Zubaydah diaries shed new light on Twin Towers and links to bin Laden
The writings bear unprecedented witness to events around the 2001 attacks and detail his desires to carry on the fight
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The writings bear unprecedented witness to events around the 2001 attacks and detail his desires to carry on the fight
Al Jazeera has obtained a copy of the secret personal diaries of Zain Abidin Mohammed Husain Abu Zubaydah, one of the highest-profile prisoners in Guantanamo Bay, Cuba. The six notebooks, which were obtained from a former U.S. government intelligence official who worked with the CIA and FBI on Al-Qaeda’s rise to power, were discovered at a safe house in Pakistan where Abu Zubaydah was captured in 2002.
Today is your turn, America
Today, your turn has come …
— from Abu Zubaydah’s diaries, September 2001
Abu Zubaydah clearly knew something big was in the works. Returning from Pakistan in mid-2001, he writes in his diary about an atmosphere of restless anticipation in Afghanistan, which was now his home, “People were waiting for the new operation, which Sheikh Bin Laden announced.” But when the news comes that Al-Qaeda hijackers had killed almost 3,000 Americans on Sept. 11, Abu Zubaydah is awed by the scale and audacity of the attacks.
Al-Qaeda had twice struck high-profile blows against U.S. interests abroad — the 1998 embassy bombings in Kenya and Tanzania and the December 2000 bombing of the USS Cole in the Yemeni port of Aden. But spectacular strikes at the power centers of what bin Laden liked to call "the far enemy" was beyond the imagination of even many of bin Laden’s acolytes and fellow travelers in Afghanistan.
“On the 11th of September, a passenger airplane hit one of the giant towers … and people were surprised by something that was unimaginable,” Abu Zubaydah writes 17 days later. “As soon as they caught up their breath, another airplane hit the other tower, so screaming and crying was heard and the surprise was magnified. A third airplane hit the American Department of Defense building (the Pentagon). Then, the fourth airplane tried to hit the White House, but it did not hit the target, so it swerved away from its target; then we later heard that it crashed or was downed in another location, and news kept coming.”
“Happiness was not enough,” he adds. “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.”
During a March 2007 hearing at Guantanamo to determine his status as an enemy combatant, Abu Zubaydah claimed to have condemned the 9/11 attacks in his diaries. But the government’s English translation of his journals shows an ecstatic celebration of American blood spilled.
Abu Zubaydah makes clear throughout his diaries that he is what a literary critic might call an unreliable narrator. He writes to “Hani 2” — an invented older, wiser version of himself — to create an inner sounding board for his despair, doubt and delusion, fears, repressed desires and petty jealousies.
He is hardly consistent in his entries, often leaving months between entries to Hani 2, leaving the reader guessing for the most part as to his role and responsibilities in the world of violent activism to which he has dedicated himself. And as the stakes rise — along with his profile — on the radar of hostile intelligence agencies, he is increasingly aware of the danger that his journals could one day fall into enemy hands. As a result, when it comes to certain official matters, the diaries are anything but a tell-all.
“My secret is well kept,” he writes in October of 1998. “I cannot even divulge to you, for it is very wrong that in my situation, I should have a diary for all its contents are traceable to him.”
(It is not clear whether by saying “him” he is referring to a fellow conspirator or to himself in the third person, as he sometimes does.)
What the diaries do offer is an unprecedented — even if partial — glimpse into the inner life of a senior self-styled “holy warrior” close to the center of the events that unfolded before, during and after what he calls “a declaration of war” on the United States.
By the spring of 1999, Abu Zubaydah was a seasoned veteran of the jihad. He went to Afghanistan in 1991, at the tail end of the wave of radicalized Arab youth summoned to fight the Soviets in a program backed by the CIA and allied Arab and Pakistani intelligence agencies. But the Red Army left in 1989, and Moscow’s Afghan protege Najibullah fell in 1992, four months after the collapse of the Soviet Union. The enemies in Abu Zubaydah’s “holy war” were now Israel and the U.S. and the “apostate” Western-aligned regimes of the Arab world. Not all the other mujahedeen were as clear, he complains, expressing exasperation when a group of Tajik trainees under his supervision expresses enthusiasm for America, the erstwhile patron of their jihad against the communists.
Abu Zubaydah was as much in the sights of Western powers as they were in his. On April 19, 1999, he writes in his diary, “I am still … managing business from home and do not move around much … especially after my original name and surname appeared more than once in the newspapers.”
