For the first time in almost 15 years, the outside world saw the face of war crimes suspect Abu Zubaydah. He was arrested in Pakistan in 2002, awarded $100,000 Euros damages from Poland for torture in U.S. / CIA black sites, lost his left eye while in U.S. custody, and was transferred to Guantanamo Bay in 2006.
At this morning’s Periodic Review Board (PRB) hearing, Abu Zubaydah and his pentagon-appointed personal representatives formally tried to convince the U.S. government that he is not a threat to U.S. national security. They asked the U.S. to release him from Guantanamo.
The hearing was held in the back corner of a Guantanamo Bay courtroom, but was broadcast live to a nondescript Pentagon conference room. Instead of the typical handful of media and human rights workers attending at the Pentagon, today we had 15 – more than I’ve seen at any other PRB. Maybe this was because of Abu Zubaydah’s reputation, the loss of his eye, or the extreme extent of his alleged criminal activities over many years, coupled with his proved torture and his being cloistered in U.S. custody for 1/3 of his life. The conference room was full. All wanted the first glimpses of Abu Zubaydah in 15 years.
Who is Abu Zubaydah?
Abu Zubaydah, a Palestinian, was born in Saudi Arabia in March 1971. The U.S. government does not clearly indicate when they believe he became involved in terrorism or war crimes activities, but the U.S. alleges that he trained militant recruits in Afghanistan as early as 1989, when Abu Zubaydah was a late teen, early adult.
The U.S. alleges that he perpetrated international crimes over many years in different jurisdictions. These include involvement in the 9/11 attacks, the U.S. Embassy bombings in East Africa in 1998, the USS Cole bombing off the coast of Yemen in 2002, and other atrocities.
While Abu Zubaydah was being apprehended in Pakistan in 2002, he was shot and severely wounded. While he was being held in a hospital under the custody of the U.S., FBI investigators sought to build a rapport with him, as he was recovering, and that rapport is said to have led Abu Zubaydah revealing useful intelligence to the FBI. The CIA took over the interrogations, and switched from non-coercive rapport building techniques used by the FBI to enhanced interrogation techniques (EITs), that are widely referred to as torture, and were part of a secret overseas detention and interrogation program authorized by President Bush on 17 November 2019, soon after the 9/11 attacks. Abu Zubaydah was the first prisoner upon whom the CIA used EITs / torture, conducted at CIA “black sites” – overseas detention and interrogation facilities in about a half dozen countries on four continents. The EITs / torture used against Abu Zubaydah included sleep deprivation, walling, water boarding, stress positions, dietary manipulation, forced nudity, rectal feeding, and confinement in coffin-like and smaller boxes. He was water boarded no fewer than 83 times.
As reported by Al Jazeera America, Abu Zubaydah apparently kept diaries for approximately 10 years, ending around the time he was captured in Pakistan, in 2002. Those diaries purport to tell his story in his own words.
On 24 July 2014 the European Court of Human Rights (ECHR) ordered Poland government to pay Abu Zubaydah 100,000 euros in damages and 30,000 euros for costs because Poland permitted the CIA to detain and torture him in Poland in 2002 – 2003.
This morning’s PRB hearing.
As usual, I arrived at the Pentagon before 8:00 a.m., cleared through the first round of security (badging, metal detectors), and spotted a group of other regular observers, waiting for our Periodic Review Secretariat escorts.
This time, I noticed a several other people, whom I did not know, hovering around the regular observers. In addition, it was a treat to see two media reps I met on my recent media trip to Guantanamo Bay.
The escorts arrived as scheduled, ready to take us through the next round of the building’s security, and the maze that leads to the conference room where this high-value detainee (HVD) alleged war criminal would appear on TV monitors at 9:00 a.m.
It took a little extra maneuvering to get of us all through the main internal Pentagon portal.
