Abu Zubaydah and the banality of 'jihadism'

The world is full of dangerous goofballs, but we can't treat them all as threats to civilization

December 19, 2013 7:00AM ET
This photograph taken on May 2, 2013 shows Pakistan man, Abdul Razzaq holding the national identity card of his brother Amanatullah Ali, who has been detained for the last nine years in Bagram jail in Afghanistan, in Faisalabad.
Guillaume Lavallee/AFP/Getty Images

The Abu Zubaydah diaries recently made available to the public by Al Jazeera America might seem interesting only to security officials or 9/11 obsessives. To regard them as such would be a mistake, for they contain the most detailed portrait of the interior life of a dedicated jihadi that we have ever seen, and that we might ever see. They also help substantiate what should by now be clear: The U.S. has made significant, basic errors in its response to 9/11 and the threat of radical Islam.

Zubaydah, born in Palestine and raised in middle-class comfort in Saudi Arabia, rose through the 1990s — by what abilities it is not clear — to a position of some stature within radical Islam. He recorded his rise in hundreds of diary entries addressed to his future self. Written over two decades, the diaries track him from an early adulthood spent studying computer programming at a technical college in India through early 2002. Further diaries, written while he has been in U.S. custody, including at Guantánamo, have yet to be revealed.

Zubaydah was captured in the spring of 2002, the first significant Al-Qaeda-linked terrorist to be caught after 9/11. It turned out the link to Al-Qaeda was more tenuous than the U.S. government had imagined. For years, the U.S. government had viewed him as a major figure within the group, at one point even elevating him to the No. 3 position on what turned out to be a fanciful Al-Qaeda organizational chart.

The diaries make clear that Zubaydah never actually joined Al-Qaeda. In fact, he was more a competitor than a subordinate to Osama bin Laden, one with a broader network of contacts. In the late 1990s he was instrumental in running a training camp just across the Pakistani border in Afghanistan. He acted as a gatekeeper for the Islamist cause in general, and for the war camps that trained militants generally beyond Al-Qaeda’s reach — Chechens, Uzbeks, Algerians.

When it comes to assessing the very real threat posed by radical Islam, Abu Zubaydah’s diaries suggest we have made two crucial errors. First, we err when we individualize the threat and locate it in any one man or any single organization. In the U.S. following 9/11, bin Laden and Al-Qaeda came to be seen as a nearly all-encompassing enemy, potentially hiding in every mosque. We greatly overestimated Al-Qaeda’s capabilities, reach and appeal. It never posed an existential threat to the United States. Nor was Afghanistan crucial to the success of the 9/11 attacks. Invading it did little to prevent further attacks. The Iraq War cost a fortune in money and lives and was probably counterproductive. Meanwhile, the U.S. has ignored the central fact that 9/11 was imagined and managed by Khalid Sheikh Mohammed, not bin Laden, and in Pakistan, not Afghanistan. 

Terrorists are not supermen; they are not brilliant tacticians or highly trained warriors. Often they are simple men who argue with one another over the pettiest of things.

At great financial and political cost, the U.S. then reconstructed its security organizations to confront a real enemy but one we also inflated. The security and surveillance apparatus is not the best way to counter radical Islam, but it is still with us, exerting its own demands.

There is no reason the Zubaydah diaries could not have been released a decade ago. If privacy concerns prevented the government from releasing them, as it has maintained, resolving the matter would have been simple. I have no idea what drives the Obama administration’s continued harassment of the media on the thinnest of arguments that national security is somehow being compromised by every routine leak of information — unless the administration is doing the leaking. The hostility toward legitimate, necessary functions of the press is troubling.

The defense of secrecy that continues to shape prosecutions of captured terrorists held at Guantánamo Bay goes to absurd lengths. Consider the military prosecutors’ claim, for example, that the recollections of the terrorists tortured by the CIA are classified because they would reveal sources and methods of the intelligence-gathering process. The sources and methods in question here are the torture techniques used against them. So what is actually being protected is the reputation of the U.S., which has been grossly compromised by these very acts and policies.

The release of the Zubaydah diaries also reminds us of something we know intuitively but seem to forget. Terrorists are not supermen; they are not brilliant tacticians or highly trained warriors. Often they are simple men, many of them still functionally boys whose development has never progressed beyond adolescence. They argue with one another over the pettiest of things. Zubaydah argued with himself over bad European pop music and Pepsi-Cola. He and most of his cohort are small, hapless and, largely, a bunch of goofballs. But let me tell you something: The world is full of goofballs. We can’t treat them all as threats to civilization.

None of which means these goofballs were incapable of killing people. It is nearly impossible to stop anyone with a serious intent from killing random individuals. Everyone involved in national security knows this. In truth, America is not in principle committed to stopping the random killing of innocents, or the country would do something about our own citizens’ shooting sprees.

Not appreciating the banality of terrorists has enabled Americans to imagine them as both more and less than what they are. It has also misled us in thinking about the central question: Why do these guys end up doing these things? When you read the Zubaydah diaries, the answers are both unsatisfying and as unsurprisingly ordinary as the men. These militants are fueled mainly by broad, inchoate resentments against their own societies and the autocrats who run them, against the West and its profligate freedoms, against American entanglement in their region, specifically its support of Israel.

The importance of these motives lies in how broadly they are shared. 

Terry McDermott is a writer in California. He is the author of "Perfect Soldiers – The 9/11 Hijackers: Who They Were and Why They Did It" and, with Josh Meyer, "The Hunt for KSM: Inside the Pursuit and Takedown of the Real 9/11 Mastermind, Khalid Sheikh Mohammed."

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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