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April 26, 2008

The Insignificance and Insanity of Abu Zubaydah


by Andy Worthington

Abu Zubaydah, an alleged senior al-Qaeda operative, has been held without charge or trial as a "high-value detainee" for over six years, first in secret CIA custody, and then in Guantánamo, while battles have raged within the administration over his supposed significance. Drawing, in particular, on the story of former Guantánamo prisoner Khalid al-Hubayshi, Andy Worthington, author of The Guantánamo Files: The Stories of the 774 Detainees in America's Illegal Prison, makes the case that Zubaydah's importance has been wildly exaggerated.

A recent article in the Washington Post, Out of Guantánamo and Bitter Toward Bin Laden, which was based on an interview with former Guantánamo prisoner Khalid al-Hubayshi (released in 2006), was noteworthy as much for what it did not reveal as for what it did.

In the article, Faiza Saleh Ambah began by explaining how "A calling to defend fellow Muslims and a bit of aimlessness took Khalid al-Hubayshi to a separatists' training camp in the southern Philippines and to the mountains of Afghanistan, where he interviewed for a job with Osama bin Laden."

Part of this story was previously known from al-Hubayshi's long years in Guantánamo, as Detainee 155, when he admitted to his Combatant Status Review Tribunal (CSRT) in 2004 that he had trained in the Philippines and had also trained at the Khaldan camp in Afghanistan in 1997. He also said that he moved to Afghanistan in 2001, joining a "private small camp" outside Jalalabad, which was subsequently closed down by the Taliban. Throughout, he presented himself – with some eloquence – as a freedom fighter who focused on particular struggles that various Muslims around the world had with non-Muslim oppressors (the model that was largely superseded by bin Laden's declaration of global jihad in 1998).

It was for this reason, he said, that he trained at Khaldan, which was not associated with either the Taliban or al-Qaeda at the time, and it was also for this reason that he returned to Afghanistan in 2001, and joined the camp near Jalalabad. He insisted, "I wasn't a member of al-Qaeda or on the front lines with the Taliban because I don't believe in what they are doing. I believe what the Taliban did in Afghanistan was ethnic war [and] al-Qaeda is a terrorist organization."

He also explained, "I think Osama bin Laden is wrong. He just wants to be famous. He doesn't care how he does it, killing people, killing Muslims, or destroying countries. I think he got what he wanted – to be famous. I don't need to meet him. I don't understand the politics. People look at the vision of Osama bin Laden and believe America is their enemy. They don't understand what is going on or what happened in Afghanistan in 1980 [when the Soviet invasion began]."

This opinion of bin Laden, as it transpired from al-Hubayshi's interview with Faiza Saleh Ambah, was true, but rather lacking in context. In the interview he admitted that, although he had certainly become disillusioned with the inter-ethnic fighting in Afghanistan – "I was not there … to help Afghans fighting Afghans for political gain," he said, adding, "If I was going to die, I wanted to die fighting for something meaningful" – his return to Afghanistan in May 2001, and what he subsequently did there, was both more complicated and more compromised than he had admitted at his tribunal.

He explained that, while attempting to return home in 1999, he had been arrested and imprisoned by the Pakistanis, who confiscated his passport, and that he had then returned to his job at a utilities company in Saudi Arabia on a false passport. His return to Afghanistan in 2001 came about when he discovered that he was wanted for questioning by the Saudi authorities, and it was at the camp near Jalalabad, where he became "adept at making remote-controlled explosive devices triggered by cellphones and light switches," that he attracted the attention of al-Qaeda.

Introduced to Osama bin Laden, he said that he refused to join al-Qaeda because bin Laden's fight "had changed from defending Muslims to attacking the United States. I wasn't convinced of his ideology. And I wanted to be independent, not just another minion in this big group." After returning to his independent life, he was drawn once more into bin Laden's orbit after 9/11, when, after fleeing Afghan persecution, he and others were invited to the Tora Bora mountains, for what, it seems, was touted as a glorious showdown with the Americans.

"Bin Laden was convinced the Americans would come down and fight," al-Hubayshi said. "We spent five weeks like that, manning our positions in case the Americans landed." He added, however, that as the airstrikes moved closer, and as the Americans' Afghan allies advanced on their positions, bin Laden abandoned the fight and fled. "There was no dignity in what he made us do," he told Faiza Saleh Ambah, adding that he was "sorry that Muslims carried out the Sept. 11 attacks because they targeted civilians." "That was wrong," he explained. "Jihad is fighting soldier to soldier."

While this entire report fills in some rather large gaps in al-Hubayshi's testimony in Guantánamo – and also provides some apposite insight into his opinion of bin Laden – what was missing from Faiza Saleh Ambah's interview was any mention whatsoever of another allegedly pivotal figure in al-Qaeda: Abu Zubaydah, the Palestinian-born facilitator of the Khaldan camp, and one of 14 "high-value detainees" transferred to Guantánamo from secret CIA prisons in September 2006.

In the interview, the only mention of Khaldan was that al-Hubayshi "learned to fire anti-aircraft missiles, anti-aircraft machine guns, anti-tank weapons and rocket-propelled grenades and became an expert in explosives," whereas his comments in Guantánamo about his relationship with Abu Zubaydah struck me as enormously significant while I was researching The Guantánamo Files, and remain so to this day, as they cast important light on a fierce debate within the US administration, which has raged since shortly after Zubaydah was captured in the Pakistani city of Faisalabad in March 2002.