Today we had 5 human rights workers, academics or authors in our Observer group, along with 10 media representatives (al Jazeera, Courthouse News, NPR, AP, the New York Times, the Huffington Post, the Guardian, the Miami Herald, the Intercept, and the Washington Post). No representatives of the Saudi Arabian government or the Palestinian government were present.
We deposited our cell phones and cameras on a table outside the conference room, and filed in. Some of the Observer have attended dozens of PRBs, and have favorite seats.
We filled out a form swearing that we had indeed left our cell phones and cameras outside the room.
In the middle of the room is a large conference table, on top of which sits an octopus-like device that houses the phone line to connect us to Guantanamo. Today a Pentagon official (our escort) designated me as the person to answer the conference room phone when Guantanamo called to start the PRB connection, to adjust the volume if necessary, and to mute the speaker. I followed instructions when the phone rang at 9:01 a.m.
The History Channel that we had been watching on the big screen was switched off, and all eyes stared at an empty chair on the screen, broadcast live from the Guantanamo Bay courtroom. It was the chair where the judge sits during regular Military Commission hearings. PRBs are not judicial proceedings, there is no judge present, and there is no need for them to be conducted in a courtroom. Indeed, most PRBs have been conducted in trailer-like structures very close to where most of the detainees are housed.
After about a minute, we lost sound. We lost visuals. We lost our Guantanamo connection. Our escort exchanged chat messages with Guantanamo, and we were told to hold tight.
For the next 16 minutes, we sat in the conference room, engaging in nervous chatter. Would the hearing go forward even if the Pentagon observers couldn’t see and hear the proceedings? What if we could hear but not see the hearings, or see but not hear them? Would they postpone them until we could both see and hear? Would they start without us if the reconnection took too long?
The name Abu Zubaydah is a household name, at least for those of us involved in the national security arena. Many had been waiting for years to see him face to face, after his being under cloak of confinement for so long.
At 9:17, a picture of the four Guantanamo participants appeared on our Pentagon big screen.
Abu Zubaydah sat at the head of a narrow rectangular table, directly facing the camera – that is, directly facing us who were viewing the hearing at the Pentagon. To his right, sitting along the long side of the table, were his two camouflage-clad Pentagon-appointed personal representatives (one of whom appeared to be the same personal representative who represented both detainees whose PRBs I attended last week, in this same Pentagon room). Directly across from the 2 representatives was the interpreter, a balding middle-aged dark-olive-skinned man, with a short brown tropical shirt.
Some of the words spoken during the hearing were in Arabic, and were spoken by the on-camera interpreter.
An off camera voice, presumably from but not necessarily from Guantanamo, advised in English on the nature of the hearing, the format, and the short agenda.
Another off camera voice read aloud an “unclassified summary statement”, in English, of behavior that Abu Zubaydah allegedly engaged in, both before he arrived at Guantanamo and after he arrived. (See comment below.)
After the government’s unclassified summary statement, one of the two personal representatives read an opening statement in English.
After both statements, an off camera voice asked if anyone had any questions. There were none.
The unclassified portion of the hearing ended roughly 14 minutes and 32 seconds after it started. Observers were invited to leave the conference room, since Observers are not permitted to observe classified portions of the PRB hearings.
Government’s Unclassified Summary Statement
As mentioned, during the hearing, the government submitted an “unclassified summary” statement that an off-camera voice read aloud.
That statement listed a number of unlawful activities allegedly engaged in by Abu Zubaydah, and alleged that Abu Zubaydah:
- “possibly had some advanced knowledge of the bombings of the US Embassies in Kenya and Tanzania in 1998 and the USS Cole bombing in ”
- Was “generally aware of the impending 9/11 attacks and possibly coordinated the training at Khaldan camp of two of the hijackers”
- “most actively plotted attacks against Israel” at home and abroad
- “was convicted in absentia by the Jordanian Government for his role in planning attacks against Israeli, Jordanian, and Western targets during the Millennium time frame in Jordan” and
- post-9/11, allegedly “took a more active role in attack preparations, sending operatives to al-Qa’ida senior member Khalid Shaykh Muhammad (KU-I 0024) to discuss the feasibility of exploding a radiological device in the United States, and supporting remote-controlled bomb attacks against US and Coalition Forces in Afghanistan “.
