Exclusive: Torturing Abu Zubaydah and the art of deception

As a guinea pig for ‘enhanced interrogation,’ Gitmo captive ™had a well-developed technique for misleading interrogators

A guard watches over detainees at the U.S. military prison in Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, in 2009.
John Moore/Getty Images

Zain Abidin Mohammed Husain Abu Zubaydah had endured days of beatings, humiliation and being tied up in a stress position. But his Pakistani-intelligence interrogators were not giving up as they grilled the self-styled jihadi on his role among the Arab volunteers who had gone to Afghanistan to fight the Soviets but were now often suspected of plotting attacks against the West.

Although the CIA had worked with Pakistani and Arab intelligence agencies to support these volunteer networks in the 1980s, the 1993 World Trade Center bombing was the first sign of a dramatic blowback, and Pakistan’s security services were now under pressure from their U.S. allies to crack down on an enterprise they had originally helped nurture.

One officer repeatedly struck Abu Zubaydah, according to the vivid account written in 1995 and 1996 in the fourth volume of his diaries — the U.S. government translation of which has been obtained exclusively by Al Jazeera.

“I want you to talk about your life for the last 10 years,” the officer told his captive. Today one of 14 high-value detainees at Guantanamo Bay, Abu Zubaydah back then was a leading figure in the Arab mujahedeen milieu from which Al-Qaeda emerged.

Leg restraints in an interview room at Camp V, styled after state-of-the-art U.S. federal prisons, at Guantanamo Bay.
Paul J. Richards/AFP/Getty Images

Abu Zubaydah was not going to confess. When asked by his Pakistani tormentors for specific information — by his own account — he gave the impression of suffering greater physical pain than was the case and eventually offered false information in order to stop the abuse.

“Who is your trainer?” the officer asked, referring to the identity of the individual who trained him in weapons at Khaldan camp in Afghanistan.

“My teacher’s name is Mahmud,” Abu Zubaydah replied.

“Mahmud who?”

“Mahmud Al-Milaiji,” he answered, confident that his interrogator would not be aware that this was the name of an Egyptian film star. Abu Zubaydah would repeat the name of the Egyptian actor during a later CIA interrogation session, according to the book “The Black Banners,” written by Ali Soufan, an FBI special agent who was present at the CIA black site where Abu Zubaydah was rendered after his capture.

Abu Zubaydah was found along with his diaries in Pakistan on March 28, 2002, having fled the collapse of the Taliban regime. In the hands of the CIA, he became something of a guinea pig for the George W. Bush administration's interrogation procedures, which many groups, including top human-rights organizations, have labeled as torture. Although Al Jazeera has not seen the three subsequent diary volumes that Abu Zubaydah wrote while in CIA custody, according to his lawyers, they are a chronicle of his torture at the hands of U.S. captors.

(John Yoo's memo) authorized the interrogation of Abu Zubaydah using 10 techniques, including waterboarding, sleep deprivation, cramped confinement, stress positions, wall slamming and being placed in a confinement box with insects.

On Aug. 1, 2002, five months after Abu Zubaydah’s capture, the U.S. Justice Department’s Office of Legal Counsel sent the White House a memo drafted by attorney John Yoo and signed by his boss, Assistant Attorney General Jay Bybee. It authorized the interrogation of Abu Zubaydah using 10 techniques, including waterboarding, sleep deprivation, cramped confinement, stress positions, wall slamming and being placed in a confinement box with insects. This last technique was inspired by his diaries, where he had written of his fear of bugs.

Yoo’s memo asserted that Abu Zubaydah had been one of the planners of the 9/11 attacks, the 1998 East Africa embassy bombings and every other major assault carried out by Al-Qaeda — claims later significantly pulled back by U.S. authorities.

On April 27, 2002, Newsweek reported, under the headline “How Good Is Abu Zubaydah’s Information?” that he was the source of information leading to two U.S. domestic terrorism warnings pertaining to possible attacks against banks, supermarkets and shopping malls.

