16 Years Ago, the US Captured Abu Zubaydah, First Official Victim of the Post-9/11 Torture Program, Still Held at Guantánamo Without Charge or Trial


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 as a reader-funded journalist! 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.


I wrote the following article for the “Close Guantánamo” website, which I established in January 2012, on the 10th anniversary of the opening of Guantánamo, with the US attorney Tom Wilner. Please join us — just an email address is required to be counted amongst those opposed to the ongoing existence of Guantánamo, and to receive updates of our activities by email.

16 years ago, on March 28, 2002, an event took place that has had dreadful repercussions ever since, when Pakistani and American agents raided a house in Faisalabad, Pakistan and captured Abu Zubaydah (Zayn al-Abidin Muhammad Husayn), creating a torture program especially for him, which was then applied to dozens of other prisoners seized in the US’s brutal and pointless “war on terror.”

A Palestinian born in Saudi Arabia in 1971, Zubaydah had traveled to Afghanistan to join the mujahideen in the Afghan civil war (1989-1992) that followed the retreat of the Soviet Union after its ten-year occupation. In 1992, he was severely injured by an exploding mortar shell, suffering shrapnel wounds and severe memory loss. For over a year, he was also left unable to speak.

Although he eventually recovered sufficiently to become a logistician for Khalden, an independent training camp run by Ibn al-Shaykh al-Libi, which closed around 2000 when al-Libi refused to allow it to come under the control of Al-Qaeda, FBI agents who interviewed him after his capture had no doubt that the mortar damage had caused permanent damage. They also knew that he was a kind of travel agent for Khalden, and not number 3 in Al-Qaeda, as the CIA and the Bush administration mistakenly thought. (Al-Libi, meanwhile, tortured into telling lies that the US used to justify its illegal invasion of Iraq, was eventually returned to Libya, where Col. Gaddafi imprisoned him and later killed him).

Nevertheless, the Bush administration refused to listen to reason, and decided that he had to be tortured. He was flown to Thailand, where the CIA had set up its first “black site,” and where he was waterboarded on 83 separate occasions and also subjected to other disgusting and disgraceful forms of torture under the direction of two former US military psychologists, James Mitchell and Bruce Jessen.

When the Thai government tired of allowing Thailand to be used for abuses that the US was unwilling to do on its own soil, he was shunted around a variety of other “black sites,” including one in Poland, one in Guantánamo (known as Strawberry Fields), and others in Morocco, Lithuania and, probably, Afghanistan, before ending up back at Guantánamo, this time in military custody, with 13 other alleged “high-value detainees” in September 2006.

Since then, while six of the men who arrived with him in September 2006 have been put forward for military commission trials, which are mired in seemingly endless pre-trial hearings, largely because of the torture to which they were subjected, which the government still seeks to hide, he and six others continue to be held without charge or trial. Under Obama, they were eventually allowed to have their cases reviewed, but the review process set up in 2013, the Periodic Review Boards, which is similar to a parole process, approved their ongoing imprisonment. With ten other prisoners, he is now asking a judge to rule on whether, 16 years after Guantánamo opened, their endless imprisonment is “arbitrary and unlawful and amounts to ‘perpetual detention for detention’s sake.’”

Just two weeks ago, Joe Margulies, who is one of Abu Zubaydah’s lawyers, wrote about his client for TIME. Margulies wrote, “I represent Abu Zubaydah, who was the first person imprisoned at a CIA black site and the first to have his interrogation ‘enhanced.’ He was subjected to all of the approved techniques and many that were not. In a bit more than three weeks in August 2002, he was waterboarded 83 times, suspended from hooks in the ceiling, forced into a coffin for hours at a time in a gathering pool of his own urine and feces, crammed into a tiny box that would’ve been small even for a child, bombarded with screaming noise and cold air, compelled to stay awake for days on end, and ‘rectally rehydrated.’”

Margulies also wrote, “Because of what he was made to endure, Abu Zubaydah suffers from frequent seizures, the origin of which cannot be determined. He is tormented by sounds that others do not hear, and cannot remember simple things that others cannot forget. Because his condition is classified, there is much about his welfare that the United States will not let me say. They have authorized me to report, however, that I am ‘very concerned’ about his health.”

Joe Margulies’ article followed the news that Gina Haspel, currently the Deputy Director of the CIA, had been chosen by Donald Trump to be its Director. Haspel didn’t torture Abu Zubaydah, but from what we understand she was in charge of the “black site” in Thailand from October 2002 until its closure in December 2002, and, as Joe Margulies put it, she was “present when another prisoner, Abd al-Rahim al-Nashiri, was subjected to similar torture, including waterboarding.”

