In Abu Zubaydah’s Case, Court Relies on Propaganda and Lies

21.7.10

In the history of the “War on Terror,” few stories are as disturbing as that of Abu Zubaydah. Seized in Pakistan in March 2002, Zubaydah was initially regarded as a “high-value detainee” of such significance that the Bush administration conceived its torture program specifically for use on him, but the case against him has steadily unraveled over the years, as officials — first in the Bush administration, and then under President Obama — have conceded that his significance was monstrously overstated, and that he was not a member of al-Qaeda, was not involved in planning any international terrorist attacks, and had no advance knowledge of the 9/11 attacks.

With this in mind, it is distressing to note that, last month, in the case of Sufyian Barhoumi, an Algerian seized with Zubaydah, who lost his habeas corpus petition last September, the Court of Appeals in Washington D.C. drew on discredited information about Zubaydah to overstate his importance, and to justify Barhoumi’s ongoing detention. The Circuit Court also drew on the diary of a previously unknown associate of Zubaydah’s to present another view of Zubaydah — as the leader of a militia allied with al-Qaeda — to justify Barhoumi’s detention, and, by extension, that of Zubaydah himself, even though there are doubts about the government’s interpretation of the diary, and the whereabouts of the diary’s author are unknown.

On June 22, when a panel of judges led by Judge David S. Tatel upheld Barhoumi’s detention, the ruling was superficially unsurprising. Barhoumi was not only seized in the house raid in Faisalabad, Pakistan on March 28, 2002, that led to the capture Abu Zubaydah, along with other alleged terror suspects, but he had also conceded, in publicly available documents from Guantánamo, that he had attended military training camps in Afghanistan.

This, on its own, may not have been sufficient for Barhoumi’s detention to be upheld, but last September, when his habeas petition was denied, Judge Rosemary Collyer provided another reason. Although she noted that Barhoumi “said that he is not now and has never been a member of al-Qaeda,” and added, “I have no reason not to believe that,” she nevertheless concluded that “he was with an associated force that was engaged in hostilities against the United States or its coalition partners and therefore was properly detained.”

At the time, Judge Collyer’s unclassified opinion was not made publicly available (and has still not been made available), and the quotes above are from the court transcript that was eventually unearthed by researchers at ProPublica (PDF). It was not, therefore, until the Circuit Court upheld his detention last month (PDF) that the details of this “associated force” were revealed as a militia that was allegedly maintained by Abu Zubaydah, and it was also revealed that the Circuit Court was relying on a long-discredited opinion of Zubaydah as the leader of a training camp in Afghanistan and an associate of Osama bin Laden.

How the case against Abu Zubaydah collapsed

What is troubling about this is the fact that, since Zubaydah’s capture, when Donald Rumsfeld described it as “well established” that he was “a close associate” of Osama bin Laden, “and if not the number two, very close to the number two person in the organization”), the government has steadily backed away from these claims, as accounts have emerged that thoroughly discredit the allegations.

These include devastating statements by Dan Coleman, the FBI’s senior expert on al-Qaeda. Coleman and his FBI colleagues had access to Zubaydah’s diaries, in which they 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,” and Coleman’s conclusion, which he told his superiors, was, “This guy is insane, certifiable, split personality.”

That was reported in 2006, and in December 2007, Coleman followed up, describing Zubaydah as a “safehouse keeper” who “claimed to know more about al-Qaeda and its inner workings than he really did,” and explaining how he and others at the FBI had concluded not only that he had severe mental problems — particularly because of a head injury that he had suffered in 1992 — but also that this explained why he was regarded with suspicion by the al-Qaeda leadership. “They all knew he was crazy, and they knew he was always on the damn phone,” Coleman said. “You think they’re going to tell him anything?”

