Exclusive: Inside the mind of a self-styled jihadi

Abu Zubaydah’s writings reveal emotions and ideas that experts say are typical of men who have taken up Al-Qaeda’s cause

When agents found the six volumes of Abu Zubaydah’s diary, they knew they’d acquired an intelligence bonanza.

There is one clear reason those tasked with protecting the United States from attacks of the type that claimed almost 3,000 lives on 9/11 were so interested in Zain Abidin Mohammed Husain Abu Zubaydah’s diaries: They wanted to find the mental weaknesses of a high-value captive they believed held vital information on future plots.

The CIA’s own July 2002 draft psychological assessment, which acknowledges a heavy debt to the diaries, is focused principally on what they show about how to break down an operative the CIA believed at the time might have written Al-Qaeda’s manual on resistance to interrogation.

The assessment was declassified by the CIA in 2009 and turned over to the American Civil Liberties Union as part of a Freedom of Information Act lawsuit pertaining to the treatment of prisoners in U.S. custody.

The CIA saw Abu Zubaydah as a figure of "confidence, self-assurance and authority," and his interrogators tested his resolve by subjecting him to what the George W. Bush administration called “enhanced interrogation techniques.” Abu Zubaydah experienced waterboarding 83 times before arriving at Guantanamo Bay, according to documents declassified by the CIA.

In retrospect, the CIA overstated Abu Zubaydah’s importance in Al-Qaeda. The agency named him as a co-conspirator in the 9/11 attacks and as having been “involved in every major Al-Qaeda operation.” Those allegations would be cited in Justice Department attorney John Yoo’s 2002 legal “torture” memo and drawn on, in part, to justify the use of so-called enhanced interrogation techniques on Abu Zubaydah — though those claims have subsequently been walked back by the U.S. government.

Abu Zubaydah was a tough nut to crack. But a closer read of his diaries reveals a complex backstory to the man who was determined to withhold from his interrogators as much information as possible. It’s that backstory that experts believe is vital to understanding the psychology of the small number of highly motivated young men from the Arab and Muslim world in whose minds commonly held grievances against Western power have been translated into a nihilistic ideology that rationalizes spectacular acts of violence against innocents.

“If we just go to war and blow up people, we’re likely to create more people who want to fight us than if we try to understand where they’re coming from,” said Ken Ballen, a former federal prosecutor who runs Terror Free Tomorrow, a  think tank based in Washington, D.C. “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."

Chris de Burgh, a singer cherished by Abu Zubaydah.
Mick Hutson/Redferns/Getty Images

Ballen, who also served as a congressional investigator, wrote the book “Terrorists in Love,” which explores the beliefs and motivations of a number of men captured in the course of the Bush administration’s “war on terror.” Many of their stories are very similar to Abu Zubaydah’s. They were often sensitive young men from well-off families battling inner demons and alienation, under strictures imposed by abusive fathers and religiously ordained sexual repression. Many said their turn to jihad had provided the solidarity and companionship that had previously eluded them.

That same narrative is described in Abu Zubaydah’s diaries: a deep and despairing loneliness and a relentless quest for connection and friendship always thwarted, yet to which the “brotherhood” he finds in jihad presents itself as an illusory antidote.

The CIA analysis notes some of Abu Zubaydah’s ambivalence in the early diaries over his choices: “He persisted for a few years in holding onto the possibility that he could eventually transition from jihad life back into college and his pursuit of his traditional educational, career, and family goals ... He periodically felt pangs of homesickness, longed for the company of family, and fantasized about a future as a computer expert or engineer.” But these feelings diminished over time, the analyst writes, as Abu Zubaydah blocked out such extraneous thoughts and recognized that “his mind and heart were devoted to serving Allah and Islam through his jihad.”

'Hell with' Chris de Burgh

When federal agents captured the six volumes of Abu Zubaydah's diary — along with his cell phone, computers, bomb-making materials and the man himself — they knew they had acquired an intelligence bonanza. The diaries contained extensive discussion of plots and personalities vital to understanding the threat that had exploded onto America's radar on Sept. 11, 2001. Here he also recorded his innermost fears and desires, his doubts, depressions, guilty aspirations and petty jealousies. The six handwritten notebooks provided Abu Zubaydah's captors with a rare glimpse inside the mind of a transnational orchestrator of violence whose stated goal was to "bring America to its knees."

