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
Widget tooltip
Single Page Print Larger Text Smaller Text Alerts

Nasiri was an Islamist who was recruited by al Qaeda in the mid-1990s. He trained at Khalden and Derunta, and impressed his handlers so much they introduced him to Zubaydah. Nasiri had longstanding ties in Europe, and Zubaydah recognized Nasiri's potential. Recruits with established ties to the West are especially valuable for al Qaeda because they can move around more easily and with less chance of being detected.

Zubaydah "sent me back to Europe to work as a sleeper, to provide explosives expertise for attacks," Nasiri wrote in his book, Inside the Jihad (2006). But Nasiri was not just a sleeper agent, he was also a spy working for multiple Western intelligence agencies. As Nasiri met with al Qaeda agents in Europe and passed messages back and forth from Zubaydah, he reported on his doings to his Western handlers. Nasiri has no doubts about Zubaydah's importance. "Abu Zubaydah was bin Laden's chief recruiter for al Qaeda," Nasiri wrote. "He oversaw the administration of sleeper cells all over the world, and his name has appeared in connection to any number of attacks."

Zubaydah was, for instance, al Qaeda's point man for the attempted late 1999 attacks on the Los Angeles airport and sites in Jordan. Even though the so-called "millennium plots" failed, they revealed that al Qaeda had developed global tentacles capable of reaching targets thousands of miles apart at roughly the same time.

The plot against LAX was broken up when Ahmed Ressam was stopped by a suspicious customs official at the U.S.-Canadian border. A search of Ressam's rental car revealed it was filled with explosives, and he was quickly taken into custody. Ressam has subsequently been convicted of his role in the plot and cooperated with U.S. authorities.

Ressam's chief revelation was that Zubaydah was the driving force behind the plot. Ressam explained that Zubaydah "is the person in charge of the camps," adding that he "receives young men from all countries" and is the commander who "accepts you or rejects you." Zubaydah "takes care of the expenses of the camps" and "makes arrangements for you when you travel coming in or leaving," Ressam said. Although Ressam claims he was left to choose the target for his attack, he admits he was taught "how to blow up the infrastructure of a country," including airports, at Khalden.

Ominously, Ressam told U.S. authorities that Zubaydah had been planning attacks against America since 1998, and Zubaydah had ordered him to procure Canadian passports "to give other people who had come to carry out operations in the U.S."

Zubaydah was equally at the heart of the Jordanian millennium operation. As Steve Coll reported in his excellent book Ghost Wars (2004), Jordanian intelligence listened in on a phone call from Zubaydah to a Jordanian al Qaeda cell. During the call, Zubaydah ordered the cell to carry out the attack, which was dubbed "the day of the millennium."
Jordanian officials swooped in and arrested the cell's members. A search of their home revealed an assortment of bombmaking paraphernalia capable of producing explosives as powerful as 16 tons of TNT. Coll says the terrorists confessed to having already picked a target, a Radisson Hotel where American and Israeli tourists were expected to gather in celebration of the new millennium. They also planned to release cyanide gas inside a movie theater.

The millennium attacks' failure did not deter Zubaydah. U.S. intelligence kept hearing that Zubaydah had attacks in the pipeline. Former Director of Central Intelligence George Tenet famously said that the system was "blinking red" prior to the September 11 attacks--that is, intelligence reporting on the threat from al Qaeda became so extensive that officials were sure an attack was coming, even if they did not know where or when. As Tenet revealed in his book At the Center of the Storm (2007), the system was "blinking red" in large part because of Zubaydah: "Before 9/11 [Zubaydah's] name had been all over our threat reporting."

In May 2001, Tenet says he and other CIA officials met with National Security Adviser Condoleezza Rice. They warned that Zubaydah "was working on attack plans." The CIA thought Zubaydah's target was likely to be in Israel, but U.S. assets elsewhere were at risk too.

In June, according to Tenet, the British let the CIA know "Zubaydah was planning suicide car bomb attacks against U.S. military targets in Saudi Arabia by the end of the month."

In July, a French Algerian named Djamel Beghal was arrested in Dubai as he attempted to return to France from Afghanistan. Beghal told authorities that Zubaydah had directed him to continue with al Qaeda's plots against the U.S. embassy and cultural center in Paris. Beghal was to arrange for multiple, simultaneous suicide bombings--al Qaeda's preferred modus operandi. As a sign of good faith, Zubaydah personally presented Beghal with gifts from Osama bin Laden. Like the millennium plotters, Beghal was arrested before he could go through with an attack.

On August 6, 2001, President Bush's daily intelligence briefing highlighted Zubaydah's role in bin Laden's designs for striking America. The briefing did not offer the type of specific information that could have been used to thwart the coming September 11 attacks, but it did include a noteworthy detail about al Qaeda's failed attack on LAX: "Ressam says Bin Laden was aware of the Los Angeles operation."

