15 Years of Torture: The Unending Agony of Abu Zubaydah, in CIA “Black Sites” and Guantánamo


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 2013.Please support my work! I’m currently trying to raise $2500 (£2000) to support my writing and campaigning on Guantánamo and related issues over the next three months of the Trump administration.


In the eleven years since I first began working on Guantánamo full-time, researching its history and the stories of the men held there, writing about them and working to get the prison closed down, one date has been burned into my mind: March 28, 2002, when Abu Zubaydah (Zayn al-Abidin Muhammad Husayn), an alleged “high-value detainee,” was seized in a house raid in Faisalabad, Pakistan. That night dozens of prisoners were seized in a number of house raids in Faisalabad, and some were taken to CIA “black sites” or sent abroad on behalf of the CIA to torture facilities in other countries, run by their own torturers. Most ended up, after a few months, in Guantánamo, and most — through not all — have now been released, but not Abu Zubaydah.

He, instead, was sent to a CIA “black site” in Thailand, where he was the first prisoner subjected to the CIA’s vile post-9/11 torture program, revealed most clearly to date in the executive summary of the Senate Intelligence Committee’s report about the program, published in December 2014. Although the executive summary was heavily redacted, and the full report has never been made public, it remains the most powerful official indictment of the torture program, which, it is clear, should never have been embarked upon in the first place.

After Thailand, where he was subjected to waterboarding (an ancient form of water torture) on 83 occasions, Abu Zubaydah was sent to Poland, and, after other flights to other locations (a “black site” in Guantánamo, briefly), and others in Morocco, Lithuania, and — probably — Afghanistan, he ended up back at Guantánamo, though not covertly, in September 2006, when President Bush announced to the world that he and 13 other “high-value detainees” had been removed from the CIA “black sites” whose existence he had previously denied, but which, he now admitted, had existed but had just been shut down.

And yet, ten and a half years after his arrival at Guantánamo, Abu Zubaydah has never been charged with a crime, and languishes in a limbo that, although not as evidently constituting torture as the program to which he was subjected in the “black sites,” is still a form of torture — open-ended imprisonment, without charge or trial, with no family visits allowed, and no adequate external monitoring of his health. Like all the Guantánamo prisoners, everything that Zubaydah says to his attorneys is presumptively classified, but whereas the lawyers for the prisoners in the general population can apply to have their notes declassified by a Pentagon censorship team, the “high-value detainees” have been almost entirely silenced, unable to tell their stories to the world.

We know, however, that Abu Zubaydah’s torture was profoundly damaging to his mental and physical health, and that he suffers from seizures, and we also know that, ignominiously, the US authorities have walked back from almost all their claims about him. Once mistakenly touted as al-Qaeda’s No. 3, even though the FBI knew that claim was idiotic, it was eventually conceded that he wasn’t a member of al-Qaeda and knew nothing about the 9/11 attacks in advance.

I have been writing about Abu Zubaydah for eleven years, first in my book The Guantánamo Files, published in 2007, and then in a number of articles, particularly from 2008 to 2010. I also wrote about him, and as many of the other CIA prisoners as I could find reference to, in a detailed section dealing with the US actions post-9/11 of a report for the UN about secret detention, which was published in 2010.

In 2011, Abu Zubaydah was recognized as a “victim” in an investigation by a prosecutor in Poland, and this led, in 2014, to the European Court of Human Rights delivering a powerful condemnation of the US torture program and of Poland’s role hosting a CIA “black site,” and, in 2015, to the court granting him damages of  €130,000 ($148,000), although the US government continued to behave as though it had nothing to do with it, consistently refusing to cooperate, or even to comment on the limited accountability that was being displayed in Europe.

Last year, I cross-posted a major article on Abu Zubaydah written by the academic Rebecca Gordon (in April), and also mentioned a lawsuit filed at the same time by the journalist Raymond Bonner, as announced by Politico.

