Ibn Sheikh al-Libi’s and Abu Zubaydah’s Coffins

At Mary’s instigation, I went back to look at Ibn Sheikh al-Libi’s description of how he was shoved into a coffin-like box in Egypt. (Thanks to burnt for the searchable copy.)

According to al-Libi, the foreign government service [redacted] “stated that the next topic was al-Qa’ida’s connections with Iraq. … This was a subject about which he said he knew nothing and had difficulty even coming up with a story.” Al-Libi indicated that his interrogators did not like his responses and then “placed him in a small box approximately 50cm x 50cm.” He claimed he was held in the box for approximately 17 hours. When he was let out of the box, alLibi claims that he was given a last opportunity to “tell the truth.” When al-Libi did not satisfy the interrogator, al-Libi claimed that “he was knocked over with an arm thrust across his chest and he fell on his back.” Al-Libi told CIA debriefers that he then “was punched for 15 minutes.”216

(U) Al-Libi told debriefers that “after the beating,” he was again asked about the connection with Iraq and this time he came up with a story that three al-Qa’ida members went to Iraq to learn about nuclear weapons. Al-Libi said that he used the names of real individuals associated with al-Qa’ida so that he could remember the details of his fabricated story and make it more believable to the foreign intelligence service. Al-Libi noted that “this pleased his [foreign] interrogators, who directed that al-Libi be taken back to a big room, vice the 50 square centimeter box and given food.”217

That mock burial–and al-Libi’s subsequent lies about Iraqi ties with al Qaeda–happened sometime before February 22, 2002, when a DIA cable challenged the report.

This is the first report from Ibn al-Shaykh [al-Libi] in which he claims Iraq assisted al-Qa’ida’s CBRN efforts. However, he lacks specific details on the Iraqi’s involvement, the CBRN materials associated with the assistance, and the location where the training occurred. It is possible he does not know any further details; it is more likely this individual is intentionally misleading the debriefers. Ibn al-Shaykh has been undergoing debriefs for several weeks and may be describing scenarios to the debriefers that he knows will retain their interest. Saddam’s regime is intensely secular and is wary of Islamic revolutionary movements. Moreover, Baghdad is unlikely to provide assistance to a group it cannot control

Al-Libi was, you’ll recall, the onsite manager of the Khalden training camp, a camp that trained a range of Muslims, a policy that  put it at odds with Osama bin Laden, who wanted training to be limited to al Qaeda operatives.

Just over a month after al-Libi claimed, having been shoved in a coffin for almost a day, there were ties between al Qaeda and Iraq, the US captured al-Libi’s associate, Abu Zubaydah, who handled logistics for Khalden. Rather than send Abu Zubaydah off to the Egyptians, as the US had done with al-Libi, they instead sent Abu Zubaydah to a CIA run black site in Thailand.

And there, less than three months after the Egyptians shoved Ibn Sheikh al-Libi in a coffin overnight, James Mitchell threatened to do the same with Abu Zubaydah. Ali Soufan objected and told Mitchell doing so was torture. Soufan left the black site and alerted DOJ of what Mitchell had intended to do.

And then, some time later (Abu Zubaydah says it was about 3 months after his surgery, so perhaps mid-July) they did shove Abu Zubaydah in that coffin-like box. Here’s Abu Zubaydah’s description of being placed in a similar coffin-like box.

Two black wooden boxes were brought into the room outside my cell. One was tall, slightly higher than me and narrow. Measuring perhaps in area 1M X 0.75m and 2 m in height. The other was shorter, perhaps only 1m in height.


After the beating I was then placed in the small box. They placed a cloth or cover over the box to cut out all light and restrict my air supply. As it was not high enough to even sit upright, I had to crouch down. It was very difficult because of my wounds. The stress on my legs held in this position meant my wounds both in the leg and stomach became very painful. I think this occurred about 3 months after my last operation. It was always cold in the room, but when the cover was placed over the box it made it hot and sweaty inside. The wound on my leg began to open and started to bleed. I don’t know how long I remained in the small box, I think I may have slept or maybe fainted.

I was then dragged from the small box, unable to walk properly and put on what looked like a hospital bed, and strapped down very tightly with belts. A black cloth was then placed over my face and the interrogators used a mineral water bottle to pour water on the cloth so that I could not breathe.


[describing how things got better] The tall box was removed, but the short one remained in the room outside my cell, I think as a deliberate reminder as to what my interrogators were capable of.

