WASHINGTON — A pivotal player in Al Qaeda's multinational operations, Abu Zubaydah is one of the few people likely to know about impending terrorist plots against Americans. But as a hard-core militant trained in secrecy and ways to resist interrogation, he is also likely to do everything possible to thwart US investigators who urgently seek to get inside his head.
The Palestinian operative captured last week in Pakistan, considered Osama bin Laden's No. 2 or No. 3 lieutenant, is believed to have been active in directing Al Qaeda cells, scattered around the globe, to plot embassy bombings and other terrorist acts since Sept. 11.
Yet Mr. Zubaydah is also probably skilled in sophisticated methods of resisting interrogation skills that US officials say are common among the hundreds of Al Qaeda and Taliban detainees held by the US military.
"These guys have all been trained to resist interrogation," says one Pentagon official, referring to detainees held at US camps in Afghanistan and Guantanamo Bay, Cuba.
Al Qaeda operatives use multiple aliases to obscure their true identities. They're known to carefully compartmentalize information, and may have gained access to KGB, CIA or other foreign intelligence manuals on secret operations. Moreover, they are likely to have "a whole memorized agenda" of "useless information" for deceiving interrogators, says Robert Baer, a former CIA officer who spent much of his 21-year intelligence career in the Middle East.
"Once someone sticks to a simple story, it is hard to break them down psychologically unless you use some sort of threat," says Mr. Baer.
Tools for breaking down such resistance range from the relatively benign bright lights and sleep deprivation to the far more controversial truth serums and torture, a method the US rejects but one that friendly countries routinely use, according to US law enforcement and intelligence experts.
"Are we going to engage in some form of forced interrogation, such as inflicting pain or torture? I don't see it happening at all in an authorized way," says William H. Webster, a former FBI and CIA director. "More subtle things would be the application of sodium pentothal [truth serum]," he said.
"This is intrusive, but less intrusive than inflicting pain, and if it is done it would be done on some higher authority," he says.
Such drugs may be justified to gather information quickly that "would save lives or prevent some catastrophic consequence," he says.
Other attorneys agree. "I think we have to consider and use some kind of drug compulsion," says Jed Babbin, former deputy undersecretary of defense. "We have to get what this man knows and use it to protect ourselves."
Still, information obtained using truth serum has a legal drawback: It is not likely to be accepted as evidence against Zubaydah or other alleged terrorists in trials, say attorneys including Webster, who advised the Pentagon in drafting the newly unveiled rules for military tribunals.
TERRORISM experts believe the biggest benefits from netting Zubaydah and other senior Al Qaeda members will come from disrupting the network, rather than from "actionable intelligence" gained in interrogations. That would be "icing on the cake,' says Bruce Hoffman, a terrorism expert at the Rand Corporation in Washington. "Abu Zubaydah is a critically important apprehension" that will have "an enormous disruptive effect" on Al Qaeda, he says.
Acting during the 1990s as a "talent spotter" in charge of vetting many of the thousands of militants trained at Al Qaeda camps in Afghanistan and assigning them to cells around the world, Zubaydah later rose to a position "at the nexus of Al Qaeda operations," says Hoffman.
He was linked to plots to attack sites in Los Angeles and Jordan in December 1999, for which Jordan has sentenced him. Investigations also turned up connections between Zubaydah and plotters of foiled terrorist strikes on US embassies in Paris and Sarajevo last year.
US officials say that Zubaydah emerged as one of the top two or three Al Qaeda leaders after the presumed death of bin Laden's military chief, Muhammad Atef, in US bombing raids in Afghanistan.
As a key implementer in charge of Al Qaeda operations, his capture marks "a very serious blow" to the network, says White House spokesman Ari Fleischer.
While Zubaydah may not talk, useful leads on terrorist plots may come from phone numbers and names gleaned from documents and computers found during raids on the Pakistan safe houses where he stayed. Zubaydah, wounded by gunfire in the USPakistani raid, is being treated in an undisclosed location.
Moreover, the capture of such a high-ranking individual is likely to prove demoralizing to Al Qaeda, especially by highlighting closer USPakistan intelligence cooperation. "It will be a major blow to their morale," says Stanley Bedlington, a former CIA counterterrorism official.
President Pervez Musharraf has moved to purge Pakistan's intelligence service of Al Qaeda sympathizers who may have protected members of the terrorist group who fled to Pakistan's tribal border areas from Afghanistan during the US campaign, say former CIA and State Department officials.
"This [capture] should mean that Musharraf is moving to control, discipline, and root out Islamist sympathizers within his apparatus," says Thomas Simons, a former US ambassador to Pakistan.