Abu Zubaydah became the first victim of the CIA’s torture program in 2002. Twenty years later, he is still incarcerated, with no charges ever brought against him.
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It is August 4, 2002, 11:50 am, somewhere in a secret prison in Thailand, when a new torture program of the American secret service CIA officially starts. The guinea pig is called Zayn al-Abidin Muhammad Husayn, but everyone knows him as Abu Zubaydah.
Without a word of explanation, he is picked up by a CIA officer from the brightly lit white cell where, after an earlier period of very heavy-handed interrogation, he has now spent 47 days in complete isolation, tied to a metal bed, naked, shivering from the cold , exposed to loud music and noises. He gets chains on, a hood on his head. A towel, folded into a noose, is wrapped around his head, he is pulled along, and repeatedly slammed head and back against a wooden wall. His hood is removed again so that he can see a kind of coffin being carried into the room. “From now on, this is your home,” someone says.
In the twenty days that follow, he will be locked in that box for 266 hours, more than half the time, in a diaper, often in the company of cockroaches, animals that he has previously confessed to a great fear of. has for. In addition, it will be folded for 29 hours in an even smaller box, measuring 76 by 76 by 53 centimeters.
Waterboarded 83 times
A day earlier, on August 3, permission was received from Washington for the use of enhanced interrogation techniques. What those techniques all have in common is that they have nothing to do with asking questions. Coffin confinement and the use of insects are on the list, as are sleep deprivation and various ways of physically tormenting prisoners. The most notorious is waterboarding, a technique in which a prisoner is brought to the brink of drowning.
That same evening, waterboarding starts at Abu Zubaydah. He will be exposed to it 83 times that month. The sessions resulted in “immediate ingestion of fluid and involuntary spasms of the legs, chest and arms” and in “hysterical pleas,” according to CIA reports. After a certain session, “he became completely unresponsive, with bubbles bubbling from his open mouth.” Bringing him back to consciousness required “medical intervention” – perhaps a euphemism for CPR.
Drawings of torture
In 2019, Mark Denbeaux, Abu Zubaydah’s US attorney, and colleagues published the How America Tortures report, which focused not only on his client’s written testimonies, but also on Abu Zubaydah’s drawings of the ways in which he was tortured . At the time they were published in The New York Times, among others, and can also be seen with this article.
As the interrogations drag on, it gradually dawns on CIA officers why Abu Zubaydah is not giving them clear answers to their questions even under these circumstances, for example about what attacks Al Qaeda is planning in the US. Not because, as an Al Qaeda leader, he has had advanced training in resisting interrogation, as they long believed. But because he is not an Al Qaeda leader at all, and therefore has no knowledge of such attacks.
Abu Zubaydah is a Palestinian born in Saudi Arabia in 1971, who returned to Palestine, then moved to India to study computer science, before ending up in Afghanistan in his early twenties in the early 1990s. Afghanistan in those years held a great attraction for young Muslims looking for purpose in their lives – the mujahideen there had first pushed back the mighty Soviet Union and were now fighting against the communist leader Najibullah. At that time, under the code name Operation Cyclone, they were still supported by the CIA.
Ten years later, when the attacks of September 11, 2001 brought the world’s attention back to Afghanistan, he is still walking around in the jihadist environment. He knows many people there, but he is not a member of Al Qaeda. He does believe in defending Islamic countries that are under attack, but not in attacks that kill innocent civilians, he will argue years later at a hearing about his detention.
Locked in a coffin as torture, drawn by Abu Zubaydah and published in the report ‘How America Tortures’. Photo: Abu Zubaydah
Nevertheless, the idea has taken hold among American intelligence services that the now 31-year-old is a big fish within Al Qaeda, perhaps even the number 3 of the organization. On March 28, 2002, he was arrested, seriously injured, and a doctor had to be flown in from the US to save his life. In a political speech a week and a half later, then-President George W. Bush praised the capture: “Recently, we captured a guy named Abu Zubaydah. He’s one of the main organizers plotting death and destruction for the US and planning. Now he plots and plans nothing. He is where he belongs.”
“Improved Interrogation Techniques”
Abu Zubaydah is then transferred to a ‘black site’ in Thailand, a secret CIA prison, where he is initially interrogated by an FBI team using regular interrogation techniques. It provides the Americans with some information, but not the spectacular revelations that the CIA expects from him. The CIA begins lobbying Washington to take over the interrogation, using “enhanced interrogation techniques.” The permission comes. It is not the case that the CIA always followed the rules neatly, but from that moment torture is officially allowed.
