Abu Zubaydah Poses a Real Threat to Al Qaeda


Abu Zubaydah, a man once called al-Qaeda’s “chief of operations” appears to be at the center of an unraveling of the official myth behind al Qaeda. After his capture in early 2002, Zubaydah was the first “detainee” known to be tortured. The information allegedly obtained from his torture played a large part in the creation of the official account of 9/11 and in the justification for the continued use of such torture techniques. Yet in September, 2009, the U.S. government admitted that Zubaydah was never a member or associate of al Qaeda at all. These facts raise an alarming number of questions about the veracity of our knowledge about al Qaeda, and the true identity of the people who are said to be behind the 9/11 attacks.

Photo of Abu Zubaydah
Abu Zubaydah

Unlike other alleged al Qaeda leaders, including Khlaid Sheik Mohammed and Rasmi bin Alshibh, Zubaydah has never been charged with a crime. As these other leading suspects await their continually-postponed military trial, Zubaydah is instead being airbrushed out of history. Why would the U.S. government want us to forget Zubaydah, the first and most important al Qaeda operative captured after 9/11?

The 9/11 Commission called Zubaydah an “Al Qaeda associate,” a “long-time ally of Bin Ladin,” a “Bin Ladin lieutenant,” and an “al Qaeda lieutenant.”[1] The Commission’s claims were somewhat contradictory in that Zubaydah was, in the Commission’s report, represented as both an al Qaeda leader and simply a terrorist colleague who collaborated in the training and recruiting of operatives. For example, the Commission reported that Zubaydah “helped operate a popular terrorist training camp near the border with Pakistan” [Khalden Camp], and that Bin Laden had an agreement with Zubaydah to “conduct reciprocal recruiting efforts whereby promising trainees at the camps would be invited to join al Qaeda.” It was unclear why a “Bin Laden lieutenant” would need such a reciprocal agreement with Bin Laden.

Other claims made by the 9/11 Commission were that “KSM and Zubaydah each played key roles in facilitating travel for al Qaeda operatives,” and that “Zubaydah had been a major figure in the millenium plots.” These claims are supported primarily by the torture testimony of Zubaydah and others, and by Zubaydah’s “diary.”

Graphic depicting the CIA videotaping torture vitims in the name of the War on Terror

In an amazing turnabout in 2009, an attorney for Zubaydah wrote in The Guardian that the majority of the accusations against Zubaydah were understood by all parties to be false. In fact, he wrote, they “were known to be false when uttered.“[2] Attorney Brent Mickum said that his client, said to be the “number three man in al Qaeda,” was never a member or associate of al Qaeda and that — “These facts really are no longer contested: [Zubaydah] was not, and never had been, a member of either the Taliban or al-Qaida. The CIA determined this after torturing him extensively.” In fact, he “was never a member or a supporter of any armed forces that were allied against the United States,” and he was never the “head of a military camp that trained terrorists. That allegation is false at all levels.”


It turns out that Mickum’s report was correct and that “Abu Zubaydah’s supposed relationship with al-Qaida is a complete myth.”[3]

We know this because, as of September 2009, the U.S. government agreed that Zubaydah was never an al Qaeda operative. During Zubaydah’s habeas corpus petition, the government admitted that Abu Zubaydah had never been a member of al-Qaeda, nor involved in the attacks on the African embassies in 1998, or the attacks on the United States on September 11, 2001.[4] The motion, filed by the U.S. government, states:

…the Government has not contended in this proceeding that Petitioner [Zubaydah] was a member of al-Qaida or otherwise formally identified with al-Qaida.

Respondent [The United States Government] does not contend that Petitioner was a “member” of al-Qaida in the sense of having sworn a bayat (allegiance) or having otherwise satisfied any formal criteria that either Petitioner or al-Qaida may have considered necessary for inclusion in al-Qaida. Nor is the Government detaining Petitioner based on any allegation that Petitioner views himself as part of al-Qaida as a matter of subjective personal conscience, ideology, or worldview.

The Government has not contended in this proceeding that Petitioner had any direct role in or advance knowledge of the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001.

… the Government has not contended that Petitioner had any personal involvement in planning or executing either the 1998 embassy bombings… or the attacks on September 11, 2001.

