Torture Victim Abu Zubaydah, Seen For the First Time in 14 Years, Seeks Release from Guantánamo

5.9.16

Abu Zubaydah: illustration by Brigid Barrett from an article in Wired in July 2013. The photo used is from the classified military files released by WikiLeaks in 2011.On August 23, 2016, the most notorious torture victim in Guantánamo, Zayn al-Abidin Muhammad Husayn, better known as Abu Zubaydah, became the 61st prisoner to face a Periodic Review Board, and was seen for the first time by anyone outside of the US military and intelligence agencies, apart from representatives of the International Committee of the Red Cross, his attorneys and translators, since his capture 14 years and five months ago.

For the Guardian, David Smith wrote, “His dark hair was neat, his moustache and beard impeccably trimmed. His shirt was high-collared and spotlessly white. He sat at the head of the table with a calm, composed mien. It was the first time that the world has seen Zayn al-Abidin Muhammed Husayn, also known as Abu Zubaydah, since his capture in Pakistan 14 years ago.” He added that, “[a]fter a brief technical hitch, a TV screen showed a room with a plain white wall and black shiny table. Anyone walking in cold might have assumed that Abu Zubaydah, with the appearance of a doctor or lawyer, was chairing the meeting. To his left sat an interpreter, dressed casually in shirtsleeves, and to his right were two personal representatives in military uniform with papers before them. A counsel was unable to attend due to a family medical emergency.”

Smith also noted that he “sat impassive, expressionless and silent throughout, sometimes resting his head on his hand or putting a finger to his mouth or chin, and studying his detainee profile intently as it was read aloud by an unseen woman.”

In the New York Times, Scott Shane wrote, “Over 14 years in American custody, Abu Zubaydah has come to symbolize, perhaps more than any other prisoner, how fear of terrorism after the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks changed the United States. He was the first detainee to be waterboarded, and his brutal torture was documented in a Senate report. He is among those held without charges and with no likelihood of a trial. The government long ago admitted that he was never the top leader of Al Qaeda it claimed he was at the time of his capture in 2002, but it insists that he may still be dangerous. In all that time, Mr. Zubaydah, now 45, had never been seen by the outside world. That changed on Tuesday, as his calm face was beamed via video feed from the Guantánamo Bay military prison to a Pentagon conference room.” He added, “Dressed in a white tunic and wearing a neatly trimmed beard, Mr. Zubaydah, whose mental stability has been questioned by some American officials, listened attentively, resting his chin on his right hand. He did not react visibly as officials read various statements about him.”

Scott Shane also reported that, in total, “[a] dozen reporters and human rights advocates watched the live video of the 17-minute unclassified part of the proceeding,” in which one of his personal representatives (military personnel appointed to help prisoners prepare for their PRBs) stated that he had told them that he “has no desire or intent to harm the United States or any other country,” that he “has repeatedly said that the Islamic State is out of control and has gone too far,” and that he hopes to “start a business after he is reintegrated into society and is living a peaceful life.”

The PRBs were set up in 2013 to review the cases of all the prisoners not already approved for release or facing trials, and the last of 64 reviews will be taking place this week. To date, 33 men have been approved for release, while just 19 men have had their ongoing imprisonment upheld. Eleven further decisions have yet to be taken. For further details, see my definitive Periodic Review Board list on the Close Guantánamo website.

Born in Saudi Arabia in March 1971 to Palestinian parents, Abu Zubaydah joined the US- and Saudi-funded mujahideen against the Soviet Union in Afghanistan in 1989, and went on to become what Scott Shane described as “a sort of travel agent, camp administrator and facilitator for militant fighters in Afghanistan in the early 1990s,” at the Khaldan camp, an independent camp run by Ibn al-Shaykh al-Libi, a Libyan who died in a Libyan prison in May 2009, allegedly by committing suicide, although that has always seemed unlikely to those who have studied his story closely. A longtime opponent of Col. Gaddafi, he had been seized crossing from Afghanistan to Pakistan in December 2001 and sent by the CIA for torture in Egypt, where he lied about al-Qaeda operatives meeting Saddam Hussein to discuss obtaining chemical weapons, a lie that was used by the US to justify its illegal invasion of Iraq in March 2003. After being sent around a variety of “black sites,” he was returned to Gaddafi’s Libya, where his death was convenient for the US, for Gaddafi and for the Egyptians.

