The Mind-Breakers: the Case of Ramzi Bin al-Shibh

The Shattered Mind. Image: JSC & AI Art Generator.

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On the first anniversary of the 9/11 attacks, Pakistani ISI (Inter-Services Intelligence) forces raided several houses in Karachi, hunting for suspected members of Al Qaeda. In one of the incursions, the Pakistanis captured a young Yemeni man named Ramzi bin Al-Shibh. Three days later, the Pakistanis turned Bin al-Shibh and Hassan bin Attash, a 17-year-old Saudi, over to the CIA, who renditioned the pair into what was known as the Dark Prison outside Kabul, where, according to an account Bin al-Shibh later gave to the International Red Cross, he was stripped of his clothes, denied food and water and kept shackled from the ceiling in a painful position for the next three days while loud music was blasted into his cell.

This was just the opening act in the prolonged torture of Ramzi Bin al-Shibh that took him to torture chambers in at least seven different countries in four years– Afghanistan, Jordan, Morocco, Poland, Gitmo, Romania, and Lithuania–and left Bin al-Shibh a broken man, psychologically shattered and physically depleted.

After four days in the Dark Prison, al-Shihb was apparently transferred to the Wadi Sir site in Amman, Jordan, where he was interrogated and tortured by the GID (Jordanian intelligence). According to a Human Rights Watch report, the torture included “electric shocks, long periods of sleep deprivation, forced nakedness and being made to sit on sticks and bottles.”

From Jordan, Bin al-Shihb was flown to Morocco, where he was held in a CIA-financed prison near Rabat for the next five months and regularly interrogated by both the CIA and Moroccan intelligence. Many of these sessions were recorded, and the tapes sent back to Langley. In 2005, the CIA ordered all of the interrogation tapes of “high-level detainees” destroyed, but two years later two videotapes and an audio tape of Bin al-Shihb’s interrogation were discovered under a desk in the CIA’s Counterterrorism Center. The Agency had twice told a federal judge that no tapes of Bin al-Shihb’s interrogation existed.

Part of the CIA’s Operation Greystone, which authorized the Agency to hold suspected terrorists in secret prisons and rendition them back and forth to other countries, the Moroccan black site was a kind of way station, where prisoners could be warehoused and interrogated, then shuttled to another site. Bin al-Shibh, who was already beginning to show signs of extreme mental distress, was kept in the Moroccan prison for five months before being shipped to Poland. He would return here two more times in the following four years. Bin al-Shihb’s psychological instability would deteriorate with each new stop in the Agency’s torture archipelago. People the CIA considered “high-value detainees” were kept on the move, from one black site to another, in large part to keep them out of reach of the US courts and international human rights investigators, a shell game with human beings. By the time Bin al-Shihb had been captured and hidden away, our old friend the late Michael Ratner and the Center for Constitutional Rights had already filed a federal lawsuit challenging the legality of the “secret prison” at Guantánamo.

By the CIA’s own account, Bin al-Shibh had been one of their most cooperative detainees, talking freely. The videotapes from Morocco show calmly him answering questions while sitting at a desk. One former interrogator derisively described Bin al-Shihb as “folding like a wet suit.” In the 9-11 Commission Report, Bin al-Shihb’s interrogation is cited 119 times. Only Khalid Sheikh Mohammed is referenced more often.

Nevertheless, while Bin al-Shibh was detained in Rabat, the CIA was busy planning a much more aggressive approach to extract information from him, a routine of torture and abuse that would become the model for the Agency’s “enhanced interrogation techniques.” These methods were designed by psychologists like Bruce Jessen and James Mitchell, who had taken oaths to heal minds and then capitalized ($81 million in payments from the CIA) on fracturing them.

The rough stuff would begin in February 2003 near Szymany, Poland at a CIA black prison known as Detention Site Blue, where he was held for four months.  But Bin al-Shihb had nothing left to give. He’d spilled all he knew. More than that he knew, most likely, in an attempt to appease his inquisitors. From here on, the point of his torture would be the torture itself. It would end up ruining his mind.

