The story of Abu Zubaydah — a Saudi-born Palestinian whose real name is Zayn al-Abidin Muhammad Husayn — has always been absolutely central to the “War on Terror.” Seized in a house raid in Faisalabad, Pakistan on March 28, 2002, he was immediately touted as “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.” He then pretty much vanished off the face of the earth for four and a half years.
In September 2006, he resurfaced in Guantánamo, when President Bush announced that he was one of 14 “high-value detainees,” previously held in secret CIA prisons, whose existence had been resolutely denied by the administration until that point.
In a speech on September 6, 2006, Bush finally conceded that “a small number of suspected terrorist leaders and operatives captured during the war [on terror] have been held and questioned outside the United States, in a separate program operated by the Central Intelligence Agency,” and claimed that when Abu Zubaydah, who he described as “a senior terrorist leader and a trusted associate of Osama bin Laden,” became “defiant and evasive” after his capture, “the CIA used an alternative set of procedures. These procedures were designed to be safe, to comply with our laws, our Constitution, and our treaty obligations. The Department of Justice reviewed the authorized methods extensively and determined them to be lawful.”
This was a reference to the CIA’s torture program for “high-value detainees,” which was first publicly revealed when a memo that purported to redefine torture so that it could be used by the CIA, written by Justice Department lawyer John Yoo and issued in August 2002, was leaked in the wake of the Abu Ghraib scandal in 2004.
However, another narrative had already appeared to challenge the one put forward by the President. In June 2006, Ron Suskind’s book The One Percent Doctrine was published, which explained, as I described it in an article a year ago, that:
Zubaydah “turned out to be mentally ill and nothing like the pivotal figure they supposed him to be,” in the words of Barton Gellman, who reviewed Suskind’s book for the Washington Post in 2006. He “appeared to know nothing about terrorist operations,” and was, instead, the “go-to guy for minor logistics — travel for wives and children and the like” …
Suskind described how, through a close scrutiny of his diaries, in which FBI 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, told his superiors, “This guy is insane, certifiable, split personality.”
Since then, more and more compelling evidence has emerged to demonstrate that Abu Zubaydah was indeed nothing more than a “safehouse keeper” with mental health problems, who “claimed to know more about al-Qaeda and its inner workings than he really did,” and a “kind of travel agent” for would-be jihadists, who “was not even an official member of al-Qaeda.” This included Abu Zubaydah’s own testimony at his Combatant Status Review Tribunal at Guantánamo in 2007, when he stated 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.”
Moreover, following on from Ron Suskind’s explanation of how “The United States would torture a mentally disturbed man and then leap, screaming, at every word he uttered,” further confirmation was also provided that his torture yielded no significant information and led only to vast amounts of the intelligence agencies’ time being wasted on false leads. A year ago, summing up the results of Zubaydah’s torture, a former intelligence official stated, bluntly, “We spent millions of dollars chasing false alarms.”
In addition, the details of the torture program that was specifically developed for use on Abu Zubaydah have also been revealed — primarily through a leaked International Committee of the Red Cross report (PDF), based on interviews with the “high-value detainees,” including Abu Zubaydah, and also through other Justice Department “torture memos” released by the Obama administration last April. The grim list of techniques includes waterboarding (a form of controlled drowning), confinement in tiny, coffin-like boxes, prolonged sleep deprivation, prolonged isolation, and the use of violence and stress positions, sustained nudity, loud music and noise.
Given all these facts — that the Bush administration implemented torture for use on a man whose importance was hideously overstated, which led to no useful intelligence and a hideous waste of the agencies’ time — Abu Zubaydah’s story is one of the most distressing examples of hubris in the whole of the Bush administration’s brutally inept “War on Terror,” but his story has not come to an end, of course, and his continued detention, and the Obama administration’s attempts to justify it, continue to throw up new revelations, as was made clear just last week when a court submission filed by the government in September 2009 was unclassified.