This analysis was, essentially, reinforced last March by a Justice Department official who spoke anonymously to the Washington Post. As I reported at the time:

[Abu Zubaydah] “was not even an official member of al-Qaeda,” and was, instead, “a “kind of travel agent” for would-be jihadists. A former Justice Department official, who knows his case, explained, “He was the above-ground support. He was the guy keeping the safe house, and that’s not someone who gets to know the details of the plans. To make him the mastermind of anything is ridiculous.” What happened, it transpired, was that “because his name often turned up in intelligence traffic linked to al-Qaeda transactions,” some within the intelligence community presumed that he was a significant figure, whereas the truth was that, although committed to the idea of jihad, he did not share Osama bin Laden’s aims, and “regarded the United States as an enemy principally because of its support of Israel.” The officials explained that he “had strained and limited relations with bin Laden and only vague knowledge before the Sept. 11 attacks that something was brewing.”

The Circuit Court’s reliance on discredited intelligence

Alarmingly, despite these concessions on the government’s part, both the District Court and the Circuit Court drew on another source in Barhoumi’s habeas petition in an attempt to demonstrate that Zubaydah was “the person in charge” of the Khaldan training camp, and that he was “an associate of [Osama bin Laden]” who “coordinates and cooperates with [bin Laden] in the conduct of training and trainee movements between [redacted] camps and al-Qaeda camps.”

As the judges explained, the source of this information, which also fooled the authors of the 9/11 Commission Report, who referred to “Abu Zubaydah’s Khaldan Camp” (PDF, p. 175), was Ahmed Ressam, the failed “Millennium Bomber” who is currently serving a 22-year sentence in the US. The problem with Ressam’s evidence is that, although he initially cooperated with the authorities in exchange for a reduced sentence, and provided information about dozens of alleged terrorist suspects, including Zubaydah, he then stopped cooperating and withdrew his statements. As a result, numerous cases involving Ressam’s statements have collapsed — including that of Ahcene Zemiri (aka Hassan Zemiri), falsely fingered by Ressam as an associate in the bomb plot, who was freed from Guantánamo in January this year — and the portrayal of Zubaydah accepted by the judges is fundamentally at odds with the one now accepted by the Obama administration.

The government concedes that Abu Zubaydah was not a member of al-Qaeda

As Jason Leopold explained in an article for Truthout in March this year, in a federal court filing the government officially endorsed the view put forward by the anonymous Justice Department official to the Washington Post in March 2009, “back[ing] away from the Bush administration’s statements that Zubaydah was the No. 2 or No. 3 official in al-Qaeda who had helped plan the 9/11 attacks, as well as even earlier claims from the Clinton administration that he was directly involved in planning the 1998 embassy bombings in East Africa,” and admitting for the first time that “Zubaydah did not have ‘any direct role in or advance knowledge of the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001,’ and was neither a ‘member’ of al-Qaeda nor ‘formally’ identified with the terrorist organization.”

The government also appeared to have accepted that that “the military camp he was alleged to be affiliated with, Khaldan, was closed by the Afghan Taliban after refusing to let it go under the formal control of bin Laden and al-Qaeda,” conceding, in its court filing, that Khaldan was “organizationally and operationally independent” of al-Qaeda’s camps.

This corresponds with Zubaydah’s own revelation, during his Combatant Status Review Tribunal at Guantánamo in 2007 (in a passage that was only unclassified in June 2009, in response to a lawsuit filed by the ACLU), that, after his extensive torture, his interrogators told him, “sorry we discover that you are not number three [in al-Qaeda], not a partner, even not a fighter.” It also confirms other accounts about Khaldan, which was actually run by Ibn al-Shaykh al-Libi, a former CIA “ghost prisoner,” who died in mysterious circumstances in a Libyan jail last year. Al-Libi, notoriously, was tortured in Egypt, on behalf of the CIA, until he produced a false confession about links between al-Qaeda and Saddam Hussein that was used to justify the invasion of Iraq, and his death means that a key witness has been lost who might have been able to explain the strained relationship he had with bin Laden, and how Khaldan was closed in 2000 after he refused to allow it to come under bin Laden’s control.

Dubious allegations about Abu Zubaydah’s “militia”

While these revelations indicate that the Circuit Court is lamentably out-of-date in its consideration of Abu Zubaydah, it is also noticeable that the judges relied on another document, the diary of an alleged associate of Zubaydah, Abu Kamil al-Suri, to demonstrate that Zubaydah was in charge of a militia, which included Sufyian Barhoumi. Whether there is any truth in this is difficult to ascertain, as Abu Kamil al-Suri is not available to ask about his diary, His whereabouts are unknown, but he may have died in the raid that led to Zubaydah’s capture, or he may be one of a handful of men — and boys — seized with Zubaydah who were rendered to Syria, and have never been heard of since.

