June 20, 2009
In a world exclusive, Andy Worthington, author of The Guantánamo Files, reveals new information, from a source in Libya, about Ibn al-Shaykh al-Libi, the former US "ghost prisoner" who died in a Libyan jail last month, focusing, in particular, on the prisons in which he was held, and the ways in which torture was used by his interrogators.
Since the story first emerged last month that Ibn al-Shaykh al-Libi (whose real name was Ali Abdul Hamid al-Fakheri) had died in a Libyan prison, speculation has been rife that the Libyan newspaper Oea, which claimed that he had died by committing suicide, was covering up the fact that he had actually been murdered.
Once the Bush administration’s most famous "ghost prisoner," al-Libi had been the emir of the Khaldan training camp in Afghanistan, but his notoriety stemmed not from his own activities, but from the fact that, after his capture in December 2001, he was rendered by the CIA to Egypt, where, under torture, he made a false confession that two al-Qaeda operatives had been receiving information from Saddam Hussein about the use of chemical and biological weapons, which was subsequently used to justify the invasion of Iraq in March 2003.
The death of Ibn al-Shaykh al-Libi
There were several signs to indicate that the story of al-Libi’s death was suspicious. Oea is owned by one of Colonel Gaddafi’s sons, and, as Hafed al-Ghwell, a Libyan-American and a prominent critic of the Gaddafi regime, explained to Newsweek, "This idea of committing suicide in your prison cell is an old story in Libya." He added that, throughout Gaddafi’s 40-year rule, there had been several instances in which political prisoners were reported to have committed suicide, but that "then the families get the bodies back and discover the prisoners had been shot in the back or tortured to death."
In addition, two Human Rights Watch researchers had briefly met al-Libi in the courtyard of Tripoli’s Abu Salim prison just two weeks before his death, and, although he refused to talk to them, they said that he "looked well," and it was also revealed in the days after his death that lawyers for Abu Zubaydah, another former "ghost prisoner," who was sent to Guantánamo in September 2006, had been attempting to make contact with al-Libi as a possible witness in any forthcoming trial involving their client.
A week after the death, Newsweek reported that US officials "are skeptical about the supposed suicide," and that the Obama administration "is pressing the Libyan government to explain" al-Libi’s death. Speaking anonymously, an administration official "familiar with the case" told Newsweek, "We want answers. We want to know what really happened here."
The Newsweek article also explained that US officials feared that al-Libi’s death "could reopen questions about the [CIA]’s 'extraordinary rendition’ program and further complicate the president’s plans to shut down the Guantánamo Bay detention center." I have no idea how al-Libi’s death could possibly impact on President Obama’s plans to close Guantánamo, but when it comes to asking uncomfortable questions about the Bush administration’s program of "extraordinary rendition" and torture, involving secret prisons run by the CIA, and other prisons in third countries, the Newsweek article was certainly accurate.
New revelations about al-Libi’s torture
Following al-Libi’s death, disturbing details of his detention in at least seven different locations around the world have emerged in statements made by a source inside Libya. This source, who wishes to remain anonymous for his own safety and for the safety of his family, has stated that he met al-Libi at the prison before his death, and that al-Libi explained to him what had happened to him in the four years and three months between his capture and his rendition to Libya in the spring of 2006.
The story that al-Libi told to this source in Abu Salim prison was related to me by former Guantánamo prisoner Omar Deghayes, who was just a teenager when he arrived in the UK in the 1980s from Libya, where his father, a lawyer and trade union activist, had been murdered by the Gaddafi regime. I cannot, of course, verify the details of the story Deghayes told me via the source in Libya, as al-Libi’s death brought to an end any possibility that he would one day be able to explain what happened to him at the hands of US forces, the Libyan authorities and others involved in his rendition and torture, but so many of the details correspond with facts that have already been established through other research, that it seems certain to me that the story is true.
According to Deghayes, the Libyan source explained that al-Libi told him that, after his capture, when he was held briefly in Afghanistan (in the US prison at Kandahar airport, and on the USS Bataan, according to a previous report – PDF), he was rendered to Egypt, Mauritania, Morocco and Jordan, and was then rendered back to Afghanistan, where he was held in three separate prisons run by, or under the control of the CIA. He also explained that he was subjected to torture in all these locations, and provided disturbing details of how he was manipulated by his interrogators.