Long before his name surfaced in U.S. intelligence and media reports, the Pakistanis were routinely raiding guesthouses that Abu Zubaydah operated in Peshawar and identified him as an “extremist terrorist.”
“There are news reports about an extensive raid that will be launched by the Pakistani police, in order to put pressure on Arab extremists who are in Peshawar, and whom the Arab countries had suffered from them, especially Algeria and Egypt,” he writes on May 18, 1994, in the fourth volume of his diaries. “I was also labeled and described as being extremist, and as an extremist terrorist … A brutal fundamentalist, as we are being labeled by Arab and Western media machines, so I am waiting to be captured too as one of them.”
Peshawar, where Abu Zubaydah conducted much of his business, was “considered to be a transit station from the camps to the battle fronts and vice versa, and from one battle front to another,” he writes in Volume 2 of his diaries.
He added that Peshawar is also seen as the launch point into the interior of Afghanistan, and “it is were (sic) the administrative and management offices for the Afghan mujahideen parties exist. And it is where there are houses that are designated to welcome the supporters and the cohorts of the Afghani (sic) jihad.”
Because he served as a facilitator for trainees who went on to engage in Al-Qaeda-funded attacks, Abu Zubaydah’s name routinely popped up as someone who may have played a role in operational planning. He offers some insight into how he became so well known to authorities. In 2000, a colleague whose travel documents he had forged left Karachi with his family on an airplane bound for London. But the jet made an unexpected stop in in Dubai, and passengers were told they had to switch planes.
“Our brother refused to go down for fear of document inspection … and when they asked him to get off the plane, he tried to reach the cockpit, as the Pakistani Newspapers indicated that he had Hijacked the plane or he wanted to force the pilot to takeoff to London, but they were able to capture him and was returned to Karachi, Pakistan … The crime: An attempt to hijack a plane. The problem: The new mobile phone number that I have acquired to finish my business through … The number of the person in charge of receiving the Brothers who come from abroad and taking them to the routes that lead to the Al-Shaykh (bin Laden) Military Camps. Both numbers are with the brother … So I quickly terminated the contract, or to be more exact, we broke the Sim Card.”
The only public mention of this attempted hijacking is found on a website called Airliners.net, in a Dec. 19, 2000, forum titled Attempted Hijack of London Bound PIA 747.
Abu Zubaydah knew well that U.S. authorities were determined to capture him. He writes in his diary that his sources in Pakistani intelligence had tipped him off.
In 1999, Abu Zubaydah was residing at a guesthouse in Peshawar associated with the Khaldan training camp in Afghanistan, his mujahedeen alma mater, to which he had returned in an administrative capacity.
But the following year, the Taliban ordered the camp shut down because its emir had refused to hand it over to bin Laden. Not all the like-minded foreign fighters in Afghanistan before 9/11 were directly answerable to bin Laden, even some of those who shared his broad goals.
The closure of Khaldan appears to reflect power struggles in a wider movement that bin Laden was trying to consolidate. Abu Zubaydah writes about it in a May 30, 2000, entry.
“It has been a while, maybe close to a year since the Taliban (the government that’s in control of Kabul) are trying to restrict the movements inside the military camps … The pressure is mounting on them … for the sake of Bin Laden,” Abu Zubaydah writes in the fifth volume of his diaries.
But for “a Palestinian like me with no homeland, no passport and no identity,” he writes, the closure of the camp — by a Saudi, no less — that he had called home for the best part of a decade was a devastating blow.
His appeals to bin Laden to reopen Khaldan fell on deaf ears. Bin Laden and the Taliban declined to reopen the camp.
“The latest news from inside … the Taliban have decided to close all the military camps except Al-Shaykh military camp,” Abu Zubaydah continues on May 30, referring to training camps operated by bin Laden. “Indeed, they closed our military camp.”
Abu Zubaydah’s greatest fear, expressed in Volume 1, written a decade earlier, appeared to be coming true. What would he do if there were “no more jihad?”
“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,” he complains in another diary entry written on the same day. At times, he seemed to regard bin Laden more as a competitor than a mentor. Abu Zubaydah writes that more jihad volunteers chose to train at Khaldan than at the full-fledged Al-Qaeda military camps bin Laden operated.
In September 1999, he describes what he sees as a betrayal, repeating a familiar trope from eight years earlier. “I always wished to find a trustworthy friend,” he writes, “but I couldn’t find one.”