It’s unclear whether this treatment occurred before or after John Yoo finished his memo authorizing torture. Both would be equally damning, as the suggestion that this box was a coffin would put its use in the category of mock burial. Roughly around July 24, John Yoo told CIA’s John Rizzo that approving mock burial would take some time to do. Yoo would later tell OPR that he considered mock burial to be torture.

There is, however, one more irony. On July 31, 2002, the DIA sent out a second cable challenging the false confession al-Libi had made in late February.

It is plausible al-Qa’ida attempted to obtain CB assistance from Iraq and Ibn al-Shaykh is sufficiently senior to have access to such sensitive information. However, Ibn al-Shaykh’s information lacks details concerning the individual Iraqis involved, the specific CB materials associated with the assistance and the location where the alleged training occurred. The information is also second hand, and not derived from Ibn al-Shaykh’s personal experience.

Just past noon on that day, Jennifer Koester sent Patrick Philbin an email alerting him that the White House wanted them to finish the memos authorizing Abu Zubaydah’s torture by close of business the next day.

“John wanted me to let you know that the White House wants both memos signed and out by COB tomorrow,”

Those memos would either retroactively or prospectively authorize Abu Zubaydah to be exposed to the same kind of treatment Ibn Sheikh al-Libi had undergone five months earlier.

43 replies
  1. klynn says:

    I was reading Mary’s comments in the previous thread and thinking that her timeline of events noted made a great deal of sense in the context of the missing doc(s).

    Here you go making sense with a timeline.

    Thank you so much.

    That puts the White House in some deep ____.

  2. Mary says:

    I think you make it pretty compelling.

    I’m going to also link back to this piece by bmaz on Madni and his “coffin flight”


    to Egypt, with the stopover at Diego Garcia.


    The Americans put him in a coffin, and flew him to Egypt, apparently stopping off in the British colony of Diego Garcia en route. When Madni arrived in Cairo, he was still bleeding through his nose and mouth from his earlier abuse, yet this was soon relegated to a minor complaint. At the behest of the Americans, he spent 92 days being tortured with electric cattle prods, before being rendered to Afghanistan and ultimately to Guantánamo Bay.

  3. hinterlandharry says:

    “Placed him in a small box approximately 50cm X 50cm.” The last time I checked, 1 inch = 2.54 cm. 50 cm is approximately 20 inches. What am I missing?

    • bobschacht says:

      Yes, this was my thought, too. How could any normal adult be put in a 50 cm square coffin? Even a 1 meter coffin is not a reasonable possibility.

      BTW, EW, is the spelling “AI-Libi” in the first quote block due to burnt’s OCR rendition of the original document? If so, perhaps a correction is in order. Oops– looks like you’ve already corrected that. [Edit: font makes a difference, too: in some fonts, it is hard to tell a capital “I” from a lower case “l”.]

      Last sentence of the first quote block:

      Al-Libi noted that “this pleased his [foreign] interrogators, who directed that al-Libi be taken back to a big room, vice the 50 square centimeter box and given food.”

      “vice”? Is this a typo for some other word? I’m having trouble guessing what the right word is.

      When dimensions of these coffins are given, it is best for us to actually visualize the size. These are not just numbers.

      Thanks, EW!

      Bob in AZ

    • rmadelson says:

      I was listening to “The Story” podcast last night and it had an interview with writer Nick Flynn, who heard testimony from folks who’d been tortured with the coffin treatment. I remembered the dimensions were quite small. I found some excerpts from Flynn’s book on Esquire’s site:

      “Now it is a thirty-year-old student, telling of being picked up in a sweep — beaten and shackled and hooded and thrown from Humvee to helicopter, to eventually arrive at a building he now believes is near the airport, either in Mosul or Baghdad. Once inside he finds himself in a large room, maybe the size of a gymnasium, filled with black boxes lined up in rows. Maybe a hundred boxes, maybe two hundred, hard for him to say — he was hooded constantly and quickly lost track of night and day. The boxes are about two and a half feet wide, six feet long. He is thrown into one of these boxes, for days that turn into weeks, unable to straighten his body, barely able to breathe. Every twenty or thirty minutes a soldier kicks the box, or hits it hard with a club, and it makes his shackled body jump. Around him he can hear the screams and pleadings of his fellow prisoners — those with stomach pains, those with infections, those slowly going mad. Among themselves the Iraqis call these boxes tawabeet aswada, or nash aswada — “black coffins.”