Torture in Egypt and Mauritania
These countries have all been mentioned in previous reports, but some of the details are new. Al-Libi’s time in Egypt, of course, is where the notorious lie about al-Qaeda and Saddam Hussein was extracted, which, incidentally, should be hurled in the face of former Vice President Cheney, every time he is invited onto a TV show to repeat his claims that torture saved the US from further terrorist attacks — and to ignore the crucial role he played in actually using torture to launch an illegal war.
From Egypt, according to the Libyan source, al-Libi was rendered to a prison in Mauritania. This too has been mentioned before, in an article in the New Yorker by Seymour Hersh in June 2007, which followed revelations in the Washington Post in November 2005 that the CIA had used a secret prison in Poland to hold "high-value detainees" (and, apparently, another in Rumania for "lower-level prisoners from Afghanistan and Iraq"). In December 2005, ABC News reported that eleven "high-value detainees" — including al-Libi — had been held in Poland (a list is here), and in the New Yorker Hersh explained how he had been told that Mauritania was chosen as a new location when the existence of the Polish prison was revealed:
I was told by the former senior intelligence official and a government consultant that after the existence of secret CIA prisons in Europe was revealed, in the Washington Post, in late 2005, the Administration responded with a new detainee center in Mauritania. After a new government friendly to the US took power, in a bloodless coup d’état in August 2005, they said, it was much easier for the intelligence community to mask secret flights there.
The problem with this story for the chronology that al-Libi told the Libyan source is that he did not mention being held in Poland at all, and indicated that he had been moved to Mauritania after being held in Egypt, presumably sometime in 2002 or 2003. It may be that the source was mistaken, although it is also possible that the US administration arranged a deal at this time, as officials were working closely with the Mauritanian government after the 9/11 attacks. Mohamedou Ould Slahi, a Mauritanian national who lived in Germany and had been in contact with the 9/11 attackers, was handed over to US agents in November 2001, prompting him to state, in his tribunal at Guantánamo, "My country turned me over, shortcutting all kinds of due process of law, like a candy bar to the United States." Slahi also stated that US agents had interrogated him in Mauritania a month before, when one of them threatened to bring in "black people" to torture him.
Torture in Morocco and Jordan
From Mauritania, al-Libi said that he was taken to Morocco. Little has emerged about this claim previously, although the author and journalist Peter Bergen noted in a major survey of "extraordinary rendition" last year that Morocco was one of the countries in which al-Libi was held, and if he was indeed rendered there in late 2002 or sometime in 2003, it would have corresponded with the time that the British resident Binyam Mohamed was held (between July 2002 and January 2004), when there was clearly an active relationship involving the use of torture that was negotiated between the US and Moroccan governments.
From there, al-Libi said, he was rendered to Jordan, to a detention facility run by the notorious GID (General Intelligence Department). In a report in April 2008, entitled "Double Jeopardy," Human Rights Watch found that at least 14 non-Jordanian prisoners had been rendered by the CIA to Jordanian custody between 2001 and 2004, and a former prisoner held in 2004-05 told a researcher that "a guard spoke of a Libyan prisoner who had been rendered by the Americans," and that he "thought the prisoner’s name was Ibn al-Shaykh al-Libi, but he was not certain." The ex-prisoner also explained that this Libyan prisoner was "held on the very top floor of the GID facility, away from all the other prisoners," and that a guard had told him,
They were hiding some Libyan guy who had been handed over by the Americans to be interrogated. They didn’t want the ICRC to know about him. And they didn’t want the Libyan to know where he was. So they chose dark-skinned guards, and they put the guards in green trousers and yellow shirts, so the Libyan thought he was in Africa.
Human Rights Watch also noted that another source, who had had contact with al-Libi, said that he believed that he was held in Jordan "for a couple of months," and I find this mention of "a couple of months" particularly interesting, because it fits with the Libyan source’s proposal that al-Libi was not held for up to two years in Egypt, as previous reports have tended to suggest, but was in fact moved over a two-year period between Egypt, Mauritania, Morocco and Jordan until, if the author and journalist Stephen Grey is correct, he was rendered back to Bagram on November 22, 2003, to a secret part of the prison, run by the CIA, that was known as "The Hangar."
