The Magazine

The Zubaydah Dossier

Assertions that the terrorist wasn't a central figure in al Qaeda's inner circle are ludicrous.

Aug 17, 2009, Vol. 14, No. 45 • By THOMAS JOSCELYN
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A growing chorus in the media is repeating this storyline as if it were true, and Zubaydah's own lawyers have begun arguing that their client's stature was overstated by the Bush administration for political reasons. (Lawyers for other detainees are following suit and suggesting any alleged ties between their clients and Zubaydah are of only minor importance.) Yet the Post's reporting is utterly wrong. A review of readily available public sources easily debunks the argument that Zubaydah was not a senior al Qaeda member and makes it clear that Zubaydah gave up crucial details about fellow terrorists during his interrogations. These details undoubtedly contributed to the Bush administration's success in stopping a litany of attacks from unfolding. As the Obama administration deliberates on how to handle the detainees still at Guantánamo Bay, getting out the facts about Abu Zubaydah has taken on a new urgency.

Abu Zubaydah was born Zayn al-Abidin Muhammad Hussein to a Palestinian father and a Jordanian mother in Saudi Arabia in 1971. The details of his early career remain murky. By some accounts, he was first recruited by Hamas and later Ayman al Zawahiri's Egyptian Islamic Jihad. What we do know is that in the early 1990s, he traveled to Afghanistan to wage jihad and there demonstrated a preternatural talent for terrorism, quickly rising through al Qaeda's ranks.

In his diary, which was recovered during the Faisalabad raid, Zubaydah noted that he was heading off to an al Qaeda terrorist training camp in 1992. "Perhaps later I will tell you about the Qaeda and bin Laden group," Zubaydah wrote. By 1996, Zubaydah was moving al Qaeda members from Sudan to Afghanistan.

This was no small task. Al Qaeda's relocation left the organization exposed to a variety of security risks, especially from foreign governments that were just becoming aware of the full scope of bin Laden's designs. Sudan had proved a hospitable haven during the first half of the 1990s, but because of pressure from the Sudanese government in the mid-1990s, the organization needed a new central base. A successful relocation to war-torn Afghanistan was crucial for the organization's survival.

Zubaydah, who was only in his mid-20s at the time, was entrusted with overseeing travel arrangements for al Qaeda members at this juncture. According to a short biography of Zubaydah prepared by the Department of Defense,
bin Laden was so impressed with Zubaydah's efforts that he recruited him to become one of al Qaeda's "senior travel facilitators."

Back in Afghanistan, Zubaydah began to assume more responsibilities. He not only arranged for terrorists to travel the globe, but also took over the running of the Khalden and Derunta training camps. Khalden had a long history, dating back to the jihad against the Soviets in the 1980s. Some, including the Post's reporters, have suggested that Khalden was not really an al Qaeda training facility. This is rubbish, and Zubaydah himself is the main source of this claim. During his Combatant Status Review Tribunal at Guantánamo, Zubaydah pretended that Khalden was not really part of Osama bin Laden's terrorist empire. Why anyone would take Zubaydah at his word is a mystery, especially since so many pieces of public evidence contradict his statement. We know that many of al Qaeda's terrorists, including three of the September 11 hijackers, graduated from Khalden. Richard Reid, the would-be shoe bomber, and Zacarias Moussaoui, the would-be hijacker, both did as well. The truth is that Khalden was not just an al Qaeda training camp; terrorists from al Qaeda-allied organizations also trained there. But this does not mean the facility was not an al Qaeda camp. It just means that al Qaeda cooperated with various like-minded terrorist organizations. As for the Zubaydah-run Derunta training camp, al Qaeda experimented with chemical weapons there for years.

Zubaydah's dual role as senior travel facilitator and camp manager is enough to prove that he was a committed al Qaeda terrorist. But it would be selling him short to stop there. Sitting at the crossroads of al Qaeda's international operations, he ran sleeper cells around the globe.

It is no secret that Western intelligence services have found it difficult to penetrate al Qaeda. As far as we know, few spies have ever successfully gained the trust of the organization's leaders. One of the few known exceptions is a man who goes by the alias Omar Nasiri.