Abu Zubaydah, on the other hand, was seized in a house raid in Faisalabad, Pakistan on March 28, 2002, and was the first victim of the CIA’s “black site” torture program, held first in Thailand, where, as Scott Shane noted, he was subjected to waterboarding — on 83 occasions — and then in Poland, and then in a secret site within Guantánamo, code-named Strawberry Fields. The site in Guantánamo closed in March 2004 and for the next two and a half years he was moved to other “black sites,” probably in Morocco, Lithuania and Afghanistan, before arriving at Guantánamo with 13 other “high-value detainees” almost exactly ten years ago, on September 6, 2006.

I have written extensively about Abu Zubaydah over the years, most recently here, in an article that also provides links to the articles I wrote between 2008 and 2010, when few people were very interested in his case. I also recommend the UK-based Rendition Project’s profile, which provides a good timeline, and summarizes much of what is publicly known about his torture.

In the executive summary of the Senate Intelligence Committee’s report into the CIA’s torture program, published in December 2014, a cable dated July 15, 2002 chillingly described what should happen if Abu Zubaydah died — and also what should happen to him if he lived; namely, that he should “remain in isolation and incommunicado for the remainder of his life.”

This is the text of that cable:

If [Abu Zubaydah] develops a serious medical condition which may involve a host of conditions including a heart attack or another catastrophic type of condition, all efforts will be made to ensure that proper medical care will be provided. In the event that he dies, we need to be prepared to act accordingly, keeping in mind the liaison equities involving our hosts… regardless which [disposition] option we follow however, and especially in light of the planned psychological pressure techniques to be implemented, we need to get reasonable assurances that [Abu Zubaydah] will remain in isolation and incommunicado for the remainder of his life.

17 days after this cable, Jay S. Bybee, Assistant Attorney General at the Justice Department’s Office of Legal Counsel (supposedly responsible for providing impartial legal advice to the executive branch of the US government), approved two memos written by OLC lawyer (and Berkeley law professor) John Yoo (the “torture memos”), cynically attempting to redefine torture so that it was not regarded as torture, and could be used on Abu Zubaydah, in a program created — for a total payment of $81m — by two former US military psychologists, James Mitchell and Bruce Jessen, who had no experience of interrogation, only of training US personnel to resist torture if captured by a hostile enemy.

Bybee and Yoo have never been held accountable, although in 2010 an internal investigation holding them accountable was only stopped at the last minute by a notorious DoJ “fixer,” David Margolis, who died this summer. Mitchell and Jessen have also evaded responsibility for their actions, although in April this year a US judge allowed a lawsuit against them, brought by two former torture victims and the family of a third, who died in CIA custody in Afghanistan, to proceed, and just last month the Huffington Post reported that the two men had filed a motion in the District Court in Washington, D.C., in which they “alleged that the CIA and Justice Department had been uncooperative” in supplying them with “documents critical to their defense.”

The worst phase of Abu Zubaydah’s torture began almost immediately. As the Senate Intelligence Committee report stated:

