MI6 officer saw Ibn al-Sheikh al-Libi, who later falsely told interrogators of a link between Iraq and al-Qaeda, being flown to Egypt in a sealed coffin
British intelligence agencies fed questions to the interrogators of a captured terrorism suspect whom they knew was being seriously mistreated in the aftermath of the 9/11 attacks, and ministers then relied upon his answers to help justify the 2003 invasion of Iraq.
Through a close analysis of redacted official documents, Middle East Eye has established that an MI6 officer was aware that CIA officers had placed Ibn al-Sheikh al-Libi inside a sealed coffin at a US-run prison in Afghanistan. The officer had then watched as the coffin was loaded onto a truck and driven to an aircraft that was waiting to fly to Egypt.
In an incident report sent to MI6 headquarters in London, the officer and his colleagues reported that “we were tempted to speak out” at the treatment of Libi, but did not. “The event reinforced the uneasy feeling of operating in a legal wilderness,” they said.
Despite being aware that Libi had been flown to Egypt inside a coffin, and despite that country’s well-documented record of human rights abuses, both MI6 and MI5 decided to pass questions to be put to him, and continued to receive reports about what he was saying.
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Under torture, Libi told his Egyptian interrogators that there were links between al-Qaeda and Iraqi President Saddam Hussein’s nuclear weapons programme. Three members of the militant organisation had been sent to Iraq for training, he said.
On his eventual transfer back into CIA custody, Libi said that he had fabricated the account in order to avoid further torture.
By that time, however, his statements had been used to justify the invasion of Iraq.
Some had been included in a speech that US Secretary of State Colin Powell gave to the United Nations Security Council on 5 February 2003, just weeks before the US-led invasion, while on the same day, British Prime Minister Tony Blair told parliament that there were "unquestionably" links between al-Qaeda and Iraq.
"It would be wrong to say that there is no evidence of any links between al-Qaeda and the Iraqi regime," Blair said.
“There is evidence of such links. Exactly how far they go is uncertain. However… there is intelligence coming through to us the entire time about this.”
Blair added that the case for war against Iraq was not based upon the links with al-Qaeda, but Saddam Hussein’s weapons of mass destruction programme: "I believe that our case on weapons of mass destruction is very clear indeed. It is perfectly obvious that Saddam has them."
Then US Secretary of State Colin Powell addresses the UN on 5 February 2003 (AFP)
After the invasion, it was soon obvious that Saddam’s WMD programme had long been dismantled. It also became clear that there had been no link between Iraq and al-Qaeda.
But the UK’s role in the interrogation of Libi - the man who was tortured into providing a false prospectus for war - has not been disclosed until now.
US-backed training camp
Libi, whose real name was Ali Muhammad Abdul Aziz al-Fakheri, was born in Libya in 1963.
He is said to have left the country in the mid-1980s and travelled around North Africa before settling in Saudi Arabia, where he agreed to join forces fighting the Soviet occupation of Afghanistan.
Libi was captured trying to escape from Afghanistan in 2001
Libi is widely reported to have become the head of the Khalden military training camp in the east of the country. Set up initially with US support, Khalden continued to offer weapons and explosives training after the departure of the Soviets.
Its “graduates” included Zacarias Moussaoui, who is now serving a life sentence in the US after admitting that he conspired to murder US citizens as part of the 9/11 al-Qaeda attacks on New York and Washington in 2001.
Following those attacks, and the US-led invasion of Afghanistan, Libi attempted to flee. He was captured while attempting to cross the border into Pakistan, and was in US custody in Afghanistan by early January 2002.
By this time, leading figures in the US administration were already anxious to establish whether there were any links between al-Qaeda and Iraq.
As early as 14 September, just three days after the al-Qaeda attacks, US President George W Bush had raised the possibility of a connection between Osama bin Laden and Saddam Hussein: he said as much during a telephone call to Tony Blair, according to evidence later given to the Chilcot Inquiry, the UK’s official inquiry into its role in the Iraq war. Blair is said to have replied that he would need to see compelling evidence before he could accept this.
US President George W. Bush raised the possibility of a link between al-Qaeda and Iraq just three days after the 9/11 attacks (AFP)
Shortly after this, according to a 2006 report by the US Senate intelligence committee, the CIA responded to political demands for a comprehensive assessment of any relationship between the two by declaring that it would be “purposefully aggressive in seeking to draw connections, on the assumption that any indication between these two hostile elements could carry great dangers to the United States”.
Despite these “aggressive” efforts, the CIA initially assessed that evidence of links between Iraq and al-Qaeda relied on “fragmented, conflicting” reports from “sources of varying reliability”, the Senate committee would later find.