Given this prominence, U.S. authorities immediately suspected Zubaydah had played a significant role in the 9/11 operation. In retrospect, Zubaydah does not appear to have been central to the planning. This does not mean, however, that Zubaydah had no links to the attack. As mentioned above, three of the 9/11 hijackers trained at Zubaydah's Khalden camp. According to Congress's Joint Inquiry into the 9/11 attacks, Zubaydah "probably" met with another one of the hijackers, Nawaf al Hazmi, in Saudi Arabia in 1996. Zubaydah was reportedly on a mission to convince new recruits to travel to Afghanistan for training in al Qaeda's camps. Al Hazmi eventually did just that.

Then there is the issue of how al Qaeda financed the September 11 operation. Zubaydah raised $50,000 "from Saudi donors," according to the DoD's biography, for a future terrorist operation against Israel. The money was passed on to other al Qaeda leaders, who may have actually used the funds to finance the hijackers.

Regardless of how "directly linked to" the September 11 attacks Zubaydah was, it is clear that he was a senior al Qaeda terrorist. So, when authorities captured him in 2002, they had every reason to believe he knew the intimate details of al Qaeda's plots.

With Zubaydah in custody, U.S. authorities set about finding a way to make him talk. The circumstances surrounding Zubaydah's interrogations differ depending on which sources you consult.

In At the Center of the Storm, George Tenet insisted that Zubaydah was coy at first. "Like many of the al Qaeda detainees, Abu Zubaydah originally thought that he could outsmart his questioners," Tenet wrote. In the book, Tenet implied that only after harsh interrogation techniques were employed did Zubaydah give up actionable intelligence that jeopardized al Qaeda's operations.

Ali Soufan, an FBI interrogator who questioned Zubaydah shortly after he was first detained, tells a different story. He says that Zubaydah gave up crucial details about al Qaeda's plotting before any of the harshest methods were employed. Soufan has clearly done masterful work in questioning al Qaeda terrorists, so his testimony should be taken seriously. But the press has seized on Soufan's testimony without reporting the obvious. With so many details about Zubaydah's interrogations still classified, it is impossible to tell precisely what happened. Many of the CIA employees and contractors involved in Zubaydah's harshest interrogations have said little publicly for the reason that there is still a chance they could be prosecuted for their actions. At a minimum, they risk strident criticism from the media, who have been obsessed with Zubaydah's handling for years. The result is a decidedly one-sided story.

We can, however, be certain that even Zubaydah's earliest interrogations were far from typical. For starters, he was seriously wounded when the questioning began. Even while he was recovering from his gunshot wounds, Zubaydah was being interrogated and so was already suffering from substantial pain when answering Soufan's and other interrogators' questions. There are also credible reports that authorities played with his pain-relief medication to manipulate his suffering and used forced nudity and sleep deprivation to wear him down. The Post's own reporting, as first noted by Marc Thiessen (a former speechwriter for President Bush), suggests that some of these techniques were used prior to Zubaydah giving up some of the more sensitive details of al Qaeda's post-9/11 plotting. If this is true, then Zubaydah's earliest encounters were nothing like a by-the-book interrogation at an FBI office.

Regardless of the controversy over EITs, Soufan's testimony completely undercuts any notion that Zubaydah was a low-level al Qaeda hanger-on. Soufan says that Zubaydah referred to Khalid Sheikh Mohammed by his al Qaeda alias ("Mukhtar") and revealed his central role in planning the September 11 attacks. Simply put, there is no way Zubaydah could have known these details without being a member of al Qaeda's innermost circle.

Zubaydah also revealed crucial details about Jose Padilla and Binyam Mohamed during his early interrogations. Senior al Qaeda members initially considered dispatching Padilla and Mohamed to America for an attack utilizing a so-called "dirty bomb" of loose radiological material. But they eventually settled on a plot that would be easier to execute. Mohamed and Padilla were exploring the possibility of setting an apartment building on fire using natural gas lines when they were captured in April and May 2002, respectively.

Also in May, New York City went on high alert after Zubaydah revealed that al Qaeda was planning attacks on its landmarks. In particular, he said that al Qaeda wanted to bring down the bridge that was featured in the 1998 remake of the movie Godzilla. (There is no accounting for al Qaeda's taste in movies.) U.S. authorities realized Zubaydah meant the Brooklyn Bridge and put the city on alert. This information has been widely cited as evidence either that Zubaydah's intelligence was no good or that he successfully passed along disinformation to waste investigators' time. There is little doubt that Zubaydah, who is well-versed in counterinterrogation tactics, intentionally deceived his interrogators at times. But the Brooklyn Bridge plot was real.