After Abu Zubaydah had been in complete isolation for 47 days, the most aggressive interrogation phase began at approximately 11:50 AM on August 4, 2002. Security personnel entered the cell, shackled and hooded Abu Zubaydah, and removed his towel (Abu Zubaydah was then naked). Without asking any questions, the interrogators placed a rolled towel around his neck as a collar, and backed him up into the cell wall (an interrogator later acknowledged the collar was used to slam Abu Zubaydah against a concrete wall). The interrogators then removed the hood, performed an attention grab, and had Abu Zubaydah watch while a large confinement box was brought into the cell and laid on the floor. A cable states Abu Zubaydah “was unhooded and the large confinement box was carried into the interrogation room and paced [sic] on the floor so as to appear as a coffin.” The interrogators then demanded detailed and verifiable information on terrorist operations planned against the United States, including the names, phone numbers, email addresses, weapon caches, and safe houses of anyone involved. CIA records describe Abu Zubaydah as appearing apprehensive. Each time Abu Zubaydah denied having additional information, the interrogators would perform a facial slap or face grab. At approximately 6:20 PM, Abu Zubaydah was waterboarded for the first time. Over a two-and-a-half-hour period, Abu Zubaydah coughed, vomited, and had “involuntary spasms of the torso and extremities” during waterboarding. Detention site personnel noted that “throughout the process [Abu Zubaydah] was asked and given the opportunity to respond to questions about threats” to the United States, but Abu Zubaydah continued to maintain that he did not have any additional information to provide. In an email to OMS leadership entitled, “So it begins,” a medical officer wrote:

“The sessions accelerated rapidly progressing quickly to the water board after large box, walling, and small box periods. [Abu Zubaydah] seems very resistant to the water board. Longest time with the cloth over his face so far has been 17 seconds. This is sure to increase shortly. NO useful information so far … He did vomit a couple of times during the water board with some beans and rice. It’s been 10 hours since he ate so this is surprising and disturbing. We plan to only feed Ensure for a while now. I’m head[ing] back for another water board session.”

The use of the CIA’s enhanced interrogation techniques — including “walling, attention grasps, slapping, facial hold, stress positions, cramped confinement, white noise and sleep deprivation” — continued in “varying combinations, 24 hours a day” for 17 straight days, through August 20, 2002. When Abu Zubaydah was left alone during this period, he was placed in a stress position, left on the waterboard with a cloth over his face, or locked in one of two confinement boxes. According to the cables, Abu Zubaydah was also subjected to the waterboard “2-4 times a day … with multiple iterations of the watering cycle during each application.”

Abu Zubaydah’s own account of his torture was given to representatives of the International Committee of the Red Cross, who were allowed to interview the HVDs after their arrival at Guantánamo, and what they were told was so shocking that the ICRC report was later leaked to the New York Review of Books. I posted Abu Zubaydah’s full testimony in an article in March 2010, Abu Zubaydah’s Torture Diary.

During his four and a half years in CIA “black sites,” Abu Zubaydah lost an eye, and was so psychologically destroyed by his torture that he regularly experiences seizures. Writing about his PRB, David Smith noted that, “during the publicly open portion of [his PRB], there was no mention of the torture endured by the 45-year-old Palestinian, who has never been charged with a crime. There was, however, a black eyepatch hanging around his neck. Abu Zubaydah lost sight in one eye some time after he was taken into custody in disputed circumstances. On Tuesday, he could be seen occasionally swapping one pair of spectacles for another as he read documents about his case.”

Since arriving at Guantánamo, however, as with all the HVDs, every word he has uttered to his lawyers has remained classified, in contrast to all the other men held. For non-HVDs, although every word uttered between the prisoners and their attorneys is presumptively classified, the attorneys submit notes of their meetings to a Pentagon censorship team — the privilege review team — which then decides whether the notes should be unclassified. Over the years, a significant amount of information has been unclassified by the privilege review team, but the HVDs are an exception, as the Pentagon continues to try to silence them.

In Abu Zubaydah’s case, the shame of torture is compounded by the fact that, although initially touted as the number 3 in al-Qaeda, he was no such thing, and was not even a member of al-Qaeda. The US authorities eventually dropped its claims that he knew about the 9/11 attacks in advance, but claimed that he had been in charge of a militia force that was supportive of al-Qaeda after the US-led invasion in October 2001. Nevertheless, Abu Zubaydah was never put forward for a trial, suggesting that there was a profound weakness to the US’s revised case against him, and this was apparent in the unclassified summary prepared by the Pentagon for his PRB.

