Mystery surrounds prison death of terrorist whose testimony was key to Iraq invasion


May 20, 2009

INTERNATIONAL INVESTIGATION: Islamist dies in Tripoli shortly after human
rights group visit from Fred Bridgland in Libya

THE ISLAMIST terrorist who was the key source of the false intelligence used
to trigger the US and UK 2003 military invasion of Iraq has been found dead
in a Libyan prison cell.t

Ibn al-Sheikh al-Libi allegedly committed suicide by hanging in the prison where
he was being held in the Libyan capital, Tripoli. His death followed a visit
by a team from Human Rights Watch, one of the world’s leading independent organisations
dedicated to defending and protecting human rights.

The al-Libi affair opens a window on an extraordinarily close espionage link
that existed between the government of the former US president, George Bush,
and the authoritarian Libyan leader, Muammar Gaddafi.

Al-Libi was the unnamed source that Bush, his former secretary of state, Colin
Powell, and other administration officials relied upon prior to the Iraq invasion
to assert that Iraqi dictator Saddam Hussein was helping a terrorist organisation
run by al-Qaeda. Al-Libi was known to Powell and Bush by the codename “Curveball”.

Powell’s speech to the United Nations Security Council on February 5, 2003
was largely based on al-Libi’s coerced testimony – which was extracted from
him in Egyptian torture chambers – even though many US intelligence officials
questioned it at the time and later dismissed it completely. In his address,
aimed at drumming up support for the invasion, Powell said he could “trace
the story of a senior terrorist operative telling how Iraq provided training
in these chemical and biological weapons to al-Qaeda”.

He added: “Fortunately, this operative is now detained.” Powell did
not identify “Curveball” by name, but CIA officials – and a Senate
Intelligence Committee report – later confirmed he was referring to al-Libi.

The Bush administration argued that the invasion of Iraq was necessary because
the country was concealing weapons of mass destruction from international inspectors
and could have shared those weapons with terrorists. No such stockpiles were
found after the invasion.

Colin Powell’s chief of staff at the time of the Security Council address,
Colonel Lawrence Wilkerson, said he has since discovered that Bush’s vice-president,
Dick Cheney, ordered the Egyptian torturers to step up their techniques on al-Libi
to obtain “a smoking gun linking Iraq and al-Qaeda”.

Wilkerson, writing in online political journal The Washington Note, went on:
“The vice-president’s office ordered them the Egyptians to continue the
enhanced methods. The detainee al-Libi had not revealed any al-Qaeda-Baghdad
contacts yet. This ceased only after Ibn al-Sheikh al-Libi, under waterboarding
in Egypt, revealed’ such contacts.”

Libyan-born al-Libi, 45 when he died last week, was a member of the anti-Gaddafi
Libyan Islamic Fighting Group and the head of the al-Qaeda-linked Khaldan training
camp in eastern Afghanistan from 1995 to 2000. He was detained in Pakistan in
November 2001 and sent to a US detention centre in Afghanistan before being
transferred by the CIA to the USS Bataan, an assault aircraft carrier stationed
in the Arabian Ocean, and then to Egypt in early 2002 under the Bush administration’s
“extraordinary rendition” programme.

Under what has been described as “US torture by proxy”, Human Rights
Watch (HRW), quoting a declassified CIA cable, said al-Libi’s Egyptian interrogators
demanded information from the Libyan about al-Qaeda’s connections with Iraq.
The CIA document said the object of the interrogation was something “about
which al-Libi said he knew nothing and had difficulty even coming up with a

Al-Libi’s inquisitors subjected him to a mock burial in a coffin less than
20 inches high for 17 hours, according to the CIA cable. When he was let out,
al-Libi was given a “last opportunity” to “tell the truth. Still
his answers did not satisfy the Egyptian team. He was knocked to the ground
and punched for 15 minutes.”

It was some time afterwards that al-Libi “confessed” that Iraq had
trained al-Qaeda fighters on chemical and biological weaponry – information
taken up by the Bush administration to justify the Iraq invasion.