In April 2002, Iyman Faris, an al Qaeda agent who worked as an Ohio truck driver, returned to the United States from Afghanistan. Khalid Sheikh Mohammed had tasked Faris with determining whether you could bring down the Brooklyn Bridge by cutting its suspension cables with gas cutters. Faris decided that the plot was not feasible because the proper equipment was hard to come by, the structure of the bridge made it difficult to carry out, and security on the bridge was too tight. The idea of cutting down the Brooklyn Bridge's suspension cables one at a time is certainly implausible on its face, but it is proof that al Qaeda was planning an attack on the bridge, just as Zubaydah said.

Not all of al Qaeda's targets are so high-profile. A common argument is that if al Qaeda really wanted to kill Americans on American soil, the easiest way to go about it would be to shoot up a shopping mall. Well, Zubaydah told his interrogators about al Qaeda's desire to strike American malls, and Faris's Ohio al Qaeda cell was tasked with planning such an operation in 2002. Faris and members of the Ohio cell were arrested in 2003 and subsequently convicted on terrorism charges.

According to the office of the director of national intelligence, Zubaydah was also the first al Qaeda detainee to identify Adnan El Shukrijumah (aka Jafar al Tayyar or "Jafar the Pilot") as an al Qaeda operative who was likely to lead the next major attack on the American homeland. Other detainees, including Khalid Sheikh Mohammed, confirmed and expanded upon Zubaydah's admission. Shukrijumah has been the subject of a massive manhunt ever since. (The FBI is offering a $5 million reward for information leading to his arrest.)

According to a September 15, 2002, article in Time, Zubaydah also told his American interrogators about Omar al Faruq's role in al Qaeda. When al Faruq was arrested in June 2002, he was one of al Qaeda's highest-ranking commanders in Asia. Time, relying on sensitive CIA intelligence documents that had come into the magazine's possession, said al Faruq had confessed to extensive terrorist plotting. In particular, Zubaydah and another leading al Qaeda figure had ordered al Faruq to "plan large-scale attacks against U.S. interests in Indonesia, Malaysia, (the) Philippines, Singapore, Thailand, Taiwan, Vietnam and Cambodia." The attacks were to take place on or near the first anniversary of 9/11.

Finally, in At the Center of the Storm, Tenet said that Zubaydah unwittingly gave up information that helped lead to the capture of Ramzi Binalshibh, al Qaeda's point man for the 9/11 operation. Binalshibh was captured on the first anniversary of the attacks. At the time, he was plotting an attack on planes flying out of Heathrow. Computer hard drives and other documents captured in the raid that netted Binalshibh demonstrated that he and al Qaeda were also considering attacks against U.S. military targets.

Look again at the al Qaeda terrorists referenced above. Khalid Sheikh Mohammed, Omar al Faruq, Ramzi Binalshibh, Jose Padilla, Binyam Mohamed, Iyman Faris, Adnan El Shukrijumah. These are some of the main men who conspired to attack America before and after September 11, 2001. To suggest that Zubaydah's interrogations did not foil a single plot, as the Washington Post did, is ludicrous. Information from Zubaydah played a major role in shutting down al Qaeda's post-9/11 attempts to strike America and American assets around the globe.

There is one way to clear up all of the confusion that now surrounds Abu Zubaydah's story. President Obama could declassify the reports pertaining to Zubaydah's interrogations. While there is already plenty of publicly available information that undermines the notion that Zubaydah was unimportant and his interrogations fruitless, the press remains willing to ignore it. Declassified memos and reports would undoubtedly lead to a more informed debate.

The president certainly recognizes the usefulness of declassified memos in shaping public opinion. In one of his first acts in office, President Obama banned the use of EITs. Then he selectively declassified and released the memos justifying the use of such techniques in rare situations written by lawyers in the Bush administration. The memos Obama decided to make public discussed the types of interrogation tactics that could be used, but said little about the intelligence that was collected. That is, the memos, and the way they were declassified, were all about us. Missing was the story of what al Qaeda was up to following the September 11 attacks, and how additional attacks were stopped. This is why former Vice President Dick Cheney has requested two additional memos be declassified, to give the American public a fuller picture. The CIA has rejected Cheney's request.

There is certainly room for debate when it comes to how America should interrogate high-value detainees. But we have reached a point where the story is exclusively and myopically focused on partisan politics and claims of American wrongdoing. Our vision of the enemy has become clouded once again--so much so, that a major al Qaeda terrorist is now treated as a know-nothing bystander. The full story of al Qaeda's terror, and Abu Zubaydah's role in the network's operations, remains locked behind a classified door in Washington. Only President Obama has the key.

Thomas Joscelyn is a senior fellow at thevFoundation for Defense of Democracies.