According to a BBC news profile of Zubaydah, before his capture "few photographs of him were in existence, [and] he had used at least 37 aliases and was considered a master of disguise."
In the late 1990s, Abu Zubaydah played a lead role in one of the 2000 millennium attack plots, and a possible tangential role in a second. There were plans to bomb a fully booked Radisson hotel in Amman, Jordan, and three other sites. This targeted tourists from the United States and Israel. But on November 30, 1999, Jordanian intelligence intercepted a call between Abu Zubaydah and Khadr Abu Hoshar, a Palestinian militant, and determined that an attack was imminent. Jordanian police arrested 22 conspirators and foiled the attack. Abu Zubaydah was sentenced to death in absentia by a Jordanian court for his role. There is also evidence that Abu Zubaydah approved the Los Angeles airport bomb plot in 2000. This plot was also foiled.
In March 2001, Condoleezza Rice was informed by the CIA that Zubaydah was planning a major operation in the near future. This was one of the first of many reports in the Spring of 2001 that increased the threat level and indicated that an attack was coming. Many of these reports mentioned Zubaydah by name. The attack finally came in the form of the September 11, 2001 attacks.
American intelligence officials alleged, in October 2001, that six Arab men, living in Bosnia, had been plotting to bomb the U.S. Embassy in Sarajevo, because they believed one of these men had made calls to a phone number in Afghanistan that had once been used by Zubaydah.
Middle East sources have told the Associated Press Abu Zubaydah developed a unique talent in mortars and other heavy weaponry that attracted the attention of bin Laden. He was apparently named bin Laden's second deputy in 1995, responsible for screening recruits and devising terrorist plans. Where bin Laden and deputy Ayman al-Zawahri would set policy, Abu Zubaydah would implement it. U.S. officials said when the inner circle would order the bombing of an embassy, Abu Zubaydah would select the embassy, cell and method of attack. Ahmed Ressam, convicted April 2001 of smuggling, terrorist conspiracy and other charges in the Los Angeles millennium plot, described Abu Zubaydah's role as a recruiter during court testimony. "He is the person in charge of the camps. He receives young men from all countries. He accepts you or rejects you. And he takes care of the expenses for the camps. He makes arrangements for you when you travel coming in or leaving," Ressam said. Prospective recruits in Pakistan would meet Abu Zubaydah, who would assign them to camps. When they finished training, he placed them in cells overseas. Zubaydah is also believed to have been a field commander for the October 2000 bombing of the USS Cole in Yemen, in which 17 U.S. sailors were killed, and intelligence and police officials have linked him to at least five al Qaeda plots. Middle East sources said Abu Zubaydah helped set up the terrorist cell in Jordan charged with carrying out the millennium plot to attack American and Israeli targets.
In 2002, U.S. intelligence located Abu Zubaydah by tracing his phone calls. He was captured March 28, 2002, in a safehouse located in a two story apartment in Faisalabad, Pakistan. He was shot three times in a firefight, including a wound to the groin and a wound to the thigh. He was treated by the CIA for these wounds and then transferred to the CIA prison system and relocated to Thailand. Several other detainees who face charges before military commissions were captured at the same time as Abu Zubaydah. His capture with Abdul Zahir, is one of the factors in favour of his continued detention.
While in U.S. custody, he was waterboarded, and subsequently gave a great deal of information about the 9/11 attack plot, although the veracity of some of his statements has been called into question. Such information was used by the Canadian government in seeking to uphold the 'security certificate' of Mohamed Harkat. Participating in his interrogation were two American psychologists, James Elmer Mitchell and R. Scott Shumate.
On September 6, 2006, President Bush announced at a White House speech that "Khalid Sheikh Mohammed, Abu Zubaydah, Ramzi bin al-Shibh, and 11 other terrorists in CIA custody have been transferred to the United States Naval Base at Guantanamo Bay." Bush stated that Zubaydah and others would face trial in a military tribunal.
