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The Zubaydah Dossier

Assertions that the terrorist wasn't a central figure in al Qaeda's inner circle are ludicrous.

Aug 17, 2009, Vol. 14, No. 45 • By THOMAS JOSCELYN
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During the early hours of March 28, 2002, elite teams from the Pakistani and American counterterrorism forces stormed more than a dozen locations throughout Pakistan. Their target was one of the most wanted men on the planet--the al Qaeda commander Abu Zubaydah. For weeks, America's intelligence agencies had been compiling and analyzing intercepts hoping to pinpoint Zubaydah's location. The spooks were not exactly sure where he was, but they had narrowed the possibilities to nine spots in Faisalabad and a handful of other sites around Pakistan. Before dawn, the joint Pakistani-American task forces raided them all.

One of the targets in Faisalabad was a safe house run by Lashkar-e-Taiba, an al Qaeda-affiliated terrorist organization based in Pakistan. As reported by Ronald Kessler in his book The Terrorist Watch (2007), the place was more of a small fortress than a residence. The perimeter fence was electrified. The door was reinforced with steel. Surveillance suggested all was quiet, but the first attempt to break through the compound's defenses failed and awoke the residents. Chaos ensued. After finally breaking through the door, the agents found themselves face-to-face with junior-level terrorists wielding knives and whatever other weapons they could improvise. One even tried to strangle a Pakistani officer with piano wire. A few scampered to the roof, but there was no escape. All of the terrorists living in the house were quickly killed or captured, among them Abu Zubaydah.

He had been gravely wounded, shot in the leg, groin, and stomach during the raid, and the CIA flew in a doctor from Johns Hopkins Medical Center to make sure Zubaydah stayed with the living. The U.S. government wanted him to be able to answer questions. No one could have known it at the time, but this was the beginning of the most controversial wartime detention in American history.

Zubaydah is at the heart of the debate over the use of so-called "enhanced interrogation techniques" (EITs). Memos written by Bush administration lawyers demonstrate that when they approved the use of EITs in 2002, it was principally Zubaydah they had in mind. As far as we know, waterboarding, the most controversial of the EITs, was used on only three detainees, and Zubaydah was the first. But it is not just the use of EITs on Zubaydah that has caused the controversy. There has been a consistent and determined effort to undermine the very idea that he was a high-level figure within al Qaeda.

When news of Zubaydah's capture was first reported, there was a genuine sense of accomplishment. At the time, the war on terror was already six months old, but few senior al Qaeda members had been captured. The most notable successes had come on the battlefield in Afghanistan, with the early rout of the Taliban and the deaths of several key al Qaeda figures. But, the raid in Faisalabad changed that. On April 6, 2002, the editors of the New York Times summarized the conventional wisdom as it then existed when they wrote that it was "hard to overstate the significance" of Zubaydah's capture. Press accounts varied in their descriptions of Zubaydah, but he was almost always described as a "high-ranking al Qaeda member," or "Osama bin Laden's lieutenant," or an "al Qaeda commander," or some other phrase that made his status within al Qaeda clear. There was a widespread hope that the intelligence gleaned during Zubaydah's interrogations would fill in some of the many holes in America's knowledge of al Qaeda.

In more recent years, however, some leading press outlets have begun questioning Zubaydah's importance. A March 29, 2009, front-page article by Peter Finn and Joby Warrick in the Washington Post summed up the new conventional wisdom. Zubaydah was not really a top al Qaeda operative, but merely a "fixer" for "radical Muslim ideologues," who only began to work with al Qaeda after the September 11 attacks. What's worse, alleged Finn and Warrick: The harsh interrogation techniques used on Zubaydah "foiled no plots."