This is deeply troubling, of course, in the wider context of “disappearances” in the “War on Terror,” but its relevance to Sufyian Barhoumi’s case — and to that of Abu Zubaydah — is also significant. The diary purports to identify the movements of various men, including Barhoumi, to and from Tora Bora, where a showdown between al-Qaeda and the US took place in December 2001, and from Afghanistan to Pakistan, although it should be noted that, in Guantánamo, Barhoumi strenuously and repeatedly denied ever being in Tora Bora. Al-Suri’s diary also identifies 15 members of what is described as “Zubaydah’s militia,” although, in the translation of al-Suri’s own words, it is described, less spectacularly, as a “group,” and a fractious one, moreover, with al-Suri noting that several of the members were “trying to take over this group,” to “lead us to join Sheikh Osama bin Laden.”

The interpretation of the diary is clearly of importance not only to Sufyian Barhoumi, but also to Abu Zubaydah, as it seems to form part of the government’s revised claims about Zubaydah, mentioned in the court filing in March, in which the Justice Department maintained that Zubaydah should still be detained based on his “actions” as an “affiliate” of al-Qaeda, and alleged that he “supported enemy forces and participated in hostilities” and “facilitat[ed] the retreat and escape of enemy forces” after the US-led invasion of Afghanistan in October 2001.

His lawyers have countered this by stating 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,” which contrasts starkly with the Circuit Court’s conclusions about both Sufyian Barhoumi and Abu Zubaydah. The scope of Zubaydah’s involvement with securing the escape of non-combatants from Afghanistan is unknown, because the government has not provided any information about this publicly, and Zubaydah’s lawyers are prevented from discussing almost anything about their client’s case because of sweeping classification rules relating to the “high-value detainees.”

However, it seems clear that one non-combatant whose escape from Afghanistan was facilitated by a network in which Zubaydah played a part is Ravil Mingazov, a Russian seized in a guest house in Faisalabad (with over a dozen other men, mostly students) on the night Zubaydah was seized. Mingazov recently won his habeas corpus petition, and he explained in Guantánamo that, after fleeing Afghanistan, where he had traveled in search of a new life free from religious persecution, he had spent three months at a religious center in Lahore run by the missionary organization Jamaat-al-Tablighi, until he and two other men accepted an offer of safe passage to a house in Faisalabad, where, they were told, it would be easier for them to leave the country.

This example of a civilian helped out of Afghanistan as part of some sort of loose transportation network, in which Zubaydah was involved, is starkly at odds with the Circuit Court’s assertion of Zubaydah’s role as the head of a militia, in which Barhoumi was implicated. In their ruling, the judges noted that Barhoumi does not “dispute that Zubaydah’s militia qualifies as an ‘associated force’ that engaged in hostilities against US or coalition forces. The only dispute, then, is whether Barhoumi was, as the district court found, ‘part of’ Zubaydah’s organization.”

Ulterior motives?

In light of the failed claims about Zubaydah’s status as a senior figure in al-Qaeda, and the government’s revised analysis of him as someone who “supported enemy forces and participated in hostilities” and “facilitat[ed] the retreat and escape of enemy forces,” it is obviously alarming that the Circuit Court clung to a discredited view of Zubaydah’s role in upholding Sufyian Barhoumi’s detention, and it is, moreover, no less alarming that the allegation about Zubaydah’s purported “militia” was allowed to pass unchallenged.

In contrast to this claim, all the evidence suggests that, in its desperation to find charges that will stick to Zubaydah, the government has every incentive to dress up a fractious group of men, nominally led by Zubaydah, as an organized “militia,” and to ignore counter-claims that he was not involved in fighting US forces, but was involved in facilitating the escape from Afghanistan of a variety of individuals, including “women, children, and/or other non-combatants.”

