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Profile: Noor al-Deen

Noor al-Deen was a participant or observer in the following events:

In the wake of al-Qaeda leader Abu Zubaida’s arrest (see March 28, 2002), the FBI discovers much useful information (see Shortly After March 28, 2002). FBI agent Dan Coleman leads a team to sort through Zubaida’s computer files and documents. However, at the same time, some US officials come to believe that Zubaida’s prominence in al-Qaeda’s hierarchy has been overestimated. Many FBI officials conclude that he was used as little more than a travel agent for training camp attendees because he was mentally ill. [Suskind, 2006, pp. 94-96, 100]
FBI Agent Coleman: Zubaida Is Mentally Crippled - FBI counterterrorist operative Dan Coleman will go through Zubaida’s journals and other materials seized from his Faisalabad safe house. Coleman will say: “Abu Zubaydah was like a receptionist, like the guy at the front desk [of a hotel]. He takes their papers, he sends them out. It’s an important position, but he’s not recruiting or planning.” Because Zubaida is not conversant with al-Qaeda security methods, “[t]hat was why his name had been cropping up for years.” Of Zubaida’s diaries, Coleman will say: “There’s nothing in there that refers to anything outside his head, not even when he saw something on the news, not about any al-Qaeda attack, not even 9/11. All it does is reveal someone in torment. [Zubaida is physically and mentally crippled from wounds suffered fighting in Afghanistan in the early 1990s.] Based on what I saw of his personality, he could not be what they say he was.” [Vanity Fair, 12/16/2008] Coleman will add: “He knew very little about real operations, or strategy. He was expendable.” Zubaida’s diary evidences his apparent schizophrenia; he wrote it in three different personas, or voices, each with a different and distinctive personality. [Suskind, 2006, pp. 94-96, 100]
Islamist Al-Deen: Importance Overstated? - Noor al-Deen, a Syrian teenager, was captured along with Zubaida. The terrified al-Deen will readily answer questions from his captors, and will describe Zubaida as a well-known functionary with little knowledge of al-Qaeda operations. Al-Deen will be sent to a detention facility in Morocco and later to Syria; his subsequent whereabouts and status will remain unknown to the public. [Washington Post, 3/29/2009]
Informant Says Zubaida Behaved Oddly - Other accounts back up this assessment. For instance, Omar Nasiri, a former informant for European intelligence agencies who met Zubaida in the 1990s, will later describe Zubaida’s odd behavior, saying he “shuffled around his home in near-total darkness, carrying a gas lantern from room to room. He barely spoke and would often communicate by pointing.” [New Yorker, 1/22/2007]
CIA Officer Scheuer: Zubaida Served as Key Hub - Michael Scheuer, who previously ran the CIA’s bin Laden unit (see February 1996), will later say of Zubaida’s importance: “I’d followed him for a decade. If there was one guy you could call a ‘hub,’ he was it.” Scheuer will describe Zubaida not as an actual al-Qaeda member, but “the main cog in the way they organized,” a point of contact for Islamists from many parts of the globe seeking combat training in the Afghan camps. Scheuer will say that Zubaida, a Palestinian, “never swore bayat [al-Qaeda’s oath of allegiance] to bin Laden,” and he was bent on causing damage to Israel, not the US. [Vanity Fair, 12/16/2008]
Involvement in Pre-9/11 Plots - However, Zubaida does appear to have been involved in numerous plots before 9/11 (see for instance November 30, 1999 and Early September 2001). Al-Qaeda operative Ahmed Ressam cooperated with US investigators after being arrested. He worked with Zubaida and suggested Zubaida was of some importance, but not one of al-Qaeda’s highest leaders. According to Ressam, Zubaida “is the person in charge of the [training] camps. He receives young men from all countries. He accepts you or rejects you. He takes care of the expenses of the camps. He makes arrangements for you when you travel coming in or leaving.” [Gunaratna, 2003, pp. 133] Furthermore, when Zubaida was caught, apparently he and several others staying with him were in the middle of building a bomb. According to one of the CIA officers who helped capture him, the soldering iron used in making the bomb was still hot when he was captured (see Shortly After March 28, 2002). [Senate Intelligence Committee, 4/22/2009 pdf file]
CIA Chief Tenet Rejects Diagnosis of Schizophrenia - In a 2007 book, former CIA Director George Tenet will claim that the reports that Zubaida was mentally unstable were “[b]aloney.… Apparently, the source of the rumor that Abu Zubaida was unbalanced was his personal diary, in which he adopted various personas. From that shaky perch, some junior Freudians leapt to the conclusion that Zubaida had multiple personalities. In fact, agency psychiatrists eventually determined that in his diary he was using a sophisticated literary device to express himself.” [Tenet, 2007, pp. 243]
Zubaida Touted as High-Level Terror Chief - Regardless, despite being briefed otherwise, President Bush and others in his administration will repeatedly tout the importance of capturing Zubaida and no hint of any doubts about his importance or sanity will be publicly expressed (see April 9, 2002 and After). [Suskind, 2006, pp. 94-96, 100]

Entity Tags: Ron Suskind, George J. Tenet, Dan Coleman, Bush administration (43), George W. Bush, Abu Zubaida, Ahmed Ressam, Omar Nasiri, Noor al-Deen

