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The Nation

A High-Stakes Game With Top Al Qaeda 'Informant'

April 25, 2002|JOSH MEYER | TIMES STAFF WRITER

WASHINGTON — The drumbeat of threatening reports over the last week--terrorists planning to detonate radioactive "dirty bombs" or attack the U.S. financial system--has been all the more alarming because of their source: the captured operational commander of the Al Qaeda network, who is now being interrogated by U.S. authorities.

On Wednesday, the FBI announced yet another warning, that terrorists affiliated with Osama bin Laden may try to attack American shopping centers and malls. Like the other alerts, authorities say, the information was provided by Abu Zubeida, the nom de guerre of Bin Laden's top aide, who was taken into custody in Pakistan last month.

But why is Zubeida--a man apparently willing to die for his cause--talking to his captors at all, much less providing them with important information about the group's plans and operations?

And why are U.S. officials, normally so tight-lipped about their terrorism interrogations, spreading the word about his apparent confessions?

The answers, those close to the matter suggest, lie in the elaborate psychological and tactical struggle underway between American interrogators and their most valuable witness in the war on terrorism.

It is a multilevel effort that involves not just what Zubeida and his captors are saying to each other, but the impression that they are trying to create among those outside the interrogation room--both in the terrorism community and in the nations where the U.S. campaign against terror is being fought.

U.S. officials recognize that Zubeida may be deliberately trying to confuse and mislead them, mixing false leads with others in a way that leaves them unable to determine the truth. But they concede that they have no alternative than to take what he is saying extremely seriously, and to act on it immediately and aggressively.

Zubeida is trained in the art of misinformation. His interrogators are trained to foil such techniques.

"When you get someone that plugged in to Al Qaeda's inner workings, you have to listen," one Bush administration official said. "This is the E.F. Hutton of the interrogation process; you have to pay attention.

"Can you trust him? Trust is the wrong word," the official said. "Can you dismiss it? Absolutely not."

Interrogators Play Their Own Games

U.S. officials apparently are also engaging in their own manipulation, using the Zubeida reports to, in the words of one FBI agent, "tickle the wires."

That involves leaking Zubeida's statements in the hope that they create a buzz among his Al Qaeda followers around the world. They would then communicate among themselves in person or by phone and e-mail--and hopefully provide more leads in the ongoing terrorism investigation.

"If it seems choreographed, it probably was," the FBI agent said of the sudden burst of official disclosures about what Zubeida is saying. "You insert some information into a criminal investigation and see what happens."

The technique is just one move in a chess game similar to those the U.S. played for decades with Soviet spies during the Cold War and with organized crime figures at home.

It is now being adapted to a new high-stakes struggle with international terrorists. But even those U.S. officials involved in such interrogations over the years concede that they have never encountered subjects quite like Zubeida and his cohorts. All the old tricks simply don't work anymore, they say.

'A Different Kind of Human Being'

"This is a different kind of criminal, a different kind of mentality, a different kind of human being than we have dealt with in domestic crime or in the Cold War era," said John Martin, a former senior Justice Department official who oversaw espionage and terrorism investigations.

"At least there you knew what buttons to push to get their cooperation: the opportunity for freedom and a better life, safety for their families. But those things don't work with these people," Martin said.

Little is known about the interrogation sessions with Zubeida, held at an undisclosed location by military, intelligence and law enforcement officials. The interrogators are familiar with Al Qaeda terrorist training manuals, which advise operatives to reveal nothing other than disinformation.

The interrogators are actively trying to corroborate what they have learned from Zubeida by checking it against existing intelligence and statements from other prisoners--including a top Zubeida subordinate, Ibn al-Shaykh al-Libi, who is also believed to be talking.

Several U.S. officials echoed Martin's assessment that the old ways of interrogation are lost on Islamic terrorists, such as Zubeida, who crave martyrdom. They say Zubeida apparently knows that U.S. law prohibits the use of torture, but they note that other measures are being applied, including sleep deprivation and psychological manipulation.

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