The summary alleged that he “trained and later supervised the training of militant recruits in Afghanistan starting in 1989,” and, in 1994, “started building a mujahidin facilitation network that he ran for several years, recruiting and facilitating the travel of operatives to Afghanistan and on to destinations abroad, including Europe and North America.” It was also claimed that he “played a key role in al-Qa’ida’s communications with supporters and operatives abroad and closely interacted with al-Qa’ida’s second-in-command at the time, Abu Hafs al-Masri.”

The summary went on to claim that he “possibly had some advanced knowledge of the bombings of the US Embassies in Kenya and Tanzania in 1998 and the USS Cole bombing in 2000” — the word “possibly” throwing some serious doubt on the claims — and also that he “was generally aware of the impending 9/11 attacks and possibly coordinated the training at Khaldan camp of two of the hijackers.”

With more confidence, the summary noted that Abu Zubaydah “most actively plotted attacks against Israel, enlisting operatives from various militant groups, including al-Qa’ida, to conduct operations in Israel and against Israeli interests abroad,” adding that he “was convicted in absentia by the Jordanian Government for his role in planning attacks against Israeli, Jordanian, and Western targets during the Millennium time frame in Jordan.”

Following 9/11, according to the summary, Abu Zubaydah “took a more active role in attack preparations, sending operatives to al-Qa’ida senior member Khalid Shaykh Muhammad (KU-10024) to discuss the feasibility of exploding a radiological device in the United States, and supporting remote-controlled bomb attacks against US and Coalition Forces in Afghanistan” — this latter allegation involving US citizen Jose Padilla, British resident Binyam Mohamed and the so-called “dirty bomb plot,” while failing to acknowledge that, as assistant defence secretary Paul Wolfowitz had conceded in May 2002, when Padilla was first seized, there was no plot at all, and the alleged plotters had gone no further than to browse the internet.

Turning to his conduct at Guantánamo, the summary noted that he “has shown a high level of cooperation with the staff at Guantánamo Bay and has served as a cell block leader, assuming responsibility for communicating detainees’ messages and grievances to the staff and maintaining order among the detainees.”

Also according to the summary, “He readily and consistently responded to most if not all lines of questioning by the debriefers, including providing detailed information on his terrorist activities and those of his associates. His debriefers assessed that he withheld information, which might have been to protect historical or current activities.” It was also assessed that he “has used his time in Guantánamo to hone his organizational skills, assess US custodial and debriefing practices, and solidify his reputation as a leader of his peers, all of which would help him should he choose to reengage in terrorist activity — all of which sounds highly unlikely, as his only sphere of influence is the other HVDs.

Those compiling the summary also claimed that he “probably retains an extremist mindset, judging from his earlier statements.” The authors conceded that he “has not made such statements recently,” but decided that that was “probably to improve his chances for repatriation.” Nevertheless, it was noted that he “has condemned ISIL atrocities and the killing of innocent people.”

In terms of his family connections, it was noted that he “has had little communication with his family, suggesting he would lack a support network, even if he tried to leverage his university coursework in computer programming to get a job and reintegrate into society.” I imagine that his lawyers took exception to this claim, although the only statement that was made publicly available was from his personal representatives, and I’ve cross-posted it at the end of this article.

The summary concluded by claiming that some of Abu Zubaydah’s “former colleagues continue to engage in terrorist activities and could help [him] return to planning attacks against Israel and the United States in Pakistan, should he choose to do so.”

So does Abu Zubaydah have a chance of being released?

One of his attorneys, Joe Margulies, a professor at Cornell Law School, thinks not. He told the Guardian that the PRB was “just a formality, a ritual,” adding, “Abu Zubaydah will not be released.”

Margulies also said, “It’s all show, it’s all theatre. Here’s the bottom line. Since Barack Obama took office, there is no one more different — who they thought he was and who he is — than Abu Zubaydah. He has done nothing that authorizes his continued detention. It is morally and legally unjustified.”

Margulies added that Abu Zubaydah now describes himself as a “broken man,” adding, “I once had hopes that the US would have a thoughtful, fair examination of Abu Zubaydah’s torture but no longer because of the lengths this administration has gone to protect the CIA.”

