Confessions of a Terrorist

  • Share
  • Read Later
By March 2002, the terrorist called Abu Zubaydah was one of the most wanted men on earth. A leading member of Osama bin Laden's brain trust, he is thought to have been in operational control of al-Qaeda's millennium bomb plots as well as the attack on the U.S.S. Cole in October 2000. After the spectacular success of the airliner assaults on the U.S. on Sept. 11, 2001, he continued to devise terrorist plans.

Seventeen months ago, the U.S. finally grabbed  Zubaydah in Pakistan and has kept him locked up in a secret location ever since. His name has probably faded from most memories. It's about to get back in the news. A new book by Gerald Posner says Zubaydah has made startling revelations about secret connections linking Saudi Arabia, Pakistan and bin Laden.

Details of that terrorism triangle form the explosive final chapter in Posner's examination of who did what wrong before Sept. 11. Most of his new book, Why America Slept (Random House), is a lean, lucid retelling of how the CIA, FBI and U.S. leaders missed a decade's worth of clues and opportunities that if heeded, Posner argues, might have forestalled the 9/11 terrorist attacks. Posner is an old hand at revisiting conspiracy theories. He wrote controversial assessments dismissing those surrounding the J.F.K. and Martin Luther King Jr. assassinations. And the Berkeley-educated lawyer is adept at marshaling an unwieldy mass of information—most of his sources are other books and news stories—into a pattern made tidy and linear by hindsight. His indictment of U.S. intelligence and law-enforcement agencies covers well-trodden ground, though sometimes the might-have-beens and could-have-seens are stretched thin. The stuff that is going to spark hot debate is Chapter 19, an account—based on Zubaydah's claims as told to Posner by "two government sources" who are unnamed but "in a position to know"—of what two countries allied to the U.S. did to build up al-Qaeda and what they knew before that September day.

Zubaydah's capture and interrogation, told in a gripping narrative that reads like a techno-thriller, did not just take down one of al-Qaeda's most wanted operatives but also unexpectedly provided what one U.S. investigator told Posner was "the Rosetta stone of 9/11 ... the details of what (Zubaydah) claimed was his 'work' for senior Saudi and Pakistani officials." The tale begins at 2 a.m. on March 28, 2002, when U.S. surveillance pinpointed Zubaydah in a two-story safe house in Pakistan. Commandos rousted out 62 suspects, one of whom was seriously wounded while trying to flee. A Pakistani intelligence officer and hastily made voiceprints quickly identified the injured man as Zubaydah.

Posner elaborates in startling detail how U.S. interrogators used drugs—an unnamed "quick-on, quick-off" painkiller and Sodium Pentothal, the old movie truth serum—in a chemical version of reward and punishment to make Zubaydah talk. When questioning stalled, according to Posner, cia men flew Zubaydah to an Afghan complex fitted out as a fake Saudi jail chamber, where "two Arab-Americans, now with Special Forces," pretending to be Saudi inquisitors, used drugs and threats to scare him into more confessions.

Yet when Zubaydah was confronted by the false Saudis, writes Posner, "his reaction was not fear, but utter relief." Happy to see them, he reeled off telephone numbers for a senior member of the royal family who would, said Zubaydah, "tell you what to do." The man at the other end would be Prince Ahmed bin Salman bin Abdul Aziz, a Westernized nephew of King Fahd's and a publisher better known as a racehorse  owner. His horse War Emblem won the Kentucky Derby in 2002. To the amazement of the U.S., the numbers proved valid. When the fake inquisitors accused Zubaydah of lying, he responded with a 10-minute monologue laying out the Saudi-Pakistani-bin Laden triangle.

Zubaydah, writes Posner, said the Saudi connection ran through Prince Turki al-Faisal bin Abdul Aziz, the kingdom's longtime intelligence chief. Zubaydah said bin Laden "personally" told him of a 1991 meeting at which Turki agreed to let bin Laden leave Saudi Arabia and to provide him with secret funds as long as al-Qaeda refrained from promoting jihad in the kingdom. The Pakistani contact, high-ranking air force officer Mushaf Ali Mir, entered the equation, Zubaydah said, at a 1996 meeting in Pakistan also attended by Zubaydah. Bin Laden struck a deal with Mir, then in the military but tied closely to Islamists in Pakistan's Inter-Services Intelligence (isi), to get protection, arms and supplies for al-Qaeda. Zubaydah told interrogators bin Laden said the arrangement was "blessed by the Saudis."

