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,
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superseded by bin Laden's declaration of global jihad in 1998).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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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.