After Bin al-Shihb arrived in Poland, now in the custody of the CIA itself, he was once again stripped naked, and then placed in a diaper. His hands and feet were chained to the ceiling with, according to the CIA’s own wording, his “arms outstretched over his head (with his feet firmly on the floor and not allowed to support his weight with his arms).” He was kept in a white room, flooded with bright white lights. After one of the bulbs blew out, one of the interrogators saw Bin al-Shibh flinch and cower in the corner of the room. In response, the torturers began to keep Bin al-Shihb in the dark and blast music into the room for 72 hours straight.  The temperature of the room was kept cold. His head and face were shaved. For the first three or four weeks, he was kept on a liquid diet and denied any solid food. The CIA called this technique “sensory dislocation.”

He was interrogated often, often multiple times a day. The same questions were asked over and over again, often interrupted by Bin al-Shihb being sprayed with ice-cold water from a house. Between the questioning, Bin al-Shihb was slapped repeatedly in the face and the abdomen. He was walled, kept in cramped stress positions and waterboarded. Bin al-Shibh would be chained for days, and not permitted to even use the toilet, so he was forced to stand and sleep in his own urine and feces and then hosed down while being taunted by the guards.  He was ordered to call his torturers “Sir.” When he failed to do so, he would be anally raped with rectal hydrations (EiTs). His interrogators noted that the procedures were used for “behavior adjustment,” when Bin al-Shibh showed his interrogators a lack of respect. The torture went on for five months. What was the goal of this repeated abuse? According to the CIA’s Inspector General, Bin al-Shibh’s treatment was “designed to psychologically ‘dislocate’ the detainee, maximizing his feeling of vulnerability and helplessness, and reduce or eliminate his will to resist.” In fact, it seems to have done the opposite. While cooperative in the early months of his detention, Bin al-Shibh became, according to CIA interrogators, increasingly defiant. He also seemed to be going insane. He was hallucinating, talking nonsense, and acting paranoid. And who could blame him?

The problem for the CIA was what they should do with him. In June, they stuffed Bin al-Shibh on another ghost flight out of Poland and back to Rabat, Morocco, where he languished for three-and-a-half months before he was flown along with three other detainees (Abd al-Rahim al-Nashiri, Abu Zubaydah, and Mustafa al-Hawsawi) to in the then quasi-secret CIA prison at Guantánamo Bay, which had been cynically called Strawberry Fields. He was shackled, put in an orange jumpsuit and kept in his cell at Gitmo for another 90 days. By the time Bin al-Shibh arrived at Gitmo, the austere conditions at the camp had already led to 32 suicide attempts by 21 detainees and questions had begun to surface publicly about the legality of the prisoners’ open-ended confinement. Many of the prisoners had been held for more than a year without any charges or any notice to their families that they had been detained. But with the Supreme Court poised to rule on how long the US could secretly hold the “ghost” detainees, the CIA decided to keep Bin al-Shibh out of reach from any subpoenas and he was once again covertly flown back to the Moroccan prison.


FBI photo of Ramzi Bin al-Shibh, circa 2001.

Why did the CIA invest so much time and money in the young Yemeni? What had he done? What did he know? Al-Shihb grew up in a poor family in the Yemen capital of Sana’a. His father died when he was 15. To help support his family, al-Shihb took a job as a clerk at the International Bank of Yemen, where he worked until 1995 when he applied for a visa entry into the US. His request was denied and Bin al-Shibh instead moved to Germany, where in 1997 he met and became roommates with the future 9/11 highjacker Mohammad Atta. Two years later, Bin al-Shibh traveled to Kandahar in Afghanistan and attended an Al Qaeda training camp.

Apparently, Ramzi bin al-Shihb was meant to be one of the 9/11 highjackers and was supposed to travel from Hamburg to the US to attend flight training school. Between June 2000 and October 2000, he applied four times for a visa to enter the US and was denied each time, largely because the State Department closed the window on visa applications by Yemenis. Blocked from entry into the US, al-Shihb later earned the nickname “the 20th highjacker,” the missing member of the planned four teams of five. Whether this is actually the case remains unclear. But the Bush administration accused al-Shihb of being one of the key plotters of 9/11, recruiting highjackers, raising and moving money for the operation and playing the role of intermediary between Atta and Khalid Sheikh Mohammad, the alleged mastermind of the plot.

