We are fast approaching the anniversary of Colin Powell’s now infamous speech before the United Nations as the Bush administration ramped up the case for invading Iraq ten years ago. You might think that there’s nothing new to say and that the long-awaited Chilcott Inquiry into the Iraq War, if and when it is finally published, will contain no great revelations.
However, today, Middle East Monitor can publish the real story about the man who was used so ruthlessly to start the war in Iraq; it was his evidence, extracted under torture, which George W Bush and Tony Blair exploited to push for the invasion.
The first hint of this man’s incarceration was made by Powell in his notorious speech on 5 February 2003 as he made the case for war. During his marathon performance – which he later described as the lowest point of his career – the then US Secretary of State held up a phial of white powder citing the so-called London Ricin Plot as proof of a “sinister nexus” between Al-Qaida and Iraq.
Powell revealed that the source for this information was a top asset, the most senior Al-Qaida operative in captivity. While he did not name him at the time it transpired that the intelligence had come from a Libyan man called Ibn Al-Shaikh Al-Libi. The details he passed over would turn out to be a tissue of lies and an embarrassment to US and UK spy agencies the following year.
It was the Libyan’s evidence that had led to reports about the Ricin Plot when, just a few weeks earlier, sections of the British media scared the hell out of readers by revealing that anti-terror police had raided an Al-Qaida “factory of death” where equipment to make the deadly poison ricin had been found. One of the tabloid newspapers had a map of Britain plastered over its front page with a massive skull and crossbones in the middle just to make sure that readers realised the real horror of the situation. British Prime Minister Tony Blair announced that, “The danger is present and real and with us now.”
Yet the truth is that within 48 hours of the police raid Blair knew that the “poison-making equipment” was actually a coffee pot; scientists from the government’s Porton Down “military science” laboratories informed Downing Street and the police that the suspicious substance was nothing more dangerous than coffee granules. Nevertheless, Tony Blair continued to let the British public believe that Al-Qaida was out to get them.
- Remained silent and allowed Colin Powell to brief the UN on a lie;
- Remained silent and allowed the public to continue to be terrified;
- Remained silent and allowed a group of innocent Algerians to be locked up for more than two years until their trial; and
- Remained silent when the trial collapsed after the jury at the Old Bailey discovered that there was no ricin and there was no plot.
It took some time but at least Powell and his aides confessed to fabricating the case for war; his chief of staff Colonel Lawrence Wilkerson admitted several years later: “I wish I had not been involved in it. I look back on it, and I still say it was the lowest point in my life.” Bush and Blair are unapologetic to this day even though more than a million lives were sacrificed on the altar of lies manufactured in Downing Street and the White House; more than a million widows were created; and millions more are still suffering from the effects of the war in Iraq today.
What few people know, though, is that the first casualty of the war was the Libyan man called Ibn Al-Shaikh Al-Libi who was sold to the Americans by Pakistan for $2 million in December 2001 after he fled from Afghanistan. Ibn Al-Shaikh was regarded as a high-value asset and was sent by the CIA to be tortured in Egypt. It was there that he was persuaded – after having an electric drill used on his legs and thighs – to give false information about Saddam Hussain’s alleged links with Al-Qaida.
I’ve investigated the case of Ibn Al-Shaikh for some years; this has involved me in travelling to Guantanamo, America, Afghanistan, Pakistan, Libya and Morocco, as well as some other countries. It is clear to me that Bush and Blair would rather forget about this man but his name may yet come back to haunt them. In the belief that dead men can’t talk, there must have been huge relief when the news emerged that he had committed suicide in the grim Abu Salim Prison in Tripoli on 10 May 2009. As the principal source for the faulty intelligence which Bush and Blair promoted so shamelessly he was always going to be a thorn in the side of both politicians and their intelligence chiefs.
When I tracked Ibn Al-Shaikh’s family down to their home in Ajdabiya in north east Libya they told me that they believed that their son’s death was some sort of macabre gift from Muammar Gaddafi to Bush and Blair. Of course, such an allegation is difficult to prove but there is no doubt that the news of his death will have come as a relief to those who were uneasy that the “man who started a war” was no longer alive and able to tell the world his account of what had happened in the run-up to the US-led invasion of Iraq.
