The poster child for the CIA torture programme, the man for whom the most grotesque interrogation techniques were created is scheduled to appear Tuesday before a parole-like board that is hearing the cases of Guantanamo Bay prisoners.
The CIA once claimed Abu Zubaydah, also known as Zayn al-lbidin Muhammed Husayn, was al-Qaeda’s No 3 and assuming he survived the agency’s torture, they wanted him to “remain incommunicado for the remainder of his life” according to the Senate Intelligence Committee’s report on the CIA’s use of torture.
The US government now alleges in its latest assessment that among other things Zubaydah “trained and later supervised the training of militant recruits in Afghanistan starting in 1989,” that he later built “a mujahideen facilitation network” and that he “played a key role in al-Qaeda’s communications with supporters and operatives abroad.” [PDF]
His lawyers will argue that Zubaydah “has no desire or intent to harm the United States or any other country.” [PDF]
Zubaydah is one of the most important US “war on terror” prisoners, not because of who he is or isn’t, but because he was at the crossroads of the decision to institutionalise torture – he was the original “experiment.”
All torture techniques were applied to him.
Additionally, the false claims of the “effectiveness” of the torture techniques inflicted on Zubaydah were cited as justification for their continued use.
Zubaydah’s name surfaces 1,001 times in the Senate Torture report – and that only includes the un-redacted portions, as one of his lawyers has noted. He survived being waterboarded 83 times just in the month of August 2002 alone – a technique that made Zubaydah “completely unresponsive, with bubbles rising through his open, full mouth.” [PDF]
One of his lawyers said he believes that the Period Review Board (PRB) does not intend to give his client a fair hearing and therefore he does not expect him to be cleared for transfer from the prison.
“The [PRB] detainee profile is written as though the [Senate] report didn’t even exist and as if the entire fiasco with the CIA and the misrepresentations made by the CIA and the torture that our client endured never took place,” Joe Margulies told Al Jazeera. “It is a remarkable document.”
Psychologists James Mitchell and Bruce Jessen, the two men who designed and implemented the “novel interrogation methods,” are being sued in US federal court by other CIA torture victims. The CIA destroyed the videotapes showing Zubaydah’s interrogations.
The parole-like board is clearly “going to interpret evidence, developments and facts in a way designed to justify their predetermined result,” Margulies said.
For example, the PRB points out that Zubaydah has “been extremely cooperative the whole time he has been at Guantanamo which ordinarily you would take as an indication of precisely an absence of animosity toward the United States,” Margulies told Al Jazeera.
Yet they interpret Zubaydah’s “cooperation and his willingness to try and be a peacemaker [in] Camp 7 [where he is held] as evidence of him trying to refine and improve his organisational capacity for future terrorists acts or future leadership positions in terrorists organisations.” [PDF]
Zubaydah’s hearing comes as the idea of torture – or treatment that is “a hell of a lot worse than waterboarding”, as proposed by the Republican Presidential nominee Donald Trump – is making a comeback. Furthermore, reportedly many of the 54 governments that assisted the CIA in rendition and torture of suspects now emulate similar practices.
In the late 1980s Zubaydah, 45, a Palestinian born in Saudi Arabia, went to Afghanistan to fight against the Soviet-backed regime. In 1992 he suffered a serious injury when he was hit in the head by shrapnel and he lost his memory.
Eventually, following his recovering, Zubaydah became a coordinator at two guest houses in Pakistan and was “in charge of some logistical matters” for the Khalden training camp in Afghanistan, according to what Zubaydah said at an earlier Guantanamo hearing. He maintains he was not the “Emir” of the camp.
“The mission of this training camp was for the purpose of training Muslim brothers for defensive jihad” – like fighting against the Russians in Afghanistan or Israelis in Palestine, Zubaydah said, according to a statement read in a March 27, 2007, Guantanamo hearing. This was not the same as the doctrine of Osama bin Laden and al-Qaeda, which “was and is a doctrine of offensive jihad,” Zubaydah added. [PDF]
“My moral position is not against the American people or America, but against the government which I see a partner in oppression … I feel good when operations by others are conducted against America but only against military targets such as the USS Cole. But I get angry if they target civilians, such as those in the World Trade Center.” [PDF]
Zubaydah was captured after being critically injured in Pakistan in March 2002 and was held by the CIA. The agency shuttled him to various black sites until he was transferred in 2006, along with 13 other high value detainees, or HVDs, to Guantanamo, where he has been held without charge since.
The high value detainees
In total, the US has described 17 men in Guantanamo as “high value detainees”. Two of those were transferred from the prison; Ahmed Khalfan Ghailani is serving a life sentence in US and Ibn Shaykh al Libi died in a prison in Libya.
Eight of the HVDs are in various states of military commission hearings, including alleged 9/11 mastermind Khalid Sheikh Mohammed. The other seven HVDs, including Zubaydah, who are not facing charges, had their hearings in front of the PRB in August. These tortured men, who are held in Guantanamo’s clandestine Camp 7, are perhaps the biggest challenge to Barack Obama’s years-long stated intention that he wants to close the prison.
In addition to Zubaydah, the prison’s only Somali, Guleed Hassan Ahmed, 42, alleged by the US to be a key member of al-Qaeda in East Africa’s network in Somalia presented his case on August 2. [PDF]
Somalis working with the CIA captured Hassan in Djibouti in 2004. According to his lawyers Ahmed, whose wife and four children live in Kenya, has said he wants nothing further to do with extremism and he does not consider himself a threat. [PDF]
Indonesian Riduan Isamuddin, better known as Hambali, also recently appeared before the parole-like board. The US alleges Hambali was an operational mastermind of Jemaah Islamiyah, a Southeast Asia-based terror group that has been blamed for the deadly 2002 Bali bombings. [PDF]
Hambali said he “has no ill will towards the US” and he “wants nothing more than to move on with his life and be peaceful,” according to a statement by his lawyers. [PDF]
“The Indonesians don’t want Hambali back, he’d be a media celebrity and hero to extremist groups,” Sidney Jones, the director of Jakarta-based Institute for Policy Analysis of Conflict, told Al Jazeera via email. Further “they would have a tough time proving his involvement in funding the 2002 Bali bombs under Indonesian law. They would much rather he [was] someone else’s headache.”
Zubaydah’s other avenues
With this latest parole-like hearing, the public will learn more about the man who was the CIA’s guinea pig. Zubaydah suffers cognitive and physical decline, a result of this head injury, the trauma of his capture, the torture and the conditions of confinement in Guantanamo, Margulies said.
And while the US government no longer maintains that an individual’s account of his torture is still classified, they have yet to release hundreds of pages of documents about Zubaydah, including statements Zubaydah or his lawyers have written describing his torture and the prisoner’s drawings.
Much of what is classified has more to do with controlling the narrative of Zubaydah’s story, than for reasons of national security purposes, Margulies said.
The parole-like hearing is not Zubaydah’s only avenue for potential release.
His habeas corpus petition, which was filed in 2008, languished for years. But it has been recently re-assigned to Judge Emmet G Sullivan, who Zubaydah’s lawyer described as being more aggressive about moving the case forward.
Separately Zubaydah might consider a plea deal depending on the offer.
“Securing a prisoner’s release from Guantanamo has never really been about the law” but rather about “navigating the political shoals in a way that make it in the US government’s interest for your client to be released,” Margulies added.
But that has been difficult in Zubaydah’s case because “they just want to make him disappear.”