Bonner’s case led, in July, to the release of an eight-page declaration that Zubaydah provided to his attorneys in 2009, which Jason Leopold wrote about for Vice News — and I’ll be cross-posting that declaration soon. In the meantime, however, Leopold — the so-called “FOIA terrorist” — had also secured CIA files dealing with the CIA’s “black sites,” which he wrote about in an article entitled, “Barbaric Conditions That Led to a Detainee’s Death Are Laid Bare in CIA Reports.” Following up on the release of these documents, the Guardian focused on a document attributed to the chief of the CIA’s Office of Medical Services (OMS). As the article stated:

[W]riting in “retrospect”, OMS concluded that Abu Zubaydah “probably reached the point of cooperation even prior to the August [2002] institution of ‘enhanced’ measures – a development missed because of the narrow focus of questioning”.

That OMS conclusion bolsters the account of a former FBI official, Ali Soufan, who interrogated Abu Zubaydah in a secret Thai prison that spring. Soufan would later testify and write in a book, The Black Banners, that the CIA interfered with and ultimately scotched a promising and less-coercive interrogation of Abu Zubaydah – one that the landmark 2014 Senate inquiry found yielded intelligence on al-Qaida.

“Nothing changed in my statement. A lot changed in their statements. Now you know why my statement was the only statement under oath,” Soufan told the Guardian. “From day one, I mentioned that CIA people who were there were as upset as me and left [the interrogation] before me.”

Joe Margulies, an attorney for Abu Zubaydah, said the document “confirms what we’ve been saying all along and shows what happens when amateurs are given authority over the nation’s security. Mitchell and Jessen were so certain they knew the answer before they asked the question that they couldn’t hear the truth even as Abu Zubaydah gurgled it from the board.”

In August, Abu Zubaydah went before a Periodic Review Board, established to review the cases of 64 men considered “too dangerous to release,” or recommended for prosecution by a task force that President Obama set up in 2010, and I wrote about the review in an article entitled, Torture Victim Abu Zubaydah, Seen For the First Time in 14 Years, Seeks Release from Guantánamo. However, the authorities refused to fully acknowledge the comprehensive manner in which the alleged basis for Abu Zubaydah’s imprisonment had collapsed, and approved his ongoing imprisonment two months later, prompting another of his attorneys, Brent Mickum, to tell Jason Leopold, “We always expected that it would always come down exactly as it has. We never believed we had a chance.”

Mickum’s comments echoed those of Joe Margulies, who, at the time of his PRB, said it was “just a formality, a ritual,” adding, “Abu Zubaydah will not be released.” Between the review and its decision, Margulies wrote a hard-hitting op-ed for Time, entitled, A Man Wrongly Tortured for 9/11 Remains in Guantánamo, in which he stated:

It is one thing to be tortured, still another to be tortured and silenced, and something worse altogether to be tortured, silenced and forgotten. Like Dante’s Hell, Abu Zubaydah descends from one torment to another, each worse than the last.

Margulies also wrote, regarding the Senate Intelligence report’s conclusions about Abu Zubaydah:

From its meticulous review, the Committee concluded the Agency was, to put it gently, mistaken. Zubaydah was never a member of al-Qaeda, let alone one of its high ranking officers. He had no connection either to the attacks of 9/11 or to al Qaeda’s terror. This, of course, is precisely what Zubaydah told his torturers over and over, perhaps as he was strapped once more to that water-soaked board, stuffed again into that coffin built just for him or hung again from the hooks in the ceiling at the black site outside Bangkok.

After noting that, since arriving at Guantánamo, Zubaydah “has never appeared in a court of any kind, whether military or civilian, kangaroo or conventional,” Margulies added that, “if the United States has its way, he never will. As his torture began, his interrogators sought and received ‘assurances’ that he would ‘remain in isolation and incommunicado for the remainder of his life.’”

As Margulies also explained, “We have no illusion that Abu Zubaydah will be cleared by this Alice-in-Wonderland tribunal. The unbridgeable gulf between patriotic myth and tortured reality embarrasses the United States, which has never been good at atoning for its mistakes — at least, not so long as they can still speak. We have tried to impart all this to our client, but we can never be sure how much he understands. He still has shrapnel lodged deep in his brain from when he was fighting the communists in Afghanistan, back when Ronald Reagan and other brave hearts thought it was a good and honorable thing to be a mujahid, whom Reagan repeatedly described as ‘Afghanistan’s freedom fighters.’ And of course, Zubaydah’s mental and physical state suffered a great deal at the hands of the CIA.”