In establishing this picture of Zubaydah as the leader of a militia — based on a translation of a diary by a man who appears to have vanished off the face of the earth — the government, with the support of the Circuit Court, appears determined to use it in a last-ditch attempt to cover up the much more distressing fact that the US government brutally tortured someone who was never part of al-Qaeda at all.

Andy Worthington is the author of The Guantánamo Files: The Stories of the 774 Detainees in America’s Illegal Prison (published by Pluto Press, distributed by Macmillan in the US, and available from Amazon — click on the following for the US and the UK) and of two other books: Stonehenge: Celebration and Subversion and The Battle of the Beanfield. To receive new articles in your inbox, please subscribe to my RSS feed (and I can also be found on Facebook and Twitter). Also see my definitive Guantánamo prisoner list, updated in July 2010, details about the new documentary film, “Outside the Law: Stories from Guantánamo” (co-directed by Polly Nash and Andy Worthington, currently on tour in the UK, and available on DVD here), and my definitive Guantánamo habeas list, and, if you appreciate my work, feel free to make a donation.

As published exclusively on Truthout. Cross-posted on Information Clearing House, Eurasia Review, Free Detainees, The World Can’t Wait, War Criminals Watch, Uruknet, Blog from Middle East and The 2012 Scenario.

For a sequence of articles dealing with the use of torture by the CIA, on “high-value detainees,” and in the secret prisons, see: Guantánamo’s tangled web: Khalid Sheikh Mohammed, Majid Khan, dubious US convictions, and a dying man (July 2007), Jane Mayer on the CIA’s “black sites,” condemnation by the Red Cross, and Guantánamo’s “high-value” detainees (including Khalid Sheikh Mohammed) (August 2007), Waterboarding: two questions for Michael Hayden about three “high-value” detainees now in Guantánamo (February 2008), Six in Guantánamo Charged with 9/11 Murders: Why Now? And What About the Torture? (February 2008), The Insignificance and Insanity of Abu Zubaydah: Ex-Guantánamo Prisoner Confirms FBI’s Doubts (April 2008), Guantánamo Trials: Another Torture Victim Charged (Abdul Rahim al-Nashiri, July 2008), Secret Prison on Diego Garcia Confirmed: Six “High-Value” Guantánamo Prisoners Held, Plus “Ghost Prisoner” Mustafa Setmariam Nasar (August 2008), Will the Bush administration be held accountable for war crimes? (December 2008), The Ten Lies of Dick Cheney (Part One) and The Ten Lies of Dick Cheney (Part Two) (December 2008), Prosecuting the Bush Administration’s Torturers (March 2009), Abu Zubaydah: The Futility Of Torture and A Trail of Broken Lives (March 2009), Ten Terrible Truths About The CIA Torture Memos (Part One), Ten Terrible Truths About The CIA Torture Memos (Part Two), 9/11 Commission Director Philip Zelikow Condemns Bush Torture Program, Who Authorized The Torture of Abu Zubaydah?, CIA Torture Began In Afghanistan 8 Months before DoJ Approval, Even In Cheney’s Bleak World, The Al-Qaeda-Iraq Torture Story Is A New Low (all April 2009), Ibn al-Shaykh al-Libi Has Died In A Libyan Prison , Dick Cheney And The Death Of Ibn al-Shaykh al-Libi, The “Suicide” Of Ibn al-Shaykh al-Libi: Why The Media Silence?, Two Experts Cast Doubt On Ibn al-Shaykh al-Libi’s “Suicide”, Lawrence Wilkerson Nails Cheney On Use Of Torture To Invade Iraq, In the Guardian: Death in Libya, betrayal by the West (in the Guardian here), Lawrence Wilkerson Nails Cheney’s Iraq Lies Again (And Rumsfeld And The CIA) (all May 2009) and WORLD EXCLUSIVE: New Revelations About The Torture Of Ibn al-Shaykh al-Libi (June 2009), The Logic of the 9/11 Trials, The Madness of the Military Commissions (November 2009), UK Judges Compare Binyam Mohamed’s Torture To That Of Abu Zubaydah (November 2009), UN Secret Detention Report Asks, “Where Are The CIA Ghost Prisoners?” (January 2010), Binyam Mohamed: Evidence of Torture by US Agents Revealed in UK (February 2010), Torture Whitewash: How “Professional Misconduct” Became “Poor Judgment” in the OPR Report (February 2010), Judges Restore Damning Passage on MI5 to the Binyam Mohamed Torture Ruling (February 2010), What Torture Is, and Why It’s Illegal and Not “Poor Judgment” (March 2010), Abu Zubaydah’s Torture Diary (March 2010), Seven Years of War in Iraq: Still Based on Cheney’s Torture and Lies (March 2010), Protests worldwide on Aafia Siddiqui Day, Sunday March 28, 2010 (March 2010), Abu Zubaydah: Tortured for Nothing (April 2010), Mohamedou Ould Salahi: How a Judge Demolished the US Government’s Al-Qaeda Claims (April 2010), Judge Rules Yemeni’s Detention at Guantánamo Based Solely on Torture (April 2010), How Binyam Mohammed’s Torture Was Revealed in a US Court (May 2010), What is Obama Doing at Bagram? (Part One): Torture and the “Black Prison” (June 2010), New Report Reveals How Bush Torture Program Involved Human Experimentation (June 2010), UN Secret Detention Report (Part One): The CIA’s “High-Value Detainee” Program and Secret Prisons, UN Secret Detention Report (Part Two): CIA Prisons in Afghanistan and Iraq, UN Secret Detention Report (Part Three): Proxy Detention, Other Countries’ Complicity, and Obama’s Record (all June 2010), Abu Zubaydah and the Case Against Torture Architect James Mitchell (June 2010), The Torture of Abu Zubaydah: The Complaint Filed Against James Mitchell for Ethical Violations (June 2010), Calling for US Accountability on the International Day in Support of Victims of Torture (June 2010), How Jay Bybee Has Approved the Prosecution of CIA Operatives for Torture (July 2010). Also see the extensive archive of articles about the Military Commissions.

