Exclusive: Abu Zubaydah's journey from student to mujahedeen
Part 1 of the secret diaries of Abu Zubaydah reveals a troubled path from studying in India to battling in Afghanistan
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Part 1 of the secret diaries of Abu Zubaydah reveals a troubled path from studying in India to battling in Afghanistan
Al Jazeera has obtained a copy of the secret personal diaries of Abu Zubaydah, one of the highest-profile prisoners in Guantanamo Bay. 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. Repeatedly cited by U.S. officials in making the case for holding a number of prisoners at Guantanamo, the diaries, which were never officially released, cast fresh light on Abu Zubaydah and challenge some of the Bush administration's accounts of its "war on terror." Below are some of the highlights of the first notebook.
Arriving in Afghanistan in 1991, the young computer-science student Zain Abidin Mohammed Husain Abu Zubaydah had no idea of the fateful journey he was embarking on — a journey that, 10 years later, would land him in a CIA black-site prison and then in Guantanamo Bay, branded by President George W. Bush as "one of the top operatives plotting and planning death and destruction on the United States."
"I am actually scared," he conceded in his diary. "Not of a bullet or a shell, rather of the future itself. If I decide to settle here, it means that I will cancel my education and there is no harm in that, God willing; jihad is a good thing, and I will stay."
Abu Zubaydah arrived in Afghanistan from Mysore, India, where he had gone against his father's wishes to study computer science.
"But," his diary continues, "I am scared that I'll be left high and dry in the future, God forbid. At that point, I will have no contingent plan to resort to, a degree or a job to lean on." His fear was not martyrdom but surviving the war in Afghanistan, particularly if he was wounded. "What would I do if the party is over and there is no more jihad in Afghanistan! Where would I go when I have no job and no college degree?"
He was distrustful of the few friends he had, describing many of them as backstabbers. "Friendship is a fantasy, friendship is false."
So in the diary — which offers deep insight into a man portrayed by the Bush administration as a seminal figure in the "war on terror" — Abu Zubaydah created a friend he could talk to.
"Dear 30-year-old Hani," the diary begins, referring to himself by a childhood nickname and making clear that the audience is himself 10 years in the future, "Today I have decided to write my memoirs and these words are to you. So, this will be the letter in which I complain to you, get things off my chest, and cry in your arms whenever I feel the need to share my burden, from this silly world, with someone."
He states that he intends to reread the diary only after he reaches that age. "So, I will be you; the 30 years old Hani, provided that I get to live to meet you."
Perhaps mindful of how others might interpret his literary device, Abu Zubaydah writes, "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."
FBI agents who read the diaries said that Abu Zubaydah's writing to a different version of himself proved that he had a "schizophrenic personality." The correct term for the exhibition of multiple personalities is dissociative identity disorder, however, not schizophrenia. Schizophrenia is a disease often characterized by hallucinations or delusions but not by multiple personalities.
He shares his doubts and his shames, his fears and his hurts, his tastes, his quirks (fear that he's growing a belly prompts a regimen of fasting three days a week in a mujahedeen training camp) and his evolving beliefs. He even details his struggles to contain a sometimes rampant libido within the strictures of his religious moral code.
Abu Zubaydah writes as a troubled young man filled with ambivalence over the path he's chosen, driven by his desire to escape a broken, sometimes violent home in Saudi Arabia and his outsider status there: "a Palestinian like me with no homeland, no passport and no identity. One who was destined to be born in a country that is not his and live among people who viewed him primarily as a refugee ... I used to dread being looked down upon by the society; stateless and displaced."
The Palestinian national trauma is an inherited memory; it's the personal injuries of his childhood that most haunt him — like the moment he saw his father beating his mother, who had become embroiled in a fistfight with her sister-in-law, as Abu Zubaydah and his older brother, Mahir, screamed for the adults to stop.
After that moment, Abu Zubaydah recalls, he never witnessed "a happy day" in his family. He seems to remember only "yelling, crying, and weeping." Sometime later, his mother and father argued again, and he was standing next to his mother in the kitchen and saw tears in her eyes. "Perhaps I was ten, and for the first time I see my mother crying like a child as she was telling me things that I didn’t understand …To be a child and see my mother crying, that was so tough for me …" That image traumatized him. It forced "my tears to fall and fall and fall."
One of the first entries of his diary, dated June 7, 1990, begins, "A picture of me at five or perhaps six years old; if only I could wipe out all my past since the moment I was born until this moment, by God, I will not hesitate one bit." He had been in India for a year and apparently growing more desperately depressed by the day.
