Last week, a tearful Marsela Nasr sat down in a Balkan cafe and poured out her woes to a journalist.
In the back of the cafe, a television flickered. Italian Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi was on the screen, and he, too, was angry and upset.
Remarkably, both Nasr, a 30-year-old of meager means, and Berlusconi, a powerful player on the world stage, are in the same strange drama, their stories linked by an obscure Egyptian cleric known as Abu Omar.
Berlusconi, under pressure from Italy's Parliament, was demanding an explanation from the United States for the cleric's abduction on Italian soil two years ago, allegedly by the CIA.
Nasr also wants to know what happened to Abu Omar, her husband and the father of her two children.
Suddenly, Berlusconi was gone and the television screen was filled with family photos of Abu Omar, a round-faced, balding man. "Your father," Nasr said to her children.
Sara, 11, and Omar, 9, had been squirming, but now they were still, scrutinizing the man on the screen. Omar, too young to have any memory of his father, stared with particular intensity.
Abu Omar, whose given name is Osama Moustafa Hassan Nasr, is from the Egyptian port city of Alexandria. While a university student, he joined Jamaat al Islamiya ("The Islamic Group"), formed in Egypt in the early 1970s after the Egyptian wing of the most venerable fundamentalist organization, the Muslim Brotherhood, renounced violence.
Jamaat, which advocates a fundamentalist Muslim government in Egypt, was outlawed after the assassins of President Anwar Sadat were identified as members of the group. Sadat's successor, Hosni Mubarak, jailed thousands of suspected members. As an unimportant figure in Jamaat, Abu Omar received a 1-year sentence.
After his release in the mid-1980s, Abu Omar fled from Egypt. By one account, he ended up in Pakistan, where he was trained by the U.S. to fight the Soviets in Afghanistan.
Whether Abu Omar fought in Afghanistan is unclear. But in 1991, three years after the Soviet army left Afghanistan, he turned up in Tirana, the Albanian capital, where he found a job with a Muslim charity.
They met at a mosque
He met Marsela Glina at a mosque and soon married her. Marsela, an orphan raised by a local family, was not particularly religious but wore a veil at her husband's insistence.
When the charity closed in 1994, Abu Omar explored business opportunities that would allow him and his family to remain in Albania. His first try was a supermarket. But Marsela said police harassed him.
Abu Omar gave up the supermarket and bought $20,000 worth of equipment for a sausage factory, Marsela said. When that didn't work out, he tried to open a bakery. But in August 1995, before the bakery could get off the ground, Abu Omar was arrested by ShIK, the Albanian intelligence service.
Marsela remembers that her husband's arrest came on the same day as a state visit by the Egyptian foreign minister.
After a week or so of interrogation, Abu Omar was freed. According to Astrit Nasufi, former No. 2 officer in ShIK's anti-terror unit, the Egyptian provided ShIK with information about Islamic groups in Albania, and ShIK was convinced it had recruited a valuable informant.
Abu Omar did not discuss politics with Marsela, she said, and she thought his questioning had something to do with unfounded charges of drug smuggling.
According to Nasufi, ShIK's new informant left without explanation for Istanbul a few weeks after his release. But according to Marsela, her husband went to Romania. Their plan was to emigrate there, but Marsela, who was pregnant with Omar, was refused a visa, and Abu Omar returned to Tirana after a month or so.
In December or January, they again tried to leave. This time they bought plane tickets to Egypt via Munich. In Germany, they applied for asylum.
For about six months, they lived in a refugee dormitory near Munich, and Marsela gave birth to Omar. According to Marsela, Abu Omar was told he could get asylum in Germany, but that, as an Albanian citizen, she didn't qualify.
They made new plans: He would go to Italy and she would return to Tirana until he sent for her. Italian records show him entering Italy in May 1997.
While in Italy, first in Rome and later in Milan, Abu Omar sent Marsela about $400 a month. At some point, he told her he had found another woman and wanted a divorce. She agreed but said they never got around to finalizing it.
He sent money for the kids
Marsela said Abu Omar kept sending money for the children. That didn't stop until Feb. 17, 2003--the day that, according to Italian prosecutors, he was bundled into a van by the CIA.
