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While Hambali’s capture cut off the remnants of the JI network from al-Qaeda central, operatives like Noordin Top now had acquired a taste for violence. With Azahari, Top went on to carry out three more terrorist attacks in Indonesia, including a second attack in Bali. Azahari was killed when Indonesian police raided his hideout in East Java in November 2005, and Noordin Top was tracked down to a safe house near the Indonesian royal city of Solo in Central Java, where he died in a hail of bullets on September 17, 2009. After that, the Indonesian police discovered a terrorist training camp in Aceh and rounded up several dozen more JI operatives and their new recruits.

Part 6


20. Abu Zubaydah

March 29, 2002. [1 word redacted] was in the middle of packing [1 word redacted] suitcase in [1 word redacted] New York City apartment, preparing to take a long-awaited vacation and spend Easter with family in Pennsylvania, when [1 word redacted] cell phone, house phone, and pager all rang consecutively. It was [1 word redacted] assistant special agent in charge, Kenny Maxwell, calling from the Joint Terrorism Task Force in New York, ordering [1 word redacted] to travel to a private airstrip at Dulles Airport, outside Washington, DC, for a special mission. Abu Zubaydah, America’s first high-value detainee since 9/11, had been captured the night before. [1 word redacted] was to help interrogate him.

The FBI had been looking for Abu Zubaydah for a while. He was originally wanted for his connection both to Ahmed Ressam’s attempt to bomb Los Angeles International Airport on New Year’s Eve 1999 and to the millennium plot in Jordan. Abu Zubaydah’s name had come up with increasing frequency in intelligence reports after the millennium plot. While he was not a member of al-Qaeda, his role as external emir of Khaldan was of considerable importance. Senior al-Qaeda members, such as Khallad, regularly turned to Abu Zubaydah for help with passports and travel. In turn, al-Qaeda guaranteed Abu Zubaydah’s protection elsewhere in Afghanistan, and he often stayed in their guesthouses. He was one of the most important cogs in the shadowy network that we were struggling to disrupt.

[1 word redacted] emptied [1 word redacted] suitcase and packed a duffel bag. Ten minutes later [1 word redacted] was in a cab heading to LaGuardia Airport. In Washington, acting FBI deputy assistant director Charles Frahm met [1 word redacted] to drive [1 word redacted] to Dulles. With him was [2 words redacted], [1 word redacted] former colleague from the New York office, who had just been assigned to headquarters.

On the way to Dulles, Frahm, who at the time was seconded, or assigned, to the CIA, told [1 word redacted] that Abu Zubaydah had been captured the night before in a gunfight in Faisalabad, Pakistan. He had been tracked down after the FBI helped trace one of his calls to an apartment building after monitoring his communications. The FBI worked with the CIA and Pakistani [2 words redacted] to raid the building.

After the gun battle, the occupants of the apartment surrendered or were overwhelmed and subdued. All were taken in for questioning. Abu Zubaydah was not recognizable at first. He had been shot in the thigh, groin, and stomach while trying to escape by jumping from the roof of one apartment building to another, and his wounds were serious. In addition, he had altered his appearance in an effort to conceal his identity. Before, he had looked like a businessman, with a carefully trimmed beard, glasses, and relatively short hair. Now his beard had been shaved off and his hair had grown long and straggly; he was taken for a low-level terrorist. Soon, however, the FBI and CIA teams on the ground saw through his disguise, and he was separated from the other prisoners. A decision was made by the CIA to fly him to another country—its name is classified—where he would be interrogated at a secure location.

The FBI case agent responsible for the monitoring of Abu Zubaydah was Craig Donnachie. [1 word redacted] knew Craig well. He was assigned to the JTTF in New York and was knowledgeable about Abu Zubaydah. [1 word redacted] had worked together on previous I-49 cases, and initially FBI headquarters had decided that Craig and [1 word redacted] would be partners on this mission. In the car, however, Frahm told [1 word redacted] that Craig wouldn’t be joining [1 word redacted], as they couldn’t get in contact with him. (It turned out that he was on a train back to New York to spend Easter with his family.) Instead, [2 words redacted] would come.

Frahm told [1 word redacted] that [1 word redacted] orders were to assist the CIA team, and that [1 word redacted] were being brought in to help because of [1 word redacted] knowledge of Abu Zubaydah. He told [1 word redacted], more than once, that it was to be a CIA-led intelligence-gathering operation and that [1 word redacted] were there to support them as needed. [2 words redacted] not to read the Miranda warning or worry about the admissibility of evidence in court. [2 words redacted] to stay as long as the CIA needed [1 word redacted].

At Dulles [2 words redacted] joined by two medical personnel contracted by the agency, a doctor and an anesthesiologist, who were to help care for Abu Zubaydah. As the anesthesiologist had never worked with the CIA before, an agency officer took him into a telephone booth at the terminal to explain, and have him sign, a confidentiality agreement. Also with them was a cadet who had been pulled out of the new CIA officers’ class and assigned to the mission because he had training as a medic. He was to assist the doctor and the anesthesiologist in that capacity. [1 word redacted] boarded a plane chartered by the CIA and took off. After a lengthy journey [1 word redacted] arrived at [1 word redacted] destination.

[2 words redacted] met by officers from the local CIA station who took [1 word redacted] to a small plane. [1 word redacted] flew to the safe house where Abu Zubaydah would be held. Local CIA officers warmly welcomed [1 word redacted]. As Abu Zubaydah was to be arriving shortly, [1 word redacted] set about cleaning and preparing the facility for his arrival, setting up a makeshift hospital room for him. [1 word redacted] also tried to make the place hygienic for the rest of [1 word redacted] to use. It was a very primitive location. One day [1 word redacted] walked into the bathroom and saw a [1 word redacted] curled up in the corner, head raised and hissing at [1 word redacted] ran out and called a guard who was assigned to provide perimeter security. He found a V-shaped branch on the ground and caught the snake, then took it out of the bathroom. This was not an uncommon problem.

[1 word redacted] had been told that the CIA’s Counterterrorism Center, tasked with conducting interrogations on behalf of the agency, had decided not to send a team to join [1 word redacted]. They didn’t believe it was actually Abu Zubaydah who had been captured. Others in the CIA did, which is why he was flown to a CIA safe house, and why [1 word redacted] were flown to meet him. ([1 word redacted] later discovered that the CTC team was supposed to have been on the plane with [1 word redacted].) The CTC was now being run by Alvin, the chief of operations who had made mistakes in Amman during the millennium investigation.

[1 word redacted] later found out that the CTC’s confusion stemmed from our anonymous source in Afghanistan, who had told them that the man captured was not Abu Zubaydah. They had shown the source a picture of the captured man. While usually reliable, the source was not skilled at identifying people in photos. Photographs were foreign to him, as he had grown up under the Taliban, of whose members there were no pictures. And he certainly couldn’t recognize a beardless Abu Zubaydah. Confident in the source, the CTC didn’t want to waste their time by coming. [1 word redacted], and others at the CIA, trusted the positive identification of Abu Zubaydah by the arresting team on the ground in Faisalabad.