In November, I wrote about — and cross-posted — some letters from Zubaydah to one of his attorneys, Amanda Jacobsen, which, I believe, helped to humanize him, and then, in January, on the last day of the Obama presidency, the New York Times published details of CIA cables that had been released as part of an ACLU case against the CIA on behalf of a number of former “black site” prisoners. Soon I’ll cross-post another account by Zubaydah himself, from 2008, which was included in the documents, but for now I’ll just note the sad conclusion to the Times article:

On Aug. 18, 2002, after 15 days during which Mr. Zubaydah was repeatedly waterboarded, kept for hours in small boxes, pushed into walls and threatened, the interrogators sent a cable to headquarters stating their conclusions. The prisoner “has not provided significant actionable info beyond previously provided details,” they wrote.

Last month, further information about Zubaydah’s case was revealed in an article for ProPublica, CIA Cables Detail Its New Deputy Director’s Role in Torture, written by Raymond Bonner, who noted how Gina Haspel, President Trump’s choice for the CIA’s deputy director, had “drafted an order to destroy” 92 videotapes containing evidence of Abu Zubaydah’s torture, which had been “locked in a CIA safe at the American embassy in Thailand.” ProPublica also wrote about the CIA cables and Zubaydah’s own testimony here.

And yet, despite the drip-drip of revelations, Abu Zubaydah remains in Guantánamo, still silenced and still largely forgotten. Tomorrow, officials from the major government departments and the intelligence agencies will conduct a file review of his case as part of the Periodic Review Board process. The result has not yet been announced, but it is extremely unlikely that they will change their mind. File reviews will continue every six months until he receives a second full review — in 2019, unless Donald Trump decides to scrap the PRBs.

Last week, Zubaydah was supposed to appear as a witness in the stumbling pre-trial hearings for the five men accused of involvement in the 9/11 attacks, but his attorneys are unwell, and his appearance has been postponed until May. If it happens, it will be only the second opportunity in 15 years (after his PRB) for journalists to see him, but who knows if it will happen? Last June, as Carol Rosenberg reported for the Miami Herald, he “ma[de] it to [the] door of [the] Guantánamo war court but d[id] not step inside,” because his Navy lawyer, Navy Cmdr. Patrick Flor, appointed to represent him if he is ever charged, “announced in court that he would object to any questions that could incriminate his client, prompting lawyers to postpone the testimony.”

Afterwards, as Rosenberg explained, “Flor said his client was disappointed but it was too risky. Guantánamo captives aren’t typically shackled at the war court and Abu Zubaydah was to take his first steps without ankle chains in 14 years.”

He added, “I would like my client to see the light of day in front of a microphone. He’ll no longer be forgotten.”

Some of us out here in the wider world are also waiting for that day, as, of course, are his attorneys, the only people with whom he has been able to build any kind of rapport over the last ten and half years at Guantánamo.

As Joe Margulies wrote to me when I asked him for a comment on this sad anniversary, “I suppose my comment will not fit nicely onto a bumper sticker. Our challenge is the challenge for everyone who represents those who are both damned and forgotten. The truth about Abu Zubaydah cannot penetrate because those who listen do not care, and those who care do not listen.”

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.

Please also consider joining the Close Guantánamo campaign, and, if you appreciate Andy’s work, feel free to make a donation.