      [emphasis — if it worked — is mine]

      Read more: http://www.esquire.com/features/nick-flynn-0208-5#ixzz0h3aLHgNh

      thestory.org has the podcast for download or through Zune’s software, probably apple, too. I think he also mentions Ibn Sheikh al-Libi.

      Rob (ps — sorry about the formatting of this comment)

      • Gitcheegumee says:

        Lindh was flown to a Marine airbase in the Afghanistan high desert dubbed Camp Rhino. According to a statement provided in government discovery, a Navy doctor claims a US Special Forces officer told him at Camp Rhino that “sleep deprivation, cold and hunger might be employed” while Lindh was interrogated. That certainly seems to have been the case. Once at Camp Rhino, Lindh’s guards stripped him naked, and fastened him to a stretcher with duct tape and placed him in a metal shipping container.
        Conditions inside the container would have tested the endurance of anyone, much less someone in Lindh’s weakened condition. There was no light, heat or insulation. Two small holes provided all the ventilation. Guards taunted Lindh through the holes, threatening to spit in his food. Lindh’s hands were tied together. At first he was fully exposed, but eventually the guards covered him with a blanket and placed one underneath him.

        For two days, Lindh was provided minimal food and medical attention. He was freezing cold and in constant pain because of the wrist restraints that were too tight. The loud noise of an electric generator echoed in the container. He could not move. Lindh was not even released from the stretcher when he needed to urinate. Instead, guards propped him upright.

        US Torture of John Walker Lindh, WSWS

        • maryo2 says:

          That link goes on to say

          The new filings are for a crucial hearing on July 15 [2002] to determine whether statements made by Lindh after his capture with an Afghan Army unit will be suppressed or allowed into evidence at trial.

          The timeline on the previous thread says that Addington, Gonzales, and Flanigan had Yoo add the Commander and Chief defense wording on July 16 (the day after the crucial hearing). Did Judge Ellis allow or suppress the evidence?

        • Gitcheegumee says:

          Mary02, If you will go to the previous thread,entitled,”A Momentous Day to Lose Your Documentation”, my comments @ #47,48,and51 may provide some further clarification for you.

          Also, the Wikipedia entry for John Walker Lindh is very clear and informative regarding the backstory and timeline of the evidentiary hearing and Lindh’s court pleading on July 15,2002, the day just prior to July 16,2002 Yoo meeting.

  4. Jim White says:

    As a guide, here is a link with “average” coffin sizes, where we find that for a 6 foot tall person, the coffin, in meters, would be 1.9 meters by 0.52 meters by 0.29 meters on the inside. For comparison, Abu Zubaydah’s large one was 2 meters by 1 meter by 0.75 meter and the small one was 1 meter by 1 meter by 0.75 meter. The larger one, then, has a bit more room than a “standard” coffin, especially in how “deep” it would be. The smaller one, though, would definitely require being curled into a fetal position or “crouching” as AZ put it.

  5. rosalind says:

    OT/Toyota: from LA Times – Toyota official rules out electronic malfunction

    Reporting from Washington – Toyota Motor Corp.’s chief engineer said Tuesday that the company had done extensive testing on the electronic system in its vehicles and company officials are confident it is not the cause of the sudden acceleration that has led to massive recalls.

    after this lede, there is no additional info re. the testing Toyota claims it did, instead it’s more Politician & NHTSA quotes…likely due to the fact its written by the D.C. reporter, and not the LA Times guys who’ve been covering the technical stuff so well.

    • bmaz says:

      Uh huh, sure they have. And all that extensive testing, valid data and supportable conclusion is why they hired corporate legal whitewash specialists Exponent to do that craptastic report. Yeah, that’s the ticket!

    • emptywheel says:

      Just watched the Toytoa part of the hearing. Jay Rock came, not Jello Jay. And he raised the example of someone who had a master mechanic look at his car–in 2004–until he found the bug. And bug it was, some kind of electronic problem. The mechanic and the owner communicated what they found to both Toyota and NHTSA, only to hear nothing more.

      So they may still be saying that. But more and more evidence piles up that they know it’s not true.

      • PJEvans says:

        I read the comments at the LA Times, on Toyota saying that the problem isn’t not the electronics. No one was buying that one.