Identifying other prisoners through the use of torture
What makes this scenario even more compelling, however, is the Libyan source’s comment — never previously reported — that, in each prison, other "terror suspects" were brought before al-Libi, and he was required to identify those that he knew — or, under torture, those that he didn’t know.
This partly ties in with the report of his death in the Oea newspaper, which noted that "he had left Libya in 1986 to travel to Morocco, Mauritania and then to Saudi Arabia where he was recruited in 1990 to join Islamist militants in Afghanistan" (in other words, that he spent time in two countries where he was later rendered by the CIA), and also indicates that he was, essentially, taken on a torture tour of prisons in Africa and the Middle East to identify those who had trained at Khaldan — or, again, those who hadn’t, but who were implicated through the use of torture.
Under non-coercive conditions, with skilled interrogators like the FBI operatives who initially interrogated al-Libi after his capture (before CIA agents took over, sealed him in a tiny box and sent him to Egypt, while one agent told him, "You’re going to Cairo, you know. Before you get there I’m going to find your mother and I’m going to f*** her"), it’s possible that this approach would have yielded genuine intelligence, but in the circumstances that actually prevailed — in which waterboarding produced the false confession about the link between al-Qaeda and Saddam Hussein — the picture conjured up is of a terrifying kind of international witch hunt, about as far removed from notions of justice, the pursuit of truth and government accountability as is imaginable.
Moreover, the story becomes even more chilling with the realization that prisoners were also repeatedly shown photographs of other "terror suspects" to identify. No reports confirm that this also happened to al-Libi, but it is inconceivable that it did not take place, and on a regular basis, because it happened to every other prisoner regarded as having intelligence value. One was Ali al-Hajj al-Sharqawi (also identified as Abdu Ali Sharqawi), a Yemeni seized in Karachi in February 2002. Rendered by the CIA to Jordan, where he was held for two years before being rendered to Afghanistan and then Guantánamo, where he is still held, al-Sharqawi explained, in a note written while in GID detention in 2002, which was later smuggled out of the prison,
I was being interrogated all the time, in the evening and in the day. I was shown thousands of photos, and I really mean thousands, I am not exaggerating … And in between all this you have the torture, the abuse, the cursing, humiliation. They had threatened me with being sexually abused and electrocuted. I was told that if I wanted to leave with permanent disability both mental and physical, that that could be arranged. They said they had all the facilities of Jordan to achieve that. I was told that I had to talk, I had to tell them everything.
Al-Sharqawi also explained, as Human Rights Watch described it, that "GID interrogators were extremely eager to provide information to the CIA." In his prison note, he stated,
Every time that the interrogator asks me about a certain piece of information, and I talk, he asks me if I told this to the Americans. And if I say no he jumps for joy, and he leaves me and goes to report it to his superiors, and they rejoice.
Human Rights Watch also stated that al-Sharqawi "later told his lawyers that one of his Jordanian interrogators acknowledged that he was asking questions that the Americans had provided."
Another detailed account was provided by Abu Hamza al-Tabuki, a Saudi national, seized in Karachi, Pakistan, in late 2001 and returned to Saudi Arabia in late 2002 or early 2003 (and later released), who wrote an account of his experiences that was made available to Human Rights Watch by a former prisoner who had been held with him.
As Human Rights Watch explained in its report, "Al-Tabuki claimed that the point of the abuse was to obtain information, even false information" and in his account he wrote,
The questions focused on Osama bin Laden and his wives and children, his location, and on members of al-Qaeda. I was shown pictures of bearded and non-bearded Yemeni, Saudi, Jordanian, and Egyptian individuals. I was asked the names of these individuals, and forced to identify them even if I didn’t know them. Many times, I even made up names for them because I did not know who they were and was forced under physical duress to identify them.
They tortured me a great deal in order to make me confess to them about the American targets that al-Qaeda was planning to hit, even though I had no knowledge about that. They even forced me, through torture, to make up fictitious targets, about which they could report to the Americans. Their [American] masters would later discover that these were empty threats, and that such targets were made up under torture.
Torture in Afghanistan
According to the Libyan source, after his imprisonment in Jordan, al-Libi was rendered to Afghanistan, where he spent time in three prisons run by the CIA: "The Hangar" inside Bagram airbase, the "Dark Prison" near Kabul, where dozens of prisoners were held, and another prison in the Panjshir valley, in the mountains north of Kabul, which was the home of Ahmed Shah Massoud, the leader of the Northern Alliance, who was assassinated just two days before the 9/11 attacks.
