"I was told during this period that I was one of the first to receive these interrogation techniques, so no rules applied. It felt like they were experimenting and trying out techniques to be used later on other people."
Date of birth: 12 March 1971
Place of birth: Riyadh, Saudi Arabia
Aliases: Daud, Malik, Tareq, Hamza Ibrahim Zuhayfa al-Abdi Asiri, Abd al-Aziz al-Numani, Takhi Obed Takhi al-Kantani, Simon the Palestinian
Capture: Pakistan, 28 March 2002
SSCI prisoner number: 1
Entered CIA custody: 31 March 2002
Period of CIA custody: 1619 days
Left CIA custody: 5 September 2006
Detained: Pakistan, Thailand, Poland, Guantánamo Bay, Morocco, Lithuania, Afghanistan, Guantánamo Bay
Current status: detained, Guantánamo Bay
Timeline of Key Events
28 March 2002
Capture, Faisalabad, Pakistan, and transfer to Lahore
31 March 2002
31 March 2002 - 4 December 2002
Detention, CIA black site, Thailand
4-5 December 2002
5 December 2002 - 22 September 2003
Detention, CIA black site, Poland
22 September 2003
Rendition, Poland-Guantanamo Bay
22 September 2003 - 27 March 2004
Detention, CIA secret prison, Guantanamo Bay
27 March 2004
Rendition, Guantanamo Bay - Morocco
27 March 2004 - 17/18 February 2005
17 February 2005
Rendition, Morocco-Lithuania (via Jordan)
18 February 2005
Rendition, Morocco-Lithuania (via Romania)
17 February 2005 - end 2005/early 2006
Detention, CIA black site, Lithuania
End 2005/early 2006
Rendition, Lithuania-unknown location (possibly Afghanistan)
End 2005/early 2006 - 5 September 2006
Detention, unknown location (possibly Afghanistan)
5 September 2006
Rendition, unknown location (possibly Afghanistan) - Guantanamo Bay
5 September 2006 - Present
Detention, Guantanamo Bay
On 28 March 2002 Abu Zubaydah was captured alongside more than 30 other suspects in joint US-Pakistani raid on safe houses in Faisalabad, Pakistan. During the course of his arrest, Zubaydah was seriously injured by gunshot wounds, and was flown to a military hospital where he was treated by Pakistani and US doctors. The location of this hospital is unclear: some accounts place it in south-western Pakistan, on either Dalbandin or Jacobabad military bases (used by US forces). According to John Kiriakou, a CIA agent who says he was present during Abu Zubaydah’s capture, he was flown to a military hospital in Lahore, where one of the Pakistani doctors who treated him ‘told me that he had never seen wounds so severe where the patient had lived.... One of the things that sticks in my mind from those days and nights was how much blood he lost. There was blood everywhere. It was all over him. It was all over the bed. It pooled under the bed. It was all over us every time we had to move him.’ Kiriakou says that he tied Abu Zubaydah to the bed with a sheet, and began to interrogate him after he woke from his coma.
Abu Zubaydah was the first suspect to be taken into the CIA detention programme. CIA records cited by the SSCI report describe how, immediately upon Abu Zubaydah’s capture, the CIA began discussions of how to interpret the prohibition on torture in such a way as to allow for certain forms of interrogation. They also at this stage rejected the idea of passing him to the US military, given that they wished to keep his detention secret from the ICRC. The CIA eventually settled on establishing a detention site in Thailand, which the SSCI report gives the pseudonym DENTENTION SITE GREEN. By 29 March 2002, President Bush had authorised Zubaydah’s transfer to Thailand, and his rendition took place shortly thereafter.
Analysis by The Rendition Project and the Bureau of Investigative Journalism has established that Abu Zubaydah entered CIA custody on 31 March. Once in DETENTION SITE GREEN, Abu Zubaydah was moved quickly to a local hospital, given his deteriorating health. Once in hospital, he was questioned by the FBI and the CIA, with each agency taking a different approach. The FBI found Zubaydah to be cooperative, whereas the CIA planned in any case to begin coercive interrogations upon his return to the GREEN. Zubaydah was returned to GREEN on 15 April 2002, where a CIA cable stated that:
Abu Zubaydah's cell as white with no natural lighting or windows, but with four halogen lights pointed into the cell. An air conditioner was also in the room. A white curtain separated the interrogation room from the cell. The interrogation cell had three padlocks. Abu Zubaydah was also provided with one of two chairs that were rotated based on his level of cooperation (one described as more comfortable than the other). Security officers wore all black uniforms, including boots, gloves, balaclavas, and goggles to keep Abu Zubaydah from identifying the officers, as well as to prevent Abu Zubaydah "from seeing the security guards as individuals who he may attempt to establish a relationship or dialogue with." The security officers communicated by hand signals when they were with Abu Zubaydah and used hand-cuffs and leg shackles to maintain control. In addition, either loud rock music was played or noise generators were used to enhance Abu Zubaydah's "sense of hopelessness." Abu Zubaydah was typically kept naked and sleep deprived.