17 Responses

  1. Tweets that mention In Abu Zubaydah’s Case, Court Relies on Propaganda and Lies | Andy Worthington -- Topsy.com says...

    [...] This post was mentioned on Twitter by Andy Worthington, Garrett Schure. Garrett Schure said: RT @GuantanamoAndy: In Abu Zubaydah’s Case, Court Relies on Propaganda and Lies – D.C. Circuit Court draws on discredited/dubious evidence: http://bit.ly/d5hc74 [...]

  2. Frances Madeson says...

    Prosecutor A to colleague: “Do you think we work so hard at Hiding the Crimes and Justifying the Cruelty of the Bush/Cheney Administration and not letting anyone out of Guantanamo to the point of perverting our own ideals about justice because we’re ourselves stuck here, hate doing this hateful work, and therefore we, indulging not the best part of our human selves, project our hatred onto the prisoners into an ever-destructive cycle wreaking its miserable havoc on both them and their families and us and our families and communities?”

    Prosecutor B: “Yes.”

  3. Andy Worthington says...

    Brilliant. Spot-on, Frances. Thanks.

  4. USA: Der Folter-Fall Abu Zubaydah « Ticker says...

    [...] Andy Worthington In the history of the “War on Terror,” few stories are as disturbing as that of Abu [...]

  5. Andy Worthington says...

    Here are some comments from Information Clearing House:

    “Guest” wrote:

    Does anyone really believe that Al Qaeda is a highly organized group of people with common motives, common training, following common leaders, making plans as a group, and communicating with each other regularly, so that all members have all the same information and can divulge it, when tortured? In your dreams.

    More likely, people who’s families have suffered for generations at the hands of the CIA, Mossad, and other western militant organizations, are simply hostile towards the US and will remain so until the US stops attacking them. The character of Al Qaeda, if it even exists, seems to have undergone gross distortion by war criminals Cheney and Rumsfeld to facilitate the looting of ME petroleum resources.

  6. Andy Worthington says...

    Follow the Facts wrote:

    ….what..?? – …what is this article trying to say? – …I failed to read this piece…is it suggesting that there is something wrong with the American judiciary…? – The United Statesian judiciary collapsed in December of 2000. – What is the quibble here…that “justice isn’t done”..? …but justice isn’t the purpose in the US – “process” is….process is the purpose and Americans excel at that. It’s a “proceduralistic” culture…the sanctity of the “process” trumps the nominal purpose.

