIA black-site prison in Thailand. He now resides at the U.S. naval base at Guantanamo.