Touted as a crucial source for Al-Qaeda's early years, Abu Zubaydah's diary is at first glance a puzzling document. While it has no doubt provided American officials with "actionable" bits of information about a number of militant plots and personalities, this text, which should have presented us with a perfect account of one man's radicalization, appears to do nothing of the sort. As if to explain this curious absence, U.S. authorities occasionally describe it in psychological terms, as an illustration of its author’s "schizophrenia."
Whatever his mental state, Abu Zubayadah's diary is so stereotyped as to belong to a recognizable genre of melodramatic writing such as romantic novels, the lyrics of popular songs or film scripts. Indeed, what is interesting about it is precisely this sentimental narrative, which investigators looking for another kind of stereotyped story — that of radicalization — have missed because of their obsession with the kind of individual responsibility that is familiar from detective stories and Hollywood-style adventures. But if Abu Zubaydah's testimony is anything to go by, radicalization conceived as an individual's momentous conversion to a cause by the urging of certain people, ideas or experiences is nothing more than a myth. Neither some great trauma nor a sinister course of training seems to have played a role in Zubaydah's turn to militancy; only the sentimental, unexceptionable and even nonviolent themes of mass culture.
Begun in 1990, while he was studying computer science in the Indian city of Mysore, Abu Zubaydah's diary is addressed to a future self, as if it were a time capsule meant to remind an older man of his youth. It is this aspect that led to rumors of his schizophrenia, though such a convention is quite in keeping with the genres of mass culture that Zubaydah frequently cites. These include Arabic ballads, Chris de Burgh songs of the 1980s and Hindi films from the early '90s. So when his brother tried to bring Abu Zubaydah back from the anti-Soviet jihad in Afghanistan, the most persuasive part of his efforts seems to have been references to the 1990 Indian film "Dil" and Chris de Burgh's 1980 song "Sailor," rather than to Islam or the Quran. Very appropriately, de Burgh’s song is about a prisoner or castaway asking a sailor to take him home.
Whatever its truth, the narrative Zubaydah sets down of his early life in Riyadh, complete with bickering parents, an uncaring father, treacherous friends and academic failure, is also a highly mannered one. The theme of a lonely and alienated young man persisted even when Abu Zubaydah tried to claim his manhood by going to fight in Afghanistan. In fact, the neophyte's comrades in arms asked his visiting brother, a doctor, to stay on and send the failed computer scientist home instead. The melodrama never ends, with Zubaydah's diary quoting letters in which his fellow militants and future martyrs profess their love for him. However heroic and even brutal it might become, the kind of masculinity embraced by our author was far removed from macho Hollywood models, but very close to emotional and frequently lachrymose Bollywood ones.
Abu Zubaydah is himself a narrative cliché: Born into an exiled and dysfunctional Palestinian family living as second-class subjects in Saudi Arabia, he first escapes a life of failure to study at a second-rate college in Mysore, and then moves on to achieve another kind of qualified success in the Afghan jihad. How far can we rely upon his stereotyped account? More important than the answer to this question, perhaps, is the fact that his storyline has no room for radicalization in it. We move straight from Abu Zubaydah's guilty bouts of non-penetrative sex with his unattractive maid Philomena (translated as "Flumina" in the diaries), who we are told pursued him relentlessly in Mysore, to the train that takes him first to Delhi and then, through Pakistan, to a training camp in Afghanistan. On the way to join the jihad, all he can think of is securing a sleeping berth on the train. Quite apart from any reluctance he may have felt in revealing the name of some "recruiter," Zubaydah neither quotes the Quran and traditions of the Prophet, nor makes any reference to the infidel enemy and his hatred of their oppression when deciding to become a holy warrior. Indeed, there is no reason at all given for joining the jihad, which suggests that rather than being a transformative event, it might well have been as ordinary and uncertain a decision as that which Abu Zubaydah made when traveling to India for his education.