“Good,” Abu Jandal replied.
“Good,” Mahmoud told me.
“We know you didn’t eat the cookies we put out for you yesterday because you have a sugar problem. So today we brought you some sugarless cookies that you can eat.”
Abu Jandal’s face registered surprise. He had been taught to expect cruelty from Americans, not kindness. He seemed at a loss for how to respond.
“Shukran,” he said slowly, looking at me and again shaking his head. Under Islamic traditions, you need to thank someone for a kindness, and Abu Jandal was well versed in Islamic etiquette. Now he looked at me, rather than Mahmoud, waiting for the next question.
We started off by asking him light personal questions, ones he’d have no problem answering. The aim was to warm him up. Every detainee is different. Abu Jandal was by nature talkative. He liked to lecture and liked being listened to. He was intelligent and well read, unlike many other al-Qaeda terrorists I had interrogated, so we used leverage on his personality and engaged him intellectually.
“So you left al-Qaeda in 2000?” I asked, accepting his claim from the previous evening that when he returned to Yemen in 2000 it was because he was leaving al-Qaeda.
“Yes,” he replied directly to me. “Although the fact that I’m here talking to you shows that you can’t really leave,” he said in a sarcastic tone.
“In fact,” he continued, “Abu Mohammed al-Masri told me, ‘If you think by leaving Afghanistan they [the Americans] will leave you alone, you are wrong. This is a war. Either we will win or die. There is no place for turning back.’” He had used an alias for Abdullah Ahmed Abdullah, the al-Qaeda shura council member and mastermind of the East African embassy bombings. He paused, as if for effect, and then continued with a shrug and a half-smile, “And he’s right, here I am with you, even though I left.”
“Why did you leave al-Qaeda?” I asked, ignoring Abu Jandal’s comment and sticking to our plan of having him talk about comfortable topics.
“For many reasons,” he replied. “First of all, because of my wife and children…” He explained that his son Habib had a bone condition and that they couldn’t get adequate treatment in Afghanistan. Another reason for leaving, he told us, was because his wife was unhappy in Afghanistan.
“Why was she unhappy?” I asked.
“Because Bin Laden had given me money to bring to someone in Yemen, which turned out to be for a new bride for bin Laden himself. She was very young, and the other wives resented me for bringing her, and in turn were mean to my wife.” Abu Jandal told us that he thought he was being sent with the funds for what he termed a “martyrdom operation” and was upset to learn that he was simply being used as a courier for wedding arrangements.
“So it was only for those personal reasons that you left al-Qaeda?” I asked. “There were no ideological reasons?” If there were ideological differences, it would be a good basis upon which to tease information out of Abu Jandal, Bob and I had calculated.
“No, there were,” he replied. “I also didn’t agree with some things bin Laden did.”
“Like what?” I asked.
“Like when he pledged bayat to Mullah Omar.”
“Why did you object to that?” I asked. Our conversation was a steady back-and-forth at this point.
“It meant that all al-Qaeda members who had pledged bayat to bin Laden were obligated to follow Mullah Omar. To me that’s not what al-Qaeda is meant to be, and not what I signed up for. I didn’t sign up to join the Taliban.”
“What is al-Qaeda meant to be?” I asked. Abu Jandal gave his views, which were based on bin Laden’s 1996 declaration of war and liberating the holy lands and the Arabian Peninsula from the presence of crusaders and Jews. From this topic, Bob and I steered the conversation toward his religious justifications for joining al-Qaeda. I gently challenged those religious justifications, citing passages from the Quran that appeared not to square with his view. I wanted to test Abu Jandal’s knowledge and see how firmly committed he was to his religious views, and to impress on him that I, too, was well versed in Islamic theology.
Abu Jandal countered by citing Islamic scholars who supported his position, and I replied by citing scholars who disagreed with his scholars. We had a spirited yet friendly debate, quoting authorities and passages from the Quran between us. Abu Jandal seemed to be enjoying himself, and enjoying the challenge. He voiced his wonder at one point, saying: “It’s fascinating to me how you can be a Muslim, know so much about Islam, and yet have such a radically different view from mine about America, al-Qaeda, and jihad.”
“I hope this leads you to rethink some of your stands,” I told him with a smile.
Our conversation veered into revolutions, which we had learned, the night before, was a favorite topic of Abu Jandal’s. After telling us about the Islamic tradition of revolutions for the sake of justice, he told us, “Revolutions don’t only happen in the Islamic world because of injustice. Non-Muslims also have revolutions.”
“Oh?” I asked.
“It’s true. In fact a revolution in Scotland started because the British general ruling the country insisted on sleeping with every woman before she got married, and one man refused. As a punishment they killed his wife, and in response he declared war on the British and…”
“Hold on,” I said, interrupting him, “are you talking about a movie? It’s Braveheart, right?” I recognized his description of the Mel Gibson movie.
“Yes, yes,” he said excitedly, grinning broadly. When he smiles, Abu Jandal’s face lights up, and the gaps in his front teeth become visible. “I saw it with my wife. I loved that film.” We agreed that it was a great movie, and for a few minutes we discussed it and compared our favorite scenes.
“You know, Abu Jandal,” I told him, ending the Braveheart conversation, “I know about the revolutionary tradition in Islam, and you’re clearly very well read in it. But did you know that America also has a revolutionary past?” He shook his head and leaned in. He was curious. He liked learning new things, especially on his favorite topics.
“It’s true,” I continued. “We Americans understand revolutions. We had our own revolution. America used to be ruled by the British. But in 1776 Americans had enough of British cruelty and taxes, and under George Washington, who was then a general but later became the first American president, we revolted against the British and defeated them. Only then did America become a country.” Abu Jandal was fascinated and asked me questions about the American Revolution.
He was now speaking directly to us, and Bob and I moved to the second stage of the interrogation: asking him more detailed questions about himself and al-Qaeda. While he continued answering our questions directly, he was still practicing the classic counterinterrogation technique of admitting to what he knew we knew and to things that were of no value, so as to appear cooperative.
We needed to snap him out of this counterinterrogation technique. “We’re going to do something different now.” I reached into my briefcase and took out one of our al-Qaeda photo-books, placing it on the table and sliding it toward him. “This is filled with people you know,” I said. “I’d like you to confirm who you know.”
“Sure,” Abu Jandal said. “I’ll take a look.” He picked up the book and began looking through it.
While he appeared to earnestly study each photo—his eyebrows furrowed and his forehead wrinkled, a few seconds allotted to each—he kept shaking his head and said he knew almost none of the people. There were about sixty photos. By the end, he had only identified Osama bin Laden, Abu Hafs al-Masri, Ayman Zawahiri, and few other known operatives. Those were people he couldn’t deny knowing, given his admission that he had been Osama bin Laden’s bodyguard. Abu Hafs was, at the time of Abu Jandal’s service, bin Laden’s anointed successor.