Abu Zubaydah, the CIA’s first black site prisoner (photo: Department of Defense)
In spring 2003 an unnamed official at CIA headquarters in Langley sat down to compose a memo. It was 18 months after George W Bush had declared war on terror. “We cannot have enough blacksite hosts,” the official wrote. The reference was to one of the most closely guarded secrets of that war – the countries that had agreed to host the CIA’s covert prison sites.
Between 2002 and 2008, at least 119 people disappeared into a worldwide detention network run by the CIA and facilitated by its foreign partners.
Lawyers, journalists and human rights organisations spent the next decade trying to figure out whom the CIA had snatched and where it had put them. A mammoth investigation by the US Senate’s intelligence committee finally named 119 of the prisoners in December 2014. It also offered new insights into how the black site network functioned – and gruesome, graphic accounts of abuses perpetrated within it.
Many of those 119 had never been named before.
The report’s 500-page summary, which contained the CIA official’s 2003 remarks, was only published after months of argument between the Senate committee, the CIA and the White House. It was heavily censored, while the full 6,000-page study it was based on remains secret. All names of countries collaborating with the CIA in its detention and interrogation operations were removed, along with key dates, numbers, names and much other material.
In nine months of research, the Bureau of Investigative Journalism and The Rendition Project have unpicked these redactions to piece together the hidden history of the CIA’s secret sites. This account unveils many of the censored passages in the report summary, drawing on public data sources such as flight records, aviation contracts, court cases, prisoner testimonies, declassified government documents and media and NGO reporting.
Although many published accounts of individual journeys through the black site network exist, this is the first comprehensive portrayal of the system’s inner dynamics from beginning to end.
Search The Rendition Project’s interactive database of all CIA prisoners
The CIA’s authority to operate prisons began with a document called a “covert action memorandum of notification” – a secret order signed by President Bush the week after the 9/11 attacks. For the first time in its history, the CIA was given permission not only to take prisoners but also to decide whom to detain, why and for how long.
After several weeks of discussions, high level officials concluded it would be a mistake for the agency to manage its own detention system. The risks – including media exposure, diplomatic problems with countries hosting prisons and complications over site maintenance – were judged too great, and military custody was settled on as the best long-term solution.
This assessment, passed down by senior officials in November 2001, proved to be prescient.
It did not take long for the CIA’s caution to founder in the tide of events, however.
In late March 2002, everything changed. The CIA captured the man they took to be their first “high value” detainee. He was a Palestinian named Abu Zubaydah, and the agency believed – wrongly – that he was “number three in al-Qaeda”.
The decision to hold him in secret and under CIA control was hastily taken. The agency began considering what to do with him around March 24, four days before he was captured. It rejected the idea of having the US military hold him, “because of the lack of security and the fact that [he] would have to be declared to the International Committee of the Red Cross”. They were worried that if he went to the newly established military prison at Guantánamo Bay they might lose control of their prize. Nor did they want to send him to one of the countries which had recently dealt with prisoners on their behalf – perhaps Jordan or Egypt – because “the results of that country’s recent interrogations had been disappointing”.
Instead, CIA bosses reversed their previous decision and set up their own detention facility.
To conceal the locations of the CIA’s prison sites, the 2014 Senate report gave them colour code-names. But it also gave enough details of events at each site to allow us to match the code-names with public source data pointing conclusively to specific countries.
Get the data:
Our complete table of CIA prisoners with capture dates, detention dates, and what happened afterwards
Our black site database matching prisoners to locations
The first prison, which the report nicknamed “Green”, was in Thailand. The country was not far from Pakistan, where Abu Zubaydah had been captured, and its officials swiftly agreed to host the site and provide security for it.
Problems with the hosts soon emerged. Reshuffles of Thai government personnel meant that the CIA Station Chief had to engage in “continued lobbying” to keep the prison open. Less than a month after the site was set up, the agency estimated that the number of Thai officials who knew about it was already in double figures. It did not take long for media organisations to pick up on the fact that the CIA’s most important catch was being held in Thailand.
It was an inauspicious beginning. Barely more than six months after the site had opened, its continued operation was judged to be too great a risk. The prison was closed down on December 4 2002.