It just does nothing. In the panic to prevent further torture, Abu Zubaydah occasionally blurts out, but that information invariably turns out to be nonsense. As actually no testimony coerced by torture proves valuable, a report by the US Senate in 2012 concludes.
After twenty days, during which Abu Zubaydah is tortured almost 24 hours a day, the CIA concludes the ‘aggressive interrogation phase’. For the intelligence service, the disproved hypothesis is no reason to reconsider the interrogation methods. On the contrary, the senate report describes. Earlier, the Secret Service had lobbied for the “enhanced interrogation techniques,” arguing that it would be the only way to extract from Abu Zubaydah the crucial information the CIA was sure he was withholding. Yet the secret service then presented the torture as a success. “Not because it resulted in important information about threats, but because it provided further evidence that such information was not withheld by Abu Zubaydah.”
It’s the logic of the witch hunt. A scenario in which it would have been better not to torture exists within that logic. Whether or not the suspect is hiding something, the torture was necessary in all cases to be sure.
In the years that followed, that logic led to the growth of a network of secret prisons around the world, called “black sites,” where the CIA subjected terrorist suspects to torture. Ultimately, many of them end up in Guantánamo Bay, a prison outside the protection of US law, where they are often held in isolation for years without ever being charged with charges.
Only when President Obama comes to power in 2009 will the torture methods approved in 2002 be banned again. Obama also announces his intention to close Guantánamo Bay, but cannot do so, partly due to opposition from Congress. At the moment, in April 2023, there are still 30 prisoners held in the penal colony.
One of them is Abu Zubaydah. In 2008, the CIA internally concluded that not only was he not a leader of Al Qaeda, but that he was not even a member of the organization, the senate report states. That new insight, which undermines the basis on which he was detained in the first place, does not lead to his release.
After his detention in Thailand, Abu Zubaydah wandered for another four years in a gulag archipelago of secret CIA prisons in Poland, Morocco, Lithuania and Afghanistan, where he also lost his left eye at some point under unexplained circumstances, before being sent to Guantanamo in 2006. Bay is transferred. He remains there as of April 2023, with no charges ever brought against him, while all attempts by his lawyers to review his detention are rejected.
Tortures as drawn by Abu Zubaydah and published in the report ‘How America Tortures’. Photo: Abu Zubaydah
Like at a session in 2016, when he was seen in public again for the first time since 2002. He was forbidden to speak, but his lawyers argued that he “has no desire or intention to harm the US or any other country.” The US government countered that he “probably still has an extremist mindset,” and the panel that will rule on his detention agreed – that panel is not made up of judges, but made up of representatives of the security services and the government.
The UN Human Rights Council’s Working Group on Arbitrary Detention published a damning judgment last week, in which it argued that there is no basis whatsoever for Abu Zubaydah’s continued detention, that it constitutes a form of torture, and that the grounds put forward by the US for not to release him make absolutely no sense.
Human rights treaties
It was a judgment that did not directly address Abu Zubaydah’s individual guilt. The Working Group expresses an opinion on the question of whether states such as the US actually comply with the obligations arising from the human rights treaties they have signed. But, says Helen Duffy, the Leiden professor of international law and human rights lawyer who initiated the procedure on behalf of Abu Zubaydah, the decision does indirectly touch on that question. “It does put words to it. The fact that he has never been charged. That he was not a member of Al Qaeda, which was the reason to lock him up at the time. That there is no evidence or substantiation whatsoever for the US claim that he should remain in detention because he is a security risk.”
But whether this verdict incites the US government to release Abu Zubaydah is very much the question. Especially if you read some of the most sinister passages from the 2012 Senate report. While the CIA was discussing internally in the summer of 2002 the new methods it wanted to try on Abu Zubaydah, the question of what would happen after the treatment would happen to him. The team conducting the interviews clearly did not want the outside world to ever hear about it, and asked internally for “reasonable assurances that he will remain in isolation and without contact with the outside world for the rest of his life.”
The answer was: ‘There is a fairly unanimous sentiment at headquarters that he will never be placed in a situation where he has significant contact with others and/or the possibility of release’.
So far, the headquarters has been able to keep that promise.