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Missing Imam's Trail Said to Lead From Italy to CIA

Prosecutors in Milan are investigating whether an Egyptian-born suspected militant was spirited away by the U.S. using a disputed tactic

By Tracy Wilkinson and Bob Drogin,
Times Staff Writers

March 3, 2005

ROME — When Hassan Osama Nasr, a controversial Egyptian-born imam, vanished from the streets of Milan two years ago, his friends and family insisted he'd been kidnapped by American agents. Few people listened. But today it appears Italian judicial authorities may agree with them.

A leading prosecutor in Milan has opened an investigation into the February 2003 disappearance, which has the hallmarks of a so-called extraordinary rendition, in which American counter-terrorism agents seize and transport suspects to third countries without seeking court permission.

The right-wing administration of Italian Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi has not commented on the case, although it seems unlikely that the U.S. would conduct an extraordinary rendition without at least the tacit approval of the Italian government.

The case has outraged Italian opposition politicians, who want to know whether their government is involved in what one called "the outsourcing of torture." Nasr reportedly resurfaced 15 months later in Egypt and said he had been kidnapped by American and Italian agents and taken to Egypt, where he was tortured. His current whereabouts are unclear.

Extraordinary renditions have apparently been used increasingly since the Sept. 11 attacks on New York and Washington. U.S. agents reportedly grab suspects in one country and then transfer them to another country to be interrogated, sometimes with tactics not allowed on American soil, such as torture.

Most suspects are said to have been nabbed in countries such as Pakistan where the rule of law is tenuous and the actions are easier to conceal. It is extremely rare for an official in a country where a seizure takes place to launch an investigation, as the Italian prosecutor has done.

Nasr, widely known as Abu Omar, was a suspected militant affiliated with a mosque in Milan that U.S. and Italian investigators have long contended was a hotbed of Islamic extremism.

On the Trail

Last week, Italian prosecutor Armando Spataro went to the joint U.S.-Italian Aviano Air Base to demand records on vehicular and airplane traffic in and out of the base, officials familiar with the investigation said. Reports suggest that after Abu Omar was seized, he was bundled off to the air base, then flown to Egypt.

Spataro declined to discuss details of the case and would only say that an inquiry was underway that had led investigators to the base. "I can confirm only that I was in Aviano," he told the Los Angeles Times.

A spokesman for the U.S. Embassy in Italy confirmed that Spataro had visited the base and had submitted questions to Italian military officers there, who relayed the queries to American officials, following the prescribed protocol.

"We are responding appropriately, in accordance with our [U.S.-Italian] agreements," the spokesman, Benedict Duffy, said.

A CIA spokeswoman declined to comment on the case. But intelligence officials are watching the investigation closely in the event that Spataro threatens to expose clandestine American agents or operations in Italy.

A former senior CIA operations officer, who spoke on condition of anonymity, said the agency's "routine and practice" was to notify another government before U.S. agents snatched someone off their soil. He said he could not discuss the Abu Omar case because the details were classified.

Simona Howe, a spokeswoman for the Italian Embassy in Washington, said the embassy was aware of the investigation, but had no instructions to discuss it with U.S. officials.

'Not a Banana Republic'

Prime Minister Berlusconi is one of President Bush's most loyal allies, and Italy was one of the strongest Western European supporters of the war in Iraq, sending troops there despite widespread popular sentiment against it.

But Italy's judiciary is often at odds with the Berlusconi government. He has frequently criticized judges for what he considers their leftist tendencies, especially when they challenge the prime minister's policies.

Spataro and other prosecutors in Milan are known as crusaders who have tackled numerous terrorism cases and broken up several cells believed to have had ties to Al Qaeda militants and other networks in Europe.

News of Spataro's investigation into the Abu Omar case first broke in Italian newspapers, and prompted a protest last week in the Italian parliament by opposition politicians who demanded to know what the government knew about the operation.

Several said that if the reports of a kidnapping on the streets of Milan proved true, the incident would represent a serious breach of international law. "We are not a banana republic," said Marco Minniti of the Democrats of the Left Party.

"I want to know if Italy is involved in the outsourcing of torture," said Sen. Tana de Zulueta.

Italian media have cited a witness who says that on Feb. 17, 2003, Abu Omar was walking to Viale Jenner Mosque in Milan when a group of men surrounded him, bundled him into a minivan and sped away.

The busy mosque, a converted garage on a main street, was once labeled by U.S. officials as the principal Al Qaeda logistics center in Europe. To this day, it is under heavy police surveillance and its members — primarily Middle Easterners and North Africans — are considered hostile to outsiders.

