A suspected facilitator for al-Qaeda who was captured more than a decade ago and tortured repeatedly at a secret CIA prison in Thailand, including being waterboarded 83 times, appeared Tuesday before a review board to argue for release — his first public appearance since his detention in 2002.
Zayn al-Abidin Muhammed Hussein, known as Abu Zubaida — the first prisoner in the CIA’s detention-and-interrogation program and the first to be waterboarded — said through a military officer representing him that he wants to be released from Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, so he can be reunited with his family and live a peaceful life.
Abu Zubaida, a Saudi-born Palestinian, has “stated that he has no desire or intent to harm the United States or any other country, and he has repeatedly said that the Islamic State is out of control and has gone too far,” his military representative, who was not identified, said in a statement.
The review-board process was established by the Obama administration to conduct periodic assessments of the continued detention of prisoners at Guantanamo Bay and give them a chance to argue for their release. The interagency boards are made up of senior national security officials.
The public session of Tuesday’s periodic review board, which was live-streamed for reporters at the Pentagon, adjourned after about 15 minutes without Abu Zubaida speaking.
Another official, arguing for the U.S. government, said that Abu Zubaida “has shown a high level of cooperation with the staff at Guantanamo Bay and has served as a cell block leader, assuming responsibility for communicating detainees’ messages and grievances to the staff and maintaining order among the detainees.”
But the official nonetheless argued against release, saying that Abu Zubaida “probably retains an extremist mind-set” and has not espoused his views recently “probably to improve his chances for repatriation.”
Abu Zubaida “has used his time in Guantanamo to hone his organizational skills, assess U.S. custodial and debriefing practices, and solidify his reputation as a leader of his peers, all of which would help him should he choose to reengage in terrorist activity,” the official said.
The closed session of the hearing involves a question-and-answer period with the detainee, and a decision for continued detention or release could be made within 30 days, officials said. There are currently 61 detainees at Guantanamo Bay.
Abu Zubaida’s military representatives said the detainee at first did not believe he had “any chance or hope to be released because of the reputation created through the use of his name” but that he since has “come to believe that he might have a chance to leave Guantanamo through this process.”
Abu Zubaida, now 45, was captured in Pakistan following a shootout in the city of Faisalabad in March 2002 that left him wounded. He was taken to a secret CIA facility in Thailand, where he was provided medical care and subjected to harsh interrogations. He was held at a number of secret CIA prisons overseas before being transferred to Guantanamo Bay in 2006 along with a number of other high-profile detainees, including the alleged organizers of the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks on the United States.
President George W. Bush described Abu Zubaida in 2002 as “al-Qaeda’s chief of operations,” but U.S. officials later assessed that he was a Pakistan-based “fixer,” not a formal member of the group, who helped aspiring Islamist militants make their way to training camps in Afghanistan.
Abu Zubaida, who lost an eye while trying to alter his appearance before his capture, endured some of the roughest treatment of all the detainees in CIA custody.
At the hearing Tuesday, the detainee, sporting a trim beard and wearing a traditional white tunic, looked to be in good health; he used eyeglasses and left his eye patch hanging around his neck.
At one point the Justice Department had planned to prosecute Abu Zubaida in the Eastern District of Virginia, according to former federal prosecutors, but he has never been charged with a crime by the United States.
According to a Senate Intelligence Committee report on the CIA program, Abu Zubaida’s waterboarding — which subjects someone to the sensation of drowning by pouring water over their cloth-covered face — induced convulsions and vomiting.
The report said that after one session, Abu Zubaida became “completely unresponsive, with bubbles rising through his open, full mouth.”
The CIA also used a variety of other harsh interrogation techniques on him for 24 hours a day, for 17 straight days. These included slapping, stress positions, white noise and sleep deprivation. He also was placed in what the CIA called confinement boxes.
“The CIA interrogators told Abu Zubaida that the only way he would leave the facility was in the coffin-shaped confinement box,” the Intelligence Committee report said. Abu Zubaida spent 11 days in that box.