Margulies also spoke to the New York Times, telling Scott Shane that, in their conversations, Abu Zubaydah “has always been completely honest. He believes in defending Muslims who are under attack,” but he “has always said innocent civilians are never a legitimate target.” Despite what Shane called the government’s “shifting accusations,” Margulies said, as he described it, that “his client was never a member of Al Qaeda and has never been charged with a crime by American authorities.” In Joe Margulies’s words, “He’s the poster child for the torture program, and that’s why they never want him to be heard from again.”

Below is the personal representatives’ opening statement, in which, oddly, Abu Zubaydah (Zayn al-Abidin) is referred to as Zeinelabeden.

Periodic Review Board Initial Hearing, 23 Aug 2016
Zayn Al-Ibidin Muhammed Husayn, ISN 10016
Personal Representative Opening Statement

Good morning, ladies and gentlemen of the Board. We are the Personal Representatives for ISN 10016, Mr. Zayn al-lbidin Muhammed Husayn. We will be working with Zeinelabeden to present his case to you on why he no longer needs to be detained in order to ensure that the security of the United States is not in jeopardy.

Although he initially believed that he did not have any chance or hope to be released, because of the reputation that has been created through the use of his name, he has been willing to participate in the Periodic Review Process. He has been respectful to us in all of our meetings and dealings with him, and he has come to believe that he might have a chance to leave Guantánamo through this process.

Zeinelabeden has expressed a desire to be reunited with his family and begin the process of recovering from injuries he sustained during his capture. He has some seed money that could be used to start a business after he is reintegrated into society and is living a peaceful life. Zeinelabeden has stated that he has no desire or intent to harm the United States or any other country, and he has repeatedly said that the Islamic State is out of control and has gone too far.

Zeinelabeden would like to thank the board for this opportunity to plead his case and looks forward to answering any questions the board may ask him.

Andy Worthington is a freelance investigative journalist, activist, author, photographer, film-maker and singer-songwriter (the lead singer and main songwriter for the London-based band The Four Fathers, whose debut album ‘Love and War’ and EP ‘Fighting Injustice’ are available here to download or on CD via Bandcamp). He is the co-founder of the Close Guantánamo campaign (and the Countdown to Close Guantánamo initiative, launched in January 2016), the co-director of We Stand With Shaker, which called for the release from Guantánamo of Shaker Aamer, the last British resident in the prison (finally freed on October 30, 2015), and the author of The Guantánamo Files: The Stories of the 774 Detainees in America’s Illegal Prison (published by Pluto Press, distributed by the University of Chicago Press in the US, and available from Amazon, including a Kindle edition — 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. He is also the co-director (with Polly Nash) of the documentary film, “Outside the Law: Stories from Guantánamo” (available on DVD here — or here for the US).

To receive new articles in your inbox, please subscribe to Andy’s RSS feed — and he can also be found on Facebook (and here), Twitter, Flickr and YouTube. Also see the six-part definitive Guantánamo prisoner list, and The Complete Guantánamo Files, an ongoing, 70-part, million-word series drawing on files released by WikiLeaks in April 2011. Also see the definitive Guantánamo habeas list, the full military commissions list, and the chronological list of all Andy’s articles.

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10 Responses

  1. Andy Worthington says...

    When I posted this on Facebook, I wrote:

    Here’s my latest article, looking at the recent Periodic Review Board for Abu Zubaydah, the most notorious torture victim in Guantanamo. The CIA’s torture program was developed for him, and he was held in “black sites” for four and a half years before arriving at Guantanamo 10 years ago tomorrow. And yet, although he was initially described as al-Qaeda’s number 3, he was not part of al-Qaeda, and was instead the coordinator for an independent training camp in Afghanistan. Because of the extent of his torture, the CIA wanted him to “remain in isolation and incommunicado for the remainder of his life.” That hasn’t quite happened, but it is a safe bet that the PRB won’t recommend his release, so the question is: will he ever be granted anything resembling justice?

