Courtesy Muhammad Shams al-Sawalha

EXCLUSIVE: The notorious Gitmo prisoner as a young man

On the anniversary of Abu Zubaydah€’s capture, his childhood friend remembers the boy behind the mujahed

When Zain Abidin Mohammed Husain Abu Zubaydah and Muhammad Shams al-Sawalha were teenagers, they scoured record shops in Riyadh, Saudi Arabia, desperately trying to track down the video for “Billie Jean,” the latest single from Michael Jackson’s global smash album “Thriller.”

Sawalha and everyone else knew his friend as Hani, who was a huge fan of Jackson and would sometimes “dance foolishly” when Sawalha put a cassette of the King of Pop’s music into a tape deck.

Eventually, they scored a grainy copy of the video and watched it over and over again as they tried to mimic Jackson’s signature dance moves.

Those were the innocent days of the mid-1980s, Sawalha said, before Hani became an alleged terrorist mastermind. 

Muhammad Shams al-Sawalha at his home in Riyadah, Saudi Arabia. Sawalha, who grew up with Abu Zubaydah, said his old friend “displayed sensitivity like a poet” but changed after he left Saudi Arabia to attend college in India.
Courtesy Muhammad Shams al-Sawalha

In November, Al Jazeera exclusively obtained six volumes of diaries Abu Zubaydah wrote between 1990 and eight days before his capture in Pakistan, 12 years ago Friday. The diaries, translated from Arabic to English by government translators, contain revelatory details about the Afghan civil war, the birth of Al-Qaeda, the rise of international terrorism and the U.S. invasion of Afghanistan after 9/11.

It was Al Jazeera’s first report on Abu Zubaydah’s diaries, the publication of volume one of the documents and the subsequent media attention about Abu Zubaydah’s normality that caught Sawalha’s attention.

He read the diary and spotted his name in a crucial entry, one of the most important in terms of understanding how Abu Zubaydah ended up embracing jihad.

In that June 1990 entry, Abu Zubaydah wrote that one night, while driving home with friends in Riyadh, he had disagreed sharply with Sawalha over the way jihad should be waged in Palestine.

“My view point states that jihad and the path to Palestine has to be strictly Islamic,” Abu Zubaydah wrote. Sawalha “was saying that the main thing is liberation; regardless of the leader or the army even if they were not Muslims.”

Sawalha was so upset over the discussion that he asked Abu Zubaydah to let him out of the car and walked home. Abu Zubaydah wrote that he was insulted and “shocked” and he “ended up disbelieving” in friendship “because of him.” Sawalha was stunned after he read the entry for the first time last month.

“Abu Zubaydah, as I knew him, was not a terrorist or anti-humanistic personality, yet he became a Jihadist,” Sawalha tweeted on Feb. 17, and included a screen shot of the diary entry that identified him. 

Al Jazeera contacted Sawalha after he posted that tweet. In a series of email exchanges over the past month he recounted his close friendship with the man the U.S. thought had so much information that it waterboarded him 83 times in a single month.

Can this man, who was enjoying listening to the song ‘Careless Whisper’ by George Michael and dreaming about his girl, be a brutal killer?

Muhammad Shams al-Sawalha

a childhood friend of Abu Zubaydah’s

Sawalha said he was surprised to see his full name and the names of other friends in the first volume of the diaries, because he was sure Abu Zubaydah “forgot us.”

“Then when I read it I felt sad [that] the only piece of memories he mentioned” was the disagreement they had.

Still, the memories he has of Abu Zubaydah are “something that takes me away to a destination of fun, vitality and vivid memories we shared together for nine years or more.”

“We were raised in the same city and in the same neighborhood,” Sawalha said. “As he wrote in his diaries, we met in our childhood and gradually became close friends. We shared through those years many hopes, dreams and funny imaginations about what [we] are going to be in the years ahead.”

A novelist and poet who still lives in Riyadh, Sawalha is the first person to step forward since Abu Zubaydah’s capture in Pakistan on March 28, 2002, to talk about him. In doing so, he provides even deeper insight into a complex personality than Abu Zubaydah’s diaries offer.