This description Matches Zubaydah's own testimony to the ICRC, where he stated that he was kept in a cell measuring 4m x 4m with three solid walls and one wall of bars. The cell was kept very cold, and loud music was played constantly, on a 15 minute loop. Sometimes the music was replaced by white noise. The guards and the interrogators were all American, although the guards wore masks to conceal their faces.
For the first 6-8 weeks, Abu Zubaydah says that he was kept naked. He was strapped to a bed for the first few days, and then transferred to a chair. He was kept shackled on the chair for 2-3 weeks and let free only to use the toilet (a bucket). He was not given any solid food during this time; only water and “Ensure” nutrition drink. He was questioned each day for 1-2 hours, and prevented from going to sleep by having water sprayed in his face.
After the first 2-3 weeks, Abu Zubaydah says that he was given rice once a day, and allowed to lie on the floor (although still naked and shackled, and without a mattress). He says that he was kept like this for another 6 weeks or so. After about two months into his detention, he was provided with clothes, and then a mattress and blanket, and toilet paper. However, whenever the interrogators felt he was not cooperating, the clothes were removed and Abu Zubaydah was put back on the chair.
He then says that there followed a period of about one month where there was no interrogation. This matches CIA records cited by the SSCI report, which document a 47-day period of isolation, from 18 June 2002 until 4 August 2002. At this point, the FBI team left GREEN, and did not return. During Zubaydah’s time in isolation, the CIA began to develop a plan for more aggressive torture, and a request for legal authorisation of these methods. One cable, dated 15 July 2002, provided details on the proposed interrogation plan, and noted that: “If [Abu Zubaydah] develops a serious medical condition which may involve a host of conditions including a heart attack or another catastrophic type of condition, all efforts will be made to ensure that proper medical care will be provided. In the event that he dies, we need to be prepared to act accordingly, keeping in mind the liaison equities involving our hosts... regardless which [disposition] option we follow however, and especially in light of the planned psychological pressure techniques to be implemented, we need to get reasonable assurances that [Abu Zubaydah] will remain in isolation and incommunicado for the remainder of his life.”
On 1 August 2002, Jay S. Bybee (the Assistant Attorney General at the Department of Justice) provided a classified legal opinion, headed Interrogation of al Qaeda Operative [e.g., Abu Zubaydah], to John Rizzo (the chief legal officer at the CIA) that concluded that the techniques proposed to be used against the detainee would not violate the prohibition on torture. CIA records show that CIA Headquarters informed the officers at GREEN of this approval to use torture on 3 August 2002. The next day, Abu Zubaydah began to be tortured on a near 24-hour-per-day basis, using the full range of approved “enhanced interrogation techniques”. CIA records document that:
After Abu Zubaydah had been in complete isolation for 47 days, the most aggressive interrogation phase began at approximately 11:50 AM on August 4, 2002. Security personnel entered the cell, shackled and hooded Abu Zubaydah, and removed his towel (Abu Zubaydah was then naked). Without asking any questions, the interrogators placed a rolled towel around his neck as a collar, and backed him up into the cell wall (an interrogator later acknowledged the collar was used to slam Abu Zubaydah against a concrete wall). The interrogators then removed the hood, performed an attention grab, and had Abu Zubaydah watch while a large confinement box was brought into the cell and laid on the floor. A cable states Abu Zubaydah "was unhooded and the large confinement box was carried into the interrogation room and paced [sic] on the floor so as to appear as a coffin." The interrogators then demanded detailed and verifiable information on terrorist operations planned against the United States, including the names, phone numbers, email addresses, weapon caches, and safe houses of anyone involved. CIA records describe Abu Zubaydah as appearing apprehensive. Each time Abu Zubaydah denied having additional information, the interrogators would perform a facial slap or face grab. At approximately 6:20 PM, Abu Zubaydah was waterboarded for the first time. Over a two-and-a-half-hour period, Abu Zubaydah coughed, vomited, and had "involuntary spasms of the torso and extremities" during waterboarding. Detention site personnel noted that "throughout the process [Abu Zubaydah] was asked and given the opportunity to respond to questions about threats" to the United States, but Abu Zubaydah continued to maintain that he did not have any additional information to provide. In an email to OMS leadership entitled, "So it begins," a medical officer wrote:
"The sessions accelerated rapidly progressing quickly to the water board after large box, walling, and small box periods. [Abu Zubaydah] seems very resistant to the water board. Longest time with the cloth over his face so far has been 17 seconds. This is sure to increase shortly. NO useful information so far....He did vomit a couple of times during the water board with some beans and rice. It's been 10 hours since he ate so this is surprising and disturbing. We plan to only feed Ensure for a while now. I'm head[ing] back for another water board session."