In his article that same year, attorney Mickum went on to point out that the torture tapes, which the CIA had first lied to the 9/11 Commission about and then destroyed, had a lot to do with Zubaydah. Mickum wrote: “the videotapes of his torture were destroyed. Just recently, the government revealed that 90 of the 92 videotapes that the CIA destroyed related to our client.” Not only that, Mickum went on to say that the U.S. government has removed all “reference to my client from the charge sheets and factual returns of other prisoners whose cases were being prosecuted. Abu Zubaydah has been linked to nearly 50 prisoners and former prisoners through media accounts and official Guantanamo Bay documents. Of these, approximately two dozen have either had their charges dropped or have been released from custody.” They have, essentially, “airbrushed Abu Zubaydah out of history.”

Obviously this attempt to remove a key 9/11 accomplice from history must make a significant difference to the official account of 9/11. We would expect that major revisions to the 9/11 Commission Report would be necessary given the knowledge that the man never had a connection to al Qaeda.

In order to better understand just how much Zubaydah meant as a primary source for the official account of 9/11, we must review the extensive claims made about Zubaydah by the U.S. government and mainstream media over the years. We’ve seen that the 9/11 Commission (falsely) called Zubaydah an “al Qaeda lieutenant.” The Joint Congressional inquiry did the same, calling him “al-Qa’ida leader Abu Zubaydah,” and the “Bin Ladin lieutenant captured in March 2002.” As late as 2006, the Justice Department’s Inspector General report on the 9/11 attacks called Zubaydah a “Bin Laden lieutenant.”

When Zubaydah was captured, in March 2002, U.S. government officials touted him as the biggest catch of the War on Terror, at least until the capture of Khalid Sheik Mohammed (KSM). FBI Director Robert Mueller stated that Zubaydah’s capture would help deter future attacks.[5] White House spokesman Ari Fleischer said that Zubaydah could provide a treasure-trove of information about al-Qaeda.[6] Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld claimed that Zubaydah was “a man who knows of additional attacks”, who has “trained people to do this”, and was a big fish who had a fountain of knowledge.[7]

The extensive allegations against Zubaydah went on and on, and included that he was:

  • along with KSM, one of “Al Qaeda’s top operational managers” – “Counterterrorism Czar”Richard Clarke, in his book Against All Enemies
  • “sinister” and “there is evidence that he is a planner and a manager as well. I think he’s a major player.” – Former State Department director of counter-terrorism, Michael Sheehan [8]
  • “extremely dangerous” and a planner of 9/11. – State Department legal advisor John B. Bellinger III in a June 2007 briefing.[9]
  • a trainer, a recruiter, understood bomb-making, was a forger, a logistician, and someone who made things happen, and made “al-Qaeda function.” – Former CIA station chief, Bob Grenier [10]
  • “a close associate of UBL’s, and if not the number two, very close to the number two person in the organization. I think that’s well established.” -Donald Rumsfeld [11]
  • “a very senior al Qaeda official who has been intimately involved in a range of activities for the al Qaeda.” – Donald Rumsfeld [12]
  • a “very senior al Qaeda operative.” – Donald Rumsfeld
  • a “key terrorist recruiter and operational planner and member of Osama bin Laden’s inner circle.” – White House spokesman Ari Fleischer [13]
  • someone whose capture was a “very serious blow” to al-Qaeda and therefore one of al-Qaeda’s “many tentacles” was “cut off.” – White House spokesman Ari Fleischer
  • “one of the top operatives plotting and planning death and destruction on the United States.” –President George W. Bush [14]
  • “one of al-Qaeda’s top leaders” who was “spending a lot of time as one of the top operating officials of al Qaeda, plotting and planning murder.” –President George W. Bush [15]
  • “al Qaeda’s chief of operations.” – President George W. Bush [16]
  • “one of the top three leaders” in al-Qaeda. – President George W. Bush [17]
  • someone whose interrogation “led to reliable information”, a “prolific producer” of information, with whom originated roughly 25 percent of the information on al Qaeda that came from human sources. – Michael Hayden [18]
  • one of three individuals “best positioned to know about impending terrorist atrocities.” – Michael Hayden [19]

