The Arabic media is ablaze with the news that Ibn al-Shaykh al-Libi, the emir of an Afghan training camp — whose claim that Saddam Hussein had been involved in training al-Qaeda operatives in the use of chemical and biological weapons was used to justify the invasion of Iraq — has died in a Libyan jail. So far, however, the only English language report is on the Algerian website Ennahar Online, which reported that the Libyan newspaper Oea stated that al-Libi (aka Ali Abdul Hamid al-Fakheri) “was found dead of suicide in his cell,” and noted that the newspaper had reported the story “without specifying the date or method of suicide.”
This news resolves, in the grimmest way possible, questions that have long been asked about the whereabouts of Ibn al-Shaykh al-Libi, perhaps the most famous of “America’s Disappeared” — prisoners seized in the “War on Terror,” who were rendered not to Guantánamo but to secret prisons run by the CIA or to the custody of governments in third countries — often their own — where, it was presumed, they would never be seen or heard from again.
The emir of the Khaldan training camp in Afghanistan, al-Libi was one of hundreds of prisoners seized by Pakistani forces in December 2001, crossing from Afghanistan into Pakistan. Most of these men ended up in Guantánamo after being handed over (or sold) to US forces by their Pakistani allies, but al-Libi was, notoriously, rendered to Egypt by the CIA to be tortured on behalf of the US government.
In Egypt, he came up with the false allegation about connections between al-Qaeda and Saddam Hussein that was used by President Bush in a speech in Cincinnati on October 7, 2002, just days before Congress voted on a resolution authorizing the President to go to war against Iraq, in which, referring to the supposed threat posed by Saddam Hussein’s regime, Bush said, “We’ve learned that Iraq has trained al-Qaeda members in bomb making and poisons and deadly gases.”
Four months later, on February 5, 2003, Secretary of State Colin Powell made the same claim in his notorious speech to the UN Security Council, in an attempt to drum up support for the invasion. “I can trace the story of a senior terrorist operative telling how Iraq provided training in these [chemical and biological] weapons to al-Qaeda,” Powell said, adding, “Fortunately, this operative is now detained, and he has told his story.” As a Newsweek report in 2007 explained, Powell did not identify al-Libi by name, but CIA officials — and a Senate Intelligence Committee report — later confirmed that he was referring to al-Libi.
Al-Libi recanted his story in February 2004, when he was returned to the CIA’s custody, and explained, as Newsweek described it, that he told his debriefers that “he initially told his interrogators that he ‘knew nothing’ about ties between Baghdad and Osama bin Laden and he ‘had difficulty even coming up with a story’ about a relationship between the two.” The Newsweek report explained that “his answers displeased his interrogators — who then apparently subjected him to the mock burial. As al-Libi recounted, he was stuffed into a box less than 20 inches high. When the box was opened 17 hours later, al-Libi said he was given one final opportunity to ‘tell the truth.’ He was knocked to the floor and ‘punched for 15 minutes.’ It was only then that, al-Libi said, he made up the story about Iraqi weapons training.”
As I explained in a recent article, Even In Cheney’s Bleak World, The Al-Qaeda-Iraq Torture Story Is A New Low, drawing on reports in the New York Times and by Jane Mayer in the New Yorker, the use of al-Libi to extract a false confession that was used to justify the invasion of Iraq was particularly shocking, because a Defense Intelligence Agency had concluded in February 2002 that al-Libi was lying, and Dan Coleman of the FBI (which had been pulled off al-Libi’s case when the CIA — and the administration — decided to render him to torture in Egypt) had no doubt that the emir of an Afghan training camp would know nothing about Iraq. “It was ridiculous for interrogators to think Libi would have known anything about Iraq,” Coleman told Jane Mayer. “I could have told them that. He ran a training camp. He wouldn’t have had anything to do with Iraq.”
There have long been suspicions that, after the CIA had finished exploiting al-Libi, he was sent back to Libya, but although Ennahar Online claimed that he “was sentenced to life imprisonment” in Libya, and that a representative of Human Rights Watch had recently met him in prison (which I have not yet had time to investigate, but find highly unlikely), the most detailed story about what happened to him, and why he was not sent to Guantánamo with 14 other “high-value detainees” in September 2006, was provided to Newsweek by Noman Benotman, an exiled Libyan opposed to the regime of Colonel Gaddafi, who said, in May 2007, that
during a recent trip to Tripoli, he met with a senior Libyan government official who confirmed to him that al-Libi had been quietly returned to Libya and is now in prison there. Benotman said that he was told by the senior Libyan government official — whom he declined to publicly identify — that al-Libi is extremely ill, suffering from tuberculosis and diabetes. “He is there in jail and very sick,” Benotman [said]. He also said that the senior official told him that the Libyan government has agreed not to publicly confirm anything about al-Libi — out of deference to the Bush administration. “If the Libyans will confirm it, it will embarrass the Americans because he is linked to the Iraq issue,” Benotman said.
The most important question that needs asking just now, of course, is whether it was possible for al-Libi to commit suicide in a Libyan jail, or whether he was murdered. I doubt that we will ever find out the truth, but whatever the case, the focus on his death should not focus solely on Libya, which only took possession of him after the US administration had made use of him to justify the invasion of Iraq. Whatever al-Libi’s actual crimes, his use as a tool in a program of “extraordinary rendition” and torture, exploited shamelessly not to foil future terrorist plots but to yield false information about al-Qaeda and Saddam Hussein, remains a low point in a “War on Terror” that has few redeeming features.
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. Visit his website at: www.andyworthington.co.uk.