"Do you know that if it weren’t for my belief in God, I would have been faded away! I know that He is with me, watching over me."
His embrace of an ideology of martyrdom in battle against those designated enemies of Islam is sometimes passionate, sometimes ambivalent. But it offers him the sense of belonging and camaraderie that has, according to the diary, eluded him all his life. Here in Afghanistan, all the foreign fighters, as well as several Americans he identifies, are outsiders like him, their bonds based solely on their shared commitment to give their lives in holy war to re-establish a lost Islamic caliphate. "I have been listening to the stories of the brothers who are with me," he writes. "Every one has a lengthy story specific to him, and each one of them came here as an emigrant. Sometimes they share a dark past and other times sharing white castles. Yet one thing unites them in addition to migration for Allah's cause; escaping reality, life after it turned all dark and full of sins and temptations, and even from imprisonment."
But Abu Zubaydah had stepped, unknowingly, into a historical vacuum. It was an infrastructure set up by the Saudis, backed by the CIA and facilitated by Pakistani intelligence that had rallied young Arab men like Zubaydah (and Osama bin Laden, although he isn't mentioned in this first volume) to join the jihad in Afghanistan against the Soviet invaders, that enabled their passage to the front lines and that relayed home heroic tales of their sacrifices in battle against the infidels. But that infrastructure had outlived its purpose: Zubaydah arrived in Afghanistan two years after the Soviets departed, to join a messy fight pitting Moscow's erstwhile protege Mohammad Najibullah against a number of Afghan mujahedeen factions, some of which were also fighting one another.
The Arab countries that had encouraged these young men to go to Afghanistan didn't want them to return home, radicalized, to challenge the pro-Western regimes that, even as Abu Zubaydah arrived in Afghanistan, were making common cause with the United States to eject Iraqi forces from Kuwait. "There seems to be no future," he writes. "And if there is one; nothing is better than jihad for Almighty Allah's cause."
The diary does not explain his decision, prompted by a friend (their discussions are not recorded in the diary), to leave his university life in India for a brief sojourn of military training in Afghanistan. It simply records the decision.
"Yesterday and only yesterday I decided to go to Afghanistan," Abu Zubaydah writes on Jan. 6, 1991.
Abu Zubaydah writes that he considered traveling there before, but his plan never came to fruition because "the objective was not developed and pure."
The purpose of his trip was to receive training and then return to India to finish his studies.
"The intent is bona fide, God willing. Almost everything is ready except I am scared of the circumstances. Yet I trust in God, and we seek refuge in him."
Still, arriving in Afghanistan, the lonely, dislocated, suicidal, depressive and sexually frustrated 19-year-old Palestinian thinks of the Nivea cream he hasn't taken to protect his skin from the dry cold, and he hesitates at the threshold between the troubled life he knows and the seductive vision of martyrdom in holy war that beckons.
The only directly political statements chronicled in the diary before Abu Zubaydah announces his decision to go to Afghanistan concern the Palestinian cause. At a weekly gathering with friends during his teenage years in Riyadh, where he and other young men would get together, "perhaps at nine or ten at night, with few pushes, tackling, karate, dancing and laughs," he clashed with a close friend over whether to support the Palestinian struggle led by the secular PLO and Yasser Arafat, for whom he later noted his loathing. "My viewpoint states that jihad and the path to Palestine has to be strictly Islamic," Abu Zubaydah writes. His friend Muhammad Abu Asbah disagrees, "saying that the main thing is liberation; regardless of the leader or the army, even if they were not Muslims."
That clash ended the friendship, another lost in a long list of disappointments and betrayals chronicled in the diary, reinforcing his despair at the world. In India, although he is studying the subject of his choice, his alienation deepens. The diary reflects late nights disconsolately listening to love songs by the pop crooner Chris de Burgh (of "Lady in Red" fame) and puffing on cigarettes. "Although I hate (smoking), it is the only truthful thing to me and the one that is always by my side in my time of sorrow," he writes. "When I smoke, I feel that I need to burn something; so I burn my cigarette and, in turn, it burns me." But that was before he went to Afghanistan.
A few months into his new life in Afghanistan, Abu Zubaydah excitedly writes to tell his 30-year-old self that he has quit smoking. "Do you know that since I went to Afghanistan, I have not smoked! Truly, I have quit smoking completely and praise be to God." He also stopped listening to music. "I am free from it … although I miss it sometimes."