As the myth of Zubaydah grew, it was reported that he was –

  • “worth a ton of guys at Gitmo.”[20]
  • a “senior bin Laden official” and the “former head of Egypt-based Islamic Jihad.”[21]
  • “played a key role in the East Africa embassy attacks.”[22]
  • listed as a “trusted aide” to bin Laden with “growing power.”[23]
  • in control of al-Qaeda.[24]
  • an aide of bin Laden who ran training camps in Afghanistan and “coordinated terror cells in Europe and North America.”[25]
  • a “key terrorist recruiter, operational planner, and member of Osama Bin Laden’s inner circle.”[26]
  • “bin Laden’s CEO”,[27] and “a central figure in Al Qaeda”[28]
  • Bin Laden’s “travel planner.”[29]
  • “one of a handful of men entrusted with running the terrorism network in the event of Osama bin Laden’s death or capture.”[30]
  • a senior bin Laden lieutenant who was believed “to be organizing al Qaida resources to carry out attacks on American targets.”[31]
  • the fourth ranking member of al Qaeda behind Bin Laden, Ayman al-Zawahiri, and Muhamed Atef.[32]
  • someone who knew the identities of “thousands” of terrorists that passed through al Qaeda training camps in Afghanistan [33]
  • a colleague of Richard Reid, the shoe-bomber.[34]
  • one of bin Laden’s top planners of terrorist operations who knew of al Qaeda plots and cells.[35]
  • the “connection between bin Laden and many of al-Qaida’s operational cells.”[36]
  • the source of information that UAL Flight 93 was intended to hit the White House.[37]

Because we now know that Zubayda was never an al Qaeda operative, or even an al Qaeda associate, we are forced into the stunning realization that all of this was false. The questions that should arise from that realization include: How much of what we know about al Qaeda, and how much of the War on Terror, was built on the torture testimony of a man who clearly could not have known anything about al Qaeda at all?

Originally, we were told that it was Zubaydha who first identified KSM as the Bin Laden associate called “Mukhtar.” This was according to Ali Soufan, the FBI official who first interrogated him at a secret CIA site in Thailand. Soufan also claimed that Zubaydah said KSM was the “mastermind” behind the 9/11 attacks. In his 2007 book, CIA director Tenet went further, claiming that “interrogating Abu Zubaydah led to Ramsi bin al Shibh.”[38]

But as we know now, the CIA reportedly told Abu Zubaydah during his interrogation that they discovered he was not an al-Qaeda fighter, partner, or even a member.[39] Still, KSM and Bin Alshibh were caught and tortured too.

The 9/11 Commission Report was largely based on third-hand accounts of what these tortured detainees said, with “two of the three parties in the communication being government employees.”[40] The Commission itself wrote that “Chapters 5 and 7 rely heavily on information obtained from captured al Qaeda members.”[41] The truth is, however, that more than half of the 9/11 Commission Report is based on completely unreliable torture testimony to which the Commission had absolutely no access – not even through interviews with the interrogators. KSM’s torture is referred to 221 times in the report, and that of Bin Alshibh is referred to 73 times. The Commission used one or more of these “interrogations” as its source a total of 441 times in its report footnotes.

The U.S. government admits that Zubaydah was water-boarded 83 times and KSM was water-boarded 183 times. Given that most people cannot stand a few seconds of this torture, it is apparent that these sessions were not meant to gain information and were, perhaps, meant to eliminate information through the destruction of the victim’s mind. Through the brief statements his defense team has been allowed to make, Zubaydah has also described how he was kept for long periods in a cage he called “a tiny coffin.”[42]

The torture of Zubaydah was specifically used to support claims about Bin Laden’s plans and actions, al Qaeda’s policies, the recruitment of the hijackers and other al Qaeda operatives, and details about the leaders who planned 9/11.[43] According to author Jane Meyer, CIA agent John Kiriakou said “Zubaydah openly admitted his role in the September 11 attacks and claimed to regret having killed so many Americans.”[44] Apparently, the 9/11 Commission didn’t think this latter claim to be credible although it promoted other dubious information supposedly generated by the torture of these suspects.

Given the apparent “mistakes” related to Zubaydah being represented as an al Qaeda leader, there appears to be some serious revision required in the official account of 9/11. However, realistically, at this late date the information attributed to Zubaydah cannot likely be untangled from the official myth behind the War on Terror and the associated actions of the U.S. government. That’s because the torture of Zubaydah was used in support of unprecedented policy changes and actions.

  • President Bush personally used the perceived value of Zubaydah’s capture and torture to justify the use of the CIA’s torture techniques as well as the detention of suspects in secret CIA prisons around the world.[45]
  • The U.S. government used the questionable intelligence obtained from Zubaydah in order to justify the invasion of Iraq. Officials stated that the allegations that Iraq and al-Qaeda were linked through training people on the use of chemical weapons came from Zubaydah. There was no independent verification of these claims.[46]
  • Zubaydah’s torture testimony was also used to justify the use of military tribunals, moving the trial of alleged al Qaeda suspects out of the open civil courts. President Bush asked Congress in a speech in September 2006 to formulate special rules in order to try Abu Zubaydah via military commission in Guantanamo Bay.[47] In fact, in late April 2002 less than one month after Abu Zubaydah’s capture, Justice Department officials stated Abu Zubaydah “is a near-ideal candidate for a tribunal trial.”[48] Ironically, Zubaydah may be the only leading suspect to never face trial.
  • In addition to justifying the use of illegal torture techniques, the Bush administration used Zubaydah’s capture as justification to accelerate its domestic spying program. The claim was that it would allow quick action on the phone numbers and addresses seized during Zubaydah’s capture.[49]