Timeline Tags: Complete 911 Timeline

The CIA’s torture of a supposed high-ranking al-Qaeda operative, Abu Zubaida, produced no information that helped foil any terrorist attacks or plots, according to former senior government officials who closely followed the interrogations. Zubaida was subjected to intensive waterboarding and other tortures (see April - June 2002), and provided information about a fantastic array of al-Qaeda plots that sent CIA agents all over the globe chasing down his leads. But none of his information panned out, according to the former officials. Almost everything Zubaida said under torture was false, and most of the reliable information gleaned from him—chiefly the names of al-Qaeda members and associates—was obtained before the CIA began torturing him. Moreover, the US’s characterization of Zubaida as “al-Qaeda’s chief of operations” and a “trusted associate” of Osama bin Laden turned out to be false as well. Several sources have challenged the government’s characterization of Zubaida as a “high-level al-Qaeda operative” before now (see Shortly After March 28, 2002 and April 9, 2002 and After).
'Fixer' for Islamists before 9/11 - Zubaida, a native Palestinian, never even joined al-Qaeda until after 9/11, according to information obtained from court documents and interviews with current and former intelligence, law enforcement, and military sources. Instead, he was a “fixer” for a number of radical Islamists, who regarded the US as an enemy primarily because of its support for Israel. Many describe Zubaida as a “travel agent” for al-Qaeda and other radical Islamists. He joined al-Qaeda because of the US’s preparations to invade Afghanistan. US officials are contemplating what, if any, charges they can use to bring him into court. Zubaida has alleged links with Ahmed Ressam, the so-called “Millennium Bomber” (see December 14, 1999), and allegedly took part in plans to retaliate against US forces after the overthrow of the Taliban in late 2001 (see December 17, 2001). But some US officials worry that bringing him into a courtroom would reveal the extent of his torture and abuse at the hands of the CIA, and that any evidence they might have against him is compromised because it was obtained in part through torture. Those officials want to send him to Jordan, where he faces allegations of conspiracy in terrorist attacks in that country.
Defending Zubaida's Information - Some in the US government still believe that Zubaida provided useful information. “It’s simply wrong to suggest that Abu Zubaida wasn’t intimately involved with al-Qaeda,” says a US counterterrorism official. “He was one of the terrorist organization’s key facilitators, offered new insights into how the organization operated, provided critical information on senior al-Qaeda figures… and identified hundreds of al-Qaeda members. How anyone can minimize that information—some of the best we had at the time on al-Qaeda—is beyond me.… Based on what he shared during his interrogations, he was certainly aware of many of al-Qaeda’s activities and operatives.” But the characterization of Zubaida as a well-connected errand runner was confirmed by Noor al-Deen, a Syrian teenager captured along with Zubaida at a Pakistani safe house (see March 28, 2002). Al-Deen readily answered questions, both in Pakistan and in a detention facility in Morocco. He described Zubaida as a well-known functionary with little knowledge of al-Qaeda operations. (Al-Deen was later transferred to Syria; his current whereabouts and status are unknown to the public.) A former Justice Department official closely involved in the early investigation of Zubaida says: “He was the above-ground support” for al-Qaeda and other radicals. “He was the guy keeping the safe house, and that’s not someone who gets to know the details of the plans. To make him the mastermind of anything is ridiculous.” A former intelligence officer says the US spent an inestimable amount of time and money chasing Zubaida’s “leads” to no effect: “We spent millions of dollars chasing false alarms.”
Connected to KSM - Zubaida knew radical Islamist Khalid Shaikh Mohammed for years. Mohammed, often dubbed “KSM” by US officials, approached Zubaida in the 1990s about finding financial backers for a plan he had concocted to fly a small plane into the World Trade Center. Zubaida declined involvement but recommended he talk to bin Laden. Zubaida quickly told FBI interrogators of Mohammed and other al-Qaeda figures such as alleged “dirty bomber” Jose Padilla (see May 8, 2002). He also revealed the plans of the low-level al-Qaeda operatives he fled Afghanistan with. Some wanted to strike US forces in Afghanistan with bombs, while others harbored ideas of further strikes on American soil. But he knew few details, and had no knowledge of plans by senior al-Qaeda operatives. At this point, the CIA took over the interrogations, and the torture began (see Mid-April-May 2002). As a result of the torture, Zubaida began alternating between obstinate silence and providing torrents of falsified and fanciful “intelligence”; when FBI “clean teams” attempted to re-interview some detainees who had been tortured in order to obtain evidence uncontaminated by abusive treatment, Zubaida refused to cooperate. Joseph Margulies, one of Zubaida’s attorneys, says: “The government doesn’t retreat from who KSM is, and neither does KSM. With Zubaida, it’s different. The government seems finally to understand he is not at all the person they thought he was. But he was tortured. And that’s just a profoundly embarrassing position for the government to be in.” Margulies and other lawyers want the US to send Zubaida to another country besides Jordan—Saudi Arabia, perhaps, where Zubaida has family. Military prosecutors have already deleted Zubaida’s name from the charge sheets of detainees who will soon stand trial, including several who were captured with Zubaida and are charged with crimes in which Zubaida’s involvement has been alleged.
Pressure from the White House - The pressure from the White House to get actionable information from Zubaida was intense (see Late March 2002), according to sources. One official recalls the pressure as “tremendous.” He says the push to force information from Zubaida mounted from one daily briefing to the next. “They couldn’t stand the idea that there wasn’t anything new. They’d say, ‘You aren’t working hard enough.’ There was both a disbelief in what he was saying and also a desire for retribution—a feeling that ‘He’s going to talk, and if he doesn’t talk, we’ll do whatever.’” [Washington Post, 3/29/2009]

Entity Tags: Jose Padilla, Al-Qaeda, Ahmed Ressam, Abu Zubaida, Bush administration (43), Federal Bureau of Investigation, Khalid Shaikh Mohammed, US Department of Justice, Joseph Margulies, Central Intelligence Agency, Noor al-Deen

Timeline Tags: Torture of US Captives

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