During the summer of 2002, however, Richard Dearlove, the head of the UK’s Secret Intelligence Service, also known as MI6, returned from a visit to Washington with some unsettling news. According to a subsequently leaked memo, Dearlove informed Blair that "the intelligence and facts were being fixed [by the US] around the policy" of removing Saddam Hussein from power.
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The Chilcot Inquiry found that five days after hearing this news, Blair wrote to Bush to say that in making the case for war, they should “add an al-Qaeda link” to Saddam, as it would be “hugely persuasive over here”.
By September, CIA Director George Tenet was telling senators that “there is evidence that Iraq provided al-Qaeda with various kinds of training – combat, bomb-making, and chemical, biological, radiological, and nuclear”.
The following month, Bush told an audience in Ohio: “We've learned that Iraq has trained al-Qaeda members in bomb-making and poisons and deadly gases.”
In time, the US Senate intelligence committee would find that there was only one source for these false claims: Libi, the man whom MI6 saw being flown to Egypt in a coffin.
'It was Cuckoo on his way to the waiting plane'
After being captured on the Pakistan border, Libi had been taken to the newly established US detention facility at Bagram, a sprawling Soviet-era air base north of Kabul.
What happened next is detailed in a pair of damning reports on the UK’s involvement in the rendition and mistreatment of detainees that were published last June by the UK Parliament’s Intelligence and Security Committee (ISC), a body that provides oversight of the country’s intelligence agencies.
While the US role in post-9/11 human rights abuses has been well-documented, the UK’s involvement was denied and half-concealed for years.
Following a series of media disclosures and a stalled judicial inquiry, this year’s ISC reports were the first official admission of culpability: they describe hundreds of occasions in which the UK’s intelligence agencies had become involved in kidnap and torture and inhumane treatment, frequently with ministerial approval.
Like the other detainees whose mistreatment is described in the ISC reports, Libi’s identity is concealed behind a code-name. However, MEE has established that he is identified in the report as Cuckoo, while the MI6 officer who watched him being rendered to Egypt while locked in a coffin is given the codename Baird.
Egypt is disguised as Cupar, while references to the CIA are redacted.
The ISC report describes how “Cuckoo” was questioned initially by an MI6 officer and a number of Americans thought to be FBI agents: “For a number of days, an SIS [Secret Intelligence Service – MI6] officer participated in interviews of Cuckoo alongside US personnel,” the report says.
“On the eighth day, *** unilaterally announced that they were taking over custody and intended to render Cuckoo to Cupar. On *** January 2002, the SIS officer witnessed Cuckoo’s departure, which was described in an SIS incident report."
The ISC report then quotes directly from that incident report: "About half an hour later Baird was sitting with one of the team outside the hangar when a pickup jeep with a six-foot, sealed box on the back drove past. It was Cuckoo on his way to the waiting plane … [a US official], was driving.
“There may be a conversation we need to have about the broader issues this and other aspects of the detention process raises. We were tempted to speak out against what we saw… but did not. The event reinforced the uneasy feeling of operating in a legal wilderness.
American soldiers watch a Hercules C-130 plane take off from Bagram airbase on 15 January 2002 (AFP)
“Nevertheless,” the ISC report goes on, “MI5 continued to pass questions for Cuckoo’s interrogation after his rendition to Cupar and both SIS and MI5 received reporting from subsequent interrogations.”
By a process of cross-referencing the facts given in the ISC report about Cuckoo’s case, with unclassified detainee accounts, official US government material now in the public domain, as well as contemporaneous and historical media reporting, it is possible to conclude that Cuckoo is Libi.
'It sounded as though his treatment may have fallen below the standard that we all agree to be appropriate'
- MI6 complaint to US authorities
Furthermore, around three dozen detainees are thought to have been held at Bagram at this time. All say they were abused and at least two later said that they believed Libi had been placed in a coffin and taken away. One detainee, British resident Shaker Aamer, who was later taken to Guantanamo Bay, told his lawyer Clive Stafford Smith that he had witnessed this.
In the event, MI6 lodged a complaint with the US authorities about what its officer had seen happening to Libi, although the ISC notes that it was couched in very gentle terms, saying only: “It sounded as though his treatment may have fallen below the standard that we all agree to be appropriate.”
Even this language was said to have been too strong for one senior MI6 officer. The ISC reports that “astonishingly”, this officer complained to the head of the agency.
No evidence of al-Qaeda WMD plot
Even before the invasion of Iraq, not everyone shared the certainty that Bush, Blair, Powell and Tenet had expressed about Saddam Hussein’s supposed support for an al-Qaeda WMD plot.
In Washington, the US Defense Intelligence Agency (DIA) was warning, in one report after another, that this was highly unlikely to have happened.