A second member of Abu Zubayda’s defense team recently wrote another article that was published in the mainstream media. In this article, attorney Amanda Jacobsen points out that:

“U.S. officials have said that Abu Zubaida was a senior al-Qaeda terrorist. They claimed that he was the ‘No. 3 man’ in al-Qaeda, its chief of operations, who worked directly with Osama bin Laden. They said that he was personally involved in the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks and every other major al-Qaeda operation and knew the details of future attack plans.

But all of these assertions were wrong.”[50]

Now that the US government has admitted that it has no case against Abu Zubaydah and that he was never associated with al Qaeda, will they release him? As attorney Mickum requested, will his client be allowed to tell his own story? More importantly, will the official accounts of 9/11 be reviewed to extricate claims allegedly made by and about Zubayda so that those false claims do not to provide additional false direction in War on Terror?

No, almost certainly not.

As with the court order to classify “any statements made by the accused” in the trials of KSM and other suspects,[51] if this man is allowed to speak we may find that his mind has not been completely obliterated through the torture we inflicted upon him. And we may find that the official myth of 9/11 and al Qaeda will not hold up against the open and un-tortured testimony of the people alleged to have committed the crimes of 9/11. In the end, it seems that the Zubaydah case is a threat to al Qaeda itself as well as a public admission that some lies must be kept under wraps in order to maintain the overall deception that supports the War on Terror.

[1] National Commission on Terrorist Attacks Upon the United States, The 9/11 Commission Report, www.9-11commission.gov/report/911Report.pdf

[2] Brent Mickum, The truth about Abu Zubaydah, The Guardian, March 30, 2009, http://www.guardian.co.uk/commentisfree/cifamerica/2009/mar/30/guantanamo-abu-zubaydah-torture

[3] Brent Mickum, The truth about Abu Zubaydah

[4] Zayn al Abidin Muhammad Husayn v. Robert Gates, Respondents Memorandum of Points and Authorities in Opposition to Petitioner’s Motion for Discover and Petitioner’s Motion for Sanctions. Civil Action No. 08-cv-1360 (RWR), September 2009.

[5] NEWS SUMMARY: Arrest May Deter Attacks. New York Times, April 4, 2002

[6] World: United States Western Mail, April 3, 2002

[7] Donald Rumsfeld News Transcript, Department of Defense, April 3, 2002

[8] Report: Insider May Testify On Zubaydah April 2, 2002, Highbeam News Database

[9] United States Helsinki Commission Briefing Transcript Political/Congressional Transcript Wire, June 22, 2007

[10] Transcript of Video News Story on Guantanamo Bay with Kelli Arena Reporting CNN, September 24, 2006

[11] Department of Defense News Briefing April 2, 2002

[12] Gerry Gilmore, Rumsfeld Confirms Capture of Senior Al Qaeda Leader Department of Defense, April 2, 2002

[13] Profile: Abu Zubaydah BBC News, April 2, 2002

[14] Remarks by the President at Connecticut Republican Committee Luncheon White House website, April 9, 2002

[15] George W. Bush’s Remarks at the Virginia Military Institute, April 17, 2002

[16] George W. Bush (June 6, 2002). “Remarks by the President in Address to the Nation,” The White House, http://georgewbush-whitehouse.archives.gov/news/releases/2002/06/20020606-8.html

[17] George W. Bush, Remarks by the President at Thaddeus McCotter for Congress Dinner, White House website, October 14, 2002

[18] Jeff Bliss and Tony Capaccio, Iraq Group May Attack Outside Nation, McConnell Says Bloomberg.com, February 5, 2008, and Richard Esposito and Jason Ryan, CIA Chief: “We Waterboarded”. ABC News, February 5, 2008

[19] Philip Shenon, MIDEAST TURMOIL: INTELLIGENCE; Officials Say Qaeda Suspect Has Given Useful Information, New York Times, April 26, 2002

[20] Terrorism Notebook, More attacks have been prevented, officials say, The Seattle Times, January 11, 2003

[21] David A. Vise and Lorraine Adams, Bin Laden Weakened, Officials Say The Washington Post. March 11, 2000