A bipartisan report by the Senate Select Committee on Intelligence found in
September 2006 that al-Libi had “lied about the link to avoid torture”.
The committee also found that although al-Libi had close contacts with al-Qaeda,
he was not a member of the fundamentalist Islamic network.

After extracting the false confession from al-Libi, the Egyptians handed him
to the CIA. The date of the transfer is unknown, as is the location where he
was detained, although there is speculation it was Guantánamo Bay in Cuba. Some
time in early 2006 the Americans delivered al-Libi to Gaddafi.

Commenting on al-Libi’s death in his cell shortly after he was visited by two
HRW staffers on April 27, the campaign group’s Middle East director, Sarah Leah
Whitson, said it meant “the world will never hear his account of the brutal
torture he experienced”.

She added: “So now it is up to Libya and the United States to reveal the
full story of what they know, including its impact on al-Libi’s mental health.”

Stacy Sullivan, a counter-terrorism adviser for HRW, said of al-Libi: “He’s
a fairly significant figure in the counter-terrorism world, and his testimony
I would say provided the linchpin for the invasion of Iraq.”

Sullivan said HRW personnel were “stunned” to discover al-Libi in
Tripoli’s Abu Salim prison during their fact-finding mission to Libya. Washington
has never confirmed what happened to him, she said. When prison officials pointed
out al-Libi to the research team, he refused to be interviewed by them. “Where
were you when I was being tortured in American jails?” he said, according
to Sullivan. She added: “He got really angry and walked away.”

Human rights organisations and Islamic groups have questioned whether al-Libi’s
death was suicide.

Yasser al-Sirri, an Egyptian who runs the Islamic Observation Centre in London,
said al-Libi was a “true Muslim, and Islam prohibits committing suicide”.

Clive Stafford Smith of Justice, a group of British human rights lawyers, said:
“We are told that al-Libi committed suicide in his Libyan prison. If this
is true it would be because of his torture and abuse. If false, it may reflect
a desire to silence one of the greatest embarrassments to the Bush administration.”

Justice investigator Clara Gutteridge added: “He was tortured into making
false statements that were relied upon to start the Iraq war, and when that
became too embarrassing he was disappeared’ to a rights-abusing country.”

Hafed Al-Ghwell, a Libya expert and director of communications at the Dubai
campus of Harvard’s Kennedy School of Government, scoffed at the notion that
people in Libyan jails “simply commit suicide”.

He said: “This is a regime with a long history of killing people in jail
and then claiming it was suicide. My guess is Libya has seen the winds of change
in America and wanted to bury this man before international organisations start
demanding access to him.”

Tom Malinowski, the head of HRW’s Washington office, said that al-Libi was
“Exhibit A in the narrative that tortured confessions contributed to the
massive intelligence failure that preceded the Iraq war”.

The al-Libi case sheds light on the extraordinary level of co-operation that
existed between the Bush team and the Gaddafi regime.

Gaddafi helped the US pursue al-Qaeda’s network in North Africa by extraditing
radicals to neighbouring pro-Western states.

Early and excellent reporting on this, from a blog at the great site

Investigating an Embarrassment: More Questions on Al-Libi’s Torture, Death
By Jeff Kaye
May 12, 2009

The news of the death by possible suicide of former CIA “ghost prisoner”, Ali Mohamed al-Fakheri, also known as Ibn al-Sheikh al-Libi, has caused only a small murmur in the U.S. press. The Washington Post s Peter Finn wrote a story on it Monday, noting the key fact that it was the tortured confession of al-Libi in an Egyptian prison, where he had been rendered by the U.S. and subjected to beatings and mock burial, that was used by then-Secretary of State Colin Powell in his February 2003 presentation to the UN as evidence that Iraq was in league with the Al Qaeda terrorists and/or interested in using WMD.

