Torture Revisited – The Case of Abu Zubaydah, Waterboarding and Kiriakou

Recently, the Washington Post and CNN featured stories story summarizing the statements of a former CIA case officer, John Kiriakou, who claimed waterboarding “probably saved lives”, but also said he believed it constitutes torture and that Americans can “do better.”

While it is very pleasing to hear a former intelligence with field experience like Kiriakou’s recant his views on waterboarding, his alleged success story of Abu Zubaydah’s (AZ) torture doesn’t add up. Before giving a critical scrutiny of his comments, let’s provide a summary of his assertions:

  • AZ, a “crucial and highly placed terrorist”, was caught in the spring of 2002
  • Kiriakou initially tried “softer” approaches to eliciting information from AZ while he was in the hospital, however he was “ideologically zealous, defiant and uncooperative”
  • By mid-summer 2002 he was already moved to “a secret CIA prison” where he was waterboarded
  • Within “about 35 seconds” of being waterboarded, Abu Zubaida broke down
  • The next day AZ said he would tell them whatever they wanted. According to Kiriakou’s account, AZ’s reason was because “…Allah had come to him in his cell and told him to cooperate, because it would make things easier for his brothers”
  • Torture of AZ led to revelations about the importance of figures such as Khalid Sheikh Mohammad

Anyone seriously knowledgeable in Islamic beliefs will look at this collection of assertions and ask “Was Zubaydah insane, ignorant of Islam, or just trying to pull one over on his tormentors?” Researchers like Marc Sageman find “terrorists are surprisingly normal in terms of mental health,” so if he is insane, one must ask if his traumatic interrogation experience drove him that way, or at the very least made him worse if indeed he was unstable prior to his detention. Alternatively, he may not be insane at all but said whatever he thought would stop the torture without regard to its veracity or consistency with Islamic beliefs.

Based on reporting by independent journalist Ron Suskind in his book, The One Percent Doctrine, my guess is that was somewhat mentally unstable before his detention, but made worse after being tortured. In Suskind’s book, and other interviews, he quotes certain intelligence officials, including a former top FBI Al-Qaeda analyst, saying, “This guy is insane, certifiable, split personality.” This would perhaps put into context a diary AZ kept for a decade that included entries “ ‘in the voice[s] of three people: Hani 1, Hani 2, and Hani 3’ – a boy, a young man and a middle-aged alter ego.” It would also at least partly explain why Zubaydah allegedly heard God’s voice—a delirious-sounding notion at best and blasphemous at worst to Muslims, especially ultra-conservative Salafi/Wahhabis like Zubaydah. The sheer physical and mental stresses of torture probably drove him to further delusion and is likely as the other reason for his alleged Divine revelation. It would also give greater credence to claims by other intelligence officials, cited by Suskind, that Zubaydah was not a high-level operations manager, but a low-level logistics coordinator. It would be an unnecessary and enormous security liability to have a man with mental problems in such an important position.

Contrary to research conducted by academics and the experiences of other former professional interrogators, Kiriakou claims Zubaydah is an example where torture “probably saved lives” by leading to the capture of key terrorists. With reluctance he stated, “It was an ugly little episode that was perhaps necessary at that time. But we’ve moved beyond that.” According to intelligence officials cited by Suskind, under torture AZ gave false confessions that sent law enforcement officials on wild goose chases, except in one case: he correctly identified 9/11 planner Khalid Sheikh Mohammed’s moniker, “the brain.” Kiriakou alleges this piece of information from AZ was key in KSM’s eventual arrest.

So is this the smoking gun proving that torture works? Not really. According to the 9/11 Commission report, the CIA already knew KSM’s codename as early as August 2001, before the 9/11 attacks occurred and before AZ’s capture in 2002. This small, redundant piece of information did little to contribute to KSM’s capture. The main contributions came from two human intelligence sources—an Al-Qaida defector lured by a $25 million reward and the help of the Emir of Qatar himself—and a careless trail of Al-Qaida’s cell phone numbers and reused Swiss SIM cards that intelligence agencies smartly exploited. Abu Zubaydah’s confession contributed little, if anything to the success of other counterterrorism operations.

I wholeheartedly agree with Kiriakou that waterboarding is torture and immoral, but vehemently disagree that it was ever necessary or that ever worked in this case. Waterboarding and all other forms of torture are just plain morally and tactically bankrupt. Indeed, America can do better.

Allahu ‘Alim.

[My thanks to Dr. Imad-ad-Dean Ahmad for conversations and suggestions that contributed substantially to this article.]

Alejandro J. Beutel
Minaret of Freedom Institute






2 responses to “Torture Revisited – The Case of Abu Zubaydah, Waterboarding and Kiriakou”

  1. […] Confirming MFI’s skeptical analysis about the validity of Abu Zubayah’s information and supposed rank, disputes between the FBI and CIA emerge over the tortured Al-Qai’da suspect: […]

  2. […] administration reveals suspects underwent even more unnecessary torture than previously […]

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