  6. Gitcheegumee says:

    Rancid from Top to Bottom
    Green Lights for Torture

    It was not far into the war in Afghanistan that Defense Secretary Don Rumsfeld made plain his views of the treatment of prisoners, after horrifying accounts began to surface of the treatment of Taliban POWs.

    Recall that after the surrender of the Kunduz fortress in November 2001 hundreds of Taliban were taken prisoner along with an American called John Walker Lindh. A year later Jamie Doran, a British television producer, aired his documentary establishing beyond reasonable doubt that hundreds of these prisoners – with no distinction between Taliban or “foreign fighters”- died either by suffocation in the container trucks used to transport them towards the Shebarghan prison, or by outright execution near Shebarghan.

    On the basis of interviews with eyewitnesses, Doran said U.S. soldiers were present when the containers were opened. Newsweek’s investigation into the Afghan atrocities (“The Death Convoy of Afghanistan,” 26 August 2002) stated that “American forces were working intimately with ‘allies’ who committed what could well qualify as war crimes.”

    John Walker Lindh was kept in a coffin sized box. As his lawyer later stated, the photographs left no doubt as to what kind of treatment he had endured.———————

    Note: The large containers held many prisoners, and this was the incident involved Dostum. I think it was either klynn or Mary who had written at some length about Dostum and his role in these deaths,on another thread,just last year.

    Lindh was originally captured by Dostum, but when Lindh was handed to the US interrogators,he was put in a coffin like box,unclothed, and left to freeze ,in addition to suffering a gunshot wound left iunattended for many days.

    Alexander Cockburn,Counterpunch

    NOTE: Could these small shipping containers,as Lindh was enclosed, be considered coffins by other prisoners,for want of a better terminology?

  7. earlofhuntingdon says:

    All clients make unreasonable demands, completion dates for work being one of them. But when a client says both, “I want your work by tomorrow” and tells the attorney exactly what the outcome of their “research” and “analysis” will be, then the attorney isn’t being competent or acting in good faith, and the client isn’t “reasonably relying” on the attorney’s work product. It is merely hiding behind it, using it as an insurance policy.

    As AIG’s debacle makes clear, even when issued by the biggest names in the business, those policies sometimes have assets behind them sufficient to pay, sometimes not even a puff of air.

  8. JohnLopresti says:

    Army field manual 34-52 date of issue 1992:

    **The psychological techniques and principles in this manual should neither be confused with, nor construed to be synonymous with, unauthorized techniques such as brainwashing, physical or mental torture or any other form of mental coercion to include drugs that may induce lasting and permanent mental alteration and damage.

    **Physical or mental torture and coercion revolve around eliminating the source*s free will, and are expressly prohibited by GWS, Article 13; GPW, Articles 13 and 17; and GC, Articles 31 and 32. Torture is defined as the infliction of intense pain to body or mind to extract a confession or information, or for sadistic pleasure.

    **Examples of physical torture include–
    ▪ Electric shock.
    ▪ Infliction of pain through chemicals or bondage (other than legitimate use of restraints to prevent escape.
    ▪ Forcing an individual to stand, sit, or kneel in abnormal positions for prolonged periods of time.
    ▪ Food deprivation.
    ▪ Any form of beating.

    **Examples of mental torture include–
    ▪ Mock executions.
    ▪ Abnormal sleep deprivation.
    ▪ Chemically induced psychosis.

    **Coercion is defined as actions designed to unlawfully induce another to compel an act against one*s will. Examples of coercion include–
    ▪ Threatening or implying physical or mental torture to the subject, his family, or others to whom he owes loyalty.
    ▪ Intentionally denying medical assistance or care in exchange for the information sought or other cooperation.
    ▪ Threatening or implying that other rights guaranteed by the GWS, GPW, or GC will not be provided unless cooperation is forthcoming.**

    The text continues to a list of crimes by army personnel and the regulations under which commission of each sort of crime is prosecutable.

    The foregoing excerpted version of the 1992 field manual is obsolete and superseded, evidently.