Few researchers have come across the use of the Panjshir prison as part of a network of secret prisons used by the CIA in Afghanistan, but it was mentioned briefly last summer in the trial by Military Commission of Salim Hamdan, a driver for Osama bin Laden, when the judge in the case, Navy Capt. Keith Allred, ruled out the use of any testimony obtained when he was held in the Panjshir prison shortly after his capture — and where, according to Hamdan, CIA agents "repeatedly tied him up, put a bag over his head and knocked him to the ground" — because of the "highly coercive environments and conditions under which they were made."
Furthermore, Omar Deghayes told me that, in Guantánamo, another prisoner had spoken about being held with al-Libi in the Panjshir prison. That prisoner — who is still held — is Sanad al-Kazimi, a Yemeni seized in the United Arab Emirates in January 2003, who was then rendered to secret CIA prisons in Afghanistan — including the "Dark Prison" — where he was tortured for a year and eight months before being transferred to Guantánamo.
In my book The Guantánamo Files, I also discussed the Panjshir prison, as it was mentioned by Abu Yahya al-Libi, one of four prisoners who escaped from Bagram in July 2005, in a post on an obscure French language website, which has since disappeared from the Internet. Abu Yahya al-Libi described 12 prisoners who were held with him in Bagram (only some of whom were subsequently transferred to Guantánamo), and explained how they had passed through a network of secret CIA prisons in Afghanistan, including Panjshir, where they had all endured "hard torture." He did not mention Ibn al-Shaykh al-Libi, but he did provide the most extraordinary insight into the location of the prison, explaining that, in February 2004, he and an Algerian prisoner called Abdul Haq (whose current whereabouts are unknown) had actually escaped from the Panjshir prison for a day and a half, before being recaptured in the "driving snow and freezing cold" of the mountains.
A disturbing conclusion
As with many of the details of al-Libi’s story, it is difficult to know how accurate is the chronology proposed by the Libyan source. It seems plausible to me that, after 22 months in Egypt, Mauritania, Morocco and Jordan, he arrived at Bagram on November 22, 2003, as Stephen Grey stated, and was then held in Afghanistan for approximately two years and four months before his return to Libya.
However, it’s also possible that he was held in Poland, but did not know where he was (as Khalid Sheikh Mohammed told representatives of the International Committee of the Red Cross that he only worked out that he was held in Poland when he saw a label in Polish on a bottle of mineral water), and it’s also worth noting that what is also missing from the Libyan account is any mention of Guantánamo, even though it has long been suspected that the CIA ran a secret prison within the grounds of the naval base, but separate from the other prison blocks.
This was first reported in the Washington Post in December 2004, when Dana Priest wrote that, inside the naval base, "the CIA has maintained a detention facility for valuable al-Qaeda captives that has never been mentioned in public, according to military officials and several current and former intelligence officers." Priest also noted that the secret prison "housed detainees from Pakistan, West Africa, Yemen and other countries under the strictest secrecy," according to her sources, and that a US official who had recently visited the base told her, "People are constantly leaving and coming."
At the time, Priest noted, "It is unclear whether the facility is still in operation today," but the widespread presumption is that it closed down sometime after June 2004, after the Supreme Court ruled, in Rasul v. Bush, that the prisoners had habeas corpus rights, paving the way for lawyers to visit the prisoners, and thereby breaking the shroud of secrecy, which, until that point, had successfully covered the prison and its workings. Perhaps even more significantly, however, Omar Deghayes told me that rumors of the secret prison’s existence — and of the presence of "high-value detainees," including Ibn al-Shaykh al-Libi — were also widespread within Guantánamo.
In the end, though, what is most significant about al-Libi’s torture tour through US proxy prisons and prisons run by the CIA is the realization that, throughout his long ordeal, US interrogators or their proxies were persistently using torture to secure information from him about other prisoners and other suspects — either in the presence of these men, or through the use of photographs — that was just as unreliable as his "confession" about the connections between al-Qaeda and Saddam Hussein, and that these other "confessions" must, in turn, have led to further arrests and further torture, with a cumulative effect that is truly mind-boggling in its scale.
