Did High-Value Detainee Commit Suicide in Libya?

The reported death of a former CIA "high value" detainee inside a Libyan prison has shocked human-rights workers and raised fresh questions about a case that ranks as one of the biggest intelligence fiascos of the run up to the Iraq War.

The story of the detainee, Ibn al-Shaykh al-Libi, became a major embarrassment for the Bush administration after disclosures in 2004 that he had been the principal source for widely cited claims by the White House that Saddam Hussein had provided chemical- and biological-weapons training for Al Qaeda operatives. After the U.S. invasion of Iraq, Libi recanted his entire story, asserting that he had made it up in order to stop his abusive treatment by interrogators in Egypt—­where he had been shipped by the CIA under the agency's controversial "extraordinary rendition" program.

But his case took an even more mysterious turn this weekend when a Libyan newspaper with close ties to the government of Muammar Kaddafi reported that Libi had committed suicide in his cell at that country's Al Saleem prison—just weeks after he had been visited by human-rights workers there. Until now, U.S. officials had never confirmed that Libi—who was once considered one of the CIA's prize "catches" in the war on terror—was in Libyan custody. But this week, U.S. intelligence and diplomatic officials tell NEWSWEEK they are seeking to confirm the report and appear to be taking it seriously. "We have contacted our embassy [in Tripoli], and we are trying to confirm this," says a State Department spokesman.

Human-rights workers and Libyan dissidents tell NEWSWEEK they have independently confirmed the report from sources inside Libya and demanded an immediate independent investigation into the circumstances of his death. Libi, who once served as emir of the Khalden training camp in Afghanistan, had recently been identified by defense lawyers in the U.S. as a prime potential witness in any upcoming trials of top terror suspects, either in revamped military commissions or in U.S. federal courts. Brent Mickum, a U.S. lawyer who represents Abu Zubaydah, another high-value CIA detainee who is alleged to have worked closely with Libi, says he had recently begun efforts through intermediaries to arrange to talk to Libi. "The timing of this is weird," Mickum says.

Hafed al-Ghwell, a Libyan-American and prominent critic of the Kaddafi regime, says there were plenty of reasons to question the report that Libi had committed suicide. (The report appeared Sunday in Oea, a newspaper owned by Saif al-Islam, the influential son of Kaddafi, but contained no details about how Libi was supposed to have killed himself.) "This idea of committing suicide in your prison cell is an old story in Libya," Al-Ghwell explains. In the past, he adds, there have been a number of cases where political prisoners are reported to have committed suicide. Then the families get the bodies back and discover the prisoners had been shot in the back or tortured to death. "My gut feeling is that something fishy happened here and somebody in Libya panicked," he says. With the prospect that the Obama administration might release more Bush-era documents about the treatment of CIA detainees, officials in the Kaddafi regime had reasons to be concerned that their "complicity" in the U.S. war on terror would be exposed Al-Ghwell Says.

Libi has for years been a high-profile figure among human-rights groups, widely cited as a prime example of a high-value detainee who "disappeared" in CIA custody—in large part because he was so politically embarrassing. A Libyan jihadi who migrated to Afghanistan to fight the Soviet invasion, Libi was captured by U.S. military forces in late 2001 following the invasion of Afghanistan. After first being interrogated by the FBI, he was transferred to CIA custody and then "rendered" to Egypt for further interrogation in early 2002. While there, Libi later asserted he had been questioned about alleged Al Qaeda connections to Iraq—a subject about which he "knew nothing" and "had trouble even coming up with a story," according to declassified CIA cables based on interviews with him when he was returned to U.S. custody in 2004. But then Libi said he was crammed into a tiny box less than 20 inches high and held there for 17 hours. When the box was opened, Libi was knocked to the floor and "punched for 15 minutes," according to the cables first reported in the 2007 book "Hubris." It was only then that Libi "fabricated" his story that Osama bin Laden dispatched two operatives to Iraq for training in chemical and biological weapons—an account that was soon being cited by President Bush in a speech to justify the U.S. invasion of Iraq, as well as then secretary of state Colin Powell in his appearance before the U.N. Security Council. (Although some CIA officials, notably former director George Tenet, cast doubt on Libi's claims of being tortured, the use of a tiny "confinement box" for interrogations was publicly confirmed when the Obama administration recently released internal Justice Department interrogation memos.)

After NEWSWEEK reported that Libi's recanted claims had been the basis for the bogus claims about Iraq-Al Qaeda ties, the Bush administration dropped all official references to Libi. He was conspicuously not among the "high-value detainees" sent to Guantánamo in September 2006 and was later reported to have been secretly shipped back to Libya. Only three weeks ago, on April 27, two workers with Human Rights Watch visited with Libi at the Al Saleem prison. The visit represented the first time any outsiders had been able to see Libi since his original capture by U.S. forces nearly eight years ago. Although Libi had previously been reported to have been ailing from tuberculosis, he appeared to be healthy and had no apparent physical ailments, says Heba Morayef, one of the Human Rights Watch workers present. Morayef says she and her colleague explained to Libi that they wanted to talk to him about the torture he had experienced while in custody. But after a few minutes, Libi grew visibly angry. "Where were you when I was being tortured in an American prison?" he said, according to Morayef. At that point, he walked out—never to be seen or heard from again, until his reported death this week. 

Join the Discussion