'Your jihad is over'

The chronicle of his Pakistan torture experience in his diaries raises the question of whether Abu Zubaydah attempted to confound his American interrogators, too, by concealing information while appearing to be releasing gems of intelligence. Obviously, unlike his Pakistani interrogators in 1995, the CIA may have been using physical duress in conjunction with other more sophisticated methods. Still, the diaries  which could be painting a rosier picture than was the case of his performance under physical assault — suggest that Abu Zubaydah saw interrogation and torture as a contest from which he could emerge with his secrets intact, having fooled his questioners.

Abu Zubaydah had been captured at a Pakistani checkpoint as he drove with another man — a Yemeni from Saudi Arabia — on a journey in a mini-convoy of two vehicles delivering materials to comrades moved to a safe house, the House of Exile in Babi Jadeed, because of a crackdown by Pakistani police and intelligence services. 

They had been looking for Ramzi Yousef, mastermind of the 1993 World Trade Center bombing. Before he was caught, Yousef was one of the most notorious residents of the House of Martyrs, the guesthouse Abu Zubaydah ran and “the center of terrorism, as it’s called,” Abu Zubaydah wrote.

He recounted in his diary, “The police stopped us … I didn’t say a word. The police said to me, while pointing at me to come down, in a broken English, as if the Arabs are English speaking, he said, ‘Your Jihad is over.'”

Abu Zubaydah was repeatedly tortured by Pakistani authorities.
Inter Press Service/Getty Images

Abu Zubaydah handed the border guard a United Nations refugee card he acquired earlier in the year, but the ploy did not work, and he and his passenger were taken to an office in the nearby Pakistani city of Peshawar. He recounted a frantic attempt to get rid of some seals that he had used to make fake Afghan passports for his comrades:

They decided to search us before being presented to the person in charge, and I was scared that they might discover the faked seals that I was carrying with me, so I said, I need to go to the bathroom (to urinate) but they didn’t allow me before doing a search. But I insisted that I can’t stand it any more, and that I will urinate in my pants. So they had to take me to the bathroom. After I closed the door, and get rid of the plastic seals, and left the wooden parts in the upper window … Then I pulled the flush and all the seals disappeared in the toilet. So I went out cheerfully because I don’t have a problem now.

However, he had forgotten one seal in a pocket, which was soon found. Abu Zubaydah wrote that he tried to portray himself as a “poor oppressed reporter who is calling for democracy and fighting dictatorship.” But the Pakistani officer didn’t believe him. “F--- you don’t try to bluff,” he reportedly said.

Soon the beatings began. Abu Zubaydah was taken downstairs to a prison and waited as a police car packed with Pakistani soldiers arrived. He sat in the backseat, handcuffed. The officer was in the front seat. “They took me around most of the places in the city (at night), and showed me to whomever they encountered, but no one could identify me … So they beat me up in the street and in front of the public while I was tied up. I could only push them back or scream in their faces.”

The Pakistanis were trying to force Abu Zubaydah to identify the location of the House of Martyrs. He was hit using shoes and facial slaps. Then he was taken to the upper floor of a house and thrown to the ground. Two of the men grabbed his feet “while the officer started flogging using a heavy stick.”

Abu Zubaydah wrote that he “turned to deceit” to get the Pakistanis to stop beating him.

“I played a theatrical role; I cried loudly while pointing to my head with my hand, then the beating stopped, and he wanted to check out what happened, so I held his hand and put it on the wound toward the opening.”

So they beat me up in the street and in front of the public while I was tied up. I could only push them back or scream in their faces.

Abu Zubaydah, 1995

while detained in Pakistan

In Volume 2 of his diaries, Abu Zubaydah wrote that he suffered a shrapnel wound to his head, which left a small hole in his skull, while performing ablutions on a mountain in Gardez, Afghanistan. He temporarily lost his sight and hearing and the ability to move his body. He also lost part of his memory, the ability to speak and write for about seven months. He wrote in an entry that reading his “memoirs help(ed) me memory (sic) to recall everything.”

At the interrogation, Abu Zubaydah contorted his fingers to make it appear that the beating “will leave me in a state of nervous shock … I opened my right hand keeping two of my fingers twisted, and said, ‘I cannot control them.’” The officer “became more scared, left the room and lighted a cigarette hoping that the smoking will calm down his anger.”

