Book Review | The Guantanamo trauma and Abu Zubaydah’s unbearable secrets

The Asian Age.  | Indranil Banerjie

Cathy Scott-Clark and Adrian Levy are two of the world’s best known investigative writers with several acclaimed books to their name.

Cover photo of 'The Forever Prisoner: The Full and Searing Account of the CIA's Most Controversial Covert Program'. (Photo by arrangement)

On March 28, 2002, the CIA, with the help of Pakistani intelligence officers, raided a house in Faisalabad suspected of housing Al Qaeda terrorists. The horror of the 9/11 attack was still fresh in everyone’s mind and the American establishment was bent on hunting, capturing and killing anyone even remotely involved in the ghastly attack. A number of people were caught in the raid including a Palestinian who had been shot while trying to escape. A Pakistani policeman was shot dead as well. The Palestinian bleeding profusely was identified as Abu Zubaydah, a terrorist high on the CIA’s wanted list as a close aide of Osama bin Laden and a key planner of the Twin Towers attack.

Once Zubaydah was positively identified, he was thrown into a pickup and taken to hospital. It was touch and go for the Palestinian: “Pakistani doctors started pumping blood into the detainee, but he was leaking like a sieve. The number of bullets that had entered his body was still disputed twenty years later, but one had torn up his thigh, hit coins in his pants pocket, and blasted a fist-sized hole through his groin and into his guts. ‘I’ve never seen a man this badly injured survive,’ muttered a surgeon.”

But Zubaydah did survive and was taken out of Pakistan in a CIA-leased Gulfstream where a Johns Hopkins surgeon got working on him. Zubaydah was taken to Thailand to recover and be interrogated at the same time. This was the beginning of years of endless torture and him being taken from one secret location to another across countries and continents including Poland and Lithuania. Eventually he found himself in Guantanamo Bay as an eternal suspect but never convicted or proven of any crime except that he was once an active member of the al Qaeda.

“Back in 2002, before enhanced interrogation was started on him, the CIA extracted a promise from the US government that Abu Zubaydah would remain ‘incommunicado’ for the rest of his life, irrespective of his level of guilt. His status as an ‘unlawful enemy combatant’ would remain unchanged until the War of Terror was deemed to be over, a decision that rested with the president”, the authors write, adding: “Twenty years on, Abu Zubaydah is still in Guantanamo, never charged. His chances of winning freedom remain microscopically small; while his lawyers say he is ’not Hollywood innocent’ new correspondence from him reveals an extraordinary story.” And that is what this book is all about: the extraordinary, often bewildering, often gut wrenching and ultimately horrifying story of a small-time terrorist caught in a giant iniquitous system more barbaric than anything imagined in the Dark Ages of human civilisation.

The book is as much about Abu Zubaydah as it is about the US system that professes human rights, democracy and such values but throws all that out of the window when it comes to protecting its own interests. Many Americans, the authors included, are particularly horrified about this disregard for human values, about the tacit acceptance of the most inhuman forms of torture (called enhanced interrogation) and the capacity of the system to deny justice.

Cathy Scott-Clark and Adrian Levy are two of the world’s best known investigative writers with several acclaimed books to their name, including Deception: Pakistan, the United States and the Global Nuclear Weapons Conspiracy (on how the United States looked the other way while Pakistan built the bomb) and Spy Stories: Inside the Secret World of the RAW and ISI, and The Exile: The Stunning Inside Story of Osama bin Laden and Al Qaeda in Flight.

This time, they wanted to look not just at a terrorist denied justice but at men and people capable of committing unspeakable atrocities and still believing themselves to be heroes. “Our primary motivation was to understand men whose lives changed forever after their eyes first met inside a secret CIA interrogation bunker in Thailand. What were the real reasons the US government was determined to keep Abu Zubaydah incommunicado forever? Was he really a danger to the world or an existential threat to the CIA? What had motivated Mitchell and Jessen [his principal torturers], both stellar military psychologists with faultless careers to date, to invent the toxicity of enhanced interrogation? Money? Fame and respect? Or patriotism?”

The book ends on a pessimistic note with Abu Zubaydah still in Guantanamo Bay detention. The authors write: “Still imprisoned and still incommunicado, he suspected he was never getting out until he was in his real coffin. What did matter were his memories, many of which were newly recorded in the thirteenth volume of his diary…In his final correspondence with this author in 2022, he also had this to say: ‘There is no hope and understanding is useless.’”

In early May this year, the UN Working Group on Arbitrary Detention (UNWGAD) urged the United States to immediately release Abu Zubaydah. The UN body also held that he was being unlawfully held, should be released and awarded compensation in accordance with international law.

The statement added that Guantanamo Bay camp still houses 30 inmates of whom only one has been convicted of a crime. The systemic deprivation of liberty at the camp may “constitute crimes against humanity,” the report suggested. Zubaydah is one of three “forever prisoners” who have not been charged and not been recommended for transfer.

The Forever Prisoner: The Full and Searing Account of the CIA's Most Controversial Covert Program

By Cathy Scott-Clark and Adrian Levy


pp. 452, Rs.699