The Coercive Interrogation of Abu Zubaydah to Prevent a Second Wave Attack


The following is extracted from Ronald Kessler’s The Terrorist Watch: Inside the Desperate Race to Stop the Next Attack (with thanks to Mr. Kessler for granting me permission).

The Second Wave

ALL THE INTELLIGENCE pouring in pointed to a second wave of attacks, perhaps within months of 9/11. The Library Tower in Los Angeles was to be one target. The pressure to stop those attacks was enormous.

“Listen, guys, we got another one hit, and we’re all gone,” Pat D’Amuro told Art Cummings and other section chiefs at a meeting.

At first, Cummings had been on temporary assignment at headquarters. But after D’Amuro saw him give a PowerPoint presentation, he decided to bring Cummings to headquarters permanently. D’Amuro made Cummings chief of the document exploitation section, then the communications exploitation section. After that, he placed him in charge of the first national Joint Terrorism Task Force, which brought together dozens of intelligence and law enforcement agencies to go after terrorism. Eventually, the FBI had 101 local Joint Terrorism Task forces, compared with 35 before 9/11. By March 2003, Mueller had placed Cummings in charge of International Terrorism Operations Section 1 (ITOS 1), which directs operations having to do with al Qaeda.

“The real anxiety was, ‘Okay, if they’re here, how do we make sure they don’t do another one?'” Cummings says. “We don’t have the luxury of time. If they’re here, they’re already planning. They may have been disrupted with this first wave, but if there’s going to be a scond wave, we need to get out in front of it.”

The FBI came up with a disruption strategy.

“We went to all our field offices and said we want them to do surveillance on all of their subjects,” Cummings says. “We wanted arrests of everyone who was arrestable, anyone whom we can show has violated a criminal law. If they’re here illegally, arrest them, get them out of here.”

On November 12, 2001, American Airlines flight 587 crashed on takeoff from Kennedy International Airport. The plane was heading for Santo Domingo in the Dominican Republica. The crash killed 260 people on the plane and another five on the ground in the Rockaway section of Queens.

The question was whether this was the start of a second wave of attacks.

“It was brutal,” Cummings says. “We ran to another room where we had Federal Aviation Administration systems online. We were listening to the FAA traffic. There was real concern that that was the start of a second wave. Everyone was just holding their breath going, “Okay, okay, what we got?'”

Tracing the manifest, Cummings found that a passenger killed on the plane had survived the World Trade Center attack.

“Everybody started thinking, whoa whoa, hold on,” Cummings says. “But it was pure coincidence.”

Despite the pressure, Mueller always seemed calm.

“The director’s very focused, very calculating,” Cummings says. “I’ve never seen him lose his composure at all.”

Mueller put out the word that no lead would be overlooked. Prior to 9/11, if an email came in saying that somebody was going to bomb the Sears Tower, “We would’ve looked at it and said, ‘This is just not realistic,'” Cummings says. “Now we began knocking on every door. A lead may seem to be 99.9 percent absolute garbage. But we have no tolerance for the one-tenth of one percent. That could get somebody killed.”

Hundreds of leads came in about Arab men acting suspiciously- talking in a bar about a terrorist operation, for example.

“Now, is it realistic that Arab men, speaking English, drinking beer, would talk about an operation in public where people can overhear them?” Cummings asks. “That’s six different factors, none of which makes any sense. I’d love to be able to say, ‘No, sorry, nothing’s going on in there.’ But maybe, just maybe, someone had a foolish moment, talked about something they were actually planning. No way would most of our counterparts go out on that. It may not make us better. Makes us busier. Because none of those kinds of leads has panned out.”

What did pay off was captures of al Qaeda operatives. Finding them overseas was primarily the job of the CIA, along with the military. In seeking to penetrate al Qaeda, the CIA made extensive use of bugging devices provided by the CIA’s Directorate of Science and Technology. The CIA targeted mosques, where al Qaeda operatives would pray but also hatch terrorist plots. Besides recruiting agents and intercepting communications, the CIA made extensive use of information gathered by foreign security services. When the CIA had difficulty with a foreign service, President Bush would occasionally place a call to the leader of its country.

Yet it was a lowly intelligence analyst, going through a bunch of e-mails, who was able to narrow the search for Abu Zubaydah, bin Laden’s field commander or chief of operations.

Zubaydah is believed to have been born to Palestinian parents in Saudi Arabia. He had strong connections with Jordanian and Palestinian groups and was sentenced to death in absentia by a Jordanian court for his role in a thwarted plot to bomb hotels there during millennium celebrations. Officials believe he was also connected to a plan to blow up the U.S. embassy in Sarajevo and a plot to attack the American embassy in Paris.