Margulies’ article was carefully non-judgmental. “We do not know,” he wrote, “whether she approved of the torture that had taken place before she got to Thailand or that took place after she arrived, and if she did, whether her approval was enthusiastic or begrudging. We do not know whether she made any attempt to restrain the two psychologists [Mitchell and Jessen], and if so whether her attempts were overruled by authorities elsewhere.”

As he also explained, “In fact, we do not even know the limits of her authority. One CIA cable, for instance, indicates that, even if she had wanted to, she could not have stopped the torture on her own. The Senate Torture Report, by contrast [whose executive summary was published in December 2014], claims she most certainly had that authority, and in fact that her authority was ‘final’; according to the Senate, she was the only person who could’ve ended the torture.”

Margulies also stated, “In short, all we know is that she appears to have been in charge of a site where my client had previously been tortured, and supervised the site while another man was tortured. And make no mistake: it was torture. We ought not mince words about that. It was legally wrong and morally bankrupt, and my client will bear the physical and psychological scars for the rest of his life.”

He added that although, for some people, “Haspel’s supervisory presence at a secret prison where human beings were tortured is enough to disqualify her,” “we need less knee-jerk condemnation and more sober, careful assessment. That is why we have a confirmation process.”

That confirmation process, as he also noted, needs to establish Haspel’s exact role in the destruction of videotapes showing the torture of Abu Zubaydah and Abd al-Rahim al-Nashiri, contravening a judge’s ruling, and, as he also put it, we need to know “her current view.”

As he explained, “It is entirely possible that her position on ‘enhanced interrogations’ has changed since 2002. In fact, given the course of events, we should hope that it has. The CIA tortured my client because they believed — apparently in good faith — that he was a senior member of al Qaeda who, among other misdeeds, had been involved in all of the organization’s prior attacks and had particular expertise in resisting torture. They were wrong. We now know, and the US has repeatedly admitted, that Abu Zubaydah was not a member of al Qaeda, that he was opposed to its ideology and that his protestations of ignorance were not evidence of a supernatural capacity to resist torture, but proof that the torturers had their facts wrong. In light of this, it is certainly worth asking whether Haspel believes the Agency’s sickening experiment with torture was a mistake.”

Unfortunately, while Joe Margulies shows admirable balance in his view of Gina Haspel, there is no sign that, having recognized that Abu Zubaydah “was not a member of al Qaeda,” and “was opposed to its ideology,” the US government has any intention of  treating him fairly, by either releasing him or putting him on trial.

While ten of the 41 men still held are going through or have been through the military commission process, and while five others were approved for release but are still held, the 26 others — including Abu Zubaydah — remain in a limbo that has no justification, and that still seems to have no end, and that, every day, ought to be a source of shame for all decent Americans, just as it was 16 years ago when Abu Zubaydah was first seized in Faisalabad.

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 music is available via Bandcamp). He is the co-founder of the Close Guantánamo campaign (and see the latest photo campaign here) and the successful We Stand With Shaker campaign of 2014-15, and the author of The Guantánamo Files: The Stories of the 774 Detainees in America’s Illegal Prison (click on the following for Amazon in 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), and for his photo project ‘The State of London’ he publishes a photo a day from six years of bike rides around the 120 postcodes of the capital.

In 2017, Andy became very involved in housing issues. He is the narrator of a new documentary film, ‘Concrete Soldiers UK’, about the destruction of council estates, and the inspiring resistance of residents, he wrote a song ‘Grenfell’, in the aftermath of the entirely preventable fire in June that killed over 70 people, and he also set up ‘No Social Cleansing in Lewisham’ as a focal point for resistance to estate destruction and the loss of community space in his home borough in south east London.

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17 Responses

  1. Andy Worthington says...

    When I posted this on Facebook, I wrote:

    Yesterday was a sad day for America – the 16th anniversary of the capture in a house raid in Pakistan of Abu Zubaydah, mistakenly described as a senior member of Al-Qaeda, who was, instead, the logistician for an independent training camp that wasn’t aligned with Al-Qaeda at all. After his capture, he was flown to Thailand, where the CIA set up the first of its “black sites” for torture, using techniques that were specifically approved for use on him, including waterboarding, which he was subjected to on 83 separate occasions. After four and half years in a variety of “black sites,” he was flown to Guantanamo in September 2006, and has been there ever since, held, apparently indefinitely, without charge or trial, and with, it seems, inadequate attention given to the problems that plague him after his long years of torture, including seizures. America should be ashamed.