A corollary about Khaldan
As if this were not disturbing enough, what no one wants to talk about is the fact that, throughout his years as the emir of the Khaldan training camp, al-Libi was not connected to al-Qaeda. An independent operator, and a veteran of the mujahideen resistance to the Soviet occupation of Afghanistan, al-Libi was committed to providing military training to mujahideen from around the world, including those who wanted to continue the struggle against the Soviet Union in Chechnya.
This does not, of course, mean that he was not a dangerous figure, as alumni of his camp apparently included Zacarias Moussaoui, a failed 20th hijacker for the 9/11 attacks, and the failed shoe-bomber Richard Reid (both of whom are serving life sentences in the US), and the interest of others who attended the camp was focused on terrorist operations in North Africa and Europe, but it does indicate that the Bush administration’s insistence on relating all mujahideen activity to al-Qaeda was severely misplaced, and also demonstrates that "terrorist training" — or "preparation for jihad" — was a broad field that included training in self-defense and preparation for military activity on behalf of other Muslims, as well as what we generally understand as terrorism.
In the case of the Khaldan camp, for example, it is rarely, if ever mentioned that al-Libi’s refusal to cooperate with Osama bin Laden led to the Taliban closing the camp in 2000, even though this story emerged at Guantánamo on two separate occasions, and has ramifications not only for al-Libi’s case, but also for that of Abu Zubaydah. A supposed "high-value detainee," Zubaydah is routinely described as a "senior al-Qaeda operative," even though, according to Dan Coleman of the FBI, an old-school interrogator who was involved in his case before the CIA took over, and who was implacably opposed to the use of torture, he was nothing more than "a 'safehouse keeper’ with mental problems who claimed to know more about al-Qaeda and its inner workings than he really did."
Coleman’s view was reinforced at Guantánamo by Khalid al-Hubayshi, a Saudi who was subsequently released from Guantánamo, who explained in his tribunal that, far from being a mastermind, Abu Zubaydah was responsible for "receiving people and financing the camp [Khaldan]," that he once bought him travel tickets, and that he was the man he went to when he needed a replacement passport. Al-Hubayshi also noted that Zubaydah did not have a long-standing relationship with bin Laden. When asked, "When you were with Abu Zubaydah, did you ever see Osama bin Laden?" he replied, "In 1998, Abu Zubaydah and Osama bin Laden didn’t like each other," and adding, "In 2001, I think the relationship was okay." Although al-Hubayshi did not mention al-Libi, he also explained that bin Laden put pressure on Zubaydah to close Khaldan, essentially because he wanted to run more camps himself.
In 2007, after Abu Zubaydah and 13 other "high-value detainees" had been transferred to Guantánamo from secret CIA prisons, Zubaydah was finally allowed to speak in his tribunal, when he explained that he was tortured by the CIA to admit that he worked with Osama bin Laden, but insisted, "I’m not his partner and I’m not a member of al-Qaeda." He also explained that his only role was to operate a guest house used by those who were training at Khaldan, and confirmed al-Hubayshi’s analysis of his relationship with bin Laden, saying, "Bin Laden wanted al-Qaeda to have control of Khaldan, but we refused since we had different ideas."
His comments took on even more significance this week, when the ACLU, having managed, through a Freedom of Information lawsuit, to force the CIA to review passages in his testimony that had been censored in 2007, released a new version of the tribunal transcript (PDF), which included Zubaydah stating that, after CIA operatives tortured him to admit that he was bin Laden’s partner and the number three in al-Qaeda, "They told me sorry we discover that you are not number three, not a partner even not a fighter."
Moreover, Abu Zubaydah explained that he opposed attacks on civilian targets, which brought him into conflict with bin Laden, and although he admitted that he had been an enemy of the United States since childhood, because of its support for Israel, pointed out that his enmity was towards the government and the military, and not the American people. The same may have been true of Ibn al-Shaykh al-Libi, whose motivation appears to have focused more on providing training for Muslims to overcome oppression in their homelands, and in countries where Muslims were being oppressed, than on signing up for bin Laden’s global jihad against the United States. However, unless documents ever come to light providing details of his interrogations, his death last month — in circumstances that seem to have benefited both the Libyan and American governments, as the US flag was raised over the American embassy in Tripoli for the first time in 30 years, just three days after his death — means that we will never know for certain.
