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How A Comment on My Website Led Jason Leopold to Discover the Story of Abu Zubaydah’s Brother, Living in the US


On Christmas Day 2008, a comment by someone identifying themselves as Hesham Abu Zubaydah was submitted on an article I had written many months earlier, entitled, The Insignificance and Insanity of Abu Zubaydah: Ex-Guantánamo Prisoner Confirms FBI’s Doubts. This was the first of many articles I have written explaining how Abu Zubaydah, the “high-value detainee” for whom the Bush administration’s torture program was specifically developed, was not a senior al-Qaeda operative, as the administration claimed, but was instead the mentally damaged gatekeeper of a training camp, Khaldan, that was independent of al-Qaeda and Osama bin Laden.

The comment read, “Yes that is my brother and I live in Oregon. Do you think I should have been locked away for 2 years with no charges for a act of a sibling? I am the younger brother of Zayn [Abu Zubydah’s real name, Zayn al-Abidin Mohamed Husayn] and I live in the USA. Tell me what you think.”

In response, from what I recall, I responded to the comment, but did not hear anything back. With hindsight, I should have pursued it further, but I’m glad to note that, eventually, my friend and colleague Jason Leopold stumbled across the comment, tracked down Hesham in Florida, where he lives with his wife Jody, and began a 14-month investigation that resulted in the publication, yesterday, of EXCLUSIVE: From Hopeful Immigrant to FBI Informant – the Inside Story of the Other Abu Zubaidah, a 15,000-word article by Jason that was published by Truthout, where he is the lead investigative reporter, and where I am an occasional contributor.

This excellent article, accompanied by a video interview of Jason talking to Hesham and Jody, and an additional article about how a Freedom of Information request submitted by Jason attracted the attention of the FBI, reveals most of all how, because of his blood relationship with Abu Zubaydah — who is known to his family as Hani — Hesham has been imprisoned in America, threatened with deportation and made to work for nearly three years as an FBI informant, even though he himself has done nothing wrong, and has no involvement with or sympathies for anything to do with violent jihad.

One of ten children born to Palestinian parents in Saudi Arabia, Hesham is five years younger than Hani, and was only 11 or 12 years old when his brother left home for good, and he recalls him only as a happy-go-lucky guy, and something of a womanizer. At that time, he insists, there was no hint of religious extremism. As a result, it should have been obvious that he was of little use to law enforcement officials or the intelligence agencies, but instead he has been hounded, persecuted and treated abominably, primarily by the FBI.

Hesham arrived in the US in July 1998, when he was 22 years old, and, a year later, moved to Portland, Oregon, where he was living when the 9/11 attacks occurred. It was only afterwards that the FBI paid him a visit. As Jason explains (using the spelling “Zubaidah,” which I have maintained in the quotes from the article):

Hesham said the first time he learned that his brother had been involved in any alleged terrorist activities was immediately after 9/11, when FBI agents showed up at his apartment in Portland with a set of photographs they asked him to identify.

“I didn’t believe it,” Hesham said when he first learned of the allegations that his brother was involved in the planning of the 9/11. “I did not recognize the person in the pictures the FBI showed me. The person in the photographs had a beard and a mustache. My brother used to shave his mustache all the time. They had pictures where he had blue eyes, blond hair and green hair. The person just didn’t look anything like the person I grew up with. I told the FBI, ‘The guy you’re talking about, I don’t know that guy.’”

Hesham says he has been paying a price ever since for having the same name as the suspect in the pictures.

Crucially, Jason continues:

Why didn’t the FBI speak to Hesham before 9/11? It would seem a simple visit to the sibling of the person designated as a notorious al-Qaeda terrorist would be standard law enforcement procedure. But it wasn’t. Rather than interview Hesham, the FBI instead secretly spoke to his wife, about three weeks before 9/11.

John Kiriakou, the former CIA officer who helped lead the operation that resulted in Zubaidah’s capture on March 28, 2002, said he could not believe Zubaidah had a brother living in the United States at a time when the intelligence community was trying to track down and capture Zubaidah.

“That’s just stunning to me,” Kiriakou said in an interview last summer. “Before the raid, our team was trying to find people who knew Zubaidah. We heard he had a brother or a relative in Paris and tried to track him down, but that didn’t pan out. Had I known Zubaidah had a brother in the US, I would have demanded headquarters get the FBI to make immediate contact with him and squeeze as much info out of him as we could about his brother.”

No answer has been forthcoming, although the word that springs most obviously to my mind is incompetence.

