By Craig Whitlock
Washington Post Foreign Service
Saturday, October 27, 2007
ISLAMABAD, Pakistan -- On Sept. 6, 2006, President Bush announced that the CIA's overseas secret prisons had been temporarily emptied and 14 al-Qaeda leaders taken to Guantanamo Bay, Cuba. But since then, there has been no official accounting of what happened to about 30 other "ghost prisoners" who spent extended time in the custody of the CIA.
Some have been secretly transferred to their home countries, where they remain in detention and out of public view, according to interviews in Pakistan and Europe with government officials, human rights groups and lawyers for the detainees. Others have disappeared without a trace and may or may not still be under CIA control.
The bulk of the ghost prisoners were captured in Pakistan, where they scattered after the U.S. invasion of Afghanistan in 2001.
Among them is Mustafa Setmariam Nasar, a dual citizen of Syria and Spain and an influential al-Qaeda ideologue who was last seen two years ago. On Oct. 31, 2005, the red-bearded radical with a $5 million U.S. bounty on his head arrived in the Pakistani border city of Quetta, unaware he was being followed.
Nasar was cornered by police as he and a small group of followers stopped for dinner. Soon after, according to Pakistani officials, he was handed over to U.S. spies and vanished into the CIA's prison network. Since then, various reports have placed him in Syria, Afghanistan and India, though nobody has been able to confirm his whereabouts.
Nearly all the Arab members of al-Qaeda caught in Pakistan were given to the CIA, Pakistani security officials said. But the fate of several Pakistani al-Qaeda operatives who were also captured remains murky; the Pakistani government has ignored a number of lawsuits filed by relatives seeking information.
"You just don't know -- either these people are in the custody of the Pakistanis or the Americans," said Zafarullah Khan, human rights coordinator for the Pakistan Muslim League, an opposition political party.
Others have been handed over to governments that have kept their presence a secret.
Since 2004, for example, the CIA has handed five Libyan fighters to authorities in Tripoli. Two had been covertly nabbed by the CIA in China and Thailand, while the others were caught in Pakistan and held in CIA prisons in Afghanistan, Eastern Europe and other locations, according to Libyan sources.
The Libyan government has kept silent about the cases. But Libyan political exiles said the men are kept in isolation with no prospect of an open trial.
Other ghost prisoners are believed to remain in U.S. custody after passing into and out of the CIA's hands, according to human rights groups.
Relatives of a Tunisian al-Qaeda suspect known as Retha al-Tunisi, captured in Karachi, Pakistan, in 2002, received notice recently from the International Committee of the Red Cross that he is detained at a U.S. military prison in Afghanistan, said Clara Gutteridge, an investigator for Reprieve, a London-based legal rights group that represents many inmates at the U.S. prison at Guantanamo Bay. Other prisoners, since released, had previously reported seeing Tunisi at a secret CIA "black site" in Afghanistan.
At least one former CIA prisoner has been quietly freed. Ahmad Khalil Ibrahim Samir al-Ani, an Iraqi intelligence agent captured after the invasion of Iraq in 2003, was detained at a secret location until he was released last year.
Ani gained notoriety before the Iraq war when Bush administration officials said he had met in Prague with Sept. 11, 2001, hijacker Mohamed Atta. Some officials, including Vice President Cheney, cited the rendezvous as evidence of an alliance between al-Qaeda and Saddam Hussein. The theory was later debunked by U.S. intelligence agencies and the Sept. 11 commission, which revealed in 2004 that Ani was in U.S. custody.
The Iraqi spy resurfaced two months ago when Czech officials revealed that he had filed a multimillion-dollar compensation claim. His complaint: that unfounded Czech intelligence reports had prompted his imprisonment by the CIA.Guantanamo Newcomers
When Bush confirmed the existence of the CIA's prisons in September 2006, he said they had been vacated for the time being. But he said the U.S. government would use them again, if necessary.
The CIA has resumed its detention program. Since March, five new terrorism suspects have been transferred to Guantanamo. Although the Pentagon has not disclosed details about how or precisely when they were captured, officials have said one of the prisoners, Abd al-Hadi al-Iraqi, had spent months in CIA custody overseas.
Details of the secret detention program remain classified. U.S. officials have offered only vague descriptions of its reach and scope.
Last month, in a speech in New York, CIA Director Michael V. Hayden said "fewer than 100 people" had been detained in the CIA's overseas prison network since the program's inception in early 2002.
In June, a coalition of human rights groups identified 39 people who may have been in CIA custody but are still missing. Many of those on the list, however, were identified by partial names or noms de guerre, such as one man described only as Mohammed the Afghan.
Joanne Mariner, director of terrorism and counterterrorism research for Human Rights Watch, said the CIA has moved many prisoners from country to country and relied on other spy services to take custody of suspects, sometimes temporarily and sometimes for good.
"The large majority have gone to their countries of origin," she said. "But that doesn't mean all of them. There could be some that are still in proxy detention."
In a footnote to its 2004 report, the Sept. 11 commission named nine al-Qaeda suspects who were in U.S. custody at black sites. Seven were later transferred to Guantanamo.
Still missing is Hassan Ghul, a Pakistani national captured in northern Iraq in January 2004. U.S. officials have described him as a high-level emissary between al-Qaeda's core command in Pakistan and its affiliates in Iraq.
Another prisoner on the commission's list was Ali Abd al-Rahman al-Faqasi al-Ghamdi, a Saudi accused of planning attacks in the Arabian Peninsula. He surrendered to Saudi authorities in June 2003.
