- Operational planner for al Qaeda
- Suspected of masterminding a plan to blow up the U.S. embassies in Sarajevo and Paris
- May have briefed “shoe bomber” Richard Reid
- Was arrested in Pakistan in 2002
- Provided information that led to the arrest of alleged “dirty bomber” Jose Padilla
Born in Saudi Arabia in March 1971, Abu Zubaydah was the al Qaeda network’s overall operational planner during the years immediately preceding the September 11, 2001 terrorist attacks.
Of Palestinian descent, Zubaydah forged ties with al Qaeda virtually from the time the organization was formed. In the early 1990s he helped operate the Khaldan and Derunta terrorist training camps near the border between Afghanistan and Pakistan. His expertise with mortars and other heavy weaponry drew the attention of Osama bin Laden, who named him to be his second deputy in 1995. As the 1990s progressed, Zubaydah became al Qaeda’s chief recruiter, responsible for selecting new members and arranging for their training. While bin Laden and Ayman al-Zawahri set the organization’s overall policy, Zubaydah was entrusted with the task of implementing it.
According to American officials, Zubaydah helped Algerian national Ahmed Ressam in plotting a foiled December 1999 terrorist attack on Los Angeles International Airport.
In March 2001 the CIA informed then-National Security Advisor Condoleezza Rice that Zubaydah was planning yet another major, though unspecified, terrorist operation for the near future; it ultimately transpired on 9/11.
In March 2002 Zubaydah was arrested in Pakistan by FBI agents and Pakistani police. At the time of his apprehension, he was leading al Qaeda’s efforts to reorganize in Pakistan and to launch new attacks against U.S. interests worldwide. For instance, he was the suspected mastermind of plans to blow up American embassies in Sarajevo and Paris. Moreover, Zubaydah was thought to have briefed Richard Reid, the so-called “shoe bomber” who was arrested aboard a flight from Paris to Miami in December 2001.
When Pakistani authorities raided Zubaydah’s safe house in the town of Faisalabad, they confiscated a host of documents, cell-phone numbers, and computer files indicating that the suspect knew a great deal of key information not only about the 9/11 attacks, but also about the 2000 bombing of the USS Cole in Yemen and the 1998 bombings of two U.S. embassies in East Africa. In addition, Zubaydah had played a central role in a thwarted plot to bomb some hotels in Jordan during millennium celebrations; for that, a Jordanian court sentenced him to death in absentia.
Zubaydah’s arrest in Pakistan took place just as U.S. analysts were digesting a windfall of intelligence from around the world. He was initially noncompliant and evasive with his American interrogators. Eventually he was flown to another country where he was subjected to waterboarding, a technique that, after just 35 seconds, caused him to agree to provide information. As CIA interrogator John Kiriakou put it, the instantaneous effect of the waterboarding “was like flipping a switch.”
During his testimony to interrogators, Zubaydah made reference to an American in the al Qaeda ranks — a tip that led, within a matter of weeks, to the arrest of alleged “dirty bomber” Jose Padilla in Chicago. Zubaydah also identified a photograph of Omar al Farouq, an al Qaeda chief based in Southeast Asia, and two weeks later authorities in Indonesia captured Farouq.
Perhaps most importantly, Zubaydah provided key information that helped authorities capture Ramzi bin al Shibh, an accomplice to 9/11 mastermind Khalid Shaikh Mohammed (KSM). Eventually, information provided by Zubaydah and al Shibh led authorities to KSM himself.
Zubaydah is currently in U.S. custody in the Guantanamo Bay detention center in Cuba.