The diaries date back to June 1990, when their author was a 19-year-old college student in India contemplating a career in information technology. They are filled with detailed accounts of life inside training camps and the front line of Afghanistan's messy civil war, but also bitter reflections on the Palestinian-in-exile's family conflicts, social disappointments and fantasies of an alternative life as a husband and father. And then there are the snippets of commentary on Hollywood and Bollywood movies, the moody lite-FM ballads of the Irish folk-rock crooner Chris de Burgh, and a passion for Pepsi. Thus Abu Zubaydah's remembrance in an October 1991 diary entry eulogizing Abu-Binan, the emir of the Khaldan training camp who was killed during a fierce battle against Afghan communists:

One day he asked me if I needed anything from ‘Peshawar’ or ‘Khaldan’ … I did not ask for a thing … So he told me: Don’t you want a ‘Pepsi’? … And he knew … as everybody over here knows, how much I love ‘Pepsi Cola’ … And so it was … he brought me two bottles of refreshments, and for his great taste, I was speechless out of bashfulness and shyness … But destiny did not allow me to drink it as I was fasting that day … Today … the first thing I did was to open the Pepsi bottle and I drank it deeply and forcefully … and … May God bless you ‘Abu-Binan'.

Poster for the popular Indian film "Dil."

Then there's Chris de Burgh, whose ballads serve as a soundtrack to the loneliness and despair Abu Zubaydah feels during his sojourn as a computer-science student in India.

“The hell with ‘Chris Deburg’ (sic) in spite of his soft and beautiful songs, yet they bring sadness and anxiety to the soul (beautiful anxiety but it is anxiety),” he wrote in 1990, in the first volume of his diary.

The Irish singer reappears in the diaries about a year later, during a conversation between Abu Zubaydah and his older brother Mahir at Khaldan. Mahir had come to the camp on behalf of their parents, hoping to persuade Abu Zubaydah, whom he addressed by his family nickname, Hani, to abandon his war and return to his studies in India. Mahir seeks to connect with his brother through small talk recorded by Abu Zubaydah in the diary.

“Hani! Have you seen the movie ‘Dil?’ It is an Indian movie that inspires the heart,” Mahir asked.

“Yes,” Abu Zubaydah responded.
“It was truly beautiful. I loved it.”

“Its songs are beautiful, I have recorded them,” Mahir said. “It was truly impressive; I have been influenced by it. I have replayed it many times on the video …”

“Mahir! The story has scenes from a love story by the British or American writer; I’m not sure, Eric Segal.”

“Anyway, the movie was wonderful!” Mahir said.

“Do you listen to Chris De Burg and (illegible)?” Abu Zubaydah asked.

“Oh Chris De Burg; especially the song 'Sailor'.”
Mahir then sings part of the song.

Abu Zubaydah is less sentimental about Hollywood movies, particularly “Rambo III,” a Reagan-era blockbuster in which Sylvester Stallone's character makes common cause with the Afghan jihad and nods approvingly as its fighters explain their concept of martyrdom. The first time Abu Zubaydah saw the movie, he writes, he was too stunned to enjoy the ironies.

"Back then, I was astonished over the extent of blood, explosions and excitement in that movie like most American movies and I used to have doubt about the relationship of America with Afghanistan … And now, after the elapse of all these years," Abu Zubaydah wrote. "By fate, one of the brothers gave us the same movie (a decade later) to watch after deleting the music and corrupted scenes from it, consistent with our human convictions. Today and after all these years … I watched this movie and I laughed loudly … I laughed … I laughed … My eyes became teary because of the deep laugh …”

In the second volume of his diary, however, Abu Zubaydah scolds himself for being “negligent” before committing himself to his jihad, because he had listened to music and watched television.

Understanding terror networks

Marc Sageman is a former CIA operations officer who has made a career of studying the minds of men like Abu Zubaydah and wrote about them in his book “Understanding Terror Networks.” Ten years ago, Sageman testified before the 9/11 Commission about a “violent Muslim revivalist social movement,” or what he referred to as the “Global Salafi Jihad.” He mentioned Abu Zubaydah’s capture in his testimony, and has spoken to at least one federal agent who interrogated the writer of a diary he describes as "an extremely important document."

He sees the mundane revelations as key to comprehending how these particular individuals are able to translate anti-Western views widely shared in the Arab and Muslim world into an ideology that claims religious authority for mass violence against civilians. After all, Abu Zubaydah's hostile attitude to the U.S. and Israel may be echoed by millions of young people in the Middle East, but only a tiny handful respond by joining organizations like Al-Qaeda.  

Now a forensic psychiatrist, Sageman said any reader surprised by the banal humanity revealed in Abu Zubaydah's diaries is laboring under a misconception that those plotting to attack Americans are demonic Hollywood bad guys, rather than three-dimensional people. 

“An enemy is a one-dimensional guy you project onto, thinking that he’s all bad, there’s nothing good about him, and you define yourself in opposite of what you think this guy is,” Sageman said. “And now your surprise is that, 'my God, this guy is a human being like everybody else. How could that be?'”