Contrary to claims made by the administration and the CIA – which, as described in Time magazine shortly after his capture, indicated that he was "al-Qaeda's chief of operations and top recruiter," who would be able to "provide the names of terrorists around the world and which targets they planned to hit" – the story that emerged in Ron Suskind's 2006 book, The One Percent Doctrine, was that Zubaydah was nothing like the pivotal figure that the CIA had supposed him to be, and had actually turned out to be mentally ill.

Investigating his diary, analysts found entries in the voices of three people – a boy, a young man and a middle-aged alter ego – which recorded in numbing detail, over the course of ten years, "what people ate, or wore, or trifling things they said." Dan Coleman, the FBI's senior expert on al-Qaeda, explained to one of his superiors, "This guy is insane, certifiable, split personality." According to Suskind, the officials also confirmed that Zubaydah appeared to know nothing about terrorist operations, and was, instead, a minor logistician.

And yet, as Suskind also reports, so misplaced was the CIA's belief in Zubaydah's importance that when they subjected him to waterboarding and other forms of torture, and he "confessed" to all manner of supposed plots – against shopping malls, banks, supermarkets, water systems, nuclear plants, apartment buildings, the Brooklyn Bridge, and the Statue of Liberty – "thousands of uniformed men and women raced in a panic to each target ... The United States would torture a mentally disturbed man and then leap, screaming, at every word he uttered."

Last December, when there was a brief uproar over the destruction by the CIA of videotapes showing the "enhanced interrogations" of Zubaydah and another "high-value detainee," Abdul Rahim al-Nashiri, Dan Coleman spoke out once more about Zubaydah, telling the Washington Post that the use of "enhanced interrogation techniques" tactics by the CIA cast doubt on the credibility of Zubaydah's confessions. "I don't have confidence in anything he says," Coleman explained, "because once you go down that road, everything you say is tainted. He was talking before they did that to him, but they didn't believe him. The problem is they didn't realize he didn't know all that much."

Coleman also revisited the rift that developed between the FBI and the CIA when CIA operatives began holding him naked in his cell, "subjecting him to extreme cold and bombarding him with loud rock music," explaining that FBI operatives who witnessed this said, "You've got to be kidding me. This guy's a Muslim. That's not going to win his confidence. Are you trying to get information out of him or just belittle him?"

Reiterating his skepticism about Zubaydah's supposed importance, Coleman said that he "was a ‘safehouse keeper' with mental problems who claimed to know more about al-Qaeda and its inner workings than he really did," that his diaries were "full of flowery and philosophical meanderings, and made little mention of terrorism or al-Qaeda," and that he and others at the FBI had concluded, by looking at other evidence, including a serious head injury that Zubaydah had suffered years earlier, that he had severe mental problems. "They all knew he was crazy, and they knew he was always on the damn phone," Coleman explained, referring to other al-Qaeda operatives, adding, "You think they're going to tell him anything?"

Largely unnoticed, although featured in my book, are two more analyses of Zubaydah's role that reinforce the opinions expressed by Dan Coleman and Ron Suskind: those of Khalid al-Hubayshi, and of Zubaydah himself, during his CSRT in Guantánamo last spring.

Al-Hubayshi explained that, far from being a mastermind, Abu Zubaydah was responsible for "receiving people and financing the camp," that he once bought him travel tickets, and that he was the man he went to when he needed a replacement passport. He also suggested that Zubaydah did not have a long-standing relationship with bin Laden. When asked, "When you were with Abu Zubaydah, did you ever see Osama bin Laden?" he replied, "In 1998, Abu Zubaydah and Osama bin Laden didn't like each other," adding, "In 2001, I think the relationship was okay," and explaining that bin Laden put pressure on Zubaydah to close Khaldan, essentially because he wanted to run more camps himself.

The echoes with Zubaydah's own account are uncanny. In his CSRT, Zubaydah said that he was tortured by the CIA to admit that he worked with Osama bin Laden, but insisted, "I'm not his partner and I'm not a member of al-Qaeda." He also said that his interrogators promised to return his diary to him – the one that contained the evidence of his split personality – and explained that their refusal to do so affected him emotionally and triggered seizures.

Speaking of his status as a "high-value detainee," he said that his only role was to operate a guest house used by those who were training at Khaldan, and confirmed al-Hubayshi's analysis of his relationship with bin Laden, saying, "Bin Laden wanted al-Qaeda to have control of Khaldan, but we refused since we had different ideas." He explained that he opposed attacks on civilian targets, which brought him into conflict with bin Laden, and although he admitted that he had been an enemy of the US since childhood, because of its support for Israel, pointed out that his enmity was towards the government and the military, and not the American people.

I await the development of Abu Zubaydah's story with interest. Just a month ago, his lawyers, Brent Mickum and Joe Margulies, followed Coleman and Suskind's lead by filing an unlawful detention suit arguing that their client is insane, and I'm fascinated to know what they – and others who are wondering why, if Zubaydah was so important, he was not charged in February in connection with the 9/11 attacks along with Khalid Sheikh Mohammed and five others – will make of the testimony of Khalid al-Hubayshi, who, as Faiza Saleh Ambah reported, is now a world away from his previous life as a would-be soldier and US prisoner, happily married and working at the utilities company from which he twice escaped to pursue his dreams of jihad.

 

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  • Andy Worthington is a historian based in London. He is the author of The Guantánamo Files, the first book to tell the stories of all the detainees in Guantanámo. He writes regularly on issues related to Guantánamo and the "War on Terror" on his Web site.

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