  7. Andy Worthington says...

    normajean wrote:

    Statements obtained by torture or duress should be discounted as false from the outset. The truth should not require burning, dunking, hanging, electrocution, or the slicing of ones testicles with scalpels…I hold these truths to be self-evident. Force cannot overcome right forever.

  8. Andy Worthington says...

    Here are a few comments from Facebook:

    Luke Brandt wrote:

    Your excellent work shames the United States Government.

  9. Andy Worthington says...

    Charlotte Dennett wrote:

    Andy, keep up the great work. And thanks for passing this info on.
    I’ll mention it tonite on a public radio interview –

  10. Andy Worthington says...

    Kirsten Liberté-amant wrote:

    This is utterly ridiculous… surely they’ve not been living in a cave all this time — and should know by now who he really is, what he hasn’t actually done, etc, etc…

    Disgusting.

  11. Andy Worthington says...

    Bill Gibbons wrote:

    The most terrible aspect of the Abu Zubaydah’s case is the horrible torture he had to endure. The US government are out of control torturers, and they operate on a spider web of lies. The US government has always tortured. They ruptured the stomachs of Philipinos with sea water during the American war there about 1900. Maybe 100,000 people were killed by the US military, tens of thousands were waterboarded: men, women and children. The US military used to sing songs during the American war in the Philippines about water boarding torture. We must work so that this mentally challenged prisoner is set free, and that he lives a decent life based on humanitarian protection.

  12. Andy Worthington says...

    Charlotte Dennett wrote:

    I agree with the above. We also now have heightened consciousness of America’s role in torture, because under the Bush administration (as far as I know), this was the first time it was officially sanctioned and even former Office of Legal Counsel head Jay Bybee (disgracefully, now a federal judge) has admitted that he authorized (illegal) torture under Bush. Which, of course, is why we should keep up the pressure on getting Bybee impeached and his cohort in torture, John Yoo, disbarred and dismissed from Berkeley law school — if not prosecuted for war crimes, which is the ultimate goal along with their superiors.

  13. Andy Worthington says...

    Earl Feagans wrote:

    I totally agree with all the above! And more — or should I say less?

  14. Andy Worthington « Antiwar Radio with Scott Horton and Charles Goyette says...

    [...] the Northern Alliance pre-9/11 unfairly lumped together with actual terrorism suspects and how the Abu Zubaydah case proves that evidence obtained through torture cannot be relied [...]

  15. On Bush’s Waterboarding Claims, UK Media Loses Its Moral Compass by Andy Worthington « Dandelion Salad says...

    [...] I have explained previously, Dan Coleman, the FBI’s senior expert on al-Qaeda, has explained how he and others at the FBI [...]

  16. Enhanced Interrogation: A Non-Thing | Veracity Radio says...

    [...] of the right wing. They don’t care that the government hasn’t been able to make a case against Abu Zubaydah for any actions against the United States. Being a terrorist somewhere in the world isn’t a [...]

  17. Ten Years of Torture: On Anniversary of Abu Zubaydah’s Capture, Poland Charges Former Spy Chief Over “Black Site” « Dandelion Salad says...

    [...] Referring to the overblown claims about Zubaydah, INTERIGHTS explained: After more than six years of incommunicado detention, Zubaydah obtained access to US lawyers, who challenged his detention in US courts and forced the US Department of Justice to withdraw all such allegations. The United States no longer alleges Abu Zubaydah was ever a member of al-Qaeda or that he supported al-Qaeda’s radical ideology. The United States no longer alleges that Abu Zubaydah was an associate of Osama bin Laden or that he was his senior lieutenant. The United States no longer alleges that Zubaydah had any role in any terrorist attack planned or perpetrated by al-Qaeda, including the attacks of 11 September 2001. Instead, the authorities have concocted some implausible story about him being the head of a militia aligned with al-Qaeda, whose alleged existence first surfaced in the habeas corpus petition of another prisoner, Sufyian Barhoumi. [...]

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