Bmaz made this point the other night when writing on the initial reports of al-Libi s death. Marcy Wheeler, in a new article, notes some suspicious matters concerning the timing of the events. The newly breaking story has also now been picked up by McClatchy (H/T Perris). Both Marcy and the McClatchy article note the “relentless pressure” put on interrogators to find some link between Al Qaeda and Saddam.

Powell s claims that Al Qaeda had been trained in chemical and biological weaponry by Saddam Hussein s regime was a key element of the U.S. drive to invade and occupy Iraq. But al-Libi recanted this story in January 2004. According to the Washington Post, the Defense Intelligence Agency and some CIA analysts weren t apparently convinced. The fact he lied “to avoid torture” was verified by “a bipartisan report of the Senate Select Committee on Intelligence,” according to a press release Monday on Al-Libi s death by Human Rights Watch (HRW).

HRW s press release was notable for another reason, as they reported that they had seen al-Libi alive on April 27 at Abu Salim prison in Tripoli, Libya, where they had gone to conduct a fact-finding mission. While al-Libi was uncooperative, HRW did end up speaking to “four other Libyan prisoners whom the CIA had sent to Libya under the rendition process in 2004 to 2006. The men claimed that before they were sent to Libya, US forces had tortured them in detention centers in Afghanistan, and supervised their torture in Pakistan and Thailand.”

From HRW s press release:

As part of their investigation, the Libyan authorities should reveal what they know about al-Libi’s treatment in US and Egyptian custody, Human Rights Watch said.

“The death of Ibn al-Sheikh al-Libi means that the world will never hear his account of the brutal torture he experienced,” said Sarah Leah Whitson, Middle East director at Human Rights Watch. “So now it is up to Libya and the United States to reveal the full story of what they know, including its impact on his mental health.”

Al-Libi was returned from US custody to Libya in late 2005 or early 2006 and was detained at Abu Salim prison. The Abu Salim prison authorities told Human Rights Watch in April 2009 that he had been sentenced to life imprisonment by the State Security Court, a court whose trial proceedings fail to conform to international fair trial standards.

Human Rights Watch briefly met with al-Libi on April 27 during a research mission to Libya. He refused to be interviewed, and would say nothing more than: “Where were you when I was being tortured in American jails.” Human Rights Watch has strongly condemned the CIA’s detention program and documented how detainees in CIA custody were abused, but, like other human rights groups, was never granted access to prisoners in CIA custody.

The Libyan newspaper Oea first reported al-Libi’s death on May 10, saying that he had committed suicide and that an investigation had been initiated by the General Prosecutor’s Office. The Libyan authorities have not yet made an official statement on the matter.

Human Rights Watch pointed out that the closed nature of prisons means that all prisoner deaths warrant investigation, but that given the special nature of al-Libi’s case, his death merits special scrutiny.

“The Libyan authorities should authorize an investigation into al-Libi’s death that is transparent, thorough, and impartial,” Whitson said.

Al-Libi s comment about being “tortured in American jails” was described somewhat differently to me in an email from HRW s Tom Malinowski Monday morning, who wrote that al-Libi told HRW personnel, “where were you when the Americans were torturing me in Gtmo”? The Guantánamo connection is an intriguing one, as human rights workers and journalists are trying to put together an understanding of what actually has occurred at that benighted facility.

As al-Libi was moved from place to place as a ghost prisoner in the CIA s secret prison system, did he spend some time at Guantánamo? A short story on al-Libi s death at UPI doesn t mention it. However, in a story in Monday s UK Telegraph, it s reported the former leader of the Al Khaldan training camp in Afghanistan was “was captured in Pakistan in early 2002 and sent first to Kanadahar in Afghanistan, then to the USS Bataan and finally to Guantánamo Bay, before he was sent to Egypt for further interrogation.”

Malinowski told the Washington Post why he thought al-Libi was not sent with Khalid Shaikh Mohammed and the other “high-value detainees” from CIA prisons to Guantánamo in 2006:

“I would speculate that he was missing because he was such an embarrassment to the Bush administration,” said Tom Malinowski, the head of the Washington office of Human Rights Watch. “He was Exhibit A in the narrative that tortured confessions contributed to the massive intelligence failure that preceded the Iraq war.”

