A frighteningly normal man

Abu Zubaydah’s uncensored diary is a major contribution to understanding terrorism

November 26, 2013 10:00AM ET
Abu Zubaydah.

In order to prevent terrorism, one has to understand terrorists. There is no better way to do so than to understand their thinking and feelings — in essence getting a peek into their minds. Given the unreliability of memory, one of the best windows into an individual’s mind is a diary written at the time of events. The publication of Zain Abidin Mohammed Husain Abu Zubaydah’s diary is a critical development in the study of a terrorist movement. This may help answer some of the mysteries of why and how people become terrorists.

The diary, started in 1990, shows a 19-year-old man, somewhat estranged from his Palestinian family in Saudi Arabia, who had gone to India to study computers the year before. As a Palestinian refugee, he was discriminated against in Saudi Arabia, and this area of study was closed to him there. In India he felt betrayed by his friends, homesick and somewhat despondent. He sought refuge in religion and, together with a friend, decided to go for military training in Afghanistan in January 1991. Arriving at the Khaldan paramilitary training camp, he felt at home with other young men like himself, men wanting to become Muslim soldiers, mujahedeen, to fight the communist Afghan government. He returned to India to pack up, went back to Khaldan for a few months’ training and then, with his class and trainer, went to the front near the city of Gardez in the fall of 1991. He was part of the Arab contingent — young Arab men who arrived from around the world, primarily the Middle East and North Africa, to help Afghan resistance fighters against the communist-supported government of President Mohammad Najibullah.

In December 1991, Abu Zubaydah was wounded by mortar shrapnel that penetrated his skull. He was incapacitated for about eight months. During his recovery, the Najibullah government fell, and the various Afghan mujahedeen factions turned on one another, with each warlord fighting his rivals. The Arab foreigners were in a quandary. Should they stay and train other Muslims to free themselves from despotic regimes? Should they go to new lands of jihad — Kashmir, Algeria, Bosnia, the Philippines? In December 1992, Abu Zubaydah accepted an invitation to become a trainer to Tajiks at Al Faruq, a jihadi camp near Kandahar funded by Osama bin Laden.

Abu Zubaydah’s training took the better part of a year, during which he gradually adopted the social identity of international jihadis. He thought about joining Al-Qaeda but did not. Instead, by 1994, mostly because of his seniority and ability to help newcomers, he became the emir of the House of Martyrs, a welcoming center in Peshawar, Pakistan, for Muslims going to Afghanistan for training. He established a close link between this house and the Khaldan camp, whose emir was Ibn al-Sheikh al-Libi.

By the summer of 1994, under pressure from the U.S., Saudi Arabia and Egypt, Pakistani authorities were cracking down on the Afghanistan Arabs. By this time, Abu Zubaydah had naturally identified with the jihadis in Pakistan and developed an us-versus-them view of the world consistent with his belonging to this group. He was arrested and beaten by the Pakistanis in the summer of 1995 and released a few months later through the intercession of friends.

Egregious distortions and misunderstandings continue to fuel the U.S. government’s hysteria about Al-Qaeda terrorists.

After his release, Abu Zubaydah stopped writing down details of his activities for fear that his diary might be discovered and used as evidence against him. Nevertheless, he is astonished that the world press crowns him as a terrorist mastermind and makes ridiculous claims about him, namely his leadership role in Al-Qaeda, his control of Al-Qaeda operations and all Al-Qaeda newcomers. On the contrary, he was never a member of that organization, did not know about its operations and controlled newcomers only at Khaldan camp, a rival to Al-Qaeda’s Al-Faruq camp. On bin Laden’s advice, the Taliban closed Khaldan in the summer of 2000, funneling all newcomers to Al-Faruq. Indeed, it was not until that summer that Abu Zubaydah first met bin Laden, to plead for the reopening of Khaldan.

How did we get it so wrong?

The diary, whose authenticity and truthfulness are indisputable, debunks much of the hysteria about Abu Zubaydah. He was never the operational Al-Qaeda mastermind that the U.S. government and the press made him out to be. Indeed, a look at the CIA’s remote psychological assessment, created to help in his interrogation and eventually his torture, shows that every summary statement on the front page turned out to be wrong. For instance, he was not “the third or fourth man in Al-Qaeda,” as is mentioned in the first bullet point. There is no doubt he was a terrorist mastermind, involved in several plots, but he was not part of the Al-Qaeda hierarchy, nor does he seem to have been involved in the planning of the 9/11 attacks, except to know that something big was going to happen. I agree with Ali Soufan, an FBI special agent who interviewed him and later wrote, “To this day, I don’t understand how anyone could write such a profile.” The FBI knew that the CIA’s assessment of Abu Zubaydah was false at the time of his capture; the bureau’s opinion was confirmed by information obtained afterward. The CIA assessment was an input to John Yoo’s notorious torture memos, which allowed the agency to torture alleged Al-Qaeda detainees, including Abu Zubaydah.

Interestingly, the CIA assessment found him to be psychologically normal, indeed resilient, without hints of any psychiatric disorder. Reading the diary, as a forensic psychiatrist and now an expert on terrorism, I completely agree. Apparently, this was not the opinion of a layman like FBI special agent Dan Coleman, who was quoted by journalist Ron Suskind as saying, “This guy is insane, certifiable, split personality.” And so the rumor began that he might be suffering from multiple-personality disorder. Coleman seems to have based his unqualified guess on a literary artifact of Abu Zubaydah’s, addressing his diary as a fictitious person: his imagined self 10 years later. I’m not sure who is to blame for this widespread belief, Coleman or Suskind. This team had accused the U.S. government of failing to alert British authorities about Mohammad Sidique Khan — one of the men behind the 2005 London bombings — before that attack. At the time, this caused a furor. However, they had confused Mohammad Sidique Khan with another man, Mohammed Ajmal Khan, but refused to publicly acknowledge the error. Far from confirming their assessment of Abu Zubaydah as having multiple personalities, his diary shows him to be frighteningly normal, as the CIA mental-health professionals found.

The most egregious distortions linger about Al-Qaeda terrorists. These distortions and misunderstandings continue to fuel the U.S. government’s hysteria about them and help justify the assault on Americans’ civil liberties. In the debate on terrorism, political agendas trump empirical evidence, which is hard to come by in the government’s overzealous classification as secret of anything remotely related to terrorism. Not having access to primary sources allows the exaggerations and echo effect of the press to dominate our attempt to understand and prevent terrorism. Worse, when courageous journalists try to paint a realistic portrait of terrorists, many accuse them of glorifying terrorism. There are none so blind as those who will not see. The publication of Abu Zubaydah’s uncensored diary is a major contribution to any serious attempt to understand terrorism: Primary source material like this is far more enlightening than government spin. It is surely the hope of serious scholars that more such documents will soon surface to give us a more realistic view of the terrorist threat that has been haunting us for nearly two decades.

Marc Sageman, M.D., Ph.D., consultant on terrorism and forensic psychiatrist, is the author of Understanding Terror Networks and Leaderless Jihad. He was the CIA officer running the major Afghan Mujahedin commanders in the 1980s, had taught at UPenn and Columbia University and just finished 8 years in the U.S. Intelligence Community.

The views expressed in this article are the author's own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera America's editorial policy.

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