16 Responses

  1. Andy Worthington says...

    When I posted this on Facebook, I wrote:

    Exactly 15 years ago, Abu Zubaydah, an alleged “high-value detainee,” was captured in a house raid in Pakistan, and was then taken to Thailand, where he became the first victim of the CIA’s post-9/11 torture program. After further torture in Poland, in the short-lived “black site” in Guantanamo, in Morocco, Lithuania and Afghanistan, he ended up at Guantanamo, in September 2006, where his torture continues as open-ended imprisonment without charge or trial, possibly for the rest of his life, even though the US authorities have walked back from their initial claim that he was the number 3 in al-Qaeda, acknowledging that he wasn’t a member of al-Qaeda, and had no advance knowledge of the 9/11 attacks. In the horrors of the “war on terror,” there are few stories as sad and terrible for America’s reputation as that of Abu Zubaydah. I hope you have time to think of him today.

  2. Andy Worthington says...

    Johan van der Merwe wrote:

    Thank you so much for sharing this, Andy. I feel drained, bereft of energy and words just thinking of this man and others like him.

    But yes, he is in my thoughts. And prayers.

  3. Andy Worthington says...

    Thank you, Johan. It is very good to hear from you.

  4. Andy Worthington says...

    Thanks to everyone liking and sharing this. Going through the archives, here’s the first article I wrote on or around the anniversary of Abu Zubaydah’s capture – eight years ago: http://www.andyworthington.co.uk/2009/03/30/abu-zubaydah-the-futility-of-torture-and-a-trail-of-broken-lives/

  5. Andy Worthington says...

  6. Andy Worthington says...

    Rose Ann Bellotti wrote:

    He, like the rest of them, are equivalent to guinea pigs in a horrible experiment to break people’s minds into pieces.

  7. Andy Worthington says...

    Yes indeed, Rose. Thanks for caring.

  8. Andy Worthington says...

    Deborah Hitz wrote:

    Thank you, Andy.

  9. Andy Worthington says...

    You’re welcome, Deborah.

  10. Anna says...

    Thank you for making sure we cannot forget about Abu Zubaydah, one of the most tragic victims of the ‘black sites’, US’ own gulag archipelago. Those in the Soviet version at least did get a trial and a sentence – even if deeply flawed and on trumped charges – so they had an idea of what to expect and could hope to survive long enough to live the day of their release, as some actually did. The US gulag victims do not even have that meagre straw to clutch at.

  11. Andy Worthington says...

    Thanks, Anna, for the reminder of the profound injustice of the US’s post-9/11 torture program. As you say, the Soviet system, derided in the West as the depths of injustice, actually involved trials and sentences, however flawed, whereas people like Abu Zubaydah are supposed to put up with a parole-type review 14 years after his capture, which, it would be fair to say, was never intended to prove him for release. Absolutely shameful.

  12. sara says...

    Thank you for putting this worthy story out in the world, much needed.
    I have been reading about him for a while now, very upsetting to see what he has been through and how cruel and unjust the system is, always thinking of him and have in my prayers. He is not what the media portrays him to be like yet unfortunately people don’t look for the truth, Innocent people like him should never be forgotten. I truly do hope he will see freedom one day.

  13. Andy Worthington says...

    Great to hear from you, Sara, and thanks for your comments. With Trump in the White House, Obama having failed to close Guantanamo, and a relatively small number of men still held, it seems that Guantanamo has once more fallen off the radar, and yet after 15 years of torture and imprisonment without charge or trial there’s really nothing for anyone to be complacent about. Just 41 men are still held at Guantanamo, and yet everyone not facing a trial is being held in the type of lawless limbo that Americans are supposed to be implacably opposed to, and those men, of course, include Abu Zubaydah.

  14. maryam says...

    He is so handsome, i wonder what he looks like now.. i know this must sound silly but is there any way of contacting him or write a letter to? how is his condition now and is he still being tortured?

  15. Andy Worthington says...

    Hi Maryam,
    You could try writing to him at Guantanamo – details of how to do so are here: http://www.andyworthington.co.uk/2016/12/12/please-write-to-the-remaining-prisoners-in-guantanamo-in-obamas-last-month-in-office/

  16. A TALE of TORTURE, TERROR & TYRANNY | Full Spectrum Ignorance says...

    […] them was to „cover their asses“ so before they started the most horrible torture sessions on Abu Zubaydah they agreed that it would be necessary to “detain” him in total isolation „FOR THE […]

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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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