The use of the CIA's enhanced interrogation techniques— including "walling, attention grasps, slapping, facial hold, stress positions, cramped confinement, white noise and sleep deprivation"—continued in "varying combinations, 24 hours a day" for 17 straight days, through August 20, 2002. When Abu Zubaydah was left alone during this period, he was placed in a stress position, left on the waterboard with a cloth over his face, or locked in one of two confinement boxes. According to the cables, Abu Zubaydah was also subjected to the waterboard "2-4 times a day... with multiple iterations of the watering cycle during each application."
This account of Zubaydah’s torture, documented in CIA records, matches closely with his own testimony, provided to the ICRC.
Abu Zubaydah’s account of being tortured in Thailand (source: ICRC)
There then followed a period of about one month with no questioning. Then, about two and a half or three months after I arrived in this place, the interrogation began again, but with more intensity than before. Then the real torturing started. Two black wooden boxes were brought into the room outside my cell. One was tall, slightly higher than me and narrow. Measuring perhaps in area 1m x 0.75m and 2m in height. The other was shorter, perhaps one 1m in height. I was taken out of my cell and one of the interrogators wrapped a towel around my neck, they then used it to swing me around and smash me repeatedly against the hard walls of the room. I was also repeatedly slapped in the face. As I was still shackled, the pushing and pulling around meant that the shackles pulled painfully on my ankles.
I was then put into the tall black box for what I think was about one and a half to two hours. The box was totally black on the inside as well as the outside. It had a bucket inside to use as a toilet and had water to drink provided in a bottle. They put a cloth or cover over the outside of the box to cut out the light and restrict my air supply. It was difficult to breathe. When I was let out of the box I saw that one of the walls of the room had been covered with plywood sheeting. From now on it was against this wall that I was then smashed with the towel around my neck. I think that the plywood was put there to provide some absorption of the impact of my body. The interrogators realised that smashing me against the hard wall would probably quickly result in physical injury.
During these torture sessions many guards were present, plus two interrogators who did the actual beating, still asking questions, while the main interrogators left to return after the beating was over. After the beating I was then placed in the small box. They placed a cloth or cover over the box to cut out all light and restrict my air supply. As it was not high enough even to sit upright, I had to crouch down. It was very difficult because of my wounds. The stress on my legs held in this position meant my wounds both in the leg and stomach became very painful. I think this occurred about 3 months after my last operation. It was always cold in the room, but when the cover was placed over the box it made it hot and sweaty inside. The wound on my leg began to open and started to bleed. I don’t know how long I remained in the small box, I think I may have slept or maybe fainted.
I was then dragged from the small box, unable to walk properly and put on what looked like a hospital bed, and strapped down very tightly with belts. A black cloth was then placed over my face and the interrogators used a mineral water bottle to pour water on the cloth so that I could not breathe. After a few minutes the cloth was removed and the bed was rotated into an upright position. The pressure of the straps on my wounds was very painful. I vomited. The bed was then again lowered to a horizontal position and the same torture carried out again with the black cloth over my face and water poured on from a bottle. On this occasion my head was in a more backward, downwards position and the water was poured on for a longer time. I struggled against the straps, trying to breathe, but it was hopeless. I thought I was going to die. I lost control of my urine. Since then I still lose control of my urine when under stress.
I was then placed again in the tall box. While I was inside the box loud music was played again and somebody kept banging repeatedly on the box from the outside. I tried to sit down on the floor, but because of the small space the bucket with urine tipped over and spilt over me. I remained in the box for several hours, maybe overnight. I was taken out and again a towel was wrapped around my neck and I was smashed into the wall with the plywood covering and repeatedly slapped in the face by the same two interrogators as before. I was then made to sit on the floor with a black hood over my head until the next session of torture began. The room was always kept very cold.
This went on for approximately one week. During this time the whole procedure was repeated five times. On each occasion, apart from one, I was suffocated once or twice and was put in the vertical position on the bed in between. On one occasion the suffocation was repeated three times. I vomited each time I was put in the vertical position between the suffocation. During that week I was not given any solid food. I was only given Ensure to drink. My head and beard were shaved every day. I collapsed and lost consciousness on several occasions. Eventually the torture was stopped by the intervention of the doctor.
