Humanizing a Torture Victim: Abu Zubaydah’s Letters from Guantánamo


Abu Zubaydah as a young man (Photo by Abu Zubaydah’s childhood friend, Muhammad Shams al-Sawalha).Please support my work! I’m currently trying to raise $2500 (£2000) to support my writing and campaigning on Guantánamo for the next three months.


On Tuesday, I wrote about the recent decision, by a Periodic Review Board, to approve the ongoing imprisonment of Abu Zubaydah, one of 14 men described as “high-value detainees,” who were brought to Guantánamo from CIA “black sites” just over ten years ago, in September 2006.

Zubaydah — whose real name is Zayn al-Abidin Muhammad Husayn — was actually the first victim of the Bush administration’s post-9/11 torture program, but although the US government initially touted him as a significant figure in al-Qaeda, by 2010 they had backed down from their claims, accepting that he was not a member of al-Qaeda, and was not involved in the 9/11 attacks. In legal documents, the government claimed that they had “not contended … that Petitioner was a member of al-Qaeda or otherwise formally identified with al-Qaeda” and had “not contended that Petitioner had any personal involvement in planning or executing either the 1998 embassy bombings in Nairobi, Kenya, and Dar-es-Salaam, Tanzania, or the attacks of September 11, 2001.”

Nevertheless, in approving Zubaydah’s ongoing imprisonment without charge or trial, the members of the review board — consisting of representatives of the Departments of State, Defense, Justice and Homeland Security, as well as the office of the Director of National Intelligence and the Office of the Joint Chiefs of Staff — sought to still identify him with al-Qaeda and Osama bin Laden, and drew on a videotaped interview, made by militants after the 9/11 attacks, in which he spoke of how closely he and bin Laden had been working together for ten years, a claim that sounds suspiciously like Zubaydah making false claims about his own significance. In contrast, at a tribunal at Guantánamo in 2007, Zubaydah stated that he was tortured by the CIA to admit that he worked with Osama bin Laden, but insisted, “I’m not his partner and I’m not a member of al-Qaeda.”

In the hope of keeping Abu Zubaydah’s story in the public eye — and, most crucially, of humanizing a man who, like all America’s post-9/11 torture victims, has been deliberately dehumanized by the US authorities, who have spent years trying to ensure that every word he has uttered in US custody remains classified — I’m posting below a powerful op-ed published in the Washington Post last month, and written by two of his attorneys, Amanda L. Jacobsen, a law faculty member at the University of Copenhagen Faculty of Law, and Joseph Margulies, a professor of law and government at Cornell University, and, most crucially, unclassified excerpts from four letters he wrote to Jacobsen, referred to as Amy. They reveal, as the lawyers point out, someone who is “caring, funny, forgiving [and] honest,” in contrast to the government’s best efforts to keep him unknown, and therefore easily portrayed as some sort of faceless existential threat.

The op-ed by Jacobsen and Margulies also responded to Zubaydah’s review board, which took place on August 23 (and which I wrote about here), when a handful of reporters at a military facility in Virginia were able to see Zubaydah via video link from Guantánamo, but were not allowed to hear him speak, maintaining the silence that has so effectively dehumanized him for the last 14 and a half years. The lawyers also discussed the US authorities’ shameful refusal to reschedule the review board hearing, even though the only one of his attorneys who was permitted to attend, Mark Denbeaux, was unable to make the trip because his wife was dying.

I hope you find the op-ed — and the excerpts from Abu Zubaydah’s letters — to be important and worthwhile, and that you will share them if you do.

The ‘guinea pig’ for U.S. torture is languishing at Guantánamo
By Amanda L. Jacobsen and Joseph Margulies, Washington Post, October 7, 2016

The poster child of the American torture program sits in a Guantánamo Bay prison cell, where many U.S. officials hope he will simply be forgotten. But blood always leaves a stain, and the mark on our conscience and law will remain until we reckon with the case of Zayn al-Abidin Muhammad Husayn, known to the world as Abu Zubaydah.

Zubaydah was the “guinea pig” of the CIA torture program. He was the first prisoner sent to a secret CIA “black site,” the first to have his interrogation “enhanced” and the only prisoner subjected to all of the CIA’s approved techniques, as well as many that were not authorized. He is the man for whom the George W. Bush administration wrote the infamous torture memo in the summer of 2002.