The government’s statement asserted that:
[abu Zubaydah] has shown a high level of cooperation with the staff at Guantanamo Bay and has served as a cell block leader, assuming responsibility for communicating detainees’ messages and grievances to the staff and maintaining order among the detainees. He readily and consistently responded to most if not all lines of questioning by the debriefers, including providing detailed information on his terrorist activities and those of his associates. His debriefers assessed that he withheld information, which might have been to protect historical or current activities. GZ-10016 has used his time in Guantanamo to hone his organizational skills, assess US custodial and debriefing practices, and solidify his reputation as a leader of his peers, all of which would help him should he choose to reengage in terrorist activity.
Furthermore, the government’s statement noted that:
OZ-I 0016 probably retains an extremist mindset, judging from his earlier statements. GZ-10016 has not made such statements recently, probably to improve his chances for repatriation . GZ-10016 has condemned ISIL atrocities and the killing of innocent people. He has had little communication with his family, suggesting he would lack a support network, even if he tried to leverage his university coursework in computer programming to get a job and reintegrate into society. Some of GZ-100 I 6’s former colleagues continue to engage in terrorist activities and could help GZ-10016 return to planning attacks against Israel and the United States in Pakistan, should he choose to do so.”
Personal Representatives’ Opening Statement
The Personal Representative Opening Statement of the two personal representatives is reproduced here in its entirety:
Approved for Public Release
Periodic Review Board Initial Hearing, 23 Aug 2016 Zayn Al-Ibidin Muhammed Busayn, ISN 10016 Personal Representative Opening Statement
Good morning ladies and gentlemen of the Board. We are the Personal Representatives for ISN 10016, Mr. Zayn al-Ibidin Muhammed Husayn. We will be working with Zeinelabeden to present his case to you on why he no longer needs to be detained in order to ensure that the security of the United States is not in jeopardy.
Although he initially believed that he did not have any chance or hope to be released, because of the reputation that has been created through the use of his name, he has been willing to participate in the Periodic Review Process. He has been respectful to us in all of our meetings and dealings with him, and he has come to believe that he might have a chance to leave Guantanamo through this process.
Zeinelabeden has expressed a desire to be reunited with his family and begin the process of recovering from injuries he sustained during his capture. He has some seed money that could be used to start a business after he is reintegrated into society and is living a peaceful life.
Zeinelabeden has stated that he has no desire or intent to harm the United States or any other country, and he has repeatedly said that the Islamic State is out of control and has gone too far.
Zeinelabeden would like to thank the board for this opportunity to plead his case and looks forward to answering any questions the board may ask him.
Observations of Abu Zubaydah at today’s PRB hearing
Until today, no member of the public has seen Abu Zubaydah since he was arrested in Pakistan in 2002. After arrest, he was immediately taken to a CIA black site and remained in CIA custody until September 2006, when he was delivered to Guantanamo, exactly 10 years ago next month (September 2016).
Photographs of him in custody are generally not permitted (with the exception of Red Cross and file photos), and we were not able to take photos of him at the Pentagon today. Even if we were permitted to sketch him, there would not have been enough time, given that today’s hearing last only 14 ½ minutes.
But I can say that Abu Zubaydah appeared to be of sturdy build, with a full face covered with a healthy closely cropped, dark, kempt beard.
The hair on his head was dark, full, stylish, as though neatly and well-trimmed for today’s hearing.
He wore a high-collared white seemingly starched tunic-like top, ¾ sleeved, pleated in front. It looked like a fine, dress garment, unlike ordinary household or prison clothing worn by some of the other detainees during their hearings or during their day-to-day life at Guantanamo Bay.