During nearly three weeks of constant torture, Abu Zubaydah spent more than 11 days in the coffin-sized box, and 29 hours in the smaller confinement box, just 21 inches wide, 2.5 feet deep and 2.5 feet high. Throughout, Zubaydah “cried, begged, pleaded and whimpered”, and at times became “hysterical and distressed to the level that he was unable to effectively communicate." Waterboarding sessions "resulted in immediate fluid intake and involuntary leg, chest and arm spasms" and "hysterical pleas." In at least one waterboarding session, Abu Zubaydah "became completely unresponsive, with bubbles rising through his open, full mouth."
The interrogation and torture sessions were videotaped by the CIA, and 92 tapes were produced of Abu Zubaydah’s treatment (including 12 which filmed the use of the EITs). The CIA’s legal team in the US reviewed the tapes in November and December 2002, and found them to reflect the written account provided by the interrogation team. However, the CIA’s Inspector General investigation also reviewed the tapes, and compared them to the other records of Abu Zubaydah’s interrogation. In doing so, he found that Abu Zubaydah had been waterboarded on at least 83 separate occasions during August 2002, and that the manner in which the technique was applied was in contravention of the DoJ’s August 2002 legal opinion. Specifically, the interrogators ‘continuously applied large volumes of water’, rather than the limited application authorised by the DoJ (which was that water was to be applied from ‘a canteen cup or small watering can’ for just 20-40 seconds). According to a separate investigation by the DoJ, one of the tapes also had an interrogator verbally threaten Abu Zubaydah: ‘If one child dies in America, and I find out you knew something about it, I will personally cut your mother’s throat.’ In addition, the Inspector General found that there was also a 21-hour gap in the taped record, which included two waterboard sessions. The tapes themselves were destroyed by the CIA in November 2005, in an act which was the focus of a subsequent criminal investigation in 2008-2009.
DETENTION SITE GREEN was closed in December 2002, and the SSCI report states that Abu Zubaydah was rendered, along with a second CIA prisoner Abd al-Rahim al-Nashiri, to DETENTION SITE BLUE. By reading the heavily-redacted report by the CIA’s Inspector General alongside the heavily-redacted DoJ report - importantly, where each report has a slightly different scope of declassification - it is possible to determine that this rendition took place on 4 December 2002. Flight data and associated documentation confirm this transfer, and therefore the location GREEN and BLUE: on 4 December 2002, a privately-owned Gulfstream IV jet linked to the CIA renditions programme, with registration number N63MU, flew from Thailand to Poland, via a stopover in Dubai. Click here for our analysis of the flight data and documentation associated with Abu Zubaydah’s rendition from Thailand to Poland.
Abu Zubaydah was held for over 9 months in Poland, although nothing is known about his treatment during this time. Indeed, the section of the CIA’s Inspector General report dealing with Poland (which appears to be para. 80-100) is heavily-redacted, including the discussion of who was held there and the use of waterboarding at the facility. Likewise, the declassified portions of the SSCI report do not refer to his fate and whereabouts after his rendition to DETENTION SITE BLUE. Some information regarding the treatment of other detainees held alongside him, however, is available, and points to the continued use of EITs as well as unauthorised techniques. In particular, al-Nashiri was subjected to mock executions, stress positions which almost dislocated his arms, the threat of torture with a hand drill, and the threat of the rape of his family. Khaled Sheikh Mohammed, also held in Poland during the same time, was subjected to nearly 200 waterboarding ‘applications’ (far more than authorised by the DoJ).
On 22 September 2003, Zubaydah was transferred once again, this time with the other ‘High-Value Detainees’ (HVDs) still held in Poland as the site was cleared and closed. These detainees were moved onboard the CIA-owned Boeing 737 with registration number N313P, which flew an extended circuit visiting several secret prison locations: Afghanistan, Poland, Romania, Morocco and Guantanamo Bay. From Poland, some detainees (Khaled Sheikh Mohammed and Walid bin Attash) were dropped off in Romania, others (Abd al-Rahim al-Nashiri and Ramzi bin al-Shibh) were picked up from Morocco, and along with Abu Zubaydah and Mustafa al-Hawsawi were taken to a secret CIA detention site alongside the military prison at Guantanamo Bay. Click here for our analysis of the flight data and documentation associated with Abu Zubaydah’s rendition from Poland to Guantanamo Bay.