  2. Andy Worthington says...

    After I posted this last night on the Close Guantanamo website, I wrote:

    Tonight I was rehearsing with my band The Four Fathers and we played a thundering fired-up version of ’81 Million Dollars,’ the song I wrote about the US torture program, calling for those responsible for it to be held accountable for their crimes (the title refers to the money paid to contractors James Mitchell and Bruce Jessen, the architects of the program). Check it out here: https://thefourfathers.bandcamp.com/track/81-million-dollars

  3. Andy Worthington says...

    Natalia R Scott wrote:

    As I posted yesterday on this on the Close Guantánamo page, last year I read “The Convenient Terrorist” about this man. To this day I still can’t understand how can he endured the torture he was exposed to.

  4. Andy Worthington says...

    Thanks, Natalia. I didn’t see your comment on the Close Guantanamo page. I wrote about John Kiriakou and Joseph Hickman’s book when it came out: http://www.andyworthington.co.uk/2017/09/07/11-years-after-cia-torture-victims-arrived-at-guantanamo-whistleblowers-joseph-hickman-and-john-kiriakou-on-how-torture-became-legal-after-911/
    And what I always feel about Abu Zubaydah is how unforgivable it is that he’s been so almost completely silenced during his imprisonment, as his lawyers are so constrained in what they’re allowed to discuss about him, and almost every exchange he has had with his lawyers remains classified.

  5. Andy Worthington says...

    Natalia R Scott wrote:

    I can’t help but feel really sorry for him.

  6. Andy Worthington says...

    Likewise, Natalia. He strikes me as an interesting person – and it’s so counter-productive that the CIA tortured him, when it was clear that he would have talked to the FBI as a result of old-fashioned rapport-building.

  7. Andy Worthington says...

    And these letters were a noteworthy exception to the general wall of silence, Natalia: http://www.andyworthington.co.uk/2016/11/04/humanizing-a-torture-victim-abu-zubaydahs-letters-from-guantanamo/

  8. Tom says...

    Haspel has to testify and be approved by the Senate Intelligence Committee. Key members of this committee are trying to manipulate the “outrage” over torture to make themselves look good. At the same time, they can never ever be allowed to appear weak towards “terrorists”. When push comes to shove, she’ll be approved. The vote will be along party lines. The Democrats will all say:

    We’re outraged
    This is terribly unjust
    Don’t blame us. We’re the minority in Congress, and it’s so unfair

    What they’re really saying is they’re scared to death of the CIA.

  9. arcticredriver says...

    Thanks Andy! Abu Zubaydah’s story is one of the most important undertold stories, and your writing about him is important. His story is important for understanding the ongoing threats to civil liberty, privacy, entitlement to the presumption of innocence. His story is also very important for understanding how profoundly the “war on terror” has undermined public safety.

    Andy, you and I, and lots of other people don’t have to be convinced that torture is always a mistake, in general, and was a particularly costly mistake, in Abu Zubaydah’s mistake. But, when you ask “…whether Haspel believes the Agency’s sickening experiment with torture was a mistake…” My guess? She does not. My guess, if Senators ask this question, and are able to force her to acknowledge that the torture of Abu Zubaydah not only didn’t reveal any new information, had the costly effect of polluting the intelligence pool, triggering the costly squandering of precious resources on wild-goose chases, she would STILL remain convinced that his torture was worthwhile.

    Why? They had those recordings of his torture, which DCI Michael Hayden said were used for “training purposes”. Training purposes meant showing other interrogation subjects videos of the techniques used on Abu Zubaydah, and imply that they too would face those techniques. My guess is that Haspel still thinks that the value of using the videos on other interrogation subjects had a value that counter-balanced the negative effects.

  10. arcticredriver says...

    The JTF-GTMO detainee assessment briefs, that WikiLeaks published, were classified. They bear dates in the 2030-2038 range, because they are supposed to have remained secret for thirty years.

    I am not counting on being around, and remaining mentally competent to read the documents, Chelsea Manning wasn’t able to publish, if they are made public after thirty years. But, even if I am around, I am afraid a lot of the other documents will not be made public.

    Does the secrecy protect genuine National Security secrets, or does secrecy merely serve to cover up the crimes of intelligence officials, and their superiors.

  11. arcticredriver says...

    Can I repeat what I think is the most important error US intelligence officials made, which I believe would no longer be negatively affecting public safety if they were forced to release all their classified documents?