What I have established is that Ibn Al-Shaikh did not take his own life; he was actually killed on the direct orders of the then Libyan leader Gaddafi. The date given to world was true, but the cause of death was not; Ibn Al-Shaikh did not commit suicide. People to whom I spoke who had met him in Abu Salim doubted the suicide story, as did his parents.
After the Libyan regime was toppled, one of the most senior prison guards accused of carrying out some of the most heinous crimes against inmates in Abu Salim was captured. I was allowed to meet him in a prison in Zawiyah, where he was being held anonymously and for his own safety; hundreds of ex-prisoners and their families wanted to mete out their own form of justice without his vile torture and abuse ever being discussed in an open court.
This man had nothing to lose by speaking to me and he met me freely and of his own accord. He told me quietly and in detail that Ibn Al-Shaikh had indeed been murdered. He described his injuries and explained that his body was left hanging by a bed sheet in his cell to give the impression that he had committed suicide.
It is time for the truth to be told about this dark episode in Britain’s relations with Libya. You may wonder why the family believed that their son’s death was “a gift” and their theory is not beyond the realms of possibility. We know, for instance, that thousands of inmates died in Abu Salim Prison but few, if any, bodies were ever returned to grieving families. That is why Ibn Al-Shaikh’s family was amazed to have their son’s body returned to them for burial; it was unprecedented, which could explain why more than 3,000 mourners turned up to the funeral and it was covered extensively by the media. Such a huge public gathering to pay respects to a so-called enemy of the Gaddafi regime would have been unthinkable under normal circumstances but the security forces, which were also present, did not try to disperse them.
Ibn Al-Shaikh’s father told me that he was convinced that the headlines, newspaper articles and photographs would have been sent to Western intelligence agencies. It was the end of the Bush and Blair era and he believes that they would have been relieved that the man whose evidence started the Iraq war was no more.
When I visited Ibn Al-Shaikh’s grave I noticed that it was several inches higher than any of the others in the cemetery. “The family concreted the grave as soon as he was buried,” I was told. “They genuinely feared that Gaddafi’s security forces would dig the body up, because no one ever got out of Abu Salim Prison, dead or alive.”
It remains to be seen if any letters of thanks from Western governments to Gaddafi surface among the thousands of documents recovered from Libyan government offices following the 2011 revolution yet to be translated and read. Only recently did it emerge that Blair had written to Gaddafi thanking him for the “excellent cooperation” between the two countries after British and Libyan counter-terrorism agencies had worked together to arrange for Libyan dissidents to be kidnapped and flown to Tripoli, along with their families.
That letter was written in 2007 at the end of a period during which the dictator’s intelligence officers were permitted to operate in Britain. According to the Guardian newspaper, they were approaching and intimidating Libyan refugees in an attempt to persuade them to work as informants for both countries.
What I have also learned is that British intelligence agents travelled to Morocco to visit one of the detention facilities where Ibn Al-Shaikh was held during a merry-go-round of detentions in various American black-ops sites. I know that MI6 officers spoke to him personally even though they were aware that he was a victim of kidnap, rendition and torture. For instance, during one such meeting, the British agents actually admitted to tapping his wife’s phone in Syria – when Britain was friends with the odious Assad regime – enabling the spies to give him news about his young daughter. Since the meeting took place long after the start of the Iraq war it is difficult to know what sort of intelligence MI6 was hoping to gather and why.
Six Libyan men, the widow of a seventh, and five British citizens of Libyan and Somali origin are bringing claims against the British government alleging false imprisonment, blackmail, misfeasance in public office and conspiracy to assault, says the Guardian. Maybe now, as the anniversary of the Iraq War approaches, the case of Ibn Al-Shaikh will finally be heard and his family will get the justice so long denied to their son by some of the most powerful men in the world.
The views expressed in this article belong to the author and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of Middle East Monitor.