Zubaydah had run a terrorist camp in Afghanistan where some of the 9/11 hijackers trained. He was, says an FBI official, like a U.S. Army recruiting station for al Qaeda. He was based in Pakistan near the border, and people who were looking to join the jihad would come through Zubaydah and he would assess them: Are they reliable? Do they come from trustworthy people? Does somebody vouch for them? Are they infiltrators?

Once he was done with his vetting process, he would decide where they should go- to a camp for making bombs, to a camp for combat training.

“We talk about him in terms of being a high-ranking al Qaeda operative,” says an FBI official. “It’s not so much that he was high-ranking as that he had access to all of the most high-ranking people, because he was a funnel through which people came.”

The analyst zeroed in on Zubaydah’s locations because she noticed similarities in e-mails from different points using different screen names and concluded they were all written by him. Combined with other intelligence from intercepts, the CIA came up with more than a dozen possible targets for raids in Pakistan in March 2002.

“It was a combined, all-source effort,” says Robert L. Grenier, who was the CIA’s station chief in Islamabad and later headed the agency’s Counterterrorism Center. “There was so much information, and so much of it was very fractured data, you had to take a lot of little bits and put it all together to make the mosaic.”

With the Pakistanis and the FBI, the CIA developed a plan to raid all the possible locations at the same time.

“We were concerned that if you just raid one or two a night, for instance, then obviously they’d all flee, they’d realize what was happening,” Grenier says. “the point was to raid as many of these places as possible simultaneously, which we did.”

Even then, Grenier rated the chance of getting the terrorist at fifty-fifty.

“You just never know- perhaps he’s not home, and it’s hard to perfectly sequence these things,” Grenier says. “Maybe they’d get some advance warnings, maybe he’d flee. There were a couple of places at least that we thought he might flee to. And so we were prepared to hit those very rapidly in a second wave once the dust had settled from those initial raids.”

Abu Zubaydah turned out to be in a two-story house in Faisalabad, an industrial city in Punjab Province in western Pakistan. The Pakistanis took the lead and ran up to scale the fence, which turned out to be electrified. They were shocked off the fence. Then they cut through the gate, but now they had lost the element of surprise, so they hit the door with a ramrod. It turned out to be a steal-reinforced door with multiple locks.

Finally, they broke through the door. A terrorist inside wrapped a piano wire across the neck of the first Pakistani soldier to enter and pulled on it. A second soldier shot the terrorist. They then heard footsteps everywhere, running up through the stairs and down the hallways.

They went upstairs and captured a half dozen people. One terrorist ran away over a rooftop. A soldier confronted him with an AK-47.

“The first thing the guy does is, he grabs the barrel of it and tries to wrestle the gun away,” says an FBI official. “This turns out to be Abu Zubaydah. So he is at the other end of the gun. The Pakistani soldier, judging the path of least resistance, pulls the trigger. So Abu Zubaydah’s pulling the gun, which shoots him in the stomach and groin and puts numerous rounds through him, and he goes down.”

Bullet fragments ripped through his abdomen and groin. Nobody knew he was Abu Zubaydah. They carried him and other wounded terrorists to a truck. A CIA officer said, “I think this is our guy.”

At the hospital, FBI agents identified him as the wanted al Qaeda operative. As George Tenet writes in his book At the Center of the Storm, Buzzy Krongard, the CIA’s executive director, was on the board of Johns Hopkins Medical Center. He used his contacts to persuade a world-class medical expert to hop on a chartered CIA plane and fly to Pakistan to save the killer’s life.

A treasure trove of computer discs, notebooks, and phone numbers discovered in the safe house was flown to CIA headquarters in Washington.

Meanwhile, the FBI agents and CIA officers had urgent business: They both knew that Jose Padilla had gone through Abu Zubaydah’s operation on his way to al Qaeda, and they believed that Padilla had been tasked to detonate a radiological “dirty” bomb in the United States.

“They were showing Abu Zubaydah different photos, trying to get him to identify Jose Padilla,” says an FBI official. “And it was within the course of trying to get him to identify Padilla that he hesitated on Khalid Sheikh Mohammed.”

Known as KSM, Khalid Sheikh Mohammed was the mastermind of the 9/11 plot.

Bluffing, an FBI agent said, “No, no, no. I know all about him. I ask the questions, you give the answers. I want to know about this other guy.”

They went on to the photo of Padilla. But recognizing that the first photo had alerted Abu Zubaydah to something, the agent began thinking about how he would get back to it. As a ruse, he said, “We know Khalid Shekh Mohammed was the mastermind behind the 9/11 attacks.”