He'd hoped that the pursuit of martyrdom would put behind him the emotional turmoil captured earlier in the diary: mood swings and thoughts of suicide — even noting one failed attempt — and recurring episodes of anger and shame as he recounts a family history of emotional abuse and confrontation with his parents.
And then there's the sex — and the sense of shame his biological drives induce in him.
"Her kisses are hovering over my hot submissive body as I am reciting surat Al-Kursi so I don't commit the grand one," notes a diary entry written from a camp in Afghanistan, in which he recounts in salacious detail an episode of unconsummated foreplay in bed with his Christian housemaid, Flumina, in Mysore. Temptation rears up constantly, first and foremost through this servant, who he insists is pestering him for sex.
They share hugs and kisses, he admits. "I am a young man and sex is being defiant inside of me," he continues, but their petting continues only "until I run away scared of the forbidden to happen; for fear of God."
"I do not have sex for religious reasons, although, thank God, I am confident of my manhood," he writes. "No particular relations with the other sex except for touching, hugs and hot kisses. But I am afraid of going forward for the fear of God."
In his journey to "jihad," he has passed through the pipeline established to deliver young Muslim men to fight the Soviets — the House of Martyrs in the Pakistani city of Peshawar, which he describes as "an office that handles jihad matters and Arab Mujahideen's organizations as well as support to both Arab and Afghan Mujahideen."
"From that office branches many houses for the incoming mujahideen from outside Afghanistan, Arabs and others. These houses are: Al-Faitheen (The Conquerors), Al-Shuhadaa' (The Martyrs), and Al-Ansar (The Supporters) where all the Saudis, Yemenis, Algerians, and Palestinians are. It is for distribution of the organization and not for any other purposes such as; discrimination and nationalism …"
Abu Zubaydah also explains that everyone is given a nickname for "secretive reasons" and that his alias is "Abu-Huraya." Several weeks later, he writes, he decided to abandon "Abu-Huraya" as his pseudonym and use his real family name. Former FBI Special Agent Ali Soufan wrote in his book "The Black Banners" that after Abu Zubaydah lost his memory from a shrapnel wound, other mujahedeen would tell him, "Your name is Abu Zubaydah."
"This is why he was one of the few terrorists who operated under his actual name rather than an alias," Soufan wrote, a claim that the diary contradicts.
He's gone off to training camps — Bari and his final destination, Khaldan — where he's learned to use everything from an AK-47 to mortars, 82 mm artillery and everything else the Red Army had used and lost in Afghanistan, as well as M16 rifles and other U.S. weapons.
But as the initial elation of his immersion in the pursuit of martyrdom fades, depression and anxiety remain present. One night he weeps while praying with other fighters. He wonders, in the diary, if his tears expressed fear or happiness.
He writes of dreams he has about his family and how he misses them. But then he reminds himself of the relationship he had with his well-off but stingy father and how, on one occasion, he went to a hospital to sell his blood for "three hundred Saudi Riyals" because he needed money for food and cigarettes.
At the camp, he is shaken up by a letter he receives from his father in response to a letter he sent his parents when he left India, informing them of his decision to turn his life over to what he calls "jihad." His father seems to disown him for this.
"Hani! You know that I can bring you here forcefully, but I don't want to do anything that you will not like and I don't want to be the one who will put you in jail," his father wrote, adding that he considered his son "dead and missing."
Abu Zubaydah's father signed off, "Sender; Muhammad."
"He didn't say your father as it is usually the case in his letters; as if he is indicating that he is no longer my father," Abu Zubaydah writes in his diary.
But it is the letter's claim that his younger brother, Hesham, is stricken with cancer that Abu Zubaydah finds most disturbing.
"Everything he said or wrote was fine and I forgive them and adapt to it. But he said, 'Your brother (Hesham) has cancer and has gone through a urinary system surgery; he is a skeleton with no hair or eyelashes even.' At this point I felt crippled. I took a pause for a few moments away from the letter to think of my beloved brother … "
The painful news about Hesham proved ineffective in persuading Abu Zubaydah to abandon jihad and return home. But the family's efforts to convince him intensified when his brother Mahir showed up at his training camp on May 1, 1991. Mahir, Abu Zubaydah writes, was studying to be a doctor in Pakistan. (He is now a renowned heart surgeon in Saudi Arabia.) He describes Mahir as "obedient" and his father's favorite. As children, they both tried to get their father’s attention and approval, and Mahir often won.
