Ever since FBI and CIA agents helped capture top Al Qaeda leader Abu Zubaydah in a rooftop chase in Pakistan, there's been great hope he'd divulge information helpful in thwarting terror attacks against the US.
On this count, his record since his capture in March seems mixed with perhaps the biggest break being his apparent unwitting help in exposing alleged "dirty bomber" Jose Padilla, whose arrest was announced this week.
But because Mr. Zubaydah was a key information hub in Al Qaeda's worldwide network, he's far more consistently useful, observers say, in a different way: By claiming Zubaydah has regularly been revealing crucial information during interrogation, US officials have mounted a spin offensive that aims to demoralize and discomfit his compatriots to keep them nervous and on the defensive. Indeed, US officials say he's helped lead them to everything from Padilla to plans to attack shopping malls.
"The most important part" of his captivity, says former counterterror official L. Paul Bremer, "is the message it sends to his colleagues that he's 'turned' and is 'singing.' It makes everybody in the network worried about what he'll reveal next."
For terrorists who rely on the element of surprise this can be especially unnerving. Such tactics have paid off in previous antiterror battles. Peruvian troops, for instance, captured Shining Path leader Augusto Guzman in 1992 at the height of his movement's power. Deprived of his charisma and convinced he'd partly capitulated to the government his followers began deserting. Now Shining Path is dramatically diminished.
More broadly, during the cold war, the US and the USSR publicly paraded defectors as evidence the other regime was unpopular with its own people. And in the Vietnam War, northern captors forced GIs to criticize the US on TV to try to demoralize the American public.
But Zubaydah is especially useful in this effort, experts say, because he was such a key connector within Al Qaeda perhaps more so than Osama bin Laden himself. "He is the man who maintained the lifeblood of the organization," says Rohan Gunaratna, author of "Inside Al Qaeda: Global Network of Terror."
Stationed for several years in Pakistan, Zubaydah was a chief gatekeeper who accepted or rejected rookie recruits and then sent acceptable ones into Afghanistan for training. Later, he assigned them to specific cells or missions. This role required him to communicate with allies in the Balkans, Canada, Asia, and elsewhere. According to the now-famous FBI "Phoenix memo" he was even in contact with at least one Arab training at a US flight school.
Now he's being interrogated at an undisclosed location perhaps on the island of Diego Garcia or, less likely, in Guantanamo Bay, Cuba.
Officials won't give details but insist he's not being physically tortured. It's highly unlikely that he is cooperating, even partially, with questioners, experts say. During his capture even after being severely wounded by gunshots he reportedly taunted Pakistani police officers, saying "You're not Muslims."
But US officials insist he's been helpful wittingly or not in enabling them to warn about possible attacks on shopping malls, supermarkets, the Brooklyn Bridge, the Statue of Liberty, and northeastern financial institutions.
Still, there's a great debate about the defensive utility of his information. Some worry he's leading officials toward decoy plots. "The targets he has identified are not nearly as important as the targets Al Qaeda has traditionally hit," observes Mr. Gunaratna. Others point out that Al Qaeda has constantly changed methods so suicide bombers in malls, for instance, makes sense.
But Zubaydah capture is useful for offense. Especially for low-ranking Al Qaeda members or potential recruits, having a key leader captured may be demoralizing. For those planning attacks, it forces them to divert attention to operational security.
There are dangers to the strategy, however. By publicizing what it does know about potential attacks, the US risks tipping off Al Qaeda leaders to what it does not know. And there's a boy-cries-wolf risk, says Jerold Green, a Mideast expert at Rand: "If we fake it, and it becomes evident we're faking it, we lose out."