By this time it had accommodated only two prisoners: Abu Zubaydah and the suspected organiser of the 2000 bombing of the USS Cole in Aden, Abd al-Rahim al-Nashiri. Nashiri had been captured in the United Arab Emirates in October and handed over to the CIA in November.
Although it never held many prisoners, the Thailand site was where the basic blueprint of the CIA’s detention regime was invented. It was also where the CIA’s interrogators pioneered their new “enhanced” questioning techniques. Abu Zubaydah was repeatedly waterboarded, sleep-deprived, forced into stress positions and held in boxes. These included a coffin-shaped box, in which he spent eleven days in total, and a box less than three feet square in which he spent 29 hours. Observing one of his interrogations in August, a medical officer wrote:
The sessions accelerated rapidly progressing quickly to the water board after large box, walling, and small box periods. [Abu Zubaydah] seems very resistant to the water board. Longest time with the cloth over his face so far has been 17 seconds. This is sure to increase shortly. NO useful information so far … He did vomit a couple of times during the water board with some beans and rice. It’s been 10 hours since he ate so this is surprising and disturbing. We plan to only feed Ensure for a while now. I’m head[ing] back for another water board session.
The goal, as the two contractor psychologists who masterminded the interrogations put it in August 2002, was “to reach the stage where we have broken any will or ability of subject to resist or deny providing us information (intelligence) to which he had access.”
Map credit: Victoria Parsons
Immediately after Abu Zubaydah’s capture, the CIA had started to make plans for a detention centre nearer the centre of the action, in Afghanistan. It was to be “totally under [CIA] control”. Initial construction costs of over $200,000 were approved in June 2002 and the building was ready to hold its first prisoners in mid-September.
Meanwhile, a handful of prisoners captured outside Afghanistan before September had been held in Afghan facilities where “the CIA had unlimited access to them”. These were three men captured in Georgia at the end of April (Zakariya, Jamal Eldin Boudraa and Abbar al-Hawari) and two picked up in Pakistan in late May (Hassan Muhammad Abu Bakr Qa’id – better known as Abu Yahya al-Libi – and Ridha Ahmad Najar).
The CIA’s first prison in Afghanistan – which the Senate report nicknamed “Cobalt” – had 20 cells. It operated until April 2004. During this time, the CIA documented 64 prisoners held there. But as the Senate’s researchers noted, “inadequate record keeping” meant that the CIA itself could not precisely determine how many people it had detained.
According to the Senate report, 20 prisoners were held in Cobalt between September and December 2002. They were Ayub Marshid Ali Salih, Bashir al-Marwalah, Ha’il al-Mithali, Said Saleh Said and 16 others.
Our research shows that, excluding Abu Zubaydah, 37 prisoners had entered the detention programme by the end of December. A few of these were quickly moved out. Hassan bin Attash and Ramzi bin al-Shibh, captured in Pakistan on September 11, were in Afghanistan for around three days before being transferred for interrogation to other countries where the CIA did not have its own prisons. Nashiri had been sent to Thailand. Ten prisoners were passed over to the US military in Bagram before the end of the year: Ayub Ali Salih, Bashir al-Marwalah, Ha’il al-Mithali, Said Saleh Said, Musab al-Mudwani, Shawqi Awad, Rafiq al-Hami, Tawfiq al-Bihani, Bisher al-Rawi and Jamil el-Banna.
Aside from Nashiri, however, there is no indication that anyone was sent from Afghanistan to Thailand, despite one CIA officer claiming that Cobalt was intended as a holding site “for those detainees en route to [Green]”.
Like Green, Cobalt was a place where the CIA experimented with its enhanced interrogation techniques. The agency held its first training course for interrogators on the use of EITs between November 12 and 18. By this time, its agents had already tried out the techniques on at least seven prisoners in Afghanistan, as well as on Nashiri and Abu Zubaydah. The seven were Ridha Najar, Rafiq al-Hami, Tawfiq al-Bihani, Lutfi al-Gharisi, Hikmat Nafi Shaukat, Gul Rahman and Abu Badr Ghulam Rabbani. One, Gul Rahman, died.
The CIA’s interrogation chief described Cobalt as a “dungeon”, while a senior analyst stated that the site itself “is an EIT”. And a delegation from the Federal Bureau of Prisons, who visited in November 2002, were “wow’ed” – “They have never been in a facility where individuals are so sensory deprived,” an official reported.
