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Middle East

The secret diary of Abu Zubaydah, from student to hardline jihadi and CIA torture

Remarkable personal account released of Guantanamo detainee allegedly responsible for planning 9/11 atrocity and other major attacks

The private diaries of Abu Zubaydah, who is currently one of the most prominent remaining detainees in Guantanamo Bay, have been revealed by Al Jazeera.

They offer a remarkable and personal picture of how al-Qa'ida grew from its origins in the mujahedin struggle against the Soviet occupiers of Afghanistan into the organisation that carried out the 2001 attacks against the US.

They track Zubaydah's journey from a student to a hardened jihadi.

The diaries, reportedly obtained by journalist Jason Leopold from a former intelligence officer, cover more than a decade. They start in 1990 when Zubaydah - a Saudi-born Palestinian - was a 19-year-old student in computer sciences in Mysore, India, a few months before he travelled to join the Afghan civil war that followed the Soviet departure. They end days before his capture in Faisalabad, Pakistan, in March 2002.

At the time, he was regarded by the CIA as the third-ranking figure in al-Qa'ida, behind only Osama Bin Laden and the group's current leader, Ayman al-Zawahiri. His lawyers, however, strenuously denied that he was ever a member of al-Qa'ida.

Zubaydah was held to be one of the planners of the 9/11 attacks and of virtually every other major attack perpetrated by al-Qa'ida before that, including the 1998 US embassy bombings in East Africa.

He was taken to a CIA "ghost site" in Thailand and waterboarded 83 times in a bid to extract information about future terrorist operations.

He was among the first al-Qa'ida detainees subjected to the "enhanced interrogation techniques" that had just been approved by George W Bush's Justice Department.

Later the Bush administration revised its view of Zubaydah's importance as it became clear he was more of a bureaucrat within al-Qa'ida than a frontline operative. Even so, he was mentioned no less than 52 times in the final report of the 9/11 Commission on the 2001 attacks, published in 2004.

The secret and highly personal dairies, with their  numerous mentions of bin Laden and other al-Qa'ida figures, suggest a meticulous record keeper. Their contents, which are being revealed for the first time, provided the basis for holding many of the prisoners at Guantanamo, of whom 160 remain.

According to Al Jazeera America, the documents - a copy of the government's English translation of the diaries - were obtained from a former US intelligence official who worked with the CIA and FBI on al-Qa'ida issues.

There are six volumes of the 1990-2002 diaries, excerpts from the first of which were published by Al Jazeera.

Zubaydah is believed to have compiled more diaries while being held by the CIA, in which he is said to describe in detail his torture. Since 2006 he has been held at Guantanamo Bay, although he has not been charged with any crime.

The loss of his diaries, now formally the property of the Pentagon, appears to have affected him deeply. In March 2007, he told a review tribunal that the CIA's refusal to honour what he claimed was a promise to return them had caused him to have 40 seizures. That mental anguish, Zubaydah said, "is bigger than what the CIA (did to) me".

He also likened the withholding of the notebooks to the  kidnapping of a child, claiming that after his transfer to Guantanamo, he had "asked 20 hours a day" about when they would be returned.


Zubaydah resolves to go  to Afghanistan

6 January 1991

Yesterday, and only yesterday, I decided to go to Afghanistan. I believe that I have talked to you about a plan to go to Afghanistan before, which was unsuccessful. However, this time it is different [the rest of the sentence is crossed out and illegible]. I have decided to visit the place, receive training and come back to conclude my education. The intent is bona fide, God willing. Almost everything is ready except that I am scared of the circumstances. Yet I trust in God. And we seek refuge in Him.

Arriving in Peshawar to  begin jihadi training

19 January 1991

We arrived yesterday morning; we are in Peshawar.

The system here, as we have learned later on, is as follows:

First: the services office; it is an office that handles jihad matters and Arab mujahedin’s organisation as well as support to both Arab and Afghani mujahedin. From that office branches many houses for the incoming mujahedin from outside Afghanistan, Arabs and others. The spiritual atmosphere here is good.

Some came to train for a short period and go back just to be prepared. Others are here for jihad and until God decides for something to be done.Some are young; their beards or moustache have not appeared yet. Others are old in their fifties or more. Also, the idea of settling here is enticing me and I cannot seem to control it.

His brother tries to convince him to return home

1 May 1991

My brother, Mahir, came finally. In short, we sat together and talked. He talked about many things that are somehow frustrating; the mother, the father, the brothers and parents’ obedience and, in addition to few quick fatwas created by his emotions. Anyway, we both do not and will not understand each other.

Also, dear Hani, we sat by the stream that runs through the camp. He was reading my father’s letter to me; I gave it to him to read it. He said, “Read your father’s letter; it is better for you.” He meant what they are suffering from because of me. I smiled and ripped it before his eyes while he is shocked and hurt and his face became gloomy. I tried explaining to him the importance of sacrifice for the sake of the religion and he tried, may God bless him, to explain to me the importance of having the parents’ approval for jihad.

Explosives training

17 May 1991, Khaldan Camp, Afghanistan

Yesterday, the group and I began a special course in  explosives. The morning exercise line-up begins at 6am; jogging, fast-pace running, mountain climbing and special exercises. As you notice, most of the ideas I’m dealing with now at the jihad level are practical and they were the same ideas but unorganised and not fully clear. Perhaps, life’s stress and order prevented from enhancing them practically or even from thinking about them; such as caliphate and Islamic principles.

At the front, under attack

3 July 1991, Gardez,  Afghanistan

I, rather, we the explosives group, are in Gardez now at the back line since last Friday. Airplane shelling, and one of the shells landed in the heart of the camp; but praise God, no one was injured. Continuous artillery shells, digging ditches, carrying rocks from the mountain, dirt, sweat and exhaustion; a true mental relaxation, God willing and oh God!

At the front

7 July 1991, Gardez, Afghanistan

Today is Sunday and the time now is perhaps 12.30pm.

Place: The big tent which houses more than l5 people.  The planes are hovering around us; they strike one time and other times they don’t; however the artillery shells are continuous.

Running to the ditches and face down on the ground, but I am relatively cool and don’t run to the dugout and don’t even go face down on the ground sometimes; as a matter of fact, I don’t know why.