We’re honored to have Michael Busch dissecting the latest WikiLeaks document dump for Focal Points. This is the forty-eighth in the series.
What to make of the Gitmo assessment of Abu Zubaydah, the Saudi-born Palestinian man once described by George W. Bush administration as the “number three” guy in al Qaeda? The fourteen-page document, released as part of WikiLeaks’ “Gitmo Files” trove, is at once a collection of rumors, contradictory data and bizarre analysis that at the same time, serves as an uncompromising verdict of Abu Zubaydah’s guilt in crimes against the United States.
The memo begins with the bold claim that Zubaydah
Is a senior member of al-Qaida with direct ties to multiple high-ranking terrorists such as Usama Bin Laden (UBL). Detainess has a vast amount of information regarding al-Qaida personnel and operations and is an admitted operational planner, financier and facilitator of international terrorsist and their activities. Detainee participated in hostilities against US and Coalition forces and was involved in several plans to commit terrorist acts against the US, its interests and allies.
Quite a valuable prisoner, by the looks of it, then. How did the commanding officer, Rear Admiral D. M. Thomas, come to learn all of this information? Not through direct talks with Zubaydah, as the report makes clear at its close: “Due to detainees’ HVD status, detainee has yet to be interviewed.” Instead, Thomas seems to have relied upon claims made by dozens of other detainees—whether at Guantanamo or other sites of extraordinary rendition—while denying Zubaydah’s own claims as patently false.
And as it turns out, it’s Zubayadah’s story that proves most interesting, and at the end of the day, seems the likeliest to be true, even as it too suffers from problems of consistency. The report offers the “Detainee’s Account of Events,” though where this account was delivered is never explicitly made clear. According to Zubaydah’s own testimony, he very much wanted to become an al Qaida operative, but the terrorist outfit wouldn’t let him.
Detainee stated he was originally a “bad Muslim” who arrived in Afghanistan in 1990-1991. He was determined to attend militant training because he was inspired by the Palestinian cause….Detainee stated that in 1993, following the first Afghan jihad against the Russians, he decided to dedicate his life to jihad. Detainee noticed that of all the other groups in theater, only al-Qaida remained to continue the jihad struggle. Detainee submitted the requisite paperwork to join al-Qaida and pledge bayat (an oath of allegiance to UBL. Detainee’s application to al-Qaida was rejected.
But in the very next paragraph, Zubaydah offers a slightly different account of his troubles with al Qaeda that merits no mention from the report’s author.
In approximately 1991 or 1992, detainee sustained a head wouldn from shrapnel while on the front lines. Detainee stated he had to relearn fundamentals such as walking, talking, and writing; as such, he was therefore considered worthless to al-Qaida. Detainee asked Abu Burhan al-Suri for permission to repeat the Khaldan Camp training. Detainee did not pledge bayat to UBL and did not become a full al-Qaida member. Detainee refused to make the pledge unless al-Qada agreed to stage an attack inside Israel or mount an operation to help free Shaykh Umar Abd al-Rahman aka (the Blind Sheik) [sic].
So which is it? Did al Qaeda reject Zubaydah, or did Zubaydah reject al Qaeda? This question is never addressed, much less resolved. Instead, the report details two more meetings between Zubaydah and bin Laden that demonstrate little other than the latter’s distaste for the former.
The question of Zubaydah’s testimony and its provenance is of chief significance. The report notes that shortly after Zubaydah’s last contact with bin Laden—where the al Qaeda chief appears to have shut down the Palestinian’s plan for an attack in Israel—he was picked up by Pakistani security forces “in Faisalabad on 28 March 2002.” In the process, Zubaydah was “shot three time while attempting to escape. Detainee was transferred to US authorities immediately after his arrest and once his condition stabilized, he was transported out of Pakistan.” A few lines later, the memo notes that Zuybaydah was transferred to Gitmo in September 2006, over four and a half years later. So what happened to him in the intervening period?
Quite a lot, as it happens. Unremarked upon in the report is the now established evidence that Zubaydah was flown to the Cuban detention facility in 2002, where he remained for nine months before being shipped off to another CIA interrogation facility in Thailand. There, according to Andy Worthington,
the FBI began interrogating him using old-school, torture-free methods, which had a proven track record. Within a matter of weeks, however, the FBI agents were shamefully discarded by the administration’s most senior officials, who believed that another major attack was imminent, and that only the use of torture would persuade a significant captured terrorist — as Zubaydah was presumed to be — to talk. The job of interrogating Zubaydah was handed over to the CIA, whose new repertoire of techniques consisted primarily of torture, including waterboarding (a form of controlled drowning), confinement in tiny, coffin-like boxes, extreme violence, prolonged isolation, and the use of sustained nudity and loud music and noise.
Zubaydah was returned to Guantanamo in 2006. Shortly thereafter, Zubaydah became a central figure in the ICRC reports documenting American torture practices in Afghanistan and elsewhere, and was the centerpiece of one of the so-called “torture memos” released by the Barack Obama administrations just two years ago this month.
The shocking incidence of mental health disorders suffered by detainees at Guantanamo has been particularly striking in the Gitmo files released thus far by WikiLeaks, and it’s clear from Zubaydah well-documented history that he should be tallied with those prisoners suffering psychological distress. In Barton Gellman’s review of Ron Suskind’s One Percent Doctrine, it’s noted that
Abu Zubaydah, his captors discovered, turned out to be mentally ill and nothing like the pivotal figure they supposed him to be. CIA and FBI analysts, poring over a diary he kept for more than a decade, found entries “in the voice of three people: Hani 1, Hani 2, and Hani 3” — a boy, a young man and a middle-aged alter ego. All three recorded in numbing detail “what people ate, or wore, or trifling things they said.”
This might explain the slightly varied accounts Zubaydah reportedly gave American intelligence officers of his difficult history with al Qaeda. In any event it’s hard to escape the conclusion, based on the mountain of evidence that has surfaced thus far about Zubaydah’s condition, arrived at by Dan Coleman, the FBI’s chief al Qaeda expert: “This guy is insane, certifiable, split personality.”
He’s also still Guantanamo Bay. Despite the government’s own admission that Zubaydah was not, contrary to its earlier bombast, “a ‘member’ of al-Qaida in the sense of having sworn bavat (allegiance) or having otherwise satisfied any formal criteria that either [Zubaydah] or al-Qaida may have considered necessary for inclusion in al-Qaeda,” it continues to hold him in detention “based on conduct and actions that establish Petitioner was ‘part of’ hostile forces and ‘substantially supported’ those forces.” All totaled, Zubaydah has been in American custody going on nine years, and there’s no sense that resolution of his case will occur at any point in the foreseeable future.