As another example of the incompetence that runs through the whole of America’s response to the 9/11 attacks, and which I have been consistently exposing with relation to the supposed intelligence gathered at Guantánamo, Jason also details a phone conversation that Hesham had with his brother, in April 2000, when Hani rang him — probably from Pakistan.

Hesham was at work at the Fast Trip gas station one afternoon in April 2000 when the phone rang.

“Hello,” a voice said when Hesham picked up the phone.

“Who’s this?” Hesham responded.

“It’s Hani.”

Hesham had not spoken with his brother for nearly a decade. By then, Hani had been on the radar of US intelligence for years. Hesham was oblivious to the news reports that started to appear in December 1999 linking his brother to Millennium terrorist plots in Jordan and to an Algerian named Ahmed Ressam, who was planning to blow up Los Angeles International Airport and was caught trying to smuggle bomb-making materials into the United States from Canada. Ressam told federal prosecutors and the FBI that Hani was a top al-Qaeda lieutenant, close confidant of Bin Laden and “facilitator” of terrorist attack operations.

Hani was thought to be living in Pakistan at this time, and President Bill Clinton had reportedly asked government officials there to assist in capturing him. The FBI started to step up its surveillance of Hani, monitoring his cellular phone and other communications immediately following the failed plots in Jordan, according to two former FBI counterterrorism agents.

“Hani? Oh my God! I haven’t heard from you for a long time. How ya doin’, buddy?”

“I’m good, I’m good,” Hani said. “I heard you’re not doing good. What’s the matter, buddy?”

“I explained to him what I’m going through,” Hesham said. “I told him I have a girlfriend and a baby on the way but I am pretty stressed out. I have money issues. I don’t have enough money to pay the bills. I missed some car payments.”

“Do you need some help?” Hani asked.

“I don’t need help,” Hesham responded. “I don’t want to ask the family for help. You know how dad is and how he will throw it in my face and say, ‘See? I knew you would fail and come crying to me for help.’”

“It’s OK,” Hani said. “It doesn’t make you less of a man if you ask for help.”

“I really don’t want to do that,” Hesham said.

“You know what, listen, I am going to talk to your sister, and they’re going to try and help you out,” Hani said. “Just take it.”

Hesham said Hani asked him how America was treating him and if he enjoyed living in the United States.

“I love this country,” Hesham told Hani.

During their approximately 15-minute conversation, Hani also asked Hesham about his plan to obtain citizenship.

“Hani said to me, ‘You know, as a Palestinian, you can get refugee status,’” Hesham said. “He stressed that point.”

Hesham said Hani’s voice sounded like he was “happy,” like “what I remember. A fun, good guy.”

“I kind of think he’s away from dad, he moved on with his life and he made his life,” Hesham said.

A few days later, Hesham said Hani called him at his apartment and told him that a sister was going to wire about $1,800 into his bank account. They spoke for another 15 minutes. Hani said he hoped he would have an opportunity to see Hesham. Then they said their goodbyes.

Hesham never spoke with Hani again.

Curiously, Hesham said he never asked Hani what he was up to. He never asked where he was living, where he was calling from, what his phone number was, whether he was married, had kids, or even how he got his phone number.

Hesham’s explanation is that he simply didn’t care.

“I assumed he got my phone number from my parents,” Hesham said. “They called me regularly and I told my mother how stressed out I was.”

Still, considering that Hani initiated the phone call and that his every move at that time was supposedly being monitored by the CIA and FBI, did the National Security Agency (NSA), which at the time was headed by Gen. Michael Hayden, track it and pass the intelligence along to those agencies?

Jason followed up with a Freedom on Information request, as he explains:

I filed a Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) request last year with the NSA to find out. On February 28, the NSA responded, issuing what is known as a Glomar response to the FOIA. (The term “Glomar response” came into use after the CIA in 1969 denied a reporter’s request for information about the CIA-built ship the Glomar Explorer; the CIA refused to either confirm or deny the ship’s existence.)

“We have determined that the fact of the existence of non-existence of the materials you request is a currently and properly classified matter in accordance with Executive Order 13526, as set forth in Subparagraph c) of Section 1.4. Thus, your request is denied pursuant to the first exemption of the FOIA which provides that the FOIA does not apply to matters that are specifically authorized under criteria established by an Executive Order to be kept secret in the interest of national defense or foreign relations and are, in fact properly classified pursuant to such Executive Order.”