During his own Combatant Status Review Tribunal, in 2004, Ibrahim Mahdy Achmed Zeidan told his Tribunal that, during their interrogation, some captives had been shown pictures they were told were the scars left on Abu Zubaydah by his interrogation.
|Q:||You told us about a man named Abu Zubaydah and how he said false things about you. You mentioned he was tortured to say those things. Can you tell us more about that and how you know that happened?|
|A:||In his statement he never said he was tortured, that's impossible. We know from the American interrogators, not only me, but also a lot of other detainees on this island know that he was subject to a lot of torture. There was a picture of him, I didn't see it, and someone else did showing the signs of torture on his body. Another detainee saw an article in a magazine, I don't remember which one, he read that American interrogators said he was under psychological pressure and was in a special holding place.|
Zubaydah's detention, interrogation and importance have been the subject of debate and criticism. President Bush dedicated a whole section of a national speech to Zubaydah's capture and interrogation and revealed the extent to which American intelligence sources considered him a valuable source. Critics have also questioned Zubaydah's importance, arguing that he was insane or that the interrogation techniques amounted to torture and that the confessions were lies to avoid further discomfort. They also contend that even if his confessions were accurate, their importance has been over-stated or they were not acted upon because they endanger US relationships with various Mid-east rulers, particularly the Saudis.
In the speech, Bush disclosed details of Zubaydah's detention:
According to the 9/11 Commission Report, "The final piece of the puzzle arrived at the CIA's Bin Ladin unit on August 28 in a cable reporting that KSM's nickname was Mukhtar. No one made the connection to the reports about Mukhtar that had been circulated in the spring. This connection might also have underscored concern about the June reporting that KSM was recruiting terrorists to travel, including to the United States. According to the Joint Inquiry into Intelligence Community Activities before and after the Terrorist Attacks of September 11, 2001, "Prior to September 11...the Intelligence Community, however, relegated Khalid Shaykh Mohammed (KSM) to rendition target status...[and] focused primarily on his location, rather than his activities and place in the al-Qa’ida hierarchy...Collection efforts were not targeted on information about KSM that might have helped better understand al-Qa’ida’s plans and intentions, and KSM’s role in the September 11 attacks was a surprise to the Intelligence Community."
The New York Times reported that "American officials had identified Mr. bin al-Shibh’s role in the attacks months before Mr. Zubaydah’s capture. A December 2001 federal grand jury indictment of Zacarias Moussaoui, the so-called 20th hijacker, said that Mr. Moussaoui had received money from Mr. bin al-Shibh and that Mr. bin al-Shibh had shared an apartment with Mohamed Atta, the ringleader of the plot."
CIA spokesman Paul Gimigliano responded to this criticism, stating that the agency had vetted the president’s speech and stood by its accuracy, stating "Abu Zubaydah was the authoritative source who identified Khalid Shaikh Mohammed as the mastermind of 9/11 and the man behind the nickname Muktar...His position in Al Qaeda — his access to terrorist secrets — gave his reporting exceptional weight and it gave C.I.A. insights that were truly unique and vital. Abu Zubaydah not only identified Ramzi Bin al-Shibh as a 9/11 accomplice — something that had been done before — he provided information that helped lead to his capture."
According to a Time magazine article published on September 15, 2002, Abu Zubaydah also gave interrogators information that led to the capture of Omar al-Faruq. The magazine published, "According to one regional intelligence memo, the CIA had been told of al-Faruq's role by Abu Zubaydah, the highest ranking al-Qaeda official in U.S. custody and a valuable, if at times manipulative, source of intelligence on the terror network and its plans. Initially, al-Faruq was not as cooperative.
Zubaydah's interrogations are cited frequently in the 9/11 Commission Report, although he is the sole person to make many of the claims. Human Rights Watch noted that "The 9/11 Commission report refers to the intelligence reports of seven interrogation sessions with Zubayda, dating from February 2002 to April 2004.
According to retired Army general Wayne Downing, the Bush administration's deputy national security adviser for combating terrorism until he resigned in June 2002, "The interrogations of Abu Zubaydah drove me nuts at times...He and some of the others are very clever guys. At times I felt we were in a classic counter-interrogation class: They were telling us what they think we already knew. Then, what they thought we wanted to know. As they did that, they fabricated and weaved in threads that went nowhere. But, even with these ploys, we still get valuable information and they are off the street, unable to plot and coordinate future attacks.
