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04.25.11

Secrets of 9/11's Mystery Man

WikiLeaks’ Guantanamo Bay document dump sheds new light on al Qaeda leader Abu Zubaydah. Philip Shenon on his previously undisclosed role in plots against the U.S.—and his Palestinian roots.

The newly leaked Guantanamo Bay files suggest that whenever al Qaeda plotted an attack on American soil before and after 9/11, one man—the long-mysterious Abu Zubaydah, a seemingly sophisticated 40-year-old Palestinian who was born in Saudi Arabia and educated in India—was often at the heart of it.

The attempt to bomb Los Angeles International Airport in 2000. A plot in 2002 to set off a radioactive dirty bomb and flatten large apartment buildings in Chicago. The creation of lists of other potential terrorist targets in the U.S., including the White House, the Statue of Liberty, major bridges and the United Nations headquarters building in Manhattan, as well as the American embassy in Paris and a U.S. air base in Turkey.

According to his 14-page “detainee assessment” that was among the Defense Department documents leaked Sunday, Abu Zubaydah was part of all of that terrorist planning against the United States while serving as a top logistics officer for al Qaeda.

The report alleges that Abu Zubaydah was involved in a number of post-9/11 terrorist plots in the U.S. and elsewhere that had not been directly linked to him in the past; it also purports to offer alarming evidence of his involvement in an operation to forge medical documents to help al Qaeda members and their sympathizers win political asylum in Europe, where it is possible they are still hiding today.

Abu Zubaydah first became acquainted with others who would lead the terrorist network when he went to Afghanistan more than 20 years ago to make amends for a youth spent as a “bad Muslim” in Saudi Arabia and elsewhere, the report says.

The classified 2008 U.S. assessment is the most detailed account made public of the background of Abu Zubaydah, easily the most mysterious of the senior leaders of the al Qaeda network.

Unlike Osama bin Laden, whose path from unmotivated Saudi youth to charismatic terrorist mastermind was well documented long before the 9/11 attacks, little was known about the background of Abu Zubaydah until he was captured in Pakistan in a 2002 gunfight and accused of membership in Bin Laden’s inner circle.

The report suggests that Abu Zubaydah became an expert forger during his years on the run in Afghanistan and Pakistan with al Qaeda and that, with his help, other members of the terror cell may have been able to obtain residence permits to live in Europe and elsewhere.

According to the assessment, initially obtained by WikiLeaks and then shared with The New York Times and other news organizations, Abu Zubaydah has admitted much of his terrorist past to American interrogators during his nine years in captivity. (Human-rights groups have questioned how much of that information was obtained through torture; Abu Zubaydah is one of three al Qaeda suspects known to have been waterboarded by the CIA).

The Defense Department assessment does not explain exactly how Abu Zubaydah may have come by such intense loathing for the United States, although it says he was initially inspired by Palestinian nationalism—among his aliases: “Simon the Palestinian”—and that he became an exceptionally devoted and trusted follower of Osama bin Laden.

The report quotes Ahmed Ressam, the Algerian convicted of the 2000 New Year’s Eve plot to blow up Los Angeles International Airport, as saying that Abu Zubaydah was an “emir” within al Qaeda who was allowed to operate with remarkable independence. “There is no one to whom Abu Zubaydah must report in terms of a superior,” Ressam is quoted as saying.

Abu Zubaydah’s Palestinian family tried to convince him to give up his militant ties in the 1990s, even dispatching his brother, a doctor in Pakistan, to Afghanistan to try to convince him to return home, the report says. Instead of giving up, it said, Abu Zubaydah attempted to recruit his brother to join the jihad.

After four years of detention in secret CIA prisons outside the United States, Abu Zubaydah was transferred to Guantanamo Bay in 2006, where he “has appeared to be cooperative during interviews,” the assessment says.

Although questioning whether he withheld important information about ongoing al Qaeda plots, the report says that Abu Zubaydah has offered “a vast amount of information regarding al Qaeda personnel and operations and is an admitted operational planner, financier, and facilitator of international terrorists and their activities.”

The report suggests that Abu Zubaydah became an expert forger during his years on the run in Afghanistan and Pakistan with al Qaeda and that, with his help, other members of the terror cell may have been able to obtain residence permits to live in Europe and elsewhere:

“Detainee forged medical documents for militants injured in fighting. Such documents would attend the person had suffered in his home country. The person could then submit this document to a European country or the United Nations to apply for political asylum.”

The report says that Abu Zubaydah is in good health, although it does not explain why, in a photograph attached to the report, he is wearing an eyepatch. The report does not deal with exactly what injuries he suffered during the firefight that led to his 2002 capture in Pakistan, when he was reportedly shot three times and nearly died before he could be questioned.

Philip Shenon is an investigative reporter based in Washington D.C. Almost all of his career was spent at The New York Times, where he was a reporter from 1981 until 2008. He is the bestselling author of The Commission: The Uncensored History of the 9/11 Investigation. He has reported from several warzones and was one of two reporters from The Times embedded with American ground troops during the invasion of Iraq in the 1991 Gulf War.