The case against Abu Zubaydah

What the Bush administration has argued about the nature of the Guantánamo captive’s involvement in Al-Qaeda

Abu Zubaydah

Long before the attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, even before the bombing of the USS Cole in the Yemeni port of Aden in October 2000 that killed 17 members of the ship's crew, Abu Zubaydah was a wanted man. 

Born Zain Abidin Mohammed Husain in Saudi Arabia to a Palestinian father, Abu Zubaydah was marked for death by Jordanian officials in February 2000 over his suspected role in the foiled bombings of an American hotel and several tourist sites in Jordan in December 1999.

He is said to have coordinated the plots from Peshawar, in Pakistan, where he came to run the House of Martyrs, an organization he describes in his own diaries as a place that supports Arab and Afghan mujahedeen, where "some come to train for a short period and go back [home], just to be prepared, others are here for jihad and until God decides for something to be done."

Years after his capture in 2002, Abu Zubaydah admitted his opposition to U.S. government policy. "I am not here to lie to you, or cheat you, or to lie to myself by saying that I am not an enemy of your injustice," Abu Zubaydah told a military tribunal in March 2007. "I have been an enemy of yours since I was a child, because of your unjust acts against my people, the Palestinians, through your help and partnership with Israel."

For years after leaving his computer science studies in Mysore, India, a year away from graduation, Abu Zubaydah trained at Khaldan camp in Afghanistan. He learned how to assemble explosives, use various automatic rifles, and learned about the hierarchy of the Arab mujahedeen networks, which he documents in his journals.

According to those diaries, 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 debated whether to join Osama bin Laden and Al-Qaeda in 1993, "a thought I had for a long time, possibly … eight months or more. Now I might present my desire to the officials there."

Following the 9/11 attacks, intelligence officials and the White House of George W. Bush said Abu Zubaydah rose through the ranks to become operations chief for Al-Qaeda. "He's as dangerous as anyone we're looking for, including bin Laden," an unnamed official was quoted as saying in The New York Times in early 2002. "But it's scary how little we know."

When he was captured at a safe house in Faisalabad in Pakistan soon after, in March 2002, then White House spokesman Ari Fleischer called Abu Zubaydah "a key terrorist recruiter, an operational planner, and a member of Osama bin Laden's inner circle."

The ripple effect of Abu Zubaydah’s capture and subsequent captivity at the U.S. military base in Guantánamo Bay, Cuba, continues to be felt today across government departments and international diplomatic agencies. His detention exacerbated divisions between the FBI and the CIA, claimed a string of suspected Al-Qaeda operatives in an international dragnet, inflamed debate over waterboarding and the place of torture in interrogation policy and led to the destruction of CIA tapes detailing his questioning.

A very big fish

"This represents a very serious blow to Al-Qaeda," Fleischer said at the time of Abu Zubaydah's capture during a raid on a safe house in Pakistan in March 2002. "Al-Qaeda has many tentacles, but one of them was cut off."

During the raid, Zubaydah was reportedly shot three times in the groin and thigh by Pakistani security forces, then nursed back to health by agents from the FBI. A prior shrapnel injury to his head hindered his recovery. He is said to have lost an eye following his capture while in U.S. custody.

He was reportedly rendered in places as far apart as Lithuania, Thailand and Poland, where he was questioned about everything from possible future attacks to the massive network of contacts he was believed to possess. 

His computers and hard drives were searched. Almost immediately, a debate began over how to question Abu Zubaydah. "We are responsible for him," said then Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld. "He is receiving medical care. And we intend to get every single thing out of him to try to prevent terrorist attacks in the future."

Abu Zubaydah was cooperative, officials said at the time, and directed intelligence officials to a purported plot by Jose Padilla, arrested in May 2002, "who was exploring a plan to build and explode a radiological dispersion device, or 'dirty bomb' in the United States," according to then Attorney General John Ashcroft. 

"We were able to figure out who Zubaydah was talking about, and then screen him and follow him," an unnamed official said at the time. 

According to officials, he also helped identify Khalid Sheikh Mohammed as the chief planner of the 9/11 attacks.

Mohammed was in hiding when he was captured in Rawalpindi, Pakistan in March 2003 by U.S. and Pakistani security forces. 

