Zain Abidin Mohammed Husain Abu Zubaydah’s diaries portray a man driven by a hope for “martyrdom” in a campaign of spectacular violence to “bring America to its knees.” But it also shows his improbable dreams of a post-jihad life as a husband, father and computer engineer, his thirst for Pepsi cola and his sentimental attachment to the love songs of British-Irish crooner Chris de Burgh.
A government translation of the diaries 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. Abu Zubaydah’s notes on his life in the Afghan camps during the 1990s and his involvement with Al-Qaeda became a key element in the Bush administration’s case that Abu Zubaydah was a conspirator in the 9/11 attacks, with a hand in “every major Al-Qaeda operation” — an assessment the U.S. government has since walked back, although he is still likely to see out his days in U.S. custody.
But what the diaries do reveal is something of the complexity of Abu Zubaydah and of the networks and personalities that produced Al-Qaeda. The diaries reveal a mindscape that mingles a fondness for the casual trappings of Western culture — such as cheesy pop music and Pepsi — with hard-core anti-Western sentiments and a willingness to embrace violence and death for the cause.
Though to many readers, Abu Zubaydah’s sentiments might seem shocking, experts say that is precisely why such documents are valuable. They offer a full glimpse of the personal reasoning that brings men like Abu Zubaydah to a point that they’re willing to undertake acts of mass violence that they believe are sanctioned by their faith.
“If we don’t understand what’s motivating people, then how are we going to effectively deal with them? If we can understand, we can respond. You’re not excusing anything someone like Abu Zubaydah may have done. You’re just trying to understand the complexity of this person and why he did what he did,” said Ken Ballen, a former federal prosecutor who runs Terror Free Tomorrow, a think tank based in Washington, D.C.
In one entry from 1993, Abu Zubaydah captures the ambiguities created by U.S. support for the original Afghan jihad against the Soviets and their Afghan proxies, which had called thousands of young Arabs like him to the Hindu Kush. He writes bitterly about the quality of some Tajik recruits who appeared unaware that their ideology demanded hostility toward the U.S. “Most of them, such as Afghans, know their enemy to be the communists, but they do not know then enmity of the brother, which is America or the idea of democracy. Some of them love ‘America’ as a symbol of freedom … and this is the most awful thing,” he wrote.
In another entry, after the U.S. invasion of Afghanistan in 2001, he writes, “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.” He justifies conflict and his commitment to jihad with references to international conflicts. “The enemies of Islam who occupied our lands and humiliated us, and they are intransigent to our religion. Look at Israel, whatever they do, no one talks, and if we attempt to defend our land and ourselves, they would say that we are terrorists. Therefore, we are terrorists,” he writes in an August 1998 entry in Volume 4.