Sawalha said other friends who knew Abu Zubaydah feared to speak because they were under the impression that Saudi intelligence would investigate them. Sawalha, on the other hand, said he does not believe that, by discussing his old friend, “I am doing something against the law.”

When Abu Zubaydah’s name surfaced in the aftermath of the 9/11 attacks, Sawalha said he was “totally shocked.”

The Abu Zubaydah he knew was the type of person who would rescue a stray cat, feed and house it. So how “can this man … be a terrorist and part of this crime?” he said. “Can this man, who was enjoying listening to the song ‘Careless Whisper’ by George Michael and dreaming about his girl, be a brutal killer?”

“I admit that I do not know about [Abu Zubaydah’s] life after he left [Saudi Arabia] and did not come back,” Sawalha added. “But I am sure something [is] missing about his story.”

He used to read about Abu Zubaydah in the Arabic media, “but it was a bad experience.”

“All the news were saying that Hani is one of the leaders of Al-Qaeda,” Sawalha said. “It was a bad feeling to hear that. I met his father one day in Riyadh but he did not give me any good information, he was cautious.”

The U.S. has since recanted the major claims it made about Abu Zubaydah, including that he was one of the planners of 9/11.

The seeds of terrorism cannot grow in the field of arts, loving and sensibility.

Muhammad Shams al-Sawalha

Abu Zubaydah and Sawalha had a bond that their other friends expressed little interest in: reading novels, watching Indian and American movies, listening to music — “ABBA and Boney M” — and “talking about beautiful girls.”

Sex — and the sense of shame Abu Zubaydah’s biological drives induced in him — is a recurring theme throughout the six volumes of his diaries.

“Hani is usually in love, no matter if the girl he loves is real or imaginary,” Sawalha said, noting that his old friend displayed “sensitivity like a poet.”

“He has many stories with girls, trying all the time to convince me that he has a secret that I do not know.”

Abu Zubaydah’s ability to keep secrets, even from himself, would also surface in later volumes of his diaries as he discussed what appeared to be failed terrorist plots.

Sawalha recalled that Abu Zubaydah displayed “comedic-like theatrical talent.” He told Sawalha that he dreamed of becoming a playwright, a children’s author, painter, poet or comic one day.

Al Jazeera has learned recently that while in custody of the CIA and U.S. military, Abu Zubaydah wrote a novel, short stories and poetry that officials seized and have refused to return to him.

Abu Zubaydah, Sawalha said, was always the center of attention and always trying to make people laugh.

But it seemed that his cheerful nature masked some deep-seated scars. “The sadness of his eyes are telling another story,” Sawalha recalled.

He believes that Abu Zubaydah was tormented by the fact that he was a Palestinian refugee. Although born in Riyadh, he was not a citizen of Saudi Arabia and did not enjoy the same luxuries Saudis or other people who can identify their country of origin are afforded, because his father hailed from the Gaza Strip. Since the Palestinian territories are not internationally recognized as a country, Abu Zubaydah was stateless. His refugee status appears to have taken a psychological toll, and Sawalha believes it is what ultimately led him to embrace jihad and many years later plan an “operation against the Jews” in Israel.

Growing up as a refugee in Saudi Arabia is like “being alive without a real life,” Sawalha said.

“I am Palestinian but I am lucky because I have a Jordanian nationality. Hani, like most Palestinian refugees, does not have a nationality,” he wrote. “All these refugees do not have nationalities. It is written in their passports: ‘Palestinian refugee.’ The worst passport is the Egyptian one, which Hani had. Hani [could not] travel to any Arab country, even Egypt, the country that gave him the passport. He was stuck in [Saudi Arabia].”

For Sawalha, the ongoing Israeli-Palestinian conflict is the “mother of all devils and terrorists and [suicide] bombers in the Middle East.” He believes Abu Zubaydah’s transformation was directly linked to his refugee status, which Abu Zubaydah wrote about extensively in his diaries.