“Despite recent information from a senior al-Qaeda trainer currently in custody, all-source intelligence has not confirmed Iraq’s involvement,” the agency said in an analysis completed seven weeks after Libi arrived in Egypt.
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“Iraq is unlikely to have provided bin Laden any useful CB [chemical or biological] knowledge or assistance.”
Five months later, the DIA tried again, in a report that acknowledged that Libi was sufficiently senior to have access to such information, but which cautioned that his claims were based on hearsay, lacked detail, and did not identify any Iraqi trainers, the training centre, or even the sort of weapons involved.
In London, the Joint Intelligence Committee, which coordinates the work of the country’s intelligence agencies, advised the British government in November 2001, October 2002 and again in March 2003 that there was no evidence of any cooperation between Iraq and al-Qaeda.
17 hours in a small box
After almost a year in Egyptian custody, Libi was handed back to the CIA and taken to a number of prisons including Guantanamo Bay, the US military detention facility in Cuba, where he promptly recanted his claim about Iraq, al-Qaeda and WMDs.
Subsequent investigations by the Senate intelligence committee found that Libi told the CIA at this point that even before he had left Bagram, he had resolved to say whatever he believed his interrogators wished to hear, to secure better treatment.
On arrival in Egypt, he says he was again placed in a small box, for around 17 hours. He was then taken out and beaten, and told that he was being given “a last opportunity to tell the truth”.
Libi then decided to tell his interrogators that three members of al-Qaeda had travelled to Iraq to learn about nuclear weapons, using the names of real people so that he would be able to recall some details of his fabricated story. He says this evidently pleased his interrogators, who took him to a large room and gave him some food.
A US National Guard unit prepares to enter a house in Fallujah, Iraq, in July 2003 (AFP)
A few days later he was questioned about anthrax and Iraq’s biological weapons programme, but he says he was unable to concoct another false story, as he did not understand the term biological weapons.
It is not known what questions MI5 and MI6 submitted to the Egyptians to be put to Libi, although the MEE understands that a number of British nationals were suspected to have trained at his Khalden camp.
It is also clear that Blair wanted to be able to demonstrate a link between al-Qaeda and Iraq, regardless of the scepticism of the Joint Intelligence Committee.
'We concede that we didn’t talk to ministers enough about this stuff'
- Alex Younger, head of MI6
But it is unclear how much British government ministers knew about the mistreatment of Libi. The ISC found that when an MI5 lawyer urged that the Home Office be informed, she was overruled by another MI5 officer, on the grounds that MI6 was not planning to inform the Foreign Office.
Giving evidence to the ISC, Alex Younger, the current head of MI6, said: “We concede that we didn’t talk to ministers enough about this stuff… there was not an extensive conversation with ministers about this.”
Libi information 'used to justify Iraq invasion'
The use to which Libi’s bogus information was put has been made clear by the US Senate intelligence committee, which said in its 2014 report into the CIA's detention and interrogation programme: "Some of this information was cited by Secretary Powell in his speech to the United Nations, and was used as a justification for the 2003 invasion of Iraq."
After hearing evidence from across the US intelligence community, the committee concluded that Libi had been the only source that had ever suggested any link between al-Qaeda and Iraq.
No other detainee had ever made the same claim and, after the war, an analysis by the DIA of 34 million captured Iraqi government documents found no trace of any such connection.
US President George W. Bush (L) and British Prime Minister Tony Blair at a joint press conference in Belfast in April 2003 (AFP)
By then, the CIA had accepted that Libi’s WMD claims were false. As early as 2005, Colin Powell had admitted that his speech to the Security Council was "painful" and a "blot" on his record. The Egyptian torture had produced incorrect intelligence that paved the way to war.
Tony Blair appears to have found it more difficult to fully accept the truth. In June 2004, the day after the US commission investigating the 9/11 attacks reported that it had found “no credible evidence that Iraq and al-Qaeda cooperated on attacks against the United States”, Blair’s spokesperson still insisted that there was a link, that al-Qaeda had been operating inside Saddam’s Iraq.
Saddam Hussein had "created a permissive environment for terrorism and we know that the people affiliated to al-Qaeda operated in Iraq during the regime," the spokesperson told journalists.
After a short spell in CIA custody at Guantanamo, Libi was rendered to a number of other locations. At one point fellow Libyans say they saw him at a US detention facility in Afghanistan known as the Dark Prison.
Finally, he was flown to Libya, taken to the notorious Abu Salim prison, and told he was being jailed for life.
In April 2009 the Libyan authorities announced that he had committed suicide in his cell. Human Rights Watch – whose researchers had been attempting to visit him – says it later saw photographs Libyan prison officials appear to have taken on the day of his death, which show bruising on parts of his body.
This article is available in French on Middle East Eye French edition.