Marsela said she had no idea what happened to her husband until two years ago, when an Albanian newspaper linked him to a terrorist cell in Milan. Neighbors shunned her, and her children were teased at school.
With no more money coming from Italy, Marsela could no longer afford her apartment. She moved to a working-class neighborhood. She is unemployed. "Who is going to give you a job if everyone is calling you Mrs. bin Laden?" she asked.
There was no word from Abu Omar until early May when she received a letter dated April 20, 2005. It was mailed from Alexandria and appeared to have been opened by authorities. It was written in broken English, their only common language.
Sara, Omer, Marsela, I am Osama Mustafa Nasr. Now I live in Alexandria. I want to meet you. ... I want to know what you do, your house, secole [school] all life. I want letter from you, and photo, want to see your photo ...
The single-page letter said nothing about kidnapping or imprisonment. It did give his family's phone number. Marsela says she is sure the signature is Abu Omar's.
Marsela said she wrote back immediately. She also called the number several times but spoke only to her mother-in-law, who said Abu Omar was "at work."
She said she finally spoke to him about three weeks ago, but because the line was so bad, she is now not sure whether it was her husband or one of his brothers. She called again Thursday and spoke to Abu Omar's younger brother Hisham, who said her husband was still in jail.
Marsela has now decided that her children would be better off in Egypt, and she asked Hisham whether the family would receive them. Hisham told her he would check with Abu Omar.
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March 18, 1963
Osama Moustafa Hassan Nasr is born in Alexandria, Egypt, into a middle-class family. He has two brothers and a sister.
While studying political science at an Egyptian university, Nasr joins the militant organization Jamaat al Islamiya.
Egyptian President Anwar Sadat is assassinated while viewing a parade. When Sadat's killers are identified as members of Jamaat, Sadat's successor, Hosni Mubarak, outlaws the organization and orders a wholesale roundup of its members. Nasr is among those arrested.
After his release from prison, Nasr, like many Egyptian radicals, flees his homeland.
By one account he ends up in Pakistan, where militant Muslims are training to fight the Soviet army in Afghanistan.
Three years after the Soviet army is driven from Afghanistan by the insurgents, Nasr arrives in Tirana, the capital of Albania, a nominally Muslim country with a weak government. He takes a job with a Muslim charity, the Human Relief and Construction Agency (HRCA).
Nasr meets and marries an Albanian woman, Marsela Glina.
The HCRA closes its doors in Albania. Hoping to stay in Albania, Nasr begins exploring business opportunities.
Aug. 27, 1995
The Egyptian foreign minister, Amr Moussa, pays a visit to Albania. Nasr is one of a dozen Egyptians rounded up by the Albanian intelligence service, ShIK, and held in preventive detention. During that time Nasr agrees to collaborate with ShIK.
Nasr, having changed his mind about staying in Albania, buys tickets to Cairo via Munich. Landing in Germany, Nasr applies for political asylum. While the family is living in a refugee compound, Marsela gives birth to a son, Omar, now 9. Among his family and friends, Nasr is now known as Abu Omar, Arabic for "father of Omar."
Abu Omar makes plans to go to Italy and send his wife back to Albania to wait fo him to send for her. Abu Omar arrives in Rome, where he obtains political refugee status.
July 29, 2001
Abu Omar, who has moved to Milan and has never brought his family to Italy, takes another wife in Milan, an Egyptian woman named Nabila Ghali, who teaches at an Islamic school there. Abu Omar becomes deputy imam at the city's Islamic center, which has a reputation as the most radical Muslim outpost in Italy.
Feb. 17, 2003
Leaving his Milan apartment to walk to a nearby mosque, Abu Omar is abducted, allegedly by CIA operatives.
April 20, 2004
He is released from prison in Egypt and calls his second wife and other associates. He tells fellow imam Mohammed Reda that he has been tortured.
May 9, 2004
Not long after his telephone conversations with Nabila Ghali and Mohammed Reda, Abu Omar is re-arrested by the Egyptian authorities.
There is no word from him until May of this year, when Marsela Nasr, his first wife, receives a letter from him in Tirana. From the letter, it is difficult to tell whether Abu Omar is still in prison. "Now I live in Alexandria," he writes.Copyright © 2014, Los Angeles Times