    US officials naively and incompetently conflated Khaldan and al Qaeda; al Qaeda and the Saudi charity al Wafa; al Qaeda and the Kuwaiti charity RHIB; al Qaeda and Jamaat Tablighi.

    This conflation was strongly in the personal interest of cynical and ambitious careerists within the Military-Intelligence Complex. If you are the analyst who champions the notion that al Qaeda is allied to an ostensibly respectable group, or that that group is an al Qaeda group, you aid those who are claiming al Qaeda is much larger than it actually was. Your spearheading the claim of allies aids that group. It justifies budgetting more unaudited dollars for you and your cynical ambitious careerist allies.

    You can expect promotion. Just like Carolyn Wood, the officer who commanded Joshua Claus and Damien Corsetti, at Bagram, and Abu Ghraib, was promoted, and received medals, for the unauthorized use of torture she directed.

    My reading of the OARDEC document very strongly suggests to me that the only actual connection between al Qaeda and al Wafa is that some of the same rich Saudis who sponsored al Qaeda also sponsored genuine charitable projects, like hospitals, run by al Wafa. I had the impression that Osama bin Laden was jealous of al Wafa, resented al Wafa, because every Riyal sent to sponsor al Wafa’s hospitals was a Riyal not sent to al Qaeda.

    I think this was one half of the reason bin Laden got the Taliban to issue that ultimatum to the Khaldan group, to join al Qaeda, or be shutdown. He wanted the rich Saudis who were sponsoring Khaldan to shift their funds to him. I think the other half was that he was jealous that Khaldan’s fame for training heroes among the Afghan-Arabs, and training those who volunteered in Bosnia and Chechnya, made it more attractive to those who were traveling to Pakistan or Afghanistan seeking training. Those seeking training were one of his prime source of recruits.

    What could Abu Zubaydah have told Ali Soufan, his first interrogator, the humane, rapport-building FBI interrogator, that would have held intelligence value?

    I think he knew the identity of a Saudi prince who was a primary donor to Khaldan. I think he thought this Saudi prince had a friendly relationship with the USA. Maybe the CIA recruited the prince to share in funding Khaldan during the time the CIA was helping the Afghan-Arabs?

    The US has intelligence officials who specialize in tracing financial transfers. I believe this is the major role of the intelligence analysts in the US Treasury. Maybe this prince had also helped sponsor al Qaeda? If so he may have helped sponsor al Qaeda in Sudan? Maybe he helped sponsor al Qaeda prior to it committing any acts of terrorism?

    Anyhow, I strongly suspect US intelligence analysts have strongly over-estimated the strength of al Qaeda because they included in its numbers individuals in groups that weren’t really connected with al Qaeda, or were rivals to al Qaeda.

  12. Andy Worthington says...

    Sadly, Tom, I expect this will be an accurate premonition, and what a shocking indictment that is of the state of the USA – that someone who actively participated in a brutal, illegal and futile torture program ends up heading the agency that implemented it, and that really should have a clean pair of hands at the helm, and someone who actively opposes the use of torture.

  13. Andy Worthington says...

    That’s an interesting analysis, arcticredriver, and while I can’t vouch for its accuracy, it certainly rings true. The tapes were destroyed not because ethic contents were regarded was wrong, but because it was feared that someone would be held legally liable for them. Morally, I think it would be an appropriate position to take that anyone who refuses to unconditionally condemn the use of torture and the creation of those videos should be dismissed from the CIA.

  14. Andy Worthington says...

    I think very clearly the latter, arcticredriver, as was apparent to me in the Jeppesen case, when President Obama first most noticeably invoked the state secrets doctrine to protect those involved in the rendition and torture of Binyam Mohamed and other individuals rendered and tortured by the US.
    My article from that time is here: http://www.andyworthington.co.uk/2010/09/15/by-one-vote-us-court-oks-torture-and-extraordinary-rendition/

  15. Andy Worthington says...

    That’s a very interesting analysis, arcticredriver. We have communicated before, and over many years, about the US’s false assessments about terrorist-linked groups that were used in so-called intelligence assessments and interrogations at Guantanamo, which, for example, were never replicated in official State Department assessments, and which, absurdly, included Jamaat al-Tablighi, a missionary organization of several million members.
    However, I don’t recall you spelling out before your assessment about Abu Zubaydah and the Saudi connections, which I think is very important and definitely worth further investigation.

  16. Tom says...

    Don’t forget Obama’s attitude towards this. Yes, we tortured people. We overthrew governments. So what?

  17. Andy Worthington says...

    Yes, that was one of his low points, Tom – “We tortured some folks.”

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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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