Person of the Week: Abu Zubaydah

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Abu Zubaydah

It was a good week to be a bad guy. The U.S. went into high alert mode, at least briefly, after warnings from the FBI that attacks from al-Qaeda or some other malevolent group could hit banks and apartment buildings. The New York City Police Department stepped up security around bridges, tunnels and city landmarks Monday after receiving vague threats. Vice President Dick Cheney warned further terror strikes were inevitable; FBI director Bob Mueller said to get ready for suicide bombers; Defense Secretary Don Rumsfeld said it was only a matter of time before the bad guys get The Bomb.

The reaction, understandably, was equal parts "Holy crap!" and "Hey, wait a minute — how do we know these uncorroborated threats are on the level? What's the source?" Then, Thursday, we learned that the threats to New York (like the bank and apartment threats) came from one man: Al-Qaeda COO Abu Zubaydah, whom the feds have been sweating at an undisclosed overseas location. And so, for his role as the summoner of all our fears, Abu Zubaydah is our Person of the Week.

A portrait of the terrorist and his young men

When the U.S. captured Zubaydah in a daring raid in Pakistan in late March it was the biggest catch of the war on al-Qaeda so far. The 31-year-old, born in Saudi Arabia to Palestinian parents, was the Number 3 man on the al-Qaeda org chart. He'd been in charge of the Khalden training camp in Afghanistan, where al-Qaeda taught many Europe-based Arabs. His fingerprints appear on most of the group's terrorist plots during the past few years: Zubaydah was implicated in the 1998 U.S. embassy bombings in East Africa; he allegedly played a role in the so-called Millennium plots — two thwarted terrorist attacks planned for December 1999, one at Los Angeles International Airport and the other at a popular tourist hotel in Jordan. He is also linked to Zacarias Moussaoui, the French trainee pilot on trial in the U.S. as the purported "20th hijacker," and allegedly a Khalden camp graduate.

Zubaydah, whose real name is Zayn al-Abidin Mohammed Husayn, grew up comfortably middle-class. In his teens he became interested in Islamic extremism, drawn there by the Palestinian cause, and by age 18 he was in Gaza as a member of Islamic Jihad. In the mid-1990s he moved to Afghanistan, and soon Osama bin Laden placed him in the border town of Peshawar, Pakistan. There, Zubaydah acted as a kind of semi-permeable membrane, passing on to al-Qaeda volunteers he deemed acceptable. As a cover, he posed as a honey merchant but nonetheless attracted notice from the Pakistanis, who raided the halfway houses in 1997. Zubaydah fled to Afghanistan, where he took charge of the Khalden camp.

Do we feel lucky?

Now Zubaydah resides in that aforementioned undisclosed overseas location, where the U.S. may or may not be using torture to extract information. The problem: How do we know if he's telling us the truth? This is, after all, Zubaydah's last dance: as long as he keeps tossing out things, stringing us along, he's useful, privileged, treated with respect by his interrogators, like a Cold War era captured agent. Once that's no longer true, his life will turn very, very nasty. Zubaydah has every reason to lie, to throw his captors off the trail, to sow fear and doubt, to poke the U.S. so that his al-Qaeda fellows can observe how we react. Should we play along? Does passing along his uncorraborated warnings do more harm than good?

And yet — what if he is telling the truth? Can we afford to ignore a warning that might be very real? "We now have a large number of people in custody, detainees," Cheney said Wednesday on "Larry King Live," "and periodically as we go through this process we learn more about the possibility of future attacks. And based on that kind of reporting, we try to be very cautious and alert people when we think there's a reason to be concerned about a particular subject or target." We just spent the past few weeks calling for transparency in the war on terror. Sometimes, that means we can know too much.