Afghanistan was to remain the principal holding bay for the CIA’s prisoners throughout the detention programme. By the end of 2002, the agency had embarked on one of the programme’s most extraordinary and problematic aspects: the use of secret detention sites in Europe, far away from the battlefield.
The lakeland region of Masuria in northern Poland might seem an incongruous neighbourhood in which to house al-Qaeda’s most wanted. But the choice was not random. The region is home to a military and intelligence training base and the neighbouring town of Szczytno boasts a major police academy. The discreet airbase at Szymany – a few kilometres down the road – was used to receiving visiting dignitaries and businessmen. Everyone in Szczytno knows someone in the security services, according to one local resident, and people here are adept at keeping their mouths shut.
Nashiri and Abu Zubaydah arrived in Poland on board a chartered Gulfstream jet on a snowy day in December 2002. Initially the Polish site had been planned to house just them. Six months later it held five, beyond the capacity of its “three purpose-built ‘holding units'”.
Ramzi bin al-Shibh was the first to be added to the new location. He arrived at Szymany airport on February 8 2003. Khaled Sheikh Mohamed, the alleged 9/11 mastermind, followed at the start of March on a flight from Kabul. Abu Yasir al-Jaza’iri, initially held in Afghanistan, was also moved to Poland, probably at the end of March. Others followed in June and July.
A month into its operation, the atmosphere in the site was already tense. Base officers disagreed with headquarters about how to treat Nashiri, while headquarters thought that the on-site team were being “too lenient”. An unqualified officer was found to have experimented on Nashiri with a drill, an unloaded gun and a stiff brush, prompting an investigation by the CIA’s Inspector General into what interrogation methods were being used at the remote sites and how they were being authorised.
Then in January 2003, despite assessments by interrogators that Nashiri was not withholding information, one of the psychologists managing the interrogation programme proposed a new plan for him, including waterboarding and “the full range of enhanced exploitation and interrogation measures.”
In response, the CIA’s chief of interrogations announced his intention to quit. “This is a train wreak [sic] waiting to happen,” he told colleagues. “I intend to get the hell off the train before it happens.”
As the most important prisoners were filtered into Poland on business jets in spring and summer 2003, the CIA was taking possession of more captives in Afghanistan. Some were flown in from far afield.
After a lengthy period in Egyptian custody (during which he fabricated information linking Saddam Hussein to al-Qaeda that proved critical in the Bush administration’s public relations push around the Iraq war) Ibn Shaykh al-Libi was brought into the CIA’s Afghanistan site in February. Tanzanian national Suleiman Abdallah was flown in from Djibouti in March. Several men captured in Pakistan were also transferred into the Afghanistan site. They included Libyan anti-Gaddafi fighters Abu Hazim al-Libi and Mohammed al-Shara’iya, the son of the imprisoned Egyptian “blind sheikh” Mohammed Asadallah, and Mustafa al-Hawsawi.
By mid-August, data compiled by the Bureau and The Rendition Project shows that the programme was starting to creak at the seams, with 44 prisoners. Most of these were still in Afghanistan; a couple more – Khallad bin Attash among them – had been transferred to Poland, while two inmates of the Polish site had been moved out to a “temporary patch” in Morocco.
The CIA supplemented Cobalt with another site in Afghanistan, nicknamed Gray, which Senate investigators calculated held eight prisoners in 2003, although “almost no records” were kept for it. But they still needed more space. One solution was to use Afghan facilities for prisoners deemed not sufficiently important for the agency’s own sites. As Cobalt’s manager wrote:
They [Afghan officials] also happen to have 3 or 4 rooms where they can lock up people discretely [sic]. I give them a few hundred bucks a month and they use the rooms for whoever I bring over – no questions asked. It is very useful for housing guys that shouldn’t be in [Cobalt] for one reason or another but still need to be kept isolated and held in secret detention.
As the Senate report authors commented, “The host country [Afghanistan] had no independent reason to detain these individuals and held them solely at the behest of the CIA.” At least four prisoners were farmed out to Afghan sites: they included Hamid Aich and Mohamed Dinshah.