[22] Ibid

[23] Ibid

[24] Massimo Calabresi and Romesh Ratnesar, Can we stop the next attack? CNN News, March 4, 2002

[25] Ibid

[26] Who’s Who in al-Qaeda? BBC News

[27] Nick Schou, One Degree of Separation, Orange County Weekly, October 11, 2001

[28] Marlise Simons, A NATION CHALLENGED: FRANCE; Ninth Man Held in Suspected Plot Against Paris Embassy, New York Times, October 4, 2001

[29] Bin Laden Videos Suggest Location, The Cincinnati Post, December 5,

[30] Philip Shenon A NATION CHALLENGED: BALKAN TRAIL; U.S. Labels an Arab Captive a Planner of Qaeda Attacks. New York Times, January 23, 2002

[31] Global Impact News Alert. U.S. Seeks New Head of Al Qaida Anti-American Operations, United Press International, February 15, 2002

[32] Ibid

[33] Ibid

[34] Profile: Abu Zubaydah BBC News, April 2, 2002

[35] Bank Terror Attack Fear; Warning issued after interview, Birmingham Evening Mail, April 20, 2002

[36] John J. Lumpkin, Al-Qaida Captive Talks Of Terror, AP News, April 24, 2002

[37] Bush Faces Dissent on European Trip, CNN News Transcripts, May 23, 2002, and Bush: ‘No war plans on my desk’ for Iraq, CNN.com, May 23, 2002

[38] George Tenet, At the Center of the Storm: The CIA During America’s Time of Crisis, Harper Perennial, 2007

[39] Peter Finn and Julie Tate, CIA Says It Misjudged Role of High-Value Detainee Abu Zubaida, Transcript Shows, The Washington Post, June 16, 2009

[40] George Washington, The Reason for the Cover-up Goes Right to the White House, Washington’s Blog, March 18, 2010, http://georgewashington2.blogspot.com/2010/03/did-government-warn-911-commission.html

[41] 9/11 Commission Report, page 146

[42] Jane Meyer, The Dark Side: The Inside Story of How The War on Terror Turned into a War on American Ideals, First Anchor Books, May 2009

[43] The 9/11 Commission Report sourced eleven of its claims to the torture of Zubaydah: footnotes 18, 43 and 75 in chapter 2, footnotes 19, 31, 35 and 106 in chapter 5, footnotes 8 and 125 in chapter 6, and footnotes 90 and 108 in chapter 7.

[44] Jane Meyer, The Dark Side

[45] George W. Bush, Speech in September 2006, and Bush Concedes CIA Held Suspects in Secret Prisons, NPR, September 6, 2006

[46] Ron Hutcheson and James Kuhnhenn, Iraq deal with Congress nears Bush says, Milwaukee Journal Sentinel, September 26, 2002, and Bush Says He and Congress Will Band Together on Iraq; Capitol Hill Still Sour, Knight Ridder/Tribune Business News, September 27, 2002, and Andrew Sullivan, One tortured lie: that’s all it took for war, The Sunday Times, April 26, 2009

[47] Warren Richey ‘Alternative’ CIA tactics complicate Padilla case Christian Science Monitor, September 15, 2006

[48] Neil A. Lewis A NATION CHALLENGED: THE DETAINEES; U.S. Is Seeking Basis to Charge War Detainees. New York Times, April 21, 2002

[49] James Risen and Eric Lichtblau Bush altered rules on spying. International Herald Tribune, December 17, 2005

[50] Amanda L. Jacobsen, Why hasn’t Abu Zubaida been tried?, The Washington Post, March 28, 2012

[51] Peter Finn, Judge’s Order Could Keep Public From Hearing Details of 9/11 Trials, The Washington Post, January 7, 2009

See related:

US Recants Claims on ‘High-Value’ Detainee Abu Zubaydah

SOURCEBy Kevin Ryan at his blog at digwithin
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Kevin Ryan

Kevin Ryan's work as a Site Manager for the environmental testing division of Underwriters Laboratories (UL) led him to begin investigating the tragedy of September 11th, 2001. UL fired him, in 2004, for publicly asking questions about UL’s testing of the structural materials used to construct the World Trade Center (WTC) buildings as well as UL’s involvement in the WTC investigation being conducted by the National Institute of Standards and Technology (NIST).

Since 2006, he has been the co-editor of the Journal of 9/11 Studies and a founding member of several action groups. He has also served as a board director at Architects and Engineers for 9/11 Truth and co-authored several books and numerous peer-reviewed scientific articles on the subject, given public presentations around the country and continues to do research into the crimes of 9/11 in order to help people come to a better understanding.