The United States pressed Zubaydah into this indecent role because the Bush administration believed he was a senior member of al-Qaeda. Senior officials thought he had been personally involved in every major al-Qaeda operation, including 9/11. Today, the United States acknowledges that assessment was, to put it graciously, overblown. As much to the point, according to the Senate Intelligence Committee, his extended torture provided no actionable intelligence about al-Qaeda’s plans.

The chasm between myth and reality explains much about what has happened since his arrest in March 2002. The United States has cast him into limbo. He has never been charged with a violation of U.S. law, military or civilian, and apparently never will be formally charged. Instead, he languishes at Guantánamo. After years in secret prisons around the world, he remains incommunicado, with no prospect of trial.

We have been representing Zubaydah for nine years and have gotten to know him through numerous face-to-face meetings. Recently, the public got a brief glimpse of Zubaydah. For the first time since his arrest, he appeared for a few minutes on a video broadcast from Guantánamo. A dozen journalists and human rights advocates huddled in the District to watch as he appeared silently on the screen; no recording devices were permitted. The ostensible purpose of the appearance was a “hearing” to consider whether Zubaydah might finally be released. But this proceeding was mere political theater.

To begin with, Zubaydah had no counsel at the hearing. Although he has a team of lawyers who have volunteered to represent him, for free, the United States authorized only one of his counsel, Seton Hall law professor Mark Denbeaux, to appear on his behalf. Just before the hearing, Denbeaux had to cancel his flight, when he was informed that his wife of 51 years, Marcia, needed emergency surgery. No other attorney could substitute because Denbeaux alone had been authorized by the government to fly to the base.

Although Denbeaux made clear to the government that his wife was on her deathbed, the government refused to delay the proceeding, even for a few days. After imprisoning Zubaydah for years with no legal process, it was suddenly imperative that the hearing take place without delay, and therefore without counsel. Marcia Denbeaux died four days after the hearing.

Unable to appear on his behalf, his legal team asked the Periodic Review Board, composed of a cross-section of national security officials, to consider a summary of the report on the torture program prepared by the Senate Intelligence Committee. That summary, based on a review of more than 6 million pages from inside the CIA, provides the most detailed account of Zubaydah’s torture and the mistakes and misrepresentations made about him. The Review Board refused to read it. They said it was too long.

At the public portion of this hearing, Zubaydah was not merely silent, but silenced. The public did not hear Zubaydah speak because the government would not allow him to respond publicly to the allegations against him. Instead, Zubaydah was permitted to speak only in the closed session, and a government representative, who had met him only briefly a few weeks before the hearing, was assigned to read a half-page statement, which was prepared for Zubaydah and pre-approved by the government for the public session.

Dismissing Zubaydah’s express repudiation of terrorism, the government insisted in its official allegations against him that Zubaydah “probably retains an extremist mindset” and “possibly” or “might” or “could” be dangerous. Even the fact that he has consistently been highly cooperative during his imprisonment was twisted to suggest he was simply honing his skills as a terrorist.

Who is Zubaydah, really? Despite the tremendous amount of information about Zubaydah that has become publicly available over the years, public understanding about Zubaydah remains remarkably controlled and superficial.

The person we have come to know over nearly a decade is caring, funny, forgiving, honest. But you do not need to agree with our assessment of his character to recognize Zubaydah’s humanity and, therefore, be horrified at his treatment — first his torture, and now the drawn-out pain of being held indefinitely.

In connection with Zubaydah’s stalled case seeking federal court review of his detention, the government has recently agreed to clear for public release a few of the letters he has written to us. These brief letters, published here for the first time, provide what we believe is a far truer glimpse of Zubaydah than the government’s “hearing” has or ever was intended to provide.

Letters from Abu Zubaydah: ‘My mother. I have not seen her in so long now.’
Washington Post, October 7, 2016

The four letters below were sent last year by Guantánamoo Bay detainee Zayn al-Abidin Muhammad Husayn, better known as Abu Zubaydah, to his lawyer Amanda L. Jacobsen. They are being published with Zubaydah’s consent.

‘Who should you care for?’