  2. Andy Worthington says...

    Thanks to everyone liking and sharing this. Also just updated – the definitive Periodic Review Board list on the Close Guantanamo website: http://www.closeguantanamo.org/Periodic-Review-Boards

  3. Andy Worthington says...

    When my friend Jan Strain shared this, she wrote:

    Important issue raised by my good friend in the fight, Andy Worthington

  4. Andy Worthington says...

    Thanks for sharing, Jan, and for recognizing the significance of Abu Zubaydah being held year after year without being charged or tried. 19 of the 63 men who have had their cases reviewed to date by Periodic Review Boards have had their ongoing imprisonment approved, and although they will all have their cases reviewed again, we can be sure that the US has no intention of releasing some of them. The last review is this Thursday – for Hassan bin Attash, brother of one of the alleged 9/11 co-conspirators, who was just 17 when he was first seized and sent to be tortured in Jordan. 33 men have been approved for release, and 11 men are still awaiting results, including 5 other “high-value detainees,” who, like Abu Zubaydah, arrived at Guantanamo exactly 10 years ago today.

  5. Andy Worthington says...

    Natalia R Scott wrote:

    What a great article, Andy! It’s one of your greatest. It’s a horrible story, I can’t help but feel really sad still about the situation in Guantanamo and the lives of men like him.

  6. Andy Worthington says...

    Thanks, Natalia, for the supportive words. Abu Zubaydah’s story has always been one that reveals a particular darkness about aspects of the US’s actions since 9/11 – the pointless destruction of a human being in ways that should make us feel sick. I do hope that the lesson has been learned that the way to secure useful intelligence, as the FBI knew, is to build a rapport with a prisoner, rather than brutalizing them.

  7. Andy Worthington says...

    Rose Ann Bellotti wrote:

    I so hope that Mitchell and Jessen end up in prison someday soon. These two incompetent brutes became millionaires from the evil that they did. Abu Zubaydah will never be treated with anything that even resembles justice, just like none of what I call Bush’s Trophy Prisoners (the ones whom he sent to Gitmo from secret black sites immediately after he lost in the Hamden decision). Even Obama says they are too dangerous to ever see the light of day for the rest of their lives.

  8. Andy Worthington says...

    Thanks, Rose. Yes, very well said. The Hamdan decision was something I thought about mentioning in the article, but ran out of time. It’s amazing, I think, how many people don’t know about, or have forgotten its significance; how the Supreme Court reminded the Bush administration that the Geneva Conventions’ Common Article 3 protections (prohibiting torture and abuse) apply to all prisoners, thereby finally convincing the administration that it had to shut its “black sites.”
    I also hope that Mitchell and Jessen are one day held accountable. I feel like we’re still waiting for a weak link in the chain; someone who decides that, if they’re going down, they’re going to take everyone else with them …

  9. Donald says...

    Abu Zubaydah has been denied approval for transfer.

    http://www.prs.mil/Portals/60/Documents/ISN10016/161027_U_ISN10016_FINAL_DETERMINATION_PUBLIC_v1.pdf

    That’s it for the initial reviews. I suspect the board is deadlocked on Said Nishir and Jabran Qahtani which will result in a review committee (which consists of the secretary of state, defense, attorney general, etc) deciding their fates which will likely be negative due to the cabinet members being unwilling to risk their careers by approving them for transfer. Both Said and Jabran have expressed extremist statements in the past which clearly did not help Zubaydah, judging by the PRB’s comment about Zubaydah’s “continued feeling of an obligation to defend and support oppressed Muslims.”

  10. Andy Worthington says...

    Thanks for the update, Donald. I’ll be writing something soon.

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Andy Worthington

Investigative journalist, author, campaigner, commentator and public speaker. Recognized as an authority on Guantánamo and the “war on terror.” Co-founder, Close Guantánamo, co-director, We Stand With Shaker. Also, singer and songwriter (The Four Fathers) and photographer.
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