Strikingly, hanging from a cord around Abu Zubaydah’s neck throughout the hearing appeared to be his round, black eye patch, several inches in diameter – apparently bigger than his left eye, which he purportedly lost while in U.S. custody.
At first glance, it looked like an old-fashioned round microphone, perched in front of him, chest level as he sat at the head of the table. But it did not take long to recognize that it appeared to be more like a round hip hop medallion, but jet black and cloth, not a glistening metallic gold. The ornament’s blackness contrasted brilliantly with Abu Zubaydah’s bright white top.
With the stories that circulated about the loss of his eye and the circumstances of that loss, it was of curiosity as to why his eye patch would be nestled in the white fabric in the center of his chest, and not covering his left eye socket.
When the hearing began, Abu Zubaydah wore metal-framed eyeglasses, silver-looking, fashionably shaped – not regularly round or regularly rectangular, but with molded angles. From time to time he dabbed beneath his eyes, and his forehead, with a neatly rectangularly-folded handkerchief he would shift from his right hand to left, and back.
At one point he lifted his eyeglasses, and deliberately rubbed his right eye (his only eye) with his hand, as if to scratch or console. Or was it to draw attention to his eye, on which perhaps many in the room were focusing anyway?
The blink of his right eye was visible through his glasses. There appeared to be no movement from his left eye socket, which was visible, albeit not too clearly, when he removed his glasses.
Abu Zubaydah appeared intently to follow the proceedings, paying rapt attention, though at times his actions could be perhaps interpreted as reflecting a lack of interest, for example, when he would rest his right arm on the armrest or table, put his index finger to his temple, his thumb to his chin, and his middle finger to his lips — as though bored.
When the off-camera U.S. government male voice began reading in English the government’s unclassified statement about Abu Zubaydah, he began searching through documents apparently looking for a copy of the document, which one of his personal representatives pointed out for him.
He accepted the document, then placed it on the table in front of him. He took off his glasses, reached forward and picked up a second pair of wire-rimmed glasses, and swapped them out. Perhaps one pair of glasses was for distance, and the other was for reading. I had seen detainees at hearings with glasses, but never with two pair, swapping out as called for by the situation.
As the 15 observers left the conference room after the hearing, words like “handsome”, “striking”, “good looking”, “not so disheveled like you might expect”, “well-groomed”, “nicely dressed” could be heard, describing someone who is alleged to have perpetrated unspeakable crimes against humankind, but who looked as though this morning he could have been participating in any sort of a business meeting – lease signing, mortgage loan closing or other corporate transaction – given the manner in which he was dressed, how he comported himself, and how he sat at the head of the table and commanded the audience of the personal representatives and the interpreter who straddled the sides of the conference table.
But, Abu Zubaydah is not being judged by his looks, his clothes, his hair, or his mannerisms. Regarding the PRB, he will be judged by what was revealed in the public portion of the PRB, and presumably what is covered in the classified portion of the PRB, which was scheduled to commence 15 minutes after the public portion.
The PRB – which comprises one representative each from the Departments of Homeland Security, State, Justice and Defense; the Joint Chiefs of Staff; and the Office of the Director of National Security – will deliberate and determine whether they believe that Abu Zubaydah poses a threat to the national security of the U.S.
The PRB will likely render its assessment soon. You can check www.prs.mil (under “initial reviews”) for updates.
By George Edwards,
Professor of Law, Indiana University McKinney School of Law
Faculty Director (Founding), Guantanamo Bay Periodic Review Board (PRB) Project
Faculty Director (Founding), U.S. Military Commission Observation Project
PS: Like last week, during the PRB a narrow, stream of light shined vertically down the large viewing screen today, whispering through cracked blinds of the Pentagon room. I’d forgotten to ask that the blinds be fully closed to maximize the observers ability to observe.
PPS: Photos are from various websites. Citations available.