Dear Amy:

You asked me why I have not called my mother and father, after all these years, finally we are allowed to Skype video call with our family, which I have wanted for so long. But here is the reason why: it is too difficult, the way they do it. They say we are allowed a 30 minute call, but after just saying hello, there is a 10 minute gap, and then hello in return, and a 10 minute gap. My mother. I have not seen her in so long now. In my culture, if you ask: Who should you care for? The answer: your mother. Okay, and THEN who? The answer again: your mother. Okay, okay, and THEN who? A third time: your mother. And then I should care next about my father. One of the prisoners here in the cell block with me, Hamabali [Hambali], after all of these years, they told him now finally he could see his mother, and when he saw her, he began to cry. He is an old man, and his mother even older. But mother is mother. And she will likely die before he

[REDACTED – Page 2 classified in its entirety]

Zayn Husayn

‘When I was a 15 year old boy’

Dear Amy:

I find myself so surprised by people who think of other people based upon the color of their skin. I feel just as I did when I was a 15 year old boy living in Saudia Arabia. My friends and I loved to get together to watch American movies. But sometimes in the movies we were shocked to hear the racist things they said. And we were ashamed. It was embarrassing. We would turn to our friends, sitting next to us, who were black, and they didn’t understand, and we didn’t understand, only that it made us feel sad.

Zayn Husayn

‘The limits of our scale’

Dear Amy:

Here is what I think about the human mind:

It is like a scale for weighing, which can measure up to 1 kilo only. It can be extremely precise, telling in fine detail to the hundredth and thousandth decimal place the weight of a beautiful diamond. But try to consider something too great, 10 kilos, 20 kilos, beyond its comprehension, and you will break the scale.

So, too, for me: there are ideas which are beyond human comprehension and if we try to consider them with our 1 kilo scale, it will break the scale, by which I mean, it can make you crazy, or it will read at most a measure of 1 kilo, which is to say, give an inaccurate reading. Of course, this does not mean that we should stop searching and trying to comprehend, but as we do so, it must be understood within the limits of our scale.

Zayn Husayn

‘Trouble with my eye’

Dear Amy:

Here is a story that I think you will appreciate. A new doctor came to check on me and I told him I was having trouble with my eye. He asked which one, so I took out my glass eye to show him. He jumped back aghast. I asked him: Didn’t you know from my medical file that I have only one eye? He said no. I asked him: what about this eye patch I wear, couldn’t you tell from that? And he said, oh, I thought you just liked to wear that for style. They think I am like a cartoon Caribbean pirate. AAARRGGH! It’s funny, but actually he was a good doctor.

Zayn Husayn

Note: The photo at the top of this article is taken from Jason Leopold’s March 2014 article for the now defunct Al-Jazeera America, “EXCLUSIVE: The notorious Gitmo prisoner as a young man.”

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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9 Responses

  1. Andy Worthington says...

    When I posted this on Facebook, I wrote:

    Following up on my report of how a Periodic Review Board has approved the ongoing imprisonment without charge or trial at Guantanamo of torture victim Abu Zubaydah, here’s my latest article, a cross-post – with my own additional commentary – of a recent Washington Post article by two of his lawyers, Amanda Jacobsen and Joe Margulies, with – for the first time – excerpts from four letters to Jacobsen, which reveal the person behind the US’s dehumanizing rhetoric about him being a “high-value detainee.”

  2. Andy Worthington says...

    Natalia R Scott wrote:

    So shocking. To think they will keep him like that for the rest of his life…

  3. Andy Worthington says...

    Well, they may not, Natalia, but they won’t give up on claiming they can without a fight, that’s for sure.

  4. Andy Worthington says...

    Lubna ‘Bonnie’ Karim wrote:

    Andy it’s heart wrenching.
    Thank you for humanising the Guantanamo prisoners!

    Am speechless

  5. Andy Worthington says...

    Thanks for your concern, Lubna. Good to hear from you.

  6. Thomas says...

    Do you think he is guilty of anything worth locking him up for life for or is he totally innocent?