Two of the CIA’s prisoners, Laid Saidi and Majid Khan, were also held at a “safehouse” in Afghanistan. And Hassan Ghul, although only in Afghanistan for two days in January 2004, was removed from Cobalt to a “[redacted] facility for portions of his interrogations”.
Testimonies from former prisoners show that many of them were shuttled around two or three different locations in the vicinity of Kabul at this time.
On September 22 2003 the CIA carried out a major reshuffle of its most important detainees. The Polish site was closed and its inmates spread between a prison in Romania, called “Black” in the Senate report, and two sites in Guantánamo Bay (“Maroon” and “Indigo“). The “temporary patch” in Morocco was also emptied as Bin al-Shibh and Nashiri were moved out to Guantánamo. Some of Cobalt’s prisoners, including Ibn Shaykh al-Libi, were transferred to the new locations too.
The secret Guantánamo sites were short lived. After less than four months the CIA became concerned that an anticipated US Supreme Court decision would mean legal representation and habeas corpus rights for the five prisoners it was holding there. They were hurriedly shipped out again on a series of contracted flights to Morocco and Romania between March 27 and April 14 2004.
With these new sites established in September, the CIA had hit peak capacity. More than 50 and perhaps as many as 60 prisoners were on its books in October and November 2003. Some 44 were in Afghanistan.
The programme had become bloated. That December, CIA officers in Afghanistan made an “unsettling discovery”: “we are holding a number of detainees about whom we know very little”.
The majority of [CIA] detainees in [Afghanistan] have not been debriefed for months and, in some cases, for over a year. Many of them appear to us to have no further intelligence value for [the CIA] and should more properly be turned over to the [U.S. military], to [Afghan] authorities or to third countries for further investigation and possibly prosecution. In a few cases, there does not appear to be enough evidence to continue incarceration, and, if this is in fact the case, the detainees should be released.
This “unsettling discovery” was followed by another blow, as the International Committee of the Red Cross informed US authorities of their discovery that CIA prisoners in Afghanistan were being held “incommunicado for extensive periods of time, subjected to unacceptable conditions of internment, to ill treatment and torture, while deprived of any possible recourse.” The letter, which included a “fairly complete list” of CIA prisoners, “prompted CIA Headquarters to conclude that it was necessary to reduce the number of detainees in CIA custody”.
Around May 2004, the CIA transferred 18 prisoners to US military custody in Bagram. It released five more and transferred another seven to foreign custody around the same time.
Our research shows that, between January and August 2004, two prisoners were sent to Algeria (Jamal Boudraa in January and Laid Saidi in August) and three to Libya (Al-Shara’iya, Adnan al-Libi and Abu Abdallah al-Zulaytini, all in August). Mohamed Dinshah was transferred to the custody of an unspecified country between the end of January and the middle of March.
Meanwhile, the CIA closed down Cobalt and moved its occupants to a new prison in Afghanistan, nicknamed Orange. The first prisoners arrived in Orange in an en-masse transfer in April 2004.
Orange was billed as a “quantum leap forward” because of its “heating/air conditioning, conventional plumbing, appropriate lighting, shower, and laundry facilities.” As the Senate report noted, however, “although some of the cells at [Orange] included plumbing, detainees undergoing interrogation were kept in smaller cells, with waste buckets rather than toilet facilities.”
After its rapid growth in 2003, and the upheavals which followed this – the swift exit from the undisclosed Guantánamo sites, the wholesale transfer from Cobalt to Orange and the shedding of prisoners prompted by the ICRC – the programme’s volume levelled off. In late June 2004 there were 34 prisoners spread between Afghanistan, Romania and the re-established temporary holding unit in Morocco.
This number had dropped to 29 by December. After the switch from Cobalt to Orange, only eight prisoners entered the programme in the rest of 2004. Most of these are known to have been captured in Pakistan.
Although the pressure of overcrowding had now reduced, other causes of instability increased during this period. In February 2005, after months of rising tensions with local officials in which the they were accused of being “querulous and unappreciative recipients” of Moroccan cooperation, the CIA lost access to the prison it had been using as an overflow facility. On February 17-18 it moved its detainees out of there and began operations in a new prison in Lithuania (nicknamed Violet). On the day of the transfer the CIA counted 29 prisoners in its programme in total, spread between Afghanistan, Romania and Lithuania.