But whether Abu Zubaydah named Mohammed, or provided any useful material for intelligence agents, continues to be a matter of debate. He is said to have provided false information to throw agents off. He named American landmarks as potential bombing targets, including the Brooklyn Bridge and the Statue of Liberty.

"The other day we hauled in a guy named Abu Zubaydah," said President George W. Bush at a Connecticut Republican luncheon in April 2002. "He's one of the top operatives plotting and planning death and destruction on the United States. He's not plotting and planning anymore. He's where he belongs."

Years later, Bush gave a speech in which he discussed the dispatch of 14 suspected Al-Qaeda captives to Guantánamo Bay, Cuba. He discussed Abu Zubaydah’s disclosures to intelligence officials during interrogations.

"During questioning, he, at first, disclosed what he thought was nominal information and then stopped all cooperation," Bush said. "Well, in fact, the nominal information he gave us turned out to be quite important."

Bush continued, saying the government "knew Zubaydah had more information that could save innocent lives. But he stopped talking." The CIA then "used an alternative set of procedures."

The president said the new methods worked. Zubaydah identified Ramzi Binalshibh, said to be an accomplice of Khalid Sheikh Mohammed, who was later captured. Based on his capture and more questioning "using these procedures," capture and arrests of more suspected militants followed.

"Information from terrorists in CIA custody has played a role in the capture or questioning of nearly every senior Al-Qaeda member or associate detained by the U.S. and its allies since this program began," Bush continued. 

Abu Zubaydah was the operator of a guesthouse in Pakistan, where he would help vet recruits, "provide letters of recommendation allowing them to be accepted for training at the Khaldan paramilitary camp in Khost, Afghanistan, for which he also 'secured funding'."

His capture and subsequent interrogation netted suspected militants, including some caught in the same raid, like Noor Othman Mohammed.

In 2011, Mohammed pleaded guilty to "providing material support for terrorism." But by then, the administration had already walked back its initial claims about Abu Zubaydah's importance, something Mohammed also backed up during his trial.

Abu Zubaydah was cited in about 127 files of other detainees at Guantánamo Bay, according to documents provided by WikiLeaks and analyzed by the McClatchy news service in April 2011. But many of those allegations used to build cases largely came undone, and some of those named were eventually freed.

Caterpillar in the box

In the first volume of the diaries seized during his capture, Abu Zubaydah writes, "All I need is some bugs to mess around with me, as well as something more annoying than bugs."

In 2002 the Bush administration approved using insects "in a confinement box" during Abu Zubaydah's interrogation, in a legal memorandum prepared by then–Assistant Attorney General Jay Bybee for the CIA.

The administration reviewed 10 "enhanced interrogation techniques" and made a determination that they didn't constitute torture under U.S. criminal law.

"You would like to place Zubaydah in a cramped confinement box with an insect," the report read. "You have informed us that he appears to have a fear of insects. In particular you would like to tell Zubaydah that you intend to place a stinging insect into the box with him. You would, however, place a harmless insect such as a caterpillar in the box with him."

The CIA later released a memo saying "the insect option was never employed," and was later removed from the list of approved techniques.

However, at least one other technique was used against Abu Zubaydah, at least 83 times in one month: waterboarding.

There has been much discussion over the effectiveness of the technique, which involves pouring water over a cloth covering a person's face, leading them to believe they are drowning. 

CIA Director Michael Hayden told Congress in 2008 that three people, Abd al-Rahim al-Nashiri, Khalid Sheikh Mohammed and Abu Zubaydah were waterboarded after the 9/11 attacks. He noted that circumstances following the attacks on New York and Washington were "different," and "there was the belief that additional catastrophic attacks against the homeland were inevitable. And we had limited knowledge about Al-Qaeda and its workings. Those two realities have changed."

The methods created significant rifts between the FBI and the CIA, something that was detailed by the Justice Department's inspector general in a 437-page review published in 2008. 

Among its findings: that after FBI agents were "confronted with interrogators from other agencies who used more aggressive techniques than the techniques that the FBI had successfully employed for many years, the FBI decided that it would not participate in joint interrogations of detainees with other agencies in which techniques not allowed by the FBI were used."