Clues in Disappearance

At the time, Italian authorities suspected Abu Omar of helping to build a terrorist network in Europe, of recruiting jihadist volunteers for Iraq and of possibly plotting a bombing. Prosecutors were seeking evidence to indict him when he vanished.

A U.S. counter-terrorism official, speaking on condition of anonymity, said Wednesday that Abu Omar was "considered a veteran jihadist" who had fought in Bosnia-Herzegovina and Afghanistan. After Omar arrived in Italy in 2001, the official said, "he supported other jihadists" by providing training, and "is suspected of involvement in planning terrorist activities."

Fifteen months after disappearing in 2003, Abu Omar, who said he had been released by Egyptian authorities, telephoned his wife and friends in Milan and told them what had happened, Italian newspapers reported, citing prosecutors' wiretaps of the conversations. He said he had been blindfolded, driven to a military base, then flown to Egypt, where he was tortured. He was taken back into custody by Egyptian authorities shortly after the release, the reports said.

Italian newspapers say that up to 15 men, at least some of them CIA agents, are implicated in the alleged kidnapping. Italy's leading newspaper, Corriere della Sera, reported that the prosecution was focusing on Aviano Air Base after cellphone records showed that one of the suspected captors, allegedly en route with Abu Omar, called the facility.

A U.S. official familiar with Spataro's inquiry said the prosecutor had asked for records of vehicular and airplane traffic in and out of the base. That presumably would allow him to track the alleged transport of Abu Omar to the base and then his flight onward.

The Aviano base is a main component of the United States' North Atlantic Treaty Organization operations in Europe. It is run jointly by the U.S. and Italian air forces and has an estimated 4,200 troops and 1,000 U.S. and Italian civilians.

The CIA has covertly delivered at least 18 terrorism suspects since 1998 to Egypt, Syria, Jordan and other Middle Eastern nations where prisoners are often tortured, according to news accounts, congressional testimony and independent investigations.

The program intensified after the Sept. 11 attacks. Officials say the CIA's role has varied, from providing electronic and other covert surveillance before raids to flying blindfolded suspects from one country to another on a Gulfstream jet it uses.

CIA Says It Seeks Assurances

U.S. intelligence officials defend the practice.

Michael Scheuer, a former senior CIA analyst, said each of the renditions that he supervised was approved by lawyers and policy review teams at the agency, at the National Security Council and, in some cases, at the Justice Department.

"Each one had to be built almost as if it's a court case in the United States," said Scheuer, who from January 1996 to July 1999 ran the agency's clandestine unit searching for Osama bin Laden.

"I always assumed if I had 15 lawyers' signatures, it was probably fine."

Scheuer said the CIA was required to get an oral or written statement from the country where the suspect was to be taken saying that "they will abide by the strictures of their law."

A CIA spokeswoman said that policy remained in place and that the agency sought "assurances from foreign governments that individuals would not be mistreated."

Although Scheuer said he was not familiar with the Abu Omar case, he said that in his experience, the CIA never snatched a suspect from a foreign country without notifying or seeking approval from the local government.

"The agency just wouldn't do something like that under the nose of the Europeans, especially in Italy," he said.

"The Italians are among the best in terms of cooperation on terrorism."

German police and prosecutors are separately investigating allegations by Khaled el-Masri, a German citizen who was born in Lebanon.

Masri has told authorities that he was kidnapped in Macedonia in December 2003 and was later flown to a U.S. prison in Afghanistan. He said he was held for five months before he was released without charges.

More recently, U.S. authorities released Mamdouh Habib, an Australian citizen born in Egypt who was held at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba.

Habib said he was captured in Pakistan in October 2001, flown to Egypt by U.S. operatives and tortured there for six months before being taken to Cuba.

"The horror story of the post-9/11 world is that any foreign national anywhere in the world can be plucked from the streets of anywhere, whisked off to another country, never be heard from again and be utterly beyond the reach of the law," Joseph Margulies, a Chicago-based lawyer who represented Habib, said Wednesday.

In his first extensive testimony on the subject, CIA Director Porter J. Goss strongly defended the agency's role in delivering suspects to other countries when he appeared before the Senate Intelligence Committee on Feb. 16.

"As you know, many nations will claim their citizens back," said Goss, who was confirmed in September.

"And we have responsibility of trying to ensure that they are properly treated, and we try and do the best we can to guarantee that. But of course once they're out of our control, there's only so much we can do. But we do have an accountability program for those situations."

Wilkinson reported from Rome and Drogin from Washington.

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