Five prisoners – two Libyans and three Yemenis – were sent back to their home countries in April and May 2005. They were Abu Hazim al-Libi, Ayyub al-Libi, Salah Nasir Salim Ali, Mohd al-Shomaila and Muhammad Abdullah Saleh.
Four new prisoners were brought in to the detention programme in 2005. Two, Ibrahim Jan and Abu Ja’far al-Iraqi, were handed over to the CIA by the US military in Iraq in the autumn. The others, Abu Munthir al-Magrebi and Abu Faraj al-Libi, had been flown in in May. Research indicates that Abu Munthir had been picked up in Tunisia. Abu Faraj was captured in Pakistan and passed briefly through Afghanistan; he was then transferred into Romania along with Abu Munthir.
The Romanian site held “many of the detainees the CIA assessed as ‘high-value'”. These included Khaled Sheikh Mohamed, Hassan Ghul, Janat Gul and Nashiri.
By the time that Abu Faraj al-Libi was flown in there, the site’s own manager considered the prison to be dysfunctional. He was troubled by the “natural and progressive effects of long-term solitary confinement on detainees”. And he was exasperated by the personnel deployed there, “more than a few” of whom he described as “basically incompetent”. The quality of debriefers and security officers being sent to the site was degenerating, while the information coming out of it was “mediocre or, I dare say, useless”.
The CIA transferred some prisoners, including Khaled Sheikh Mohamed, from Romania to Lithuania in October 2005. The following month it was forced to abandon the site altogether. Revelations about the secret prison network in the Washington Post caused the Romanian authorities to demand the prison’s closure within days, and the remaining captives were flown to Afghanistan via Jordan on November 5.
The CIA now had only two active prison sites: one in Lithuania, the other in Afghanistan. At this point the programme held 27.
In March 2006, the Lithuanian site also closed. Medical care for Mustafa al-Hawsawi – who had been subjected to “rectal exams … with ‘excessive force'” and was suffering from “chronic hemorrhoids, an anal fissure, and symptomatic rectal prolapse” – was inaccessible there, making the site itself unsustainable. The CIA shifted its prisoners out of Lithuania and into a final Afghan site, nicknamed Brown, which held 10 people between March and September 2006.
At this point the CIA was locked in argument with the Department of Defense about the long-term “endgame” for its captives. Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld had decided not to accept any more CIA prisoners in Guantánamo Bay. Without this option, the agency had only two possibilities: “to begin transferring those detainees no longer producing intelligence to third countries, which may release them” – or simply to release them itself.
Starting in February, the CIA gradually began to disperse the prisoners that it was willing to send to foreign custody. Saud Memon was first to go – probably to Pakistan – while the Bureau’s research indicates that Ibn Shaykh al-Libi was sent to Libya on April 14. At the end of June, several other prisoners were shipped out. They include Marwan al-Jabbur, who was taken to Jordan. Bureau research indicates that the same plane could have transferred Abd al-Bari al-Filistini to Jordan and Abu ‘Abdallah to Saudi Arabia. Firas al-Yemeni was returned to Yemen around the start of September.
Other prisoners who were transferred abroad at this time were Janat Gul, Hassan Ghul, Qattal al-Uzbeki, Abu Yasir al-Jaza’iri, Abdi Rashid Samatar, Abu Munthir al-Magrebi, Ibrahim Jan and Abu Ja’far al-Iraqi.
The last 14 remaining “high value detainees” were finally sent to Guantánamo at the start of September 2006. On their arrival, President Bush announced to the world that in addition to those held in military detention, “a small number of suspected terrorist leaders and operatives captured during the war have been held and questioned outside the United States, in a separate program operated by the Central Intelligence Agency.” The speech was the US government’s first acknowledgement of what had by then become an open secret.
After September 6 2006 the programme was dormant. It revived sporadically for the detention of the last two CIA prisoners: Abd al-Hadi al-Iraqi (held November 2006 to April 2007) and Muhammad Rahim (July 2007 to March 2008).
After Rahim was sent to Guantánamo the CIA continued to maintain two prison sites, empty but ready and waiting. They were managed by a contracting company, Mitchell Jessen Associates. The company had been set up by James Mitchell and John Jessen – the two psychologists who had engineered the blueprint for the interrogation programme.
