Exclusive: The secret diaries of Gitmo detainee Abu Zubaydah

Al Jazeera has obtained the personal diaries of one of the highest-value detainees at Guantanamo

Al Jazeera has obtained a copy of the government’s English translation of the secret personal diaries of Abu Zubaydah. The Bush administration once labeled him one of the key figures in its "war on terror," and he remains one of the most high-profile prisoners in Guantanamo Bay. He was captured in Pakistan in 2002 while fleeing Afghanistan after the collapse of the Taliban regime.

The documents, 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, cast fresh light on Zubaydah and provide a fuller picture of the official U.S. accounts of the campaign against Al-Qaeda and related organizations. They also provide unique insights into the chaotic Afghan civil war of the 1990s.

The diaries, repeatedly cited but never released by U.S. officials in making the case for holding a number of prisoners at Guantanamo, have been long sought by terrorism experts and journalists for their participant-observer account of the decade's events leading to the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks that claimed almost 3,000 American lives. The U.S. government says the man who wrote those six notebooks chronicling his life in the mujahedeen training camps and the emergence of Al-Qaeda, amid clashing egos and the chaos of post-Soviet Afghanistan, was a senior member of Osama bin Laden's organization.

Abu Zubaydah is mentioned 52 times in the "9/11 Commission Report." The official account is that he fingered Khalid Sheikh Mohammed as the mastermind of the 2001 attacks on the Pentagon and the World Trade Center. Those diaries have — until now — remained secret. U.S. authorities have used them as the basis for holding dozens of "war on terror" captives, including Zubaydah himself.

Zubaydah told his Combatant Status Review Tribunal hearing in March 2007 that the CIA's refusal to honor what he said had been a promise to return the diaries to him had caused him to suffer 40 seizures.

"The mental anguish that came from broken promises in which they said they would give me my diary back contributed to the seizures," he told the hearing. "For me it is bigger than what the CIA (did to) me."

He also likened the withholding of the notebooks to the kidnapping of a child, claiming that after his transfer to Guantanamo in 2006, he had asked 20 hours a day about when his diary would be returned.

The notebooks make clear why Zubaydah was such an important catch for the U.S. He wrote everything down.

The six volumes of the diaries, translated from Arabic to English by government translators, have been authenticated by intelligence officials who have read them. Al Jazeera has twice tried to obtain copies of Abu Zubaydah's diaries through Freedom of Information Act requests — the most recent one filed two months ago with the Department of Justice. In a letter dated Oct. 29, the department's Civil Division, which handles Guantanamo detainee matters, denied Al Jazeera's request for Zubaydah’s diaries, identifying the documents as "law enforcement records concerning third parties," the disclosure of which would constitute an "unwarranted invasion of personal privacy." The CIA declined to comment when asked whether the release of the diaries would constitute a threat to national security. The FBI also declined to comment.

In a September 2009 court filing, Zubaydah's attorneys challenged the government for designating the documents as "protected."

"These writings portray a picture of a man who is vastly different than the Government's discredited portrayal," Zubaydah’s attorneys wrote in a brief filed in U.S. District Court in Washington, D.C.

Discovered on March 28, 2002, when U.S. and Pakistani intelligence operatives raided a mujahedeen safe house in Pakistan and captured Abu Zubaydah, the diaries were written between 1990 and eight days prior to his capture. They became property of the Department of Defense when he was transferred to Guantanamo in 2006. Zubaydah penned three further volumes while in custody of the CIA, in which — according to court papers filed by his lawyer — he describes in great detail the torture to which he was allegedly subjected.

The notebooks make clear why he was such an important catch for the U.S. He wrote everything down, and named names — or, at least, noms de guerre.

More than just a Rolodex of marquee names — Ayman Al-Zawahiri, the current leader of Al-Qaeda; Ramzi Yousef, the 1993 World Trade Center bomber; Mohammed Atef, the late Al-Qaeda military leader; Mullah Omar, the spiritual leader of the Taliban; and bin Laden — the diaries are cited by the goverment as the sole evidence on which Zubaydah is being held indefinitely without charge or trial. They are also used by the government to justify the detention of Guantanamo prisoners who, the government claims, were helped by Zubaydah to escape from Afghanistan after the October 2001 U.S. invasion.