Andy Worthington is the author of The Guantánamo Files: The Stories of the 774 Detainees in America’s Illegal Prison (published by Pluto Press, distributed by Macmillan in the US, and available from Amazon — click on the following for the US and the UK). To receive new articles in your inbox, please subscribe to my RSS feed, and see here for my definitive Guantánamo prisoner list, published in March 2009.
For a sequence of articles dealing with the use of torture by the CIA, on "high-value detainees," and in the secret prisons, see: Guantánamo’s tangled web: Khalid Sheikh Mohammed, Majid Khan, dubious US convictions, and a dying man (July 2007), Jane Mayer on the CIA’s "black sites," condemnation by the Red Cross, and Guantánamo’s "high-value" detainees (including Khalid Sheikh Mohammed) (August 2007), Waterboarding: two questions for Michael Hayden about three "high-value" detainees now in Guantánamo (February 2008), Six in Guantánamo Charged with 9/11 Murders: Why Now? And What About the Torture? (February 2008), The Insignificance and Insanity of Abu Zubaydah: Ex-Guantánamo Prisoner Confirms FBI’s Doubts (April 2008), Guantánamo Trials: Another Torture Victim Charged (Abdul Rahim al-Nashiri, July 2008), Secret Prison on Diego Garcia Confirmed: Six "High-Value" Guantánamo Prisoners Held, Plus "Ghost Prisoner" Mustafa Setmariam Nasar (August 2008), Will the Bush administration be held accountable for war crimes? (December 2008), The Ten Lies of Dick Cheney (Part One) and The Ten Lies of Dick Cheney (Part Two) (December 2008), Prosecuting the Bush Administration’s Torturers (March 2009), Abu Zubaydah: The Futility Of Torture and A Trail of Broken Lives (March 2009), Ten Terrible Truths About The CIA Torture Memos (Part One), Ten Terrible Truths About The CIA Torture Memos (Part Two), 9/11 Commission Director Philip Zelikow Condemns Bush Torture Program, Who Authorized The Torture of Abu Zubaydah? and CIA Torture Began In Afghanistan 8 Months before DoJ Approval, Even In Cheney’s Bleak World, The Al-Qaeda-Iraq Torture Story Is A New Low (all April 2009), Ibn al-Shaykh al-Libi Has Died In A Libyan Prison (May 2009, and follow the links for further articles about al-Libi). Also see the extensive archive of articles about the Military Commissions.
For other stories discussing the use of torture in secret prisons, see: An unreported story from Guantánamo: the tale of Sanad al-Kazimi (August 2007), Rendered to Egypt for torture, Mohammed Saad Iqbal Madni is released from Guantánamo (September 2008), A History of Music Torture in the "War on Terror" (December 2008), Seven Years of Torture: Binyam Mohamed Tells His Story (March 2009), and also see the extensive Binyam Mohamed archive. And for other stories discussing torture at Guantánamo and/or in "conventional" US prisons in Afghanistan, see: The testimony of Guantánamo detainee Omar Deghayes: includes allegations of previously unreported murders in the US prison at Bagram airbase (August 2007), Guantánamo Transcripts: "Ghost" Prisoners Speak After Five And A Half Years, And "9/11 hijacker" Recants His Tortured Confession (September 2007), The Trials of Omar Khadr, Guantánamo’s "child soldier" (November 2007), Former US interrogator Damien Corsetti recalls the torture of prisoners in Bagram and Abu Ghraib (December 2007), Guantánamo’s shambolic trials (February 2008), Torture allegations dog Guantánamo trials (March 2008), Sami al-Haj: the banned torture pictures of a journalist in Guantánamo (April 2008), Former Guantánamo Prosecutor Condemns "Chaotic" Trials in Case of Teenage Torture Victim (Lt. Col. Darrel Vandeveld on Mohamed Jawad, January 2009), Judge Orders Release of Guantánamo’s Forgotten Child (Mohammed El-Gharani, January 2009), Bush Era Ends With Guantánamo Trial Chief’s Torture Confession (Susan Crawford on Mohammed al-Qahtani, January 2009), Forgotten in Guantánamo: British Resident Shaker Aamer (March 2009), A Child At Guantánamo: The Unending Torment of Mohamed Jawad (June 2009) and the extensive archive of articles about the Military Commissions.