The brothers sit together and talk, although Abu Zubaydah writes, "We both do not and will not understand each other." He recounts their dialogue:
"Hani, your mother is ill," Mahir says.
"I ask God to heal her," Abu Zubaydah replies.
"She is very sad and sounded tired when I talked to her over the phon (sic) on the third day of the holiday," Mahir says.
"May God be with her," Abu Zubaydah replies.
"That's it! God be with her! That's all? This is your mother."
"What about the Umma; the Islamic Nation?" Abu Zubaydah counters.
"Aren't you going to do something for the sake of your parents?" Mahir asks.
"I seek refuge with God from the devil."
His brother's pleas fall on deaf ears, and Abu Zubaydah is soon plunged into his first combat deployment in the squalid, monthslong infantry battle that saw the mujahedeen lose hundreds of men in a failed effort to capture the town of Gardez.
There he sees comrades torn apart by land mines and shrapnel. An entry from Oct. 10, 1991, describes a battle scene in which he witnesses scores of his "brothers" cut down by advancing government tanks. He survives because he's been sent by the Khaldan camp's emir, Abu Binan, to serve as a lookout, surveying the carnage from a mountaintop.
"With the binoculars … I was able to clearly see seven tanks in one row … pointing their turret guns towards the mountain which I was on … I expected death in any given moment."
A group of mujahedeen arrive with "a quantity of American made mortar shells." Then he hears an explosion near the mujahedeen’s artillery.
"I rushed to the place only to be dumbfounded … the gun barrel had exploded because an American artillery shell had been 'doctored' — prepared especially to blow up the shooter as soon as it is placed inside the gun barrel — The mortar had exploded and anyone near it was fatally injured … I rushed with some of the brothers from the neighboring center, to the injured, but there weren't any injured … everyone was martyred."
Among the dead, he writes, is Abu Binan. Abu Zubaydah describes a blood-soaked tableau strewn with body parts that he collects. He records Abu Binan’s last words, "Take care of the weapons" and "la mort," French for death.
Abu Zubaydah is deeply affected by the loss of the Khaldan camp emir. "Only God knows the amount of love and respect I had for him."
The fighting intensifies after that.
"In one day … one sees death more than 100 times here …" he writes in October 1991, the same month Najibullah, the president of Afghanistan, reported that his forces defeated a two-week siege of Gardez by mujahedeen in what The New York Times said was "one of the fiercest army bombardments in Afghanistan's 12-year civil war."
While at Gardez, he receives a package from his sister Wafa that includes one of his favorite pastries, mamul, and a letter that includes a poem from his mother:
"Lamented are my fate and my days
I found none who tried to rush to my rescue … He is my son and he will definitely return And he will know that obeying me is the best Jihad"
The letter, which bears tears drawn in red ink, depresses him, and he vows to "throw it into the fire" to avoid the temptation to reread it. He intends to respond to his mother by quoting a verse from the Quran. But thoughts of family continue to haunt him on the front line.
In mid-August 1991, Abu Zubaydah writes about his desire to marry and father a son: "my own son; play with him, be kind to him and even spank him. Yes! Spank him, why not?"
The next day a Palestinian-American family with a child visits the camp. "It is the little one that I felt excited to see," Abu Zubaydah writes, "I don't know why! … 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."
After the child leaves the camp, Abu Zubaydah writes that he misses his family, "my mother's smile, my father's laugh, the yelling of my younger siblings, and the look of my sisters sitting at their study desk or arguing or kidding around as innocent little children … I miss my mother's cooking."
And he's aware of the conflict between his aspiration for martyrdom and his more conventional desires. "In spite of my yearning for sooner martyrdom, yet it is the truth that I am not denying; I am longing to a good wife, a small house, a child and the word 'Papa.'"
He would remain in Gardez until 1992. It was there, he writes in the second volume of his diary, that he suffered a shrapnel wound that left a hole in his head and robbed him of his memory and the ability to speak for a time.
But back on Nov. 2, 1991, Abu Zubaydah's first notebook for his diaries is almost full. He asks one of his comrades to bring him another from Peshawar.
"So I hope he brings me a notebook to become part two of my memoir or my letters to you Hani2 … But if he does not bring it … God is our help … I may get disconnected from you and I hate this a lot … I cannot be without you … Hani2 … or without writing …"