Although the Sept. 11 commission reported that Ghamdi was in U.S. custody, Saudi officials said that was not the case. They said he remains in prison in Saudi Arabia and has never left the country.
"He was never, under no condition, in U.S. custody," said a Saudi security source who spoke on condition of anonymity.
Officials with the International Committee of the Red Cross said they have failed to find dozens of people once believed to have been in CIA custody, despite repeated queries to the U.S. government and other countries.
"The ICRC remains gravely concerned by the fate of the persons previously held in the CIA detention program who remain unaccounted for," said Simon Schorno, a Red Cross spokesman in Washington. "The ICRC is concerned about any type of secret detention."
The CIA declined to comment on whether certain individuals were ever in its custody.
"Apart from detainees transferred to Guantanamo, the CIA does not, as a rule, comment publicly on lists of people alleged to have been in its custody -- even though those lists are often flawed," said Paul Gimigliano, a CIA spokesman.Out in the Cold
When the Bush administration disclosed last year that 14 senior al-Qaeda leaders had been transferred to Guantanamo -- leaving the CIA prisons temporarily vacant -- some conspicuous names were missing from the list.
One was an al-Qaeda training camp leader known as Ibn al-Sheikh al-Libi. He was arrested in the Pakistani border town of Kohat in late 2001 and eventually taken to Cairo, where the CIA enlisted Egyptian intelligence agents to help with the interrogation.
Libi began to talk. Among his claims: that the Iraqi regime had provided training in poisons and mustard gas to al-Qaeda operatives.
His statements were cited by the Bush administration as part of the rationale for invading Iraq in 2003. He recanted after the war began, however, and his continued detention became a political liability for the CIA.
Although the CIA has since acknowledged that Libi was one of its prisoners, U.S. officials have not disclosed what happened to him. In interviews, however, political exiles from Libya said he was flown by the CIA to Tripoli in early 2006 and imprisoned by the Libyan government.
Libi reported that the CIA had taken him from Egypt to several other covert sites, including in Jordan, Morocco and Afghanistan, according to a Libyan security source.
He also claimed that he had been kept someplace very cold and that his CIA captors had told him he was in Alaska, the source said. Human rights groups have suggested that Libi was part of a small group of senior al-Qaeda figures held in a CIA prison in northern Poland.
In Tripoli, Libi joined several other Libyans who had spent time in the CIA's penal system. All were members of the Libyan Islamic Fighting Group, a network that had plotted for years from exile to overthrow Moammar Gaddafi.
After the U.S. invasion of Afghanistan in 2001, members of the Libyan network who had been staying there dispersed. The CIA helped Libya's spy agencies track down some of the leaders.
One of them, Abdallah al-Sadeq, was apprehended in a covert CIA operation in Thailand in the spring of 2004, according to Noman Benotman, a former member of the Libyan militant network.
Another, Abu Munder al-Saadi, the group's spiritual leader, was caught in the Hong Kong airport. In both cases, Benotman said, the Libyans were held briefly by the CIA before U.S. agents flew them to Tripoli.
"They realized very quickly that these guys had nothing to do with al-Qaeda," Benotman said in an interview in London. "They kept them for a few weeks, and that's it."
Benotman said he confirmed details of the CIA operations when he was allowed to see the men during a visit to a Tripoli prison this year. The trip was arranged by the Libyan government as part of an effort to persuade the Libyan prisoners to reconcile with the Gaddafi regime.
The CIA has transferred at least two other Libyans to Tripoli, Benotman said. Khaled al-Sharif and another Libyan known only as Rabai were captured in Peshawar, Pakistan, in 2003 and spent time in a CIA prison in Afghanistan, he said.
The Libyan Embassy in Washington did not respond to a faxed letter seeking comment.A Missing 'Gold Mine'
In Spain, prosecutors have been searching for Nasar, the redheaded al-Qaeda ideologue, for four years.
In 2003, he was indicted by an investigative magistrate in Madrid, accused of helping to build sleeper cells in Spain. A prolific writer and theoretician in the jihadi movement, Nasar had lived in several European countries as well as Afghanistan.
Spain has filed requests for information about Nasar with the Pakistani government, to no avail. Spanish Foreign Minister Miguel Angel Moratinos also raised the issue during a visit to Islamabad last year.
"We don't have any indication of where he is," said a source in the Spanish Foreign Ministry, who spoke on condition of anonymity.
Brynjar Lia, a Norwegian terrorism analyst and the author of a new book on Nasar, "Architect of Global Jihad," said the radical would know valuable details about the inner workings of al-Qaeda.
"The Americans are probably the ones who want him the most because he was prominently involved in al-Qaeda in the 1990s," said Lia, a senior researcher at the Norwegian Defense Research Establishment. "He must be a gold mine of information."
Some Spanish media have speculated that Nasar is being held in Syria, his place of birth. The CIA has transferred other terrorism suspects to Syria despite tense diplomatic relations between Washington and Damascus.
Other Spanish press reports have claimed that Nasar remains in U.S. custody. Another rumor is that he's being held in a CIA-run prison in India, said Manuel Tuero, a Madrid lawyer who represents Nasar's wife.
Though Nasar would go on trial if he was brought back to Spain, that would be preferable to indefinite detention in a secret prison, Tuero said.
"He's in a legal limbo," he said. "The Americans would never give him a fair trial. Spain would."
Special correspondents Munir Ladaa in Berlin and Cristina Mateo-Yanguas in Madrid contributed to this report.