Terrorist Whose Testimony Was Key to Iraq Invasion Dies Mysteriously In Libyan Prison

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.

Ibn al-Sheikh al-Libi allegedly commited 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 story".

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 Guantanamo 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.
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