Famous family names can be a blessing, or a curse. You can be a Rockefeller or… an Abu Zubaydah. If it’s the latter, can a website clear your name?
Heshem Abu Zubaydah, a Florida truck driver since 2009, has been cursed by his family name ever since his notorious brother was identified as a key Al-Qaeda operative after 9/11. Implicated in three of the biggest terrorist assaults on the United States—from the 1998 U.S. embassy bombings in Africa, to the attack of the USS Cole in Yemen, to the September 11, 2001 hijackings—his brother Zayn was captured in Pakistan in 2002, and waterboarded at a secret CIA site 83 times. For over a decade he has been held in Guantanamo, uncharged—and mentally deranged, according to his lawyers.
His brother Heshem’s life has also been a tale of misery since the FBI found him in Portland, Ore., after 9/11 and coerced him into spying on local Muslims. Since he had violated his immigration status by dropping out of college soon after he arrived in 1998 from Saudi Arabia on a student visa, he was at the mercy of federal agents, who also had trumped-up battery charges filed by an embittered ex-wife to hold over him, according to a 2012 profile by Jason Leopold for the Truthout website. Under threats of prison and deportation, Heshem testified in a grand jury against his brother—whom he had not seen since he was a child.
Heshem eventually freed himself from the clutches of the FBI, but not U.S. immigration authorities, who still want to deport him. A few years ago, he and his new wife, Jody Hammond Abu Zubaydah, fled to Florida to start over. But the name, of course, followed them. So with no fanfare and virtually no notice, they’ve launched a website, http://www.abuzubaydah.com/home.html, to rebrand themselves—and hopefully draw support for their plight.
“We’re just working on us right now,” Mrs. Abu Zubaydah, 36, told Newsweek in a telephone interview. “We just bought a house. We’re trying to get his Oregon record expunged.” She said Heshem works as a truck driver for “a small downtown produce company” in Palm Bay, Fla., near Cape Canaveral. “He despises talking about his brother. I don't blame him.”
She called herself “a stay-at-home mom” whose principal duty is taking care of their 8-year-old daughter. Her husband, 37, has two children from his previous marriage. “Heshem is still on probation and under threat of deportation,” she said. “No lawyer will touch his case. They say, ‘Your case is untouchable.’ ”
Thus the website, to brush up their image. “It’s more of informational website.… To inform people that we’re not scary, we’re not terrorists of any sort,” she said. “Just to let people know what we’ve been through.”
Why not just change their name?
“We are not our brother-in-law. We are proud of our name, and maybe we can transform it. Maybe in the future you’ll not think of the guy in Gitmo but our family in Florida.”
(According to Leopold, Mrs. Zubaydah's father-in-law was “a well-respected businessman and teacher of Arabic” in Saudi Arabia.)
Her brother-in-law occasionally writes them from Guantanamo, she said, asking for forgiveness. “We get letters once in a blue moon, mainly saying I’m sorry. But I don’t think he really is sorry. I don’t think he had family in mind when he did his dirty deeds. He asks for forgiveness, but my husband is angry at him. ‘This guy totally screwed my life over,’ he says.”
Newsweek contributing editor Jeff Stein writes SpyTalk from Washington, D.C.