Abu Zubaydah's diaries paint a portrait of a complicated yet unremarkable figure, possessed of the same hopes, desires and fears of most young men, as well as commonly held political views on the exercise of Western power in the Middle East. The diaries also reveal a dark and damaged core that can be found in others who have followed his path of violence.

“I am thinking of joining Al-Qaeda and this is a thought that I had for a long time, possibly since I came to al-Faruq (sic) for the first time eight months ago or more. Now I might present my desire to the officials there,” Abu Zubaydah wrote on Sept. 27, 1993, in volume three of his diary.

Al-Qaeda was still in its infancy when Abu Zubaydah contemplated joining the group. Its origins date back to 1988, following the withdrawal of Soviet forces from Afghanistan. It was then that Palestinian scholar and fighter Abdullah Azzam wrote about the need for a "pioneering vanguard" of Muslim warriors who would form the base, or "qaeda," of an Islamic society and provide “freedom fighters” like Abu Zubaydah with a new direction. At his March 2007 Combatant Status Review Tribunal hearing at Guantanamo, held to determine whether he met the criteria to be held as an enemy combatant, Abu Zubaydah explained the differences between Al-Qaeda and other mujahedeen groups. He said it simply came down to “defensive jihad” versus “offensive jihad.”

Abu Zubaydah said that “defensive jihad,” which is the “doctrine” the mujahedeen practiced, “means that if an aggressor or invader invades Muslim lands, no matter where, then it is every Muslim's duty to defend the land against the invader. Our doctrine was not the same as what USAMA BIN LADEN and al Qaida were promoting, which was and is a doctrine of offensive jihad. Our doctrine has always been to go after enemy targets, and by that I mean military targets, which include military members or civilians who work for or directly support the military. I disagreed with the al Qaida philosophy of targeting innocent civilians like those in the World Trade Center.”

The sixth volume of Abu Zubaydah’s diary, however, conveys the message of joyous celebrations that followed the 9/11 attacks among the mujahedeen brotherhood.

Abu Zubaydah never ended up swearing an oath of loyalty to Osama bin Laden, a prerequisite for becoming a member of Al-Qaeda. Still, he remained an important fellow traveler connected at the highest levels, a forger and facilitator who arranged travel for fighters aligned with the organization.

Any reader surprised by the banal humanity revealed in Abu Zubaydah's diaries is laboring under a misconception that those plotting to attack Americans are demonic Hollywood bad guys.

As the son of a Palestinian exile in Saudi Arabia, Abu Zubaydah suffered the constant humiliation of the refugee in a society whose elite he could never hope to join. But things would be different in the rugged mountains of Afghanistan, he imagined, where he expected that origins would be less important than commitment to the cause in determining his place on the social ladder. 

In 1993, he writes in volume three of his diary that he was the “administrative officer” and “in charge of the military disciplinary actions” at Al Farouq, a training camp operated by Al-Qaeda. In that capacity, he describes punishing some Tajik trainees by forcing them to spend the night outside in the cold after they were caught stealing food. In another entry, he reports assuming the role of “harsh jailer” by imprisoning two trainees who had “escaped.”

Abu Zubaydah’s diaries say that trainees were free to leave camps like Khaldan if they had second thoughts. But it seems that trainees who were associated with a special program he refers to as the “Tajikistan Project” at Al-Qaeda’s Al Farouq camp were governed by a different set of rules designed to create an elite military core for an Islamist Tajik party. "The focus this time is certainly on ‘quality not quantity,'” he writes, and then cites an extraordinary role model: "This is the policy which Israel followed, a small community facing a large number, who are the Arabs, at least from the perspective of numbers.”

But the trainees disappoint him. In a 1993 diary entry, he dismisses the majority of the Tajik trainees as “unfit for jihad” because, he writes, they do not understand who their real enemy is.

“Maybe they are fit to be a soldier or a warrior, but for them to be a warrior for the sake of Allah … I don’t think so … The communist ideology still controls their behavior, even if they deny that … 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.”

Abu Zubaydah's mind sometimes wanders far from his commitments to jihad. “The smell of perfume sometimes kills me that I want nothing but to smell that perfume even if I have to give up oxygen during inhaling the perfume,” he writes on July 21, 1993, in volume three of his diary.

In the same volume, he is at Jihad Wal, a training camp near Khost, and wakes up one morning to “wonderful weather,” which he writes reminds him of Paris, “the city of fog and dreams” — or, as he refers to it, “the city of fog and no morals.” (It’s unknown whether he ever visited the city.)

He describes breathtaking views of the mountains that “make you dream and fly with poetry … no high-rise or expensive structures or buildings” and “tiny bugs” that “dance ballet by the little swamps.”