Zubaydah said he attended a third meeting in Kandahar in 1998 with Turki, senior isi agents and Taliban officials. There Turki promised, writes Posner, that "more Saudi aid would flow to the Taliban, and the Saudis would never ask for bin Laden's extradition, so long as al-Qaeda kept its long-standing promise to direct fundamentalism away from the kingdom." In Posner's stark judgment, the Saudis "effectively had (bin Laden) on their payroll since the start of the decade." Zubaydah told the interrogators that the Saudis regularly sent the funds through three royal-prince intermediaries he named.

The last eight paragraphs of the book set up a final startling development. Those three Saudi princes all perished within days of one another. On July 22, 2002, Prince Ahmed was felled by a heart attack at age 43. One day later Prince Sultan bin Faisal bin Turki al-Saud, 41, was killed in what was called a high-speed car accident. The last member of the trio, Prince Fahd bin Turki bin Saud al-Kabir, officially "died of thirst" while traveling east of Riyadh one week later. And seven months after that, Mushaf Ali Mir, by then Pakistan's Air Marshal, perished in a plane crash in clear weather over the unruly North-West Frontier province, along with his wife and closest confidants.

Without charging any skulduggery (Posner told TIME they "may in fact be coincidences"), the author notes that these deaths occurred after cia officials passed along Zubaydah's accusations to Riyadh and Islamabad. Washington, reports Posner, was shocked when Zubaydah claimed that "9/11 changed nothing" about the clandestine marriage of terrorism and Saudi and Pakistani interests, "because both Prince Ahmed and Mir knew that an attack was scheduled for American soil on that day." They couldn't stop it or warn the U.S. in advance, Zubaydah said, because they didn't know what or where the attack would be. And they couldn't turn on bin Laden afterward because he could expose their prior knowledge. Both capitals swiftly assured Washington that "they had thoroughly investigated the claims and they were false and malicious." The Bush Administration, writes Posner, decided that "creating an international incident and straining relations with those regional allies when they were critical to the war in Afghanistan and the buildup for possible war with Iraq, was out of the question."

The book seems certain to kick up a political and diplomatic firestorm. The first question everyone will ask is, Is it true? And many will wonder if these matters were addressed in the 28 pages censored from Washington's official report on 9/11. It has long been suggested that Saudi Arabia probably had some kind of secret arrangement to stave off fundamentalists within the kingdom. But this appears to be the first description of a repeated, explicit quid pro quo between bin Laden and a Saudi official. Posner told TIME he got the details of Zubaydah's interrogation and revelations from a U.S. official outside the cia at a "very senior Executive Branch level" whose name we would probably know if he told it to us. He did not. The second source, Posner said, was from the cia, and he gave what Posner viewed as general confirmation of the story but did not repeat the details. There are top Bush Administration officials who have long taken a hostile view of Saudi behavior regarding terrorism and might want to leak Zubaydah's claims. Prince Turki, now Saudi Arabia's ambassador to Britain, did not respond to Posner's letters and faxes.

There's another unanswered question. If Turki and Mir were cutting deals with bin Laden, were they acting at the behest of their governments or on their own? Posner avoids any direct statement, but the book implies that they were doing official, if covert, business. In the past, Turki has admitted—to TIME in November 2001, among others—attending meetings in '96 and '98 but insisted they were efforts to persuade Sudan and Afghanistan to hand over bin Laden. The case against Pakistan is cloudier. It is well known that Islamist elements in the isi were assisting the Taliban under the government of Nawaz Sharif. But even if Mir dealt with bin Laden, he could have been operating outside official channels.

Finally, the details of Zubaydah's drug-induced confessions might bring on charges that the U.S. is using torture on terrorism suspects. According to Posner, the Administration decided shortly after 9/11 to permit the use of Sodium Pentothal on prisoners. The Administration, he writes, "privately believes that the Supreme Court has implicitly approved using such drugs in matters where public safety is at risk," citing a 1963 opinion.

For those who still wonder how the attacks two years ago could have happened, Posner's book provides a tidy set of answers. But it opens up more troubling questions about crucial U.S. allies that someone will now have to address.