In January 2002, Bin al-Shibh was identified as one of the five most wanted terrorists by the FBI. Nine months later he was captured after the Pakistani ISI raid and shoot-out in Karachi.

By the time Bin al-Shihb was in the Dark Prison, John Yoo had already drafted his infamous Memorandum Regarding Military Interrogation of Alien Unlawful Combatants Held Outside the United States, which asserted that the use of physical coercion and infliction of mental torment, widely considered torture in the under US and international law, was legally acceptable under the Presidential directives of Bush’s War on Terror.


Back in the Moroccan prison, something strange happened. According to the CIA, Bin al-Shibh, then suffering from chronic delusions, tried to recruit one of his Moroccan interrogators. It seems a little far-fetched, but the Agency used the incident as an excuse to move Bin al-Shibh once again, this time flying him from Rabat to Bucharest, where the CIA ran another black site prison code-named Brightlight. The prison was far from bright. It was in fact a large basement beneath the National Registry Office for Classified Information with cells that held some of the highest-valued prisoners of the war on terror, including Khalid Sheikh Mohammad. The prison was also a torture chamber, where some of the cruelest tactics were deployed to coerce confessions.

The cells at Brightlight were prefabricated and sat on springs, which intentionally kept the floors moving with each step in order to disorient the prisoners. Each new arrival was subjected to what came to be known as the “treatment”:  sprayed with cold water, slapped, tied up in stress positions, slammed against walls, and deprived of sleep for three days at a time.

The CIA interrogators apparently hated the Bucharest post. They were required to stay for three-month periods and weren’t allowed to leave the building, even to eat. They were frustrated, too, by the lack of information they were getting from Bin al-Shibh and the other prisoners, whose information, if they had any left to impart, had gone stale long ago.

In his interview with the International Red Cross, Bin al-Shibh said that he had been restrained on a bed, unable to move, for one month, February 2005, and subjected to cold air-conditioning during that period.” Bin al-Shibh also said he forcibly shaved to humiliate him. “First his head was shaved and then some days later his beard was also shaved off,” Bin al-Shibh told his interviewers. “He was particularly distressed by the fact that the people who shaved him allegedly deliberately left some spots and spaces in order to make him look and feel particularly undignified and abused.”

The Romanian black site was closed in November 2005 and where Ramzi bin al-Shihb was imprisoned for the next few months is murky. Some evidence points to him being renditioned to the CIA black site inside a concrete bunker at an exclusive riding academy outside Vilnius, Lithuania and then several months later transferred once again back to the Dark Prison in Afghanistan, before finally being sent to the Camp 7 prison at Guantánamo on September 5, 2006, a kind of black site within a black site. By that time, Bin al-Shibh had spent 1305 days in the secret custody of the CIA, much of it in solitary confinement. Now he was in the hands of the US military, where he was soon charged with being part of a conspiracy in the 9/11 attacks and faced a death penalty trial before a Military Tribunal. The problem for the Military Commission was that Ramzi Bin al-Shibh was in no shape to stand trial. His mind had been mangled and the CIA had destroyed it with three-and-half years of near-constant abuse.


The conditions at Gitmo were scarcely better than those in Poland, Romania, or Morocco. The prisoners were kept in isolation, every movement restricted and monitored by a group of reservist guards known as Task Force Platinum. Even Bin al-Shibh’s communications with his lawyers were secretly bugged and videotaped and mail between the lawyers had been opened and read. As was revealed in 2014, the FBI tried to recruit non-lawyer members of his defense team to spy on their colleagues. The plot was exposed when a linguist working on Bin al-Shibh’s defense team told the lawyers of the attempt to turn him into a spy for the government.