'Virgins of heaven'

Even after he has committed himself to jihad and has immersed himself in training in the harsh environment of mujahedeen camps in Afghanistan, he writes that he continues to have erotic dreams that lead to ejaculation and feelings of shame — although his aspirations now have shifted, he insists, to "the virgins of heaven" whose favors he will enjoy as the fruits of martyrdom.

He also desires a wife and son: “My own son; play with him, be kind to him and even spank him. Yes! Spank him, why not?”

His wish to be a father is a recurring theme. During his first year of training in 1991, a Palestinian-American family shows up at Khaldan:

Anyway, it is the little one that I felt excited to see, I don’t know why! Quickly I greeted him and kissed him eagerly. Besides, the machinegun he was holding makes his appearance even more beautiful … I could only watch him and the emotion almost swarming out of my chest and choking me. I truly don’t know whom I do see in this child, Adam, that is his name; do I see Sultan in him? My brother whom I almost cry longing to (see]) him or do I see my child in him, the one whom I wish is next to me and that I am playing with him and breathe the fatherly love that I feel, in him. Or do I simply see a beautiful little kid and I love him for his childhood? 

These flights of fancy are sometimes followed, however, by diary entries reiterating an uncompromising worldview.

“O God, our hostility is directed at the mercenary and traitor governments that support the Jews and Christians,” he writes in an August 1998 entry in volume four of his diary. “In addition to the original enemies, the Christians, Jews and Twathees (sic) (phonetic spelling). 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.”

“I wished to see America’s fall and destruction, and the destruction of the State of Israel," he writes in volume six, after the U.S. invaded Afghanistan in 2001. "I wished to torture and kill them myself with a knife.”

Earlier, on Oct. 26, 1993, he writes in volume three:

Dear Hani: What should I tell you … I am fed up … life is getting worse in my eyes … I know its sweet for a while but humans are all like animals, and you cannot live proud in the jungle unless you are stronger than its king; the lion ... The crimes of the Christian Serbs in Bosnia make me explode but what is the way for revenge and victory? The whole world is plotting the destruction of Muslims.

In another entry on the same day, he describes a sense of feeling “hopeless” and “going nowhere in my Jihad, and many other things that just writing them makes me want to vomit.”

Instability was one of Abu Zubaydah’s great fears. He writes about being left “high and dry” if the jihad to which he has committed his life were to suddenly end. How would he earn a living without a college degree? “The psychological instability or the fear of the future as before was due to the lack in the ‘reliance on God’ principle due to the pagan society,” he writes in the second volume of his diary in October 1992. “Indeed, I don’t see the difference except from certain positions; otherwise I’m as I am, sometimes optimistic and sometimes pessimistic.” 

Still, in a later volume he toys with the idea of completing his computer studies. He returned to studying “English Language (in the Evening),” because “I decided to return to the world of Computers (Late … isn’t it?),” he writes in 1999, in the fifth volume of his diary, one year before bin Laden and the Taliban shut down the Khaldan camp.

Final interrogation notes

Ali Soufan, the former FBI special agent who first interrogated Abu Zubaydah after his capture in Pakistan, described him as “probably one of the smartest people I ever interrogated in my life.”

That was backed up by the CIA psychological assessment of Abu Zubaydah. “He showed strong signs of sympathetic nervous system arousal (possibly fear) when he experienced the initial ‘confrontational’ dislocation of expectation during an interrogation system,” the document noted. “Due to his incredibly strong resolve, expertise in civilian warfare, resistance to interrogation tactics (the latter two which he trained hundreds of others on), this experience was one of the few that led to him providing significant actionable intelligence.”

But it added: “He was able to quickly bounce back from these most disconcerting moments and regain an air of calm confidence and resolve in not parting with other threat information.”

“He’s a borderline genius, I truly believe that,” Soufan said last year in a little-known interview with the Constitution Project, a bipartisan group that examined the treatment of “war on terror” prisoners.

Soufan was at a loss trying to figure out what made Abu Zubaydah — a walking contradiction — tick. At times, Soufan said, it seemed as if he were speaking with Che Guevara, an anti-imperialist leftist rather than a jihad ideologue.

“One day we were talking about things, and he’s giving me a big lecture about (globalization) and how, for the sake of keeping world prices, you know, the U.S. destroyed thousands of tons of fruit that can feed the world two times over, and stuff like that. And how corporations are actually running the world, running America, and the big companies, big corporations, globalism, he’s going, like, off. So I’m, 'You’re giving me a headache man, I’m going to go and get me a cup a coffee or something, do you want anything?' And I was leaving the cell, and he said, 'Yeah, get me a Pepsi.' And I looked at him like, after all this lecture, really? And then he said to me, 'Ah, man, you caught me with this one.’”

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Abu Zubaydah

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