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.