The agencies disagreed over Abu Zubaydah's treatment, and the FBI agents involved in Abu Zubaydah's questioning soon returned to the U.S. In its report the Justice Department noted that it had requested to interview Abu Zubaydah. The Department of Defense agreed, but the CIA denied them access.

In 2005, the CIA destroyed 92 video recordings of interrogations of two people, Abu Zubaydah and Nashiri. Earlier this year the CIA officer directly involved in the tapes' destruction was promoted to a senior position within the service. The Justice Department investigated the matter, but no officers have been charged.

At least one agent involved with Abu Zubaydah is now behind bars. John C. Kiriakou, a former CIA operative was sentenced to 30 months in federal prison for disclosing the identity of an undercover agent to a reporter. Kiriakou told multiple media outlets in 2007 the circumstances of Abu Zubaydah's capture in Pakistan, and more importantly, claimed "30, 35 seconds" of waterboarding had been enough to get Abu Zubaydah to talk.

Kiriakou said later that he'd not been present during the interrogation and had obtained the information from field reports.  

At the same time, the majority of the reporting about Abu Zubaydah and his worth conflicted wildly with at least one account: Ron Suskind and his 2006 book "The One Percent Doctrine" described in detail Abu Zubaydah’s diaries, particularly his inclination to address his 30-year-old self in the third person. In the diaries, Abu Zubaydah directs his words to Hani 2 (his childhood nickname was Hani). Suskind quotes top Al-Qaeda analyst for the FBI at the time, Dan Coleman, as telling a senior bureau official "This guy is insane, certifiable, split personality."

"Zubaydah was a logistics man, a fixer, mostly for a niggling array of personal items,” Suskind writes. "Like the guy you call who handles the company health plan, or benefits, or the people in human resources. There was almost nothing "operational" in his portfolio. That was handled by the management team. He wasn't one of them."

‘We and the sheikh are one. We have been working together for almost 10 years.’

At his combatant status review tribunal hearing in March 2007, Abu Zubaydah asked for his diaries back. "Another form of torture was when they wouldn't give me my diary, which caused me to have nearly 40 seizures," he said, adding that his diaries "can refute accusations against me and it can show that I am personally against the sort of acts that were committed."

He repeated past assertions that he was not affiliated with Osama bin Laden and Al-Qaeda, insisting that he was in charge of Khaldan Camp, which was later closed by the Taliban in Afghanistan because bin Laden didn't want any rivals. Yet even as he protested any connection and declared his distance from bin Laden before the tribunal, Abu Zubaydah did not condemn the 9/11 attacks or his association with Al-Qaeda before he was captured.

Video still of Abu Zubaydah before his capture.

In a video military prosecutors produced during the 2011 sentencing hearing for Noor Othman Mohammed, Abu Zubaydah is being interviewed by other militants, possibly in Afghanistan after the 9/11 attacks, and before his capture. 

In the military's transcript he claims to have been working with Osama bin Laden in secret for a decade.

"We and the sheikh (bin Laden) are one. We have been working together for almost ten years, but we were hoping to keep this work secret … hidden. In 2000, 2001, the matter lost its secrecy, we were forced to make ourselves known because of what took place in Afghanistan and hereafter."

"Regarding the question that was presented concerning our relationship with the terrorist operations starting in 1990-1991 including the attack against the World Trade Center … the [USS] Cole operation, and the magnificent operation on the island of Manhattan in New York, Washington, the martyrdom operations inside Palestine, I hereby say that this accusation is an honor for us, and a pride for us for God was with us. And if we had not participated by money, reconnaissance, by individuals, or by ideas, then we ask God to forgive us."

In response to requests for documents supporting its case against him, the government in October 2009 said Abu Zubaydah's petition "must begin with specific, credible, factual allegations 'showing reason to believe the petitioner may … be able to demonstrate that he is confined illegally'."

The government said the petitioner's request was too broad to address in this way. It added that it wasn't required to give more documents because "a large part of the government's case for detaining petitioner is drawn from diaries and a propaganda video."

Last year, Abu Zubaydah's attorneys called on the U.S. government to file charges against him. He remains in custody in Guantánamo Bay, Cuba. He has yet to be charged with a crime.

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