The UK Telegraph article also reveals al-Libi “had been in contact with the legal charity Reprieve.”

Clive Stafford Smith from Reprieve, said: “We are told that al Libi committed suicide in his Libyan prison. If this is true it would be because of his torture and abuse, if false, it may reflect a desire to silence one of the greatest embarrassments of the Bush Administration.

“Reprieve has been exploring tentative contacts with al Libi, and his death may have been a result of the pressure to allow him to speak openly about his torture.”

There s much more that can be written and/or asked about the al-Libi situation. Andy Worthington has been following the story, and has an updated post at his blog:

Few in the West will mourn al-Libi’s death in a Libyan prison, although legitimate questions may well be raised about whether he died, as the Libyan authorities stated, by committing suicide, or whether he was, in fact, murdered by Colonel Gaddafi’s regime…. after seven years of torture in Jordan, Egypt and Libya, and in CIA prisons in Afghanistan and Poland, which seems, in the end, to have produced no intelligence of any value whatsoever, I can only wonder what genuinely useful information he might have provided had the FBI, which was initially involved in his questioning, been allowed to continue interrogating him without the use of torture.

Cageprisoners also released a press release Monday questioning the story around al-Libi s death, and, like HRW, calling for an investigation of the circumstances:

Cageprisoners questions a disturbing report, as yet unconfirmed, that Ali Mohamed Al-Fakheri, otherwise known as Ibn al-Sheikh al-Libi, committed ‘suicide’ while detained in a Libyan prison. No further details have been revealed although it is known that Al-Libi was extremely ill and suffering from tuberculosis and diabetes and had endured torture in the year that he was detained as part of the ‘High Value Detainee Program.’

Ibn al-Sheikh al-Libi had never been charged with a crime by the US and was summarily sentenced to life imprisonment in Libya. Given the well-documented abuse of prisoners in Libya, it is highly probable that his abuse would have continued during his proxy detention.

Cageprisoners demands that the US and Libyan authorities disclose full details of his detention and the circumstances of his suspicious death.

Cageprisoners’ Director and former Guantánamo detainee, Moazzam Begg, said:

“The case of Ibn al-Sheikh al-Libi — the man whose tortured testimony was used to justify a war that cost the lives of tens of thousands of people and, ironically, indirectly led to the pre-trial detention of thousands more — should serve as a stark reminder of what happens when torture is applied to gain information. President Obama has recently granted immunity to CIA agents who may well have been involved in Al-Libi’s interrogation and torture. If the desire to get at what went wrong is so blatantly covered up under colour of incongruous ‘national security concerns’ there will be no end to this. And once again, the warmongers will get away with another odious and criminal cover-up.”

Given the role of the torture and “confession” of Ibn al-Sheikh al-Libi in the run-up to and U.S. rationale for its invasion of Iraq, al-Libi is not just another “ghost prisoner”, good for reporting by human rights blogs and ignored by all but a few of the media. By virtue of how he was used and abused, by the role given to him in the drive to execute the Iraq War — and by how he died — al-Libi is a pivotal figure in modern U.S. history.

I believe the International Committee of the Red Cross should initiate their own investigation into the death of al-Libi, under their mandate to investigate conditions in prisons around the world, and given al-Libi s status as one of the “high-value” prisoners in CIA prisons, which has been a previous source of ICRC investigation. I don t trust the U.S. or Libyan authorities to organize or run a fair investigation.

Something about al-Libi s death, especially after tentative contacts with two human rights agencies, seems very fishy, especially when one considers the mystery of his presence or non-presence at Guantánamo at some time in the past. We need to find out more, not just to render justice regarding Mr. al-Libi, but so we can know our own history, and make accountable those who ill-served this country by executing a lawless policy of kidnapping, torture and murder.

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