But he returned about 15 minutes later and started beating Abu Zubaydah again.

“I am not going to let you go even if you die, where is the house?” he said.

“I only answered with a few words trying to show that my nervous (sic) had an impact on my tongue … But he started beating me again more forcefully while I was shouting at them in English, ‘you animals!” Abu Zubaydah wrote.

The officer left the room while a soldier continued to beat Abu Zubaydah. He was then taken to a prison at Qura Qabrastan. The officer, Abu Zubaydah wrote in his diary, “ordered that I should be tied up to the high bars so I can’t sit down or sleep during the night, and in fact that was what happened.”

“Hours passed by and I was feeling the pain in the bottom of my foot (The location of the beating). I also felt the pain in the calf, and the thigh, because of standing a long time … And I started to realize their intention, they must be trying to make me reach a nervous breakdown so I will confess with everything I know at the time of interrogation … I relied on my determination and rested against the bars and tried to sleep, and I really slept while standing, and when the pain increased in one foot, I woke up and leaned on the other foot so I could sleep.”

The technique the Pakistanis used on Abu Zubaydah was a stress position, one of 10 “enhanced interrogation methods” the CIA used on him. Almost immediately after his capture, according to declassified documents released several years ago, top Bush administration officials discussed using an “alternative” set of interrogation methods “because the CIA believed that Abu Zubaydah was withholding imminent-threat information during the initial interrogation sessions.”

A Viet Cong prisoner is interrogated by U.S. forces in a stress position in Thuong Duc, Vietnam.
National Archives

The CIA prepared a psychological assessment of Abu Zubaydah in July 2002, based heavily on his six volumes of diaries, that focused on how to break down a man the CIA then believed was the No. 3 person in Al-Qaeda’s hierarchy. 

His diaries provide clues to how he may have hoped to respond to physical pain inflicted by his CIA interrogators — although what actually transpired in the course of his “enhanced interrogation” by U.S. operatives remains unknown.

During his interrogation in Pakistan, after a night of half-sleeping in a stress position, Abu Zubaydah once again faced the interrogator with the “big mustache,” who questioned him about the fake passport seals. Abu Zubaydah was returned to the prison cell, where, he said, he spent more than two days “standing on my feet, almost torn down.” But “God gave me help because as long as I am thinking of (the brothers who are outside the prison, I don’t feel the pain, but when I stop thinking of them, then I think of pain).”

Prince at House of Martyrs?

Another day, Abu Zubaydah was taken by bus along with his Yemeni companion to an office he calls “The Special Branch.” There, he watched the interrogation of a young man he believed might have been a Pakistani who plotted a failed assassination attempt on Prime Minister Benazir Bhutto. It’s unclear why Abu Zubaydah was present at the session. He wrote that he was forced to “sit in some place, and from the opening of the door we were revealed to — or we can see at the same time — a veiled person.”

He said after the man responded to the interrogator’s questions, he and his companion were quickly taken back to the bus and returned to the prison. Abu Zubaydah was then hooded, tied up and interrogated again by the “huge man with the big mustache.” The room, Abu Zubaydah wrote, was crowded and he could hear English words coming from near the vicinity of the “huge man.”

“The huge man started with a question which I was expecting … He said, ‘What do you know about the House of Martyrs?’ He spoke the words ‘House of Martyrs’ in Arabic, and the rest in English.”

Abu Zubaydah responded, he said, “In a very cool manner, ‘I heard about it.’”

The officer used his baton and smashed Abu Zubaydah “on the upper calf, just in the back of my left knee.”

“I said angrily, ‘What happened?’”

He was asked another question, “What do you know about the (prince of the House of Martyrs)?”

“I said angrily, ‘I don’t know him.’” The officer smashed Abu Zubaydah on the back of his calf again.

After repeated blows he said, “If the interrogation will continue in this manner, then go ahead and writing down all the answers that are appropriate for you, then I will sign, and everything will be over.” As the beating continued, Abu Zubaydah started giving false names to his questioners. He denied that he was the “prince” of the House of Martyrs. When asked about his affiliation, he denied that he was the emir of the Khaldan training camp.

“I am a sick man, and I am still taking medications … for my memory case, do you think that anyone is going to rely on me to run a camp,” he said.