Abu Zubaydah and the other HVDs were held at the CIA site in Guantanamo Bay for six months. However, following the US Supreme Court decision that it would hear the cases of a number of Guantanamo detainees, consolidated as Rasul v Bush, aimed at challenging the legality of their detention, the CIA feared that US courts would begin to assert a hold over the Agency’s most-prized detainees, and that details of the CIA’s rendition and secret detention program would begin to emerge. As a result, in March and April 2004 those HVDs that had been secretly held in the CIA facility at Guantanamo, including Abu Zubaydah, were rendered back out of the island and distributed among numerous black sites around the world. There are two flights in particular that appear to have been rendition flights out of Guantanamo Bay during this time, both made by the privately-owned Gulfstream IV jet with registration number N85VM, which had been contracted as part of the CIA’s overall outsourcing of some elements of the rendition programme.
- Click here to read our analysis of the flight data and documentation associated with the March 2004 flight by N85VM from Guantanamo Bay to Morocco
- Click here to read our analysis of the flight data and documentation associated with the April 2004 flight by N85VM from Guantanamo Bay to Romania and then Morocco
According to his legal team’s submission to the European Court of Human Rights, in his case against Lithuania, Abu Zubaydah is likely to have been onboard the 27 March 2004 flight from Guantanamo Bay to Morocco, where he was detained for a further 11 months. Whereas some of the HVDs held with Zubaydah in Morocco at this time, such as Ramzi bin al-Shibh, were later moved to Romania, his legal team are convinced that he was sent on to Lithuania during February 2005. Indeed, flight data confirms that two flights by aircraft contracted as part of the CIA’s outsourced elements of the rendition programme flew between Morocco and Lithuania in February 2005: on 17 February, the privately-owned Boeing 727 with registration N724CL flew from Morocco to Jordan and then onto Lithuania; while the very next day, on 18 February, the privately-owned Boeing 737 with registration N787WH flew from Morocco to Romania, and then onto Lithuania.
- Click here to read our analysis of the flight data and documentation associated with the 17 February 2005 flight by N724CL from Morocco to Lithuania (via Jordan)
- Click here to read our analysis of the flight data and documentation associated with the 18 February 2005 flight by N787WH from Morocco to Lithuania (via Romania)
Nothing specific is known about Abu Zubaydah’s detention in Lithuania, although it would have been within the site known as Project 2, a former horse-riding school 15 miles from Vilnius. Lithuanian and US officials have described the facility to ABC News:
The riding academy originally consisted of an indoor riding area with a red metallic roof, a stable and a cafe. The CIA built a thick concrete wall inside the riding area. Behind the wall, it built what one Lithuanian source called ‘a building within a building’. On a series of thick concrete pads, it installed what a source called ‘prefabricated pods’ to house prisoners, each separated from the other by five or six feet. Each pod included a shower, a bed, and a toilet. Separate cells were constructed for interrogations. The CIA converted much of the rest of the building into garage space. Intelligence officers working at the prison were housed next door in the converted stable, raising the roof to add space. Electrical power for both structures was provided by a 2003 Caterpillar autonomous generator. All the electrical outlets in the renovated structure were 110 volts, meaning they were designed for American appliances.
Some or all of those that were taken to the CIA’s black site in Lithuania - including Abu Zubaydah - were then likely to have been moved to either Egypt or Afghanistan in March 2006, onboard the one possible rendition circuit out of the country identified thus far. This circuit involved two privately-owned aircraft, contracted by the CIA through its prime contract with DynCorp for support services for the renditions programme. The first of these aircraft, the Boeing 737 with registration number N733MA, flew from Lithuania to Egypt, where it met for under an hour with the second aircraft, another Boeing 737 with registration number N740EH. This second aircraft then flew from Egypt to Afghanistan, completing a possible disguised detainee transfer, Lithuania-Afghanistan. Click here to access our analysis of the flight data and associated documentation relating to this possible rendition of HVDs between Lithuania, Egypt and Afghanistan in March 2006.
The fate and whereabouts of Abu Zubaydah after his rendition out of Lithuania and before his transfer to Guantanamo Bay six months later remain unclear. Along with other HVDs, he may well have been held in a secret CIA prison in Afghanistan, although there is little in the way of concrete evidence either way. Click here for further analysis of where the HVDs - including Abu Zubaydah - may have been held during 2005-2006, before they were transferred to Guantanamo Bay.
CIA records show that Abu Zubaydah was transferred out of the CIA’s secret prison network and into US military detention in Guantánamo Bay on 5 September 2006, alongside the other HVDs in custody at that time (all of whom appear to have been transferred to Guantánamo Bay on 4 September or 5 September 2006). This final transfer was announced by President Bush two days later, as part of a wider disclosure about the CIA’s use of secret prisons.
Abu Zubaydah remains detained in Guantanamo Bay.