“How did you know he was the mastermind?” Abu Zubaydah said.

In fact, the agent did not know. “He tricked him,” an FBI official says. Later, Abu Zubaydah said, “I want to know how you knew that that guy was the mastermind?”

The agent replied, “Oh, we just did.”

Abu Zubaydah mentioned that KSM used the moniker “Mukhtar,” which allowed analysts to comb through previously collected intelligence and develop leads that eventually led to his capture.

Soon after that, Abu Zubaydah stopped cooperating. Propelled by fear that another attack was in the works, the CIA began developing coercive interrogation techniques- water-boarding high value terrorists or subjecting them to ear-splitting music or to icy temperatures and forcing them to stand for hours.

“We weren’t getting very much from him at all,” Grenier says. “And that’s when we began the process of putting together a properly focused interrogation process. It was refined a good deal subsequently, but he was the test.”

Before the interrogation procedures were employed, the Justice Department reviewed them and determined that they were legally permissible. After a few months, the CIA began using some of the techniques on Abu Zubaydah. As the interrogation of Abu Zubaydah and other detained terrorists progressed, the agency briefed the chairs, ranking members, and majority and minority staff directors of the House and Senate intelligence committees on the details of the procedures used.

Before confronting a terrorist, each interrogator was given 250 hours of specialized training. In addition to the interrogators, detainees were questioned by experts with years of experience in studying and tracking al Qaeda. That expertise allowed them to fire rapid questions at detainees, to follow up on their answers, and to quickly verify their truthfulness.

The FBI has always found that, even though it may take longer, a soft approach works better and leads to more accurate information. Moreover, as a law enforcement organization, the FBI could not become involved in questionable tactics that might come to light in a criminal proceeding in a courtroom.

Even though the CIA never engaged in torture, D’Amuro was adamantly opposed to using coercive techniques.

“Mueller listened to me,” D’Amuro says. “Later, he said, ‘You kept us out of that, and you were right.'”

Cummings found it was difficult for others to understand how FBI agents could turn murderers into cooperative sources without aggressive tactics. But, he says, “We’ve had case after case following 9/11 of genuine, real, true-to-life bad guys who have sat down in hotel rooms with us, for weeks on end, just pouring it out.”

While the FBI likes to think it takes the moral high ground, “That’s not really the driving reason,” Cummings says. “The driving reason’s, frankly, because we think we are much more effective as an organization working that way. And it doesn’t take that much time. It’s something you learn as you go. You work with somebody, you see what resonates with him. Is it family that drives him? Is it children that drives him? Is it career that drives him? Is it freedom that drives him? What is it that motivates him and keeps him motivated?”

The approach is the same as in working a criminal case.

“You have a drunk driver, you work everything from rationalization to all kinds of different themes,” Cummings says. “You say, ‘I know you didn’t mean it. Of course you didn’t. You left the scene, it was kind of stupid, we’ve all done that.’ When really it’s not the case. When you see a little spark, then you work that theme.”

On the other hand, the CIA could point to a string of successes and dozens of plots that were rolled up because of coercive interrogation techniques. CIA officials say that regardless of what techniques are used, they try to corroborate any information gleaned from a terrorist. Even intercepts of conversations are not infallible, they say. A conversation could be a setup, so the CIA has to try to verify any information it obtains.

Some media reports later suggested that Abu Zubaydah, who is now at Guantanamo Bay, was crazy.

“One agent looked at one of his notebooks and decided it didn’t make any sense at all,” D’Amuro says. But, he says, Abu Zubaydah was no more crazy than any other terrorist.

“He turned out to be incredibly valuable,” D’Amuro observes. “Abu Zubaydah provided information that helped stop a terrorist attack being planned against the Library Tower and other buildings on the West Coast, the so-called second wave. He provided physical descriptions of the operatives and information on their general location. Based on the information he provided, the operatives were detained, one while traveling to the United States.”

Al Qaeda had set aside some $20,000 to fund the second wave.

Abu Zubaydah also identified Ramzi bin al Shibh, who was captured in Karachi in September 2002. He was a top al Qaeda recruiter and a member of bin Laden’s inner circle. Zubaydah identified him as one of KSM’s accomplices in the 9/11 attacks.

Together, these two terrorists provided information that would help in the planning and execution of the operation that captured Khalid Sheikh Mohammed. If it had not been for coercive interrogation techniques used on Abu Zubaydah, CIA officials suggest, the second wave of attacks might have occurred and KSM could be free and planning more attacks.

The next chapter in the book covers KSM.

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Libs just won’t be happy until a U.S. city has a mushroom cloud over it.

Be careful what you wish for, because if (when) that happens, there will be no place for you to hide.