  9. orionATL says:

    klynn @16

    …”coffin torture…”

    i would guess that very few if any of the tortures used by or against any american, british, iraqui, or afhgani in the last decade were originated as recently as the last two centuries.

    the human inclination is always toward using torture.

    that’s what makes bush admin’s use of and, worse strong DEFENSE of using, torture so contemptable and so dangerous to our society.

    leaders of civilzed nations are supposed to advocate with their people for civilized behavior,

    not engage in advocacy encouraging and legitimizing their people’s basest instincts, e.g., using torture.

    what has happened since 2002 is the re-legitimization of torture in american society through the aggressive advocacy for using torture by the leadership of the republican party and

    through an equal and opposite default in leadership by the democratic party.

    to reiterate from last night,

    we have a bill of rights, and with respect to torture, a fifth amendment, because those who wrote the constitution understood with great clarity that any government, all governments will abuse their power and abuse their citizens if given the opportunity.

    one counters current enthusiasm for torture by historical tales of torture.

  10. klynn says:


    Do you have any insight about how to further narrow the timing and comprise a more focused suspects list?

  11. watercarrier4diogenes says:

    OT, but then again, the irony fits right in here:

    March 2 (Bloomberg) — The U.S. Department of Justice has sent notices to hedge funds telling them not to destroy trading records involving bets on the euro, according to a person who has seen the requests.

    Any guesses where DOJ thinks they’ll find these documents when they drop by to pick them up? And SCIF, maybe? Made from stacks of gold bars…

    • PJEvans says:

      And stacks of CDSs, and junk stocks and bonds, for thermal insulation and padding. (Incidentally, gold is x-ray opaque.)

  12. fatster says:

    In the midst of all this latest horror about cramming people inside small coffin-like boxes for days on end, comes Rove trying to fall on his own petard, or whatever.

    Rove admits to error on Iraq as Bush strategist

    “Rove says Bush did not knowingly mislead the American public about the existence of such weapons.”


    • DWBartoo says:


      If Bush did not “knowingly mislead” are we to feel relieved, then, to consider that he un-knowingly misled us?

      Or did he un-knowingly LEAD us into mistakes or mischief?

      I don’t know, Karl, that you are doing W any favors, with this parsing.

      Kinda looks self-serving ta me. But then, I’ve never been invited to show up before Congress, let alone blown them off.

      But ya do got me curious. Do you suppose that ole George missed out on that whole leadership thingie? What do ya think Karl?


      • Petrocelli says:

        Rummy: We don’t know what we don’t know

        Holder: Well, I’m satisfied …

        DeeDub !

        • DWBartoo says:

          “Absence of evidence is NOT evidence of absence.”

          And so forth and so on …

          How ya doin’ Petro?

          Got snow? Yet?

          (Still got extra reserves down this-a-way, if ya need some)


  13. perris says:

    That mock burial–and al-Libi’s subsequent lies about Iraqi ties with al Qaeda–happened sometime before February 22, 2002,

    this is SO much more important the a side note

    the president’s intelligence agencies were TELLING the administration there were NO ties to alqaeda, they TOLD the vice president there is no evidence to be found because the ties didn’t exist

    the vice president told the cia, “get me the information anyway” AND THAT is why we began our depraved policy to torture

    they wanted an excuse where none was to be found so they tortured their excuse out of these people

  14. NorskeFlamethrower says:


    Citizen emptywheel and the firepup Freedom Fighters:

    Your work in carefully exposing these horrible war crimes and human rights violations is outstanding and impossible to read without wanting to scream in frustration: “Somebody has to go to jail for this!!!”

    My frustration leads me to this question: How do we make the issue of torture and the terrible damage done to our concept of justice going forward a political issue to hang around the neck of ObamaRahma? There is an insurgency beginning inside the Democratic Party against the growing Obama corporatism, how do we get thios issue carried into the political argument without Senate or House investigations? Or how do we get Senate or House investigations?


  15. expatjourno says:

    And by making sure that the U.S. never punishes anyone for these acts, Barack Fucking Obama has proven that he approves of all of them. He is a monster as rotten at the core as Dick Cheney.

  16. bloggod says:

    John Yoo was taking “live” questions at the Wash. Post today…fielding the slow pitches.

  17. tryggth says:

    Here is the question I just absolutely don’t get…
    Why, when you believe crushing a person’s child’s testicles (or waterboarding ) isn’t torture would one believe ‘mock burial’ is torture. What I really want to know is what line ‘mock burial’ crossed.

  18. katheriner says:

    “Why, when you believe crushing a person’s child’s testicles (or waterboarding ) isn’t torture ”

    I think Yoo would concede that it’s torture, but say that it’s unconstitutional to forbid the President from doing it if he deems it necessary for national security.

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