He writes a month later, “The loneliness is killing me.” The “holy warrior,” as he refers to himself in one diary entry, tells his alter ego of desires that seem at odds with his relentlessly restated goal of martyrdom. He wants a wife and child, he writes in 1999 — another recurring theme from his first volume. But tending to the business of his cause was his priority. Abu Zubaydah was “drowned in work,” though his diaries offer few details of what that entails — beyond a sense that he was responsible for moving men and money around in pursuit of plots too secret to share with Hani 2 or with the enemies he assumed might one day read his musings.
On Dec. 12, 1999, Jordanian police arrested more than a dozen people who were accused of planning to attack American and Israeli tourists at a hotel and other sites in Amman, Jordan.
Two days later, a 34-year-old Algerian named Ahmed Ressam was arrested in possession of bomb components at the U.S.-Canada border and confessed to planning a New Year’s Eve attack on Los Angeles International Airport.
It was Ressam who told the FBI that Abu Zubaydah was the emir of Khaldan and was equal to bin Laden — a statement Ressam later recanted but nonetheless elevated Abu Zubaydah’s importance in the minds of U.S. security agencies.
The plots in Jordan and Los Angeles became known as the millennium attacks, and U.S. and Middle Eastern intelligence officials accused Abu Zubaydah of being the key planner of both operations. Soon after the arrests, he was described in numerous news reports as the coordinator of bin Laden’s external operations and a trusted member of his inner circle.
Zubaydah placed a phone call to his family in Saudi Arabia about two weeks after both plots in which he was named as an operational planner. He hadn’t spoken with them in years.
“One of the brothers has searched and spared no effort until he got their private telephone number … and when it happened and I talked to them, it was a very joyous moment."
And in September 2000, Abu Zubaydah was among six people sentenced to death in absentia in Jordan for the millennium plot.
If he was intimately involved in the planning of those attacks, it’s not reflected in his diaries — nor would it be, of course, given his self-censorship. He does, however, mention on Oct. 13, 1998, that he is planning something that requires “lots of time … and a lot of effort, money and patience.”
He doesn’t write much about operations. But on Oct. 18, 2000, he writes, “I pray to God to help me in executing my plan that I have been contemplating for the last three years, a plan with three dimensions … (Remote-controlled serial explosions, serial assassinations and burning forests and farms) … At a specific time, I pray to God to help us in this even though the technical aspect of it is incomplete as of yet.”
The goal: “To bring America down to its knees.”
Abu Zubaydah returned to Afghanistan sometime in May or June 2001. He had spent the preceding months working on a plan that took him to Kabul, Jalalabad and other cities.
When he entered Afghanistan, he was carrying about $50,000, he notes in Volume 6 of his diaries. It wasn’t much "to participate in any jihadist operation against the Jews" but it was the best he could do under the circumstances.
He had agreed to work with a number of “groups or members” during an earlier visit to the country. He doesn’t identify them. But he spoke with his contacts, which included “brothers and Sheikhs" and they were supportive and promised to provide him with additional funds later.
“God willing, for other operations against the Jews as well, rather, specifically for the Jews, the enemies of God, especially at this time as the intifada in Palestine is at its extreme (operations inside or outside Palestine, wherever they are found),” Zubaydah wrote in a diary entry two weeks after the 9/11 attacks.
The U.S. Treasury Department had named him a specially designated global terrorist and blocked his assets in January of that year. The United Nations had labeled him a leading associate of bin Laden’s and Al-Qaeda.
As far back as 1994, Abu Zubaydah writes that he is trying to save the training camp and the guesthouse he ran, House of Martyrs, from “unnatural death.”
“The resources are shrinking … We must have a secure financial source, so it will not come to an end (the camp),” he writes on July 14, 1996.
About a year later, he writes that bin Laden has stepped in and offered assistance.
“Bin Laden re-submitted his offer of unity to us and the brothers inside requested me to deliberate the issue,” he writes in Volume 4 on Aug. 13, 1997.
U.S. officials have claimed that bin Laden provided indirect financial support to Khaldan while allowing the camp to operate independently. Other funding, Abu Zubaydah writes, came from the “Saudi security apparatus which controls the Services office,” the very office, he notes in the first volume of his diaries, “that handles jihad matters and Arab Mujahideen’s (sic) organization as well as support to both Arab and Afghani (sic) Mujahideen.”
Funding for the camp was also provided by relief organizations that served as fronts for Khaldan operations.
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.
The Washington Post and Guardian won a Pulitzer Prize for reporting on NSA surveillance programs