Five special agents assigned to the FBI’s I-49 squad, which focused on Bin Laden and international terrorism out of the bureau’s New York Field Office, reacted with surprise when told that Hani called the United States in April 2000; the agents said they had no idea the calls had been made. Four officers assigned to the CIA’s Alec Station, which also focused on Bin Laden, said they, too, were unaware Hani made the calls.

Hani’s telephone calls, which the FBI’s Portland field office learned about immediately after 9/11 when Hesham was arrested, was not shared with the so-called “independent” 9/11 Commission or the Congressional 9/11 panel.

Sen. Bob Graham (D-Florida), who co-chaired the joint Congressional inquiry into the 9/11 attacks, said it is “news to him” that Zubaidah not only has a brother who lives in the United States, but that Zubaidah called the United States three times in April 2000 and spoke to his brother twice.

“The 9/11 Commission and our Congressional inquiry would have been very interested in this information,” Graham said. “We should have been told about it so we could evaluate the relative significance of the information, because it could have further contributed to our understanding of what happened before 9/11.”

The phone calls add yet another wrinkle to the official narrative of pre-9/11 intelligence and who knew what and when. The New York Times reported in June 2008 that Hani “was careful about security: he turned his phone on only briefly to collect messages, not long enough for his trackers to get a fix on his whereabouts.”

Before 9/11, Hesham was involved in a disastrous, tempestuous relationship, which ended badly. The woman, Rosalee, his first wife, “sent a letter to the Immigration and Naturalization Service (INS) on May 31, 2001, stating that she wanted to withdraw her petition sponsoring Hesham for citizenship,” and, as Jason notes, that letter was sent the day before White House Counterterrorism czar Richard Clarke told then-CIA Director George Tenet and National Security Adviser Condoleezza Rice that “a notorious al Qa’ida operative named Abu Zubaidah was working on attack plans,” according to Tenet’s memoir, At the Center of the Storm.” As Jason added, however, “no one from the FBI visited Hesham to discuss his brother.”

In August 2001, after further marital problems, Hesham was arrested, and on August 22, 2001, FBI agents interviewed Rasalee, who, as Jason put it, told.”some wild stories about Hesham, according to a copy of the FBI’s interview report. She claimed that Hesham murdered someone at the behest of the Chicago mob, that he brought home crack cocaine and other drugs, and that he was going to return to Saudi Arabia with their daughter. She also provided agents with details about their violent altercation.”

She also talked about Hani. “Per Hesham, his brother Hani Mohamed Abu-Zubaidah is a bomb terrorist,” the FBI report says. “Hani has no contact with his family and his family has no way to contact him unless he wants to talk to them … For this reason, the father wants nothing more to do with Hani.”

Rosalee later confessed that she had lied to the FBI, and said that when she spoke to one of the agents who interviewed her, and said that the allegations she leveled against Hesham “weren’t really true,” the agent replied, “I could kind of tell that.”

Nevertheless, Hesham had finally ended up on the FBI’s radar. A week after the 9/11 attacks, two agents came to visit him, and he was arrested a day later, “charged with violating the conditions of his student visa,” and “placed into removal proceedings and held in solitary confinement.” He “maintained that the FBI and INS wanted to deport him because he was the brother of an alleged al-Qaeda operative. He said about ten different FBI agents interrogated him about his brother ‘a few times a week’ while he was in custody.”

And so Hesham’s nightmare began in earnest. A court case, in which he was poorly advised, led to him spending over two years in prison. On the day his brother was captured (March 28, 2002), a judge ordered him to be deported to Saudi Arabia, but that plan never materialized, as he is not a Saudi citizen. The FBI also turned up to harangue him in prison after his capture, but finally, in April 2003, he was released on probation.

As Jason notes, “Hesham developed a deep hatred for his brother, Hani. He blamed Hani for destroying his life.” As Hesham explained, “Let’s face it, if my last name was not Abu Zubaidah, I wouldn’t be in this position. The FBI wouldn’t be coming to see me all the time. I would probably be a US citizen by now. It’s all because of that guy that my life is fucked up. If he did what the FBI tells me he did, then he should pay. If he is the mastermind terrorist they say, he should be brought to justice. But don’t penalize me for his crimes. I’m a good guy. Screw him, and if my life is fucked up because of him, then fuck him!”

Please see Jason’s article for the rest of Hesham’s story — the positive side, involving him meeting and marrying Jody, his second wife, and the rather darker time when, for nearly three years, he was obliged to work as an informant for the FBI. I hope, for Hesham’s sake, that the publicity generated by this story will prove helpful to him, and I’m glad that my website proved to be the starting point for Jason’s extraordinary investigation.

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