But all of this snooping couldn’t conceal the underlying problem for the government prosecutors: Ramzi Bin al-Shibh wasn’t fit to stand trial, even under the secret terms of the Military Tribunals. The CIA’s own psychologists had concluded as early as 2004 that al-Shihb’s mind was being broken by his prolonged stints in isolation. But the Agency ignored the warnings and kept him in solitary confinement for another year and a half. By the time he arrived at Guantánamo, Bin al-Shibh was suffering from paranoid delusions and hallucinations. A U.S. Navy psychiatrist evaluated Bin al-Shibh shortly after he was transferred to the prison and determined he had an “Adjustment Disorder with Depressed Mood.” A month later, the same doctor reported that Bin al-Shibh’s condition had deteriorated and that he couldn’t sleep either “day or night” because of flashbacks from the torture he suffered at CIA blacks. The doctor noted that the Bin al-Shibh complained about “noises, odors, and slight vibrations.”

The pressure was on the doctors to get Bin al-Shibh ready for trial. But Bin al-Shibh believed it was the government doctors who were insane, not him. He called them, not without reason, “war criminals” and “monsters.” He refused any medications after the injections from the first psychiatrist he saw made “him feel dead.” Because Bin al-Shibh seemed unaware of his mental deterioration, and in fact became angry and disruptive when the possibility was mentioned, even by his lawyers, the doctor recommended that Bin al-Shihb be administered anti-psychotic medications without his consent. The doctor’s memo said the detainee had a “history of fixed, firm, false beliefs…as a result of his delusional beliefs, the detainee becomes irritable, angry, and agitated episodically, which has resulted in two Forced Cell Extractions this month.”

So, in early 2007 military doctors subjected Bin al-Shihb to four months of forced anti-psychotic medications. But the drugs didn’t do anything to lessen his delusions and instead generated some severe adverse side effects. Bin al-Shib still believes that he is being subjected to human experimentation by the CIA, which routinely disrupts his sleep and attacks him remotely with strange vibrations, especially during his daily prayers or when he is meeting with his lawyers. Bin al-Shihb says the attacks are abrupt and painful. The government shrinks told the court that al-Shihb was suffering from “persecutory delusional disorder,” but they considered him able to stand trial.

Two years later, Bin al-Shihb was interviewed for three days by Xavier Amador, a professor of clinical and forensic psychology at Columbia University. Amador concluded that didn’t understand the charges against him and suffered from a psychosis likely caused by his torture at the hands of CIA interrogators. Amador’s report was buried by the government, now under the helm of Barack Obama, for four years.

In a 2016 hearing, Ramzi Bin al-Shihb told the court that the torture he endured at the black sites had continued at Gitmo, where he felt that he had been hit with some kind of rays that “make all my life terrible, upside down.” Bin al-Shihb described the vibrations as like “sitting in a car with the engine on.” In response, Military Judge James Pohl issued an order directing the government, “not to subject Mr. Bin al-Shibh to disruptive and harassing noises and vibrations” in the camp, the attorney-client meeting rooms and the holding cell outside court. Judge Pohl’s order was posted on the outside of Bin al-Shibh’s Camp 7 cell. Bin Shibh testified that the guards ignored the order and laughed at him.  He accused the guards of routinely waking him soon after he fell asleep. “This will drive you crazy,” he told the judge.

During the hearing, Bin al-Shihb described how the vibrations and noises–from a metallic buzzing sound to banging on walls–resembled the kind of torture inflicted on him at black sites. “Maybe the CIA is still at Camp 7, nobody knows,” he said. Then a red light began to flash inside the courtroom and the video feed went black, replaced by a “Please Stand-By” message, an indication that security officers feared Bin al-Shihb was about to disclose classified information about the Agency and its torture program. Later Bin al-Shihb testified that his years in Guantánamo had been the “worst time in my life. Worse than the black sites.”

Ramzi bin al-Shibh at Guantánamo Bay in 2019 in a photograph provided by his defense team.


Now 14 years after Amador’s assessment, a three-member panel of US military doctors commissioned by the court has reached the same conclusion. In an 80-page report that remains under seal, the medical team determined that al-Shihb suffers from “Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder with Secondary Psychotic Features” and that he lacks the mental capacity to stand trial. The military doctors concluded that his shattered psychological condition was the result of his having been tortured by the CIA.