A letter from the CIA’s director, Leon Panetta, in April 2009, obtained by Vice News, stated that Mitchell Jessen Associates had a contract “for services related to the two remaining CIA detention facilities”. Previously MJA had provided “interrogation services, security teams for renditions, facilities, training, and other services”. By 2009, however, the CIA had informed them that their services would be reduced to providing security teams for the empty facilities, “given that the agency would not be engaging in interrogation or operating blacksites”.
The contract – due to run until March 2010 – was terminated early. But – Panetta told congressional overseers – the agency retained the authority to carry out renditions and “to detain individuals on a short-term, transitory basis”.
42 of the CIA’s 119 prisoners are now known to have been released. 30 are still in US custody. Seven have died. Of the rest, some are still in the custody abroad, while others remain untraced.
35 prisoners held in Afghanistan in 2002
Zakariya, Jamal Eldin Boudraa, Abbar al-Hawari, Hassan Muhammad Abu Bakr Qa’id, Ridha Ahmad Najar, Ayub Ali Salih, Bashir al-Marwalah, Ha’il al-Mithali, Musab al-Mudwani, Said Saleh Said, Shawqi Awad, Umar Faruq, Abd al-Salam al-Hilah, Asat Sar Jan, Akbar Zakaria, Rafiq al-Hami, Tawfiq al-Bihani, Lutfi al-Gharisi, Hikmat Nafi Shaukat, Yaqub al-Baluchi, Abd al-Rahim Ghulam Rabbani, Gul Rahman, Abu Badr Ghulam Rabbani, Haji Ghalgi, Nazar Ali, Juma Gul, Wafti bin Ali, Adel, Qari Mohib Ur Rehman, Shah Wali Khan, Hayattulah Haqqani, Bisher al-Rawi, Jamil el-Banna, Ghairat Bahir, Pacha Wazir
18 prisoners transferred to Bagram around May 2004
Abu Nasim al-Tunisi, Muhammad Jafar al-Qahtani, Adel Ben Hamlili, Abdullah Ashami, Ridha Ahmad Najar, Ghairat Bahir, Noor Jalal, Hassan bin Attash, Abd al-Rahim Ghulam Rabbani, Abu Badr Ghulam Rabbani, Muhammad Amein al-Bakri, Ali Jan, Riyadh the Facilitator, Abd al-Salam al-Hilah, Binyam Mohamed, Sanad al-Kazimi, Suleiman Abdullah; and probably Muhammad Khan (son of Suhbat)
8 prisoners entering CIA custody April-Dec 2004
27 prisoners held across CIA sites in November 2005 when the Romanian site shut down
Abu Zubaydah, Abd al-Rahim al-Nashiri, Ramzi bin al-Shibh, Ibn Shaykh al-Libi, Khalid Shaykh Mohammad, Mustafa al-Hawsawi, Abu Yasir al-Jaza’iri, Ammar al-Baluchi, Khallad bin Attash, Majid Khan, Abu Zubair, Bashir bin Lap, Hambali, Firas al-Yemeni, Hassan Ghul, Saud Memon, Hassan Ahmed Guleed, Abu ‘Abdallah, Abd al-Bari al-Filistini, Marwan al-Jabbur, Qattal al-Uzbeki, Janat Gul, Ahmed Ghailani, Abdi Rashid Samatar, Abu Faraj al-Libi, Abu Munthir al-Magrebi, Ibrahim Jan
14 HVDs sent to Guantánamo from Afghanistan in September 2006
Abu Zubaydah, Abd al-Rahim al-Nashiri, Ramzi bin al-Shibh, Khalid Shaykh Mohammad, Mustafa al-Hawsawi, Ammar al-Baluchi, Khallad bin Attash, Hambali, Bashir bin Lap, Hassan Ahmed Guleed, Ahmed Ghailani, Abu Faraj al-Libi, Majid Khan, Abu Zubair
Who was in the European prisons?
Abd al-Rahim al-Nashiri, Khalid Shaykh Mohammad, Khallad bin Attash, Samr al-Barq, Hassan Ghul, Janat Gul, Abu Faraj al-Libi. Associated Press also gives Hambali, Ramzi bin al-Shibh, Ammar al-Baluchi. Our research indicates Abu Munthir al-Magrebi.