When held up against public documents and statements by the U.S. government, Zubaydah's diaries present a fuller picture of the high-profile prisoner, his role in the "war on terror," the roles of other boldface names in the lead-up to 9/11 and its aftermath, the training, organization and infighting among their networks, the effectiveness of torture and more. In fact, in October 2009, the Obama administration admitted that its understanding of Zubaydah's role in Al-Qaeda's activities "has evolved with further investigation" and that it no longer stands behind the claims of the Bush administration. 

Zubaydah may also have proved to be something of a guinea pig for the Bush administration's "enhanced interrogation" techniques, some of which have been denounced by critics as torture — which is illegal under U.S. law. Five months after Zubaydah's capture, on Aug. 1, 2002, 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, authorizing 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 Zubaydah's diaries, where he had written of his fear of bugs. Yoo's memo asserted that Zubaydah had been one of the planners of the 9/11 attacks, the 1998 East Africa embassy bombings and every major attack carried out by Al-Qaeda. That month, Zubaydah was subjected to 83 waterboarding sessions at a secret CIA "black site" prison in Thailand.

The Yoo memo's claims about Zubaydah's status in bin Laden's organization became conventional wisdom in statements by intelligence and government officials, books and news reports. But some of those claims may be at odds with some of what the diaries reveal, as will be shown in future installments of this story.

The official story was that Zubaydah began writing a diary in 1992, after he had suffered a shrapnel wound, impairing his memory, while fighting in Afghanistan. We now know that he began to write the first volume of his diaries in June 1990, while he was a 19-year-old college student in Mysore, India. This first diary, stamped "For Official Use Only" by the FBI and the U.S. Department of Justice, has been deemed "protected" by a federal court judge presiding over Zubaydah's habeas corpus case, meaning that his attorneys cannot discuss or share its contents with the public.

The first diary

The first volume of Abu Zubaydah's diary begins 23 years ago, when he was a troubled college student. He feels so betrayed by friendship that he decides to address his 30-year-old self in the diaries. 

A voracious reader of books about psychology, parapsychology, philosophy and war games, Zubaydah was mindful that talking to oneself might be interpreted as psychotic, so he made a point of noting in his diary that he was not mentally ill.

"I am not a schizophrenic, which is a split personality disease; rather, I am trying to divide myself into two parts because; I believe that everything changes with time, even human beings. Therefore, it is inevitable that you Hani 2 at 30 years of age are different than Hani 1 … Me … at 20 years old."

Nonetheless, the fact that Zubaydah wrote to different versions of himself led some in the intelligence community, notably FBI Special Agent Dan Coleman, who was assigned to the CIA's elite Al-Qaeda-tracking Bin Laden Unit, to conclude that Zubaydah had a "schizophrenic personality."

Coleman examined the diaries for the FBI after Zubaydah's capture. After he read through them, he advised an FBI official that Zubaydah was an "insane,certifiable split personality" because he wrote to different versions of himself, journalist Ron Suskind wrote in his book "The One Percent Doctrine." Coleman later publicly took issue with the CIA and Bush administration's characterization of Zubaydah as a top Al-Qaeda operative and was highly critical of the use of torture as an interrogation tool.

Now retired from the FBI and working as an elder care expert at Mom's House in New York City, Coleman did not return calls or emails for comment. A colleague of his, FBI Special Agent Ali Soufan — who interrogated Zubaydah after his capture — noted in his book "The Black Banners" that it was wrong to conclude Zubaydah was mentally ill just because he wrote in different voices. (Daniel Freedman, a spokesman for Soufan, told Al Jazeera America that the former special agent could not comment on anything about Zubaydah's diaries beyond what Soufan had written in his book.)

Retired Army Brig. Gen. Stephen Xenakis, a psychiatrist who reviewed the first volume of Zubaydah's diary, told Al Jazeera that the document is hugely important because it provides an unprecedented look at the "thinking and experiences of these young men who, by and large, we're not accustomed to knowing."  

"They're not part of our culture, so it's a very good insight to bridging a cultural gap," said Xenakis, who has consulted and provided expert testimony on dozens of Guantanamo prisoner cases, including child soldier Omar Khadr, a Canadian whom Xenakis spent more than 100 hours assessing. "As a physician and particularly as a psychiatrist, you need to have this (diary) as a cultural background. You have to find a way to help explain what this person's feelings and actions are, and much of what we do, in terms of our thinking or how we feel or our perspectives, are really influenced heavily by culture."

In that quest, the diaries are an invaluable source. 

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