  7. Andy Worthington says...

    Hi Thomas,
    You recently asked me, “Was Zubaydah guilty of anything, do you think?” but maybe you missed my reply. I wrote:

    That’s such a great question, Thomas – one generally ignored in all the discussions over the years.
    Abu Zubaydah was the facilitator of an independent military training camp that, in some cases, trained individuals who went on to plot or undertake terrorist activities in other countries, so at some level that means he’s not “innocent.”
    But as to whether he can – or should – be held liable, I’m not convinced that the US has much of a case. I think the individual plots would need looking into, and then an analysis made of who trained these people and who had responsibility. On this basis, I think Abu Zubaydah might have been found culpable at some level, but instead, of course, he was tortured on the basis of mistaken intelligence; one might even say that he was tortured for no purpose except sadism, because it was actually well-known in intelligence circles that Zubaydah wasn’t an al-Qaeda bigwig.
    Back in 2010, when the US government officially dropped its claims that he was part of al-Qaeda and had any involvement with 9/11, a new narrative emerged – of Zubaydah as the leader of an al-Qaeda-affiliated militia – but we haven’t heard anything more about that, and I’ve suspected all along that it was actually a non-starter.
    Instead, if Zubaydah were to be charged with anything, it would have to be along the lines of the charges Noor Uthman Muhammed admitted to in his plea deal in February 2011, when he pleaded guilty to providing material support for terrorism, and conspiracy to provide material support for terrorism. He received a 14-year sentence, reduced to 34 months for time served, and was freed in Sudan in December 2013. However, in January 2015, “the convening authority for military commissions disapproved the findings and sentence, and dismissed the charges in the case of United States v. Noor Uthman Muhammed,” because, “Subsequent to his commission proceedings, decisions by the D.C. Circuit Court of Appeals in separate commissions cases established that it was legal error to try the offense of providing material support for terrorism before a military commission. The decisions of the D.C. Circuit are binding on commissions cases and the convening authority’s action to disapprove the findings and sentence in Muhammed’s case is required in the interests of justice and under the rule of law.”
    And some commentary of mine here:
    I think, in a just world, Zubaydah could have been charged with material support and conspiracy, but the correct venue for those charges is in federal court, and the administration still shows no willingness to pursue that route, with the possibility being, therefore, that Zubaydah will continue to be held without charge for the rest of his life – a rather disgraceful outcome, as I’m sure you agree.
    Just to confirm: material support for terrorism has been thoroughly discredited as a war crime charge in the military commissions, but conspiracy is still being argued about, as the Bahlul case demonstrates, although it’s really become a legal swamp in which non-lawyers, I find, struggle to understand everything that is going on. I wrote about the latest developments here:
    In theory, I think, if conspiracy survives the legal challenges, it could lead to further Guantanamo-related trials, but it seems unlikely to me, as the entire system has a serious problem with legitimacy regarding events that took place before 9/11 (i.e. before the “war on terror” began), on top of its ongoing problems with accurately describing post-9/11 war crimes – and let’s face it, a lay person can understand quite easily that conspiracy is not a war crime, whereas killing people can be described as a war crime, if it is not, instead, a crime (and I have to say that I continue to cling to the rather beleaguered notion that terrorism is actually a crime, and not war).

    I hope that answers your question!

  8. James says...

    Nevertheless, in approving Zubaydah’s ongoing imprisonment without charge or trial, the members of the review board — consisting of representatives of the Departments of State, Defense, Justice and Homeland Security, as well as the office of the Director of National Intelligence and the Office of the Joint Chiefs of Staff — sought to still identify him with al-Qaeda and Osama bin Laden, and drew on a videotaped interview, made by militants after the 9/11 attacks, in which he spoke of how closely he and bin Laden had been working together for ten years, a claim that sounds suspiciously like Zubaydah making false claims about his own significance.”

    HA HA HA HA! Even when incontrovertible evidence is shown, you look for an excuse to make him look innocent. Ignorance is bliss. Abu Zubaydah is a cold-blooded terrorist who should never be free. That moron Donald Trump definitely won’t let him out within the next four years. Zubaydah and the other 29 detainees not approved for transfer are finished.

  9. Andy Worthington says...

    You are entitled to your opinion, James, but that’s not incontrovertible evidence, it’s a videotape of someone explaining why they’re a bigshot, and it doesn’t correspond with what we know about Zubaydah from other sources. I’m not saying he was innocent. He was the facilitator for a militant training camp that trained some people who went on to commit acts of terrorism but he was clearly not close to bin Laden. The CIA destroyed the poor f*cker with torture, and he didn’t have ANY useful information about al-Qaeda to provide them with.

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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 and We Stand With Shaker. Also, photo-journalist (The State of London), and singer and songwriter (The Four Fathers).
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