Suspected Al Qaeda operatives wiretapped by Italian police in the 13 months preceding Sept. 11 made apparent references to plans for major attacks involving airports, airplanes and the United States, according to transcripts obtained by The Times on Tuesday.
U.S. law enforcement and intelligence officials said they would study the transcripts because the conversations, although open to interpretation, could refer to the attacks on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon.
A report by a Milan anti-terrorism prosecutor containing the transcripts suggests that Italian authorities realized sometime after Sept. 11 that the conversations could be related to the attacks on the United States.
If that is correct, it raises tantalizing questions about whether suspects in Italy had advance knowledge of the plot by the Sept. 11 hijackers, an elite group whose operation appears to have been tightly compartmentalized for maximum secrecy. Moreover, the intercepts could be another of the indications emerging globally that authorities missed signs that attacks were in the works.
In one conversation, a suspected Yemeni terrorist tells an Egyptian based in Italy about a massive strike against the enemies of Islam involving aircraft and the sky, a blow that "will be written about in all the newspapers of the world."
"This will be one of those strikes that will never be forgotten.... This is a terrifying thing. This is a thing that will spread from south to north, from east to west: The person who came up with this program is a madman from a madhouse, a madman but a genius. He is fixated on this program; it will leave everyone turned to ice," he said.
That dialogue took place Aug. 12, 2000, in a Citroen driven by Abdelkader Mahmoud Es Sayed, then 39, an Egyptian accused of being Al Qaeda's top operative in Italy and a man with ties to the inner circle of Osama bin Laden. Es Sayed had just picked up the Yemeni, Abdulsalam Ali Ali Abdulrahman, at the Bologna airport, according to a transcript contained in a report by the Milan prosecutor.
"In the future, listen to the news and remember these words: 'Above the head' ... remember well, remember well.... The danger in the airports.... There are clouds in the sky there in international territory, in that country, the fire has been lit and is awaiting only the wind," the Yemeni said.
That taped conversation and others surfaced during recent trials of Milan-based Al Qaeda terrorism suspects who were the object of intense surveillance and ongoing wiretaps by Italian police in 2000 and 2001. The transcripts are among copious investigative material that has been scrutinized anew "in the light of the tragic events of last September," according to the prosecutor's report, dated May 15.
Report Cites Key Figure's Links to U.S., Germany
The report noted that there are "numerous and interesting elements concerning the relationship of Es Sayed with cells in Germany and the United States." The leaders of the Sept. 11 plot were based in Hamburg, Germany, and trained along with the rest of the 19 hijackers at U.S. flight schools.
Little is known about the command structure that operated between Mohamed Atta, the suspected chief of the hijackers, and Bin Laden.
Italian authorities would not comment Tuesday on the prosecution report, except to confirm its authenticity.
Italian and U.S. anti-terrorism investigators cooperate closely, and the Italian newspaper Corriere della Sera reported Tuesday that FBI experts helped Italian police analyze the intercepts, whose sound quality was impaired by background noise.
But FBI and Justice Department officials said Tuesday that they planned to review the transcripts and that they were unaware of any help U.S. officials had provided to the Italians. Several officials said they were unfamiliar with the transcripts, but one Justice Department official noted that a small cadre of U.S. intelligence experts might have been privy to them.
A Justice Department official said that, if accurate, the recordings would require "serious" review to determine exactly what they meant and who had the information and when.
At least one of the men, Es Sayed, has been known to U.S. law enforcement for some time. He was named in an April 19 order by the Treasury Department blocking the assets of suspected terrorists. Es Sayed was convicted in Egypt in connection with the 1997 massacre of 58 foreign tourists at Luxor, and he was wanted in Italy on charges of conspiring to traffic in arms, explosives, chemical weapons and identity papers and aiding illegal immigration.
Es Sayed fled Italy to Afghanistan in July 2001, after Italian police rounded up his accomplices in a Tunisian-dominated network accused of plotting against U.S. targets.
In addition to being imam of a Milan mosque regarded as an Al Qaeda operations center, he allegedly commanded a network that specialized in providing forged documents. He allegedly had close ties to Ayman Zawahiri, the Egyptian considered Bin Laden's second in command, as well as extremists in Sudan and Egypt, according to the Italian report. Es Sayed is believed to have died during the U.S. military strikes on Afghanistan.
His visitor traveled on a Yemeni diplomatic passport, according to the Italian report. Abdulrahman allegedly has ties to Al Qaeda and "was identified by knowledgeable foreign sources as chief of a Yemeni political security organization, which provided logistical assistance and intelligence to the Egyptian terrorist group Al Jihad," the Italian report said.
At one point, the two men discussed the U.S. hunt for Bin Laden, according to the transcripts. The transcripts are less clear about to what extent, if any, they had advance knowledge of the Sept. 11 plot.
The comments about major attacks could conceivably refer to other plots, such as a foiled one to use an airplane against world leaders assembled for a summit in Genoa, Italy, in July 2001.
Nonetheless, there are intriguing references to secretive preparations involving the United States and Germany.
On Jan. 24, 2001, police taped a conversation in the Citroen between Es Sayed and Ben Soltane Adel, a Tunisian later convicted of belonging to a terrorist cell based in Milan. "Will these work for the brothers who are going to the United States?" Adel asked, apparently referring to fake documents.
Es Sayed responded angrily, according to the transcript: "Don't ever say those words again, not even joking!" he said. "If it's necessary ... whatever place we may be, come up and talk in my ear, because these are very important things. You must know ... that this plan is very, very secret, as if you were protecting the security of the state."
At the time of the conversation, some of the hijackers had already entered the United States and begun flight training, but others had not.
All of them, however, used their real identities, so they would not have necessarily needed fraudulent documents provided by associates in Milan.
Another "very important" conversation, according to the report, took place Feb. 12, 2001. It was a telephone call from Es Sayed to the telephone of Abdulrahman, the Yemeni, and was answered by a man named Abdelwahab.
"I heard you had entered America," Es Sayed said, according to the transcript.
"I'm sorry, but we weren't able to get in," Abdelwahab responded. "It's our greatest desire and our objective."
That dialogue could be significant because a suspected accomplice of the hijackers failed to enroll in U.S. flight schools after being rejected for a visa. That suspect, Ramzi Binalshibh, is a Yemeni who remained in Hamburg and allegedly helped finance the plotters from there. But the report does not tie the Milan conversation to Binalshibh.
Later in the conversation, the two men also discuss a German-based group, apparently of Islamic extremists, described as "10 men with whom no one can make contact."
In addition to the Hamburg cell--whose leaders were in the United States by the time of the conversation--Al Qaeda also had cells in Frankfurt and Duisburg.
Wiretaps in Spain Also May Refer to Attacks
The Italian case is not the first in which European investigators say wiretaps may indicate that suspects were discussing the Sept. 11 attacks ahead of time.
In Spain, a country believed to have been a significant base for those involved in planning the attacks, authorities charged members of a Madrid cell as accomplices in the