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Spinning Zubaydah

7:30 PM, Jun 16, 2009 • By THOMAS JOSCELYN
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Today, the Washington Post has yet another piece claiming that Abu Zubaydah, a top al Qaeda terrorist captured in March 2002, was not really all that important. I say "yet another piece" because this is just the latest article in a long string of reporting by various outlets, including the Post, making the same argument: Abu Zubaydah was not really a high-level al Qaeda member and the Bush administration hyped his importance when he was captured in March 2002.

The idea that Zubaydah was not a top al Qaeda terrorist is utter nonsense. Zubaydah's "accomplishments" include: running the Khalden training camp (which graduated many al Qaeda terrorists, including at least three 9/11 hijackers), most likely recruiting one of the 9/11 hijackers for al Qaeda, managing the relocation of al Qaeda from Sudan to Afghanistan in 1996, orchestrating al Qaeda's millennium plots against Jordan and the U.S., working with other senior al Qaeda terrorists in post-9/11 plotting against the American Homeland, relocating al Qaeda terrorists to Iran after 9/11, fundraising for al Qaeda, managing al Qaeda sleeper cells, etc.

This is just a small sample of the many noteworthy al Qaeda roles Zubaydah has played. There are some that try to dissemble all of this, and more, to claim that Zubaydah wasn't really a top al Qaeda terrorist all along. Like I said, their dissembling is nonsense.

I'll offer a more complete rebuttal of their lame argument at a later time. For now, let's take a closer look at the hook for the Post's latest contribution to this growing body of fiction.

The Post's article has an incredibly misleading title: "CIA Mistaken on ‘High-Value' Detainee, Document Shows." The document cited shows no such thing.

The document is a transcript of Zubaydah's CSRT hearing at Gitmo. A version of this transcript was previously released by the DOD. A new version, with less redactions, was recently released in response to a Freedom of Information Act request by the ACLU. At no point in the document does the CIA say that it was mistaken in its assessment of Zubaydah.

In fact, former Director of Central Intelligence George Tenet wrote in his 2007 book, At the Center of the Storm, that he had read "media accounts" suggesting "that [Zubaydah] was not such an important player."

"Those accounts are dead wrong. Worse yet, it has been suggested that the Bush administration exaggerated his importance in their comments to the media - again dead wrong," Tenet wrote.

Tenet added: "I believe to this day that Abu Zubaydah was an important player in al Qaeda operations."

I think it is safe to say that the CIA did not tell Zubaydah he was wrongly accused. Where did the Post get this from, then? The Post's first citation is to Abu Zubaydah himself.

The Post quotes Zubaydah as saying, "They told me, 'Sorry, we discover that you are not Number 3, not a partner, not even a fighter.'" That is, Zubaydah said that some in the CIA told him that he was not "Number 3" in al Qaeda, or even an al Qaeda "partner" or "fighter."

Has it ever occurred to the Post that perhaps Zubaydah was simply lying?

Naturally, Zubaydah had a strong incentive to downplay his role in al Qaeda's terror. Zubaydah might very well desire freedom, or a more lenient sentence. Or, he may simply want to score a propaganda victory against his infidel enemies, especially those in the CIA who interrogated him for months on end.

Indeed, Zubaydah clearly lied elsewhere in the same CSRT transcripts. One of the more striking pieces of evidence against Zubaydah is the testimony of Ahmed Ressam, the convicted would-be millennium bomber. Ressam was dispatched from Zubaydah's Khalden camp to Canada and then the U.S. to bomb the LAX airport at the turn of the millennium. Ressam admitted that Zubaydah was chiefly responsible for his operation. And Ressam told the FBI that Osama bin Laden was aware of the operation as well. In addition, Ressam told the FBI that Zubaydah asked him to procure fresh passports to facilitate the travels of other terrorists in future attacks.

Zubaydah, realizing that Ressam's testimony is damning, tried to come up with a creative explanation. Testifying through his personal representative at Gitmo, Zubaydah said:

"Yes, I requested Ahmed Ressam to get passports, but not fake ones. I wanted five real Canadian passports to be used for personal matters, not terrorist-related activities. Also, the passports were not for America; they were for Canada and other countries for people other than Ressam."

Right. Osama bin Laden's travel facilitator, and the man who dispatched Ressam for the millennium bombings, wanted passports for "personal matters," not terrorist attacks. This is absurd on its face, as is Zubaydah's claim that the CIA determined he was not a master al Qaeda terrorist.

Ressam also talked about how he and others were trained to select targets on behalf of al Qaeda. Again, Zubaydah had a not-so creative explanation. After claiming that he disapproved of the September 11 attacks (which he indirectly helped fund, according to a biography prepared by the DOD, and for which he helped prepare al Qaeda's defensive measures in anticipation of America's response, according to one of Zubaydah's own diary entries), Zubaydah said this:

The point of all this is that when Ressam stated about specific types of targets is inaccurate in the sense that while some of the training manuals we used to learn about targeting did specify types of targets, we did not train for any specific targets there. Also, these training manuals were military manuals from America, Russia and other countries.

Again, right. Sure, Zubaydah says, we may have taught Ressam about the types of targets to attack, but we did not select one! And these targets are in American and Russian manuals anyway!

And then there was a diary entry (Zubaydah's diary was recovered when he was arrested) "in 2000 in which he described plans against America consisting of explosions and the burning of cities and farms." Zubaydah said this was just hypothetical daydreaming:

"Here, the writing in my diary about plans against America were strictly hypothetical - they were not plans that I intended to execute against non-military targets in America or anywhere else. And even with the military targets, these were only ideas."

Um, sure. They were "only ideas" - like the millennium plots against America and Jordan.

Zubaydah made a number of ridiculous claims at his tribunal session at Gitmo. For some reason, the Post, and some of its sources think these claims are credible. Such is the state of reporting almost eight years after the September 11 attacks.

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