Colonel Matthew McCall, the military judge currently overseeing Bin al-Shihb’s case, accepted the findings of the doctors and ruled that Bin al-Shibh was mentally unfit to stand trial and halted the proceedings against him, a ruling which marks the first time the US government has officially acknowledged the last psychological harm its “enhanced interrogation” methods had done detainees like Bin al-Shihb–a program of systematic torture that had been designed and implemented by psychologists on the CIA’s payroll.

What happens to Ramzi Bin al-Shibh now? After 22 years in custody, the 51-year-old Yemeni man will be sent back for more treatment of the PTSD and psychosis he still doesn’t believe he has, which will be administered by agents of the very same government who wrecked his mind in the first place. Yet, once you’ve been taken to the Dark Prison, no amount of therapy or drugs will bring you all the way back to who you once were.

The damage to Bin al-Shihb’s mind is as real and agonizing as the prolapsed rectum and anal fissures meted out to Mustafa al-Hawsawi from repeated anal probings and rectal hydrations by his interrogators, debilitating wounds which have bled for the last 18 years. Even by the sadistic standards of the Yoo memos, these abuses qualify as crimes of torture, consisting of lasting injuries and prolonged pain. Yet, none of the architects of these grievous felonies, or the people who carried them out and covered them up, have ever been held to account, making the rule of law itself the ultimate victim of 9/11.


Mark Denbeaux, Adam Kirchner, Joshua Wirtshafter, and Joseph Hickman. Spying on Attorneys at GTMO: Guantanamo Bay Military Commissions and the Destruction of the Attorney-Client Relationship (April 2013). Available at SSRN.

Roy J. Eidelson, Doing Harm: How the World’s Largest Psychological Association Lost Its Way in the War on Terror. McGill University Press, 2023.

Mark Fallon, Unjustifiable Means: The Inside Story of How the CIA, Pentagon and US Government Conspired to Torture. Regan Arts, 2017.

Adam Goldman and Matt Appuzo, “Inside Romania’s Secret CIA Prison,” Associated Press. December 8, 2011.

Steven Grey, Ghost Plane: The True Story of the CIA Torture Program. St. Martin’s Press, 2006.

Thomas Hammarberg, “Advancing Accountability in Respect of the CIA Black Site in Romania.” Council of Europe Commissioner for Human Rights. March 30, 2012.

Lisa Hijjar, The War in Court: Inside the Long Fight Against Torture. University of California Press, 2022.

Human Rights Watch, Ghost Prisoner: Two Years in Secret CIA Detention. February 2007.

International Red Cross, “Report on the Condition of 14 ‘High-Value’ Detainees in CIA Custody.” February 2007.

Jane Mayer, The Dark Side: How the War on Terror Turned Into a War on American Ideals. Doubleday, 2008.

Alfred McCoy, A Question of Torture: CIA Interrogation from the Cold War to the War on Terror. Metropolitan Books. 2006.

Dana Priest, “CIA Holds Terror Suspects in Secret Prisons,” Washington Post. November 2, 2005.

Michael Ratner (with Michael Smith), Moving the Bar: My Life as a Radical Lawyer. OR Press, 2020.

Rendition Project, “Ramzi Bin al-Shihb.”

Scott Shane, “Inside a 9/11 Mastermind’s Interrogation,” New York Times. June 22, 2008.

Andy Worthington, The Guantanamo Files. Pluto Press, 2007.

US Department of Defense, “Combatant Status Review Tribunal Input and Recommendation for Continued Detention Under DoD Control (CD) for Guantanamo Detainee [Ramzi Bin al-Shibh], ISN: US9YM-010013DP(S).” December 8, 2006.

US Senate Select Committee on Intelligence. Report of the Committee Study on the CIA’s Detention and Interrogation Program. December 9, 2014.

John Yoo, Memo Regarding the Torture and Military Interrogation of Alien Unlawful Combatants Held Outside the United States, Office of Legal Counsel, US Department of Justice, August 2002.


Jeffrey St. Clair is editor of CounterPunch. His most recent book is An Orgy of Thieves: Neoliberalism and Its Discontents (with Alexander Cockburn). He can be reached at: or on Twitter @JeffreyStClair3