In response to 213 requests by Abu Zubaydah’s lawyers for discovery in his habeas corpus petition, the government itself provided the most comprehensive rebuttal to date of the kind of claims put forward by the Bush administration in defense of its torture program, and, specifically, its claims regarding Abu Zubaydah, on the basis that requests for discovery are only relevant when they refer to claims made by the government.
In seeking to turn down the lawyers’ requests, the government revealed that it “has not contended … that Petitioner was a member of al-Qaeda or otherwise formally identified with al-Qaeda” and “has not contended that Petitioner had any personal involvement in planning or executing either the 1998 embassy bombings in Nairobi, Kenya, and Dar-es-Salaam, Tanzania, or the attacks of September 11, 2001.”
Instead, the government now claims that the ongoing detention of Abu Zubaydah “is based on conduct and actions that establish Petitioner was ‘part of’ hostile forces and ‘substantially supported’ those forces,” and that he “facilitat[ed] the retreat and escape of enemy forces” after the US-led invasion of Afghanistan in October 2001.
In response, as Jason Leopold reported for Truthout:
Zubaydah’s attorneys claim that “the persons whom [Zubaydah] assisted in escaping Afghanistan in 2001 included ‘women, children, and/or other non-combatants’” and that the government has evidence to support those assertions. The lawyers also questioned the government’s history of falsehoods about their client.
“The Government’s accounts frequently have been at variance with the actual facts, and the government has generally been loath to provide the facts until forced to do so,” said Zubaydah’s attorney, Brent Mickum, in an interview. “When the Government was forced to present the facts in the form of discovery in Zubaydah’s case, it realized that the game was over and there was no way it could support the Bush administration’s baseless allegations. So it changed the charges.”
Mickum continued, “I’m not surprised at all that the Government has dropped the old charges against our client and is alleging new charges against him. That is their tried-and-true modus operandi … [W]hen their case falls apart, they re-jigger the evidence, and come up with new charges and [say] ‘we will defend the new charges with the same zeal we defended the earlier bogus charges.’”
Since taking up Abu Zubaydah’s case and filing a habeas corpus petition in February 2008, his lawyers have always maintained not only that their client was not a member of al-Qaeda, but also that Khaldan, the training camp for which he was the “safehouse keeper,” was closed down by the Taliban in 2000 after the camp’s leader refused to allow it to come under the control of Osama bin Laden. Even the government now accepts that Khaldan was “organizationally and operationally independent of al-Qaeda,” and as Brent Mickum told Jason Leopold, reviewing all of the above, “We have never deviated from that position, and now the government admits that we were correct all along.”
These extensive concessions on the part of the government seem only to reveal that the Justice Department is painting itself into a corner with Abu Zubaydah, engaged in a slow-moving legal process, which senior officials must be hoping can be strung out indefinitely. Otherwise, profoundly difficult truths will emerge — about the extent of Abu Zubaydah’s torture, its particular futility, and, it should be noted, his relationship to Ibn al-Shaykh al-Libi, the emir of Khaldan who turned down Osama bin Laden.
Rendered to Egypt after his capture at the end of 2001, al-Libi was tortured until he confessed that Saddam Hussein was helping al-Qaeda obtain chemical weapons, a wildly improbable scenario, which, nevertheless, was used to justify the invasion of Iraq in March 2003. What makes the revival of al-Libi’s story particularly unappealing for the US government is that, after years of detention in secret prisons, he was returned to Libya, where, last May, he conveniently died in prison — reportedly by committing suicide — just three days before the US embassy reopened in Tripoli after being closed for 40 years.
When it comes to dealing with Khaldan, the stories of Abu Zubaydah and Ibn al-Shaykh al-Libi not only demonstrate the Bush administration’s legacy at its most toxic and self-defeating, but also at its most cruel and pointless, from which, it seems clear, there is no easy way out.
This report was originally published on the website of the Future of Freedom Foundation.
Andy Worthington, a regular contributor to The Public Record, is the author of The Guantánamo Files: The Stories of the 774 Detainees in America’s Illegal Prison and the definitive Guantánamo prisoner list, published in March 2009. He maintains a blog at andyworthington.co.uk.