The CIA spent years trying to probe the mind of Abu Zubaydah, the first terror suspect it subjected to “enhanced interrogation techniques” in the aftermath of 9/11. The cables and reports that document the agency’s interrogations of Zubaydah fill thousands of pages; scores of those pages have since been made public in redacted form. Diaries that Zubaydah kept before his capture in Pakistan in 2002 have also been released, as have excerpts from a first-person account of his brutal treatment at the hands of CIA interrogators.

Another glimpse into the mind of Zubaydah now emerges from a series of drawings he made during his years in U.S. custody. They are by turns haunted and bizarre, ranging in subject matter from graphic depictions of his abuse to creatures drawn from some indistinct mythology. The drawings were released to ProPublica in partial response to a Freedom of Information Act lawsuit filed by the Media Freedom and Information Access Clinic at Yale Law School.

What Zubaydah was trying to illustrate is sometimes unclear. His lawyers, who are bound by government secrecy laws, said they could not discuss anything he told them about what he intended. But against the backdrop of what is known about his treatment and his past, Zubaydah’s drawings often speak for themselves. A Saudi of Palestinian descent — he was born Zayn al-Abidin Muhammad Husayn — Zubaydah spent years organizing the training and travel of terror operatives, although he was not a leader of al-Qaida as the CIA believed.

On one page, he draws himself in various states of torment: shackled naked to a chair, having urinated on himself; confined in a coffin-like box; and strapped to the waterboard on which he was subjected to simulated drowning at least 83 times. Lurking outside his cell are the black-clad paramilitary guards who watched over him and assisted his interrogators in meting out punishments.

Another drawing seems to depict Zubaydah’s memories of other torments, including being chained in a standing position, doused with water, and threatened with death. In all, the CIA released eight of the drawings. In two of them, Zubaydah shows himself with a patch over his left eye. Although the circumstances in which he lost the eye remain unclear, CIA and FBI officials have said Zubaydah’s eye became infected before he arrived at the black site; it was later surgically removed.

ProPublica decided to publish these images to offer readers a further insight into the psychology of terror suspects who were subjected to techniques that are now widely viewed as torture. 

Since 2006 Zubaydah has been held at a secret CIA-controlled site on the U.S. Naval base at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba. No charges have been filed against him.

—Raymond Bonner, a former reporter for The New York Times, is a regular contributor to ProPublica.


When he was captured, Zubaydah was found to be keeping a personal diary, which was later released under FOIA. He has also given his lawyers extensive accounts of his time in CIA captivity, parts of which have been made public. ProPublica has selected some excerpts from those sources that overlap with the apparent themes of his drawings.

From Accounts Given by Zubaydah to His Lawyers:

I had normal dreams and then would find myself waking up and talking to myself for a long time and not a couple of words but rather long sentences and then to finally realize that I was in a different world than the world of dreams. Other times I would have nightmares and would wake up screaming or cussing or trying to kick or hit something; or I would wake up screaming that spontaneous scream I would scream at the end of that horrific song.

From Accounts Given by Zubaydah to His Lawyers:

They unchained my hands from the bars and chained them with short chains to the chains that were around my legs, which kept me in a bowing position at all times … They brutally dragged me to the cement wall … He started brutally banging my head and my back against the wall. I felt my back was breaking due to the intensity of the banging. He started slapping my face again and again, meanwhile he was yelling. He then pointed to a large black wooden box that looked like a wooden casket. He said: “from now on this is going to be your home …” He violently closed the door. I heard the sound of the lock. I found myself in total darkness.

Diary Entry, June 1990:

A Palestinian like me with no homeland, no passport and no identity … One who was destined to be born in a country that is not his, and live among people who viewed him primarily as a refugee … while the Jews are running loose in my country. That look used to bother me ever since I was little. I used to ignore it, but it is a fate than cannot be escaped.

From Accounts Given by Zubaydah to His Lawyers:

They kept pouring water and concentrating on my nose and my mouth until I really felt I was drowning and my chest was just about to explode from the lack of oxygen. Indeed, that was the first time and the first day that I felt I was going to die from drowning. All I know or remember is that I started vomiting water but also rice and string beans. 

And as soon as I emptied my stomach from the water and the food they brought back the bed to the normal horizontal position … I tried to speak or yell with my head covered: “I don’t know anything” but I suddenly felt the water flowing again …

Diary Entry, November 1998:

I think that I watched an American movie ten years ago called ‘Rambo in Afghanistan’ or ‘First Blood 3’ Back then, I was astonished over the extent of blood, explosions and excitement in that movie like most American movies… By fate, one of the brothers gave us the same movie to watch after deleting the music and the corrupted scenes from it consistent with our human convictions. Today and after all these years … I watched … this movie and I laughed loudly … I laughed … I laughed … My eyes became teary because of the deep laugh …