The “seeds of terrorism cannot grow in the field of arts, loving and sensibility,” Sawalha said. “Hani’s hatred was only against being a Palestinian refugee away from his land. This was his real suffering in life. Being a man without a nationality was the only thing that put him down in his soul.”

Abu Zubaydah as an 18-year-old, in traditional Saudi dress, clothing that he wrote in his diaries his father made him wear in order to fit into Saudi society. This is only the third picture of Abu Zubaydah that has emerged in more than a decade and the first one that has been independently obtained. The U.S. government previously circulated a passport photograph of him, taken when he was in high school, that was altered to show him sporting a beard and glasses.
Courtesy Muhammad Shams al-Sawalha

He remembers the exact moment when Hani would become Abu Zubaydah.

“The debate that he wrote about in his diaries between me and him regarding the liberation of Palestine from the Israeli occupation was the first one in which I discovered that Hani was about to become Zain Abidin Mohammed Husain,” Sawalha said. “I mean the beginning of adopting the Islamic jihadist view in the struggle of Palestine while I [believe], even now, in the peaceful struggle.”

Jihad was not always synonymous with terrorism. It was discussed often and openly in Saudi Arabia in the ’80s, Sawalha recalled.

“Jihad is the duty for any religious Muslim as a primary principle,” he wrote. “It means to struggle in the way of Allah and [is] considered the sixth pillar of Islam. Many young men were traveling to Afghanistan to help in defending against the Soviet Union. Perhaps in those strange and disturbing years, by attending any kind of gatherings, you will hear about jihad and mujahedeen … Especially when you know that the Iran-Iraq war was raging, the Soviet Union was supporting Iran and [Saudi Arabia] was supporting Iraq. The hatred against the Soviet was widespread.”

As teenagers, Sawalha and Abu Zubaydah paid little attention to such stories. But that changed when Abu Zubaydah left Saudi Arabia to attend university in India, where he studied computer science. When he returned to Saudi Arabia for a brief visit, Sawalha recognized the transformation in his old friend.

“He was speaking about jihad in Afghanistan in a sense that he was a little bit persuaded in the mujahedeen’s cause,” Sawalha said. “For me it was a sad moment to hear such [a] thing from Hani … If jihad, in my opinion, includes armed struggle without taking into consideration the security of other humans, it will not be a good or pure jihad.”

When Sawalha discovered that Abu Zubaydah left for Afghanistan — “the land of jihad,” as Abu Zubaydah wrote in his diaries — he was disappointed.

“Hani was not a religious person at all, very simple,” Sawalha said. “I don't know who convinced him in India to go to Afghanistan, but I am sure that Hani was not a religious person [...] For me this is a very strange aspect of his story. 

“I believe that the only thing that Hani was having as a burning desire is to be a hero, in one way or another, and maybe this is the reason why he wrote in his diaries that he loved to work in espionage. He was fond of heroism tales. Did he read ‘The Three Musketeers’ by Alexandre Dumas? I guess he did.”

Abu Zubaydah passed one last message to Sawalha, through Abu Zubaydah’s older brother Maher, who had traveled to the Khalden training camp in Afghanistan in 1991 at the behest of their father in an attempt to persuade Abu Zubaydah to return home:

“Get back to Allah, Mohammed.”

Earlier this month, Sawalha said, he ran into one of Abu Zubaydah’s brothers, Kamal, the youngest of his nine siblings, in Riyadh. Kamal was an infant when his brother left for college in India. Kamal, Sawalha said, is now married with a son he named Hani, after the older brother he barely knows. 

Abu Zubaydah has been held at the Guantánamo Bay detention facility since 2006. Recently, Al Jazeera obtained a Defense Department document identifying him, and 69 other prisoners, as being eligible for a parole-board-style hearing to determine if they continue to pose a national security threat to the U.S.

Sawalha is unsure what he would say to Abu Zubaydah today if he had the opportunity to see his friend again.

“Probably, I would say that I missed those days when we were together,” he said. “We did not have too many things to worry about like we [do] today. But after 25 years I have changed, and for sure he changed too.” 

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