Waterboarding equipment used for torture.

After his capture by the United States, Abu Zubaydah’s interrogations became more intense. In “The Black Banners” Soufan, one of two agents who first interrogated Abu Zubaydah at that CIA black-site prison, suggested the “enhanced interrogation techniques” were an experiment. It’s a word that he uses more than a dozen times in his book to describe the techniques first used on Abu Zubaydah.

Soufan interrogated Abu Zubaydah using traditional rapport-building techniques that, Soufan said, resulted in cooperation. It was only after two psychologists under contract to the CIA took over the interrogation in the weeks after Abu Zubaydah’s capture and used abusive methods that he began to clam up. Soufan left the black site, according to an interview he gave “60 Minutes” after the publication of his book in 2011, when one of the psychologists introduced a box to be used during Abu Zubaydah’s interrogation session that resembled a coffin.

The effectiveness of the CIA’s interrogation of Abu Zubaydah is questioned in a 6,000-page report prepared by the Senate Select Committee on Intelligence, which spent four years investigating the CIA’s so-called rendition, detention and interrogation program. According to Sen. Dianne Feinstein, D-Calif., who chaired the panel, the report “uncovers startling details about the CIA detention and interrogation program and raises critical questions about intelligence operations and oversight.” Abu Zubaydah figures prominently in the report, the executive summary of which Al Jazeera is seeking from the Justice Department under a Freedom of Information Act lawsuit.

It is uncertain whether being held by the CIA was Abu Zubaydah’s first experience of American intelligence operatives during interrogations. He wrote that some questioning took place while he was hooded. He said at one point he heard “… some people leaving the room quietly, and I later learned that they were Americans who came to watch the interrogation with the one who is supposed to be the prince of the House of Martyrs.”

Former CIA operations officer Marc Sageman, who was based in Islamabad in the late 1980s, is now a forensic psychiatrist and reviewed Abu Zubaydah’s diaries for Al Jazeera. He believes the Americans Abu Zubaydah referred to were FBI agents who were in Pakistan hunting for Ramzi Yousef’s fellow conspirators. The FBI would not respond to questions about that possibility.

The effectiveness of the CIA’s interrogation of Abu Zubaydah is questioned in a 6,000-page report prepared by the Senate Select Committee on Intelligence, which spent four years investigating.

Abu Zubaydah wrote that he later learned that eight of his brothers, whom the police had arrested and whom he identifies by name, “were Mujahedeen and the others were employed by the relief agencies … They were arrested because one of them was accused of supporting Yusif Ramzi financially.” Abu Zubaydah wrote that they were eventually freed after paying the Pakistanis a bribe of more than half a million rupees.

After the “Americans” left the room, Abu Zubaydah’s hood was removed. He contorted his fingers again to make it appear as if he had a nervous breakdown. He refused to eat for three days after being returned to his prison cell. He was allowed to make a phone call, which he used to call his brothers at the House of Exile guesthouse and warned them that they should leave because they may be arrested.

The Pakistanis brought Abu Zubaydah before a judge, and he was charged with being “one of those Arab Mujahideen who has been left behind with no residency permit.” He waved his U.N. refugee card, but the judge ruled that he should be deported. He was taken to a central jail, where he was detained for three months.

But the U.N. came to his rescue. He wrote, “The United infidel nations started its job by contacting the ministry of the interior to establish my right for residency as it was stated before, so I was expecting to stay for two months in the prison …” Abu Zubaydah said an Italian and a Pakistani official from the U.N. visited him during that time and asked him about the other Arabs detained in the prison. He lied to them too, saying, “I am scared from them; they are fundamentalists.”

“Good! Be aware (sic) of them!” one of the U.N. officials said.

“I said, ‘I hate terrorism,’” Abu Zubaydah continued.

The U.N. official, “Mister Ferlando,” said after he left, “You look like a terrorist, but I know you well (apparently he meant my beard) … I said to myself, ‘Only if you knew!'”

Upon his release, Abu Zubaydah wrote that he and the brothers moved to a new guesthouse, away from the police, and he began “to steer the show one more time regarding … Khaldun affairs.”

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