On December 18, 2007 the Washington Post reported on an ongoing debated between the FBI and CIA over Abu Zubaydah's role, and the value of information derived from coercive interrogation techniques. Daniel Coleman a retired FBI official involved in his interrogation, commented that, after the CIA's use of coercive methods:
In June 2006, Simon & Schuster published a book titled The One Percent Doctrine authored by Ron Suskind. In the book, Suskind writes that sources in the intelligence community revealed to him that Abu Zubaydah knew nothing about the operations of al-Qaeda, but rather was al-Qaeda's go-to guy for minor logistics such as travel for wives and children. Suskind notes that Zubaydah turned out to be mentally ill, keeping a diary "in the voice of three people: Hani 1, Hani 2, and Hani 3" -- a boy, a young man and a middle-aged alter ego. The book also quotes Dan Coleman, then the FBI's top al-Qaeda analyst, telling a senior bureau official, "This guy is insane, certifiable, split personality." According to Suskind, this judgment was "echoed at the top of CIA and was, of course, briefed to the President and Vice President," yet two weeks later Bush gave a speech and labeled Zubaydah as "one of the top operatives plotting and planning death and destruction on the United States." Suskind also writes about how the CIA abused Zubaydah to get him to talk.
However, one anonymous counterterrorism official criticized Suskind's book, telling the Washington Times "A lot of information is simply wrong." The unnamed official told the Times that Zubaydah was "crazy like a fox" and was a senior planner inside al Qaeda who has provided critical information on how Osama bin Laden's group works. And John McLaughlin, former acting CIA director, has also stated, "I totally disagree with the view that the capture of Abu Zubaydah was unimportant. Abu Zubaydah was woven through all of the intelligence prior to 9/11 that signaled a major attack was coming, and his capture yielded a great deal of important information."
In an interview with the Washington Times, Suskind stood by his book, saying "[Bush] clearly oversold the importance of the first major capture. That is undeniable." He maintained that Zubaydah was in fact crazy, stating that "The real debate now is how democracy is really challenged in terms of transparency and accountability when it is fighting a war that will largely be conducted going forward in secrecy." When asked specifically by Wolf Blitzer about the useful information Zubaydah allegedly provided, Suskind replied, "I show in the book exactly the useful information he provided, and at the same time I show that essentially what happened is we tortured an insane man and jumped screaming at every word he uttered, most of them which were nonsense." In an interview with Salon.com, Suskind stated "we did get some things of value from Abu Zubaydah. We found out that 'Muktar' -- the brain, that's what it means in Arabic -- was Khalid Sheik Mohammed. That was valuable for a short period of time for us. We were then able to go through the SIGINT [signal intelligence], the electronic dispatches over the years, and say, 'OK, that's who 'Muktar' is."
Suskind also claims in his book that al-Jazeera reporter Yosri Fouda had information about the possible locations of Khalid Sheikh Mohammed and Ramzi bin al-Shibh, and that this information was passed to the Hamad bin Khalifa, the Emir of Qatar, who in turn passed it to then-CIA director George Tenet. Suskind claims this is what led both al-Qaeda operatives to their ultimate capture. In an interview with Salon.com, he states "Ultimately, we ended up getting the key breaks on those guys, KSM and bin al Shibh, from the Emir of Qatar, who informed us as to their whereabouts a few months before we captured bin al Shibh. That was the key break in getting those guys. KSM slipped away; in June of 2002, the Emir of Qatar passed along information to the CIA as to something that an Al Jazeera reporter had discovered as to the safehouse where KSM and bin al Shibh were hiding in Karachi slums. He passed that on to the CIA, and that was the key break. Whether Zubaydah provided some supporting information is not clear, but the key to capturing those guys was the help of the Emir."
Al-Jazeera has denied this claim, stating it is "well known for its editorial independence" and its "commitment to protect the rights of sources". Al-Jazeera also said it has "never communicated any information that it has obtained to any political, security or any other party whatsoever," and described Suskind's claim as baseless.
Ron Suskind wrote that a tipster led the CIA directly to Khalid Sheikh Mohammed and subsequently collected a $25 million reward. Intelligence sources told the Washington Post that Suskind's description of Mohammed's capture was correct, but that Abu Zubaydah also provided information that was helpful to the arrest.
Writing for Salon.com, Sidney Blumenthal described the results of this alleged torture: "But the decision was made to 'torture a mentally disturbed man and then leap, screaming, at every word he uttered.' He was 'waterboarded,' simulating drowning. Zubaydah babbled about terrorist threats to shopping malls, nuclear power plants, supermarkets, and about al-Qaida plans to build a nuclear device. The administration sounded alerts on every unconfirmed threat. In May 2002, New York City was put on high alert over Zubaydah's torture-incited ravings that the Brooklyn Bridge and the Statue of Liberty were targets. Cheney went on 'Larry King Live' to defend the alerts: 'We now have a large number of people in custody, detainees, and periodically as we go through this process we learn more about the possibility of future attacks.'
On February 5, 2008, CIA Director Michael V. Hayden told a Senate committee that the agency had used waterboarding on Abu Zubaydah.
On December 6, 2007 the New York Times advised the Bush Administration that they had acquired, and planned to publish, information about the destruction of tapes made of Abu Zubaydah's interrogation. Michael Hayden, the Director of Central Intelligence, sent a letter to CIA staff, briefing them on the tape's destruction. Hayden asserted that key members of Congress had been briefed on the existence of the tapes, and the plans for their destruction.
According to the Washington Post, Jane Harman, the ranking Democrat on the House Intelligence Committee, who was one of just four senior members of Congress who was briefed on the existence of the tapes, acknowledged being briefed. Harman responded to Hayden's assertions by stating she had objected, in writing, to the tapes' destruction.
Hayden asserted that the continued existence of the tapes represented a threat -- to the CIA personnel involved. He asserted that if the tapes were leaked they might cause the CIA personnel to be identified and targeted for retaliation.
In 2005, when the tapes were supposedly destroyed, Judge Leonie Brinkema asked the government about videotapes showing the interogation of Abu Zubaydah, but the government denied any existence thereof.
Initially the Bush administration asserted that they could withhold all the protections of the Geneva Conventions to captives from the war on terror. This policy was challenged before the Judicial branch. Critics argued that the USA could not evade its obligation to conduct competent tribunals to determine whether captives are, or are not, entitled to the protections of prisoner of war status.
Subsequently the Department of Defense instituted the Combatant Status Review Tribunals. The Tribunals, however, were not authorized to determine whether the captives were lawful combatants -- rather they were merely empowered to make a recommendation as to whether the captive had previously been correctly determined to match the Bush administration's definition of an enemy combatant.
A memorandum summarizing the evidence against Abu Zubadydah was prepared, on February 8, 2007, for his Combatant Status Review Tribunal.
The twelve allegations against him were three pages long.
The Globe and Mail attributed the intelligence analysts' heavy reliance on Ahmed Ressam's confessions to a desire to have all the unclassified allegations against Abu Zubaydah be based on evidence that didn't rely on torture.
Abu Zubaydah's Combatant Status Review Tribunal convened on March 27, 2007. The Department of Defense released verbatim transcript of the unclassified session from his Tribunal, and his Summary of Evidence memo.
Zubaydah denied that he was an associate of Osama bin Laden and said he disagreed with Al-Qaeda's philosophy of targeting civilians. Abu Zubaydah acknowledged facilitating the training of jihadists in Afghanistan to fight invaders of Muslim lands, but said the Taliban shut his camp, the Khalden training camp, down in 2000. He testified that his sole meeting with Bin Laden was in 2000, to request that Bin Laden use his influence with the Taliban to get them to reverse themselves, and reopen the Khalden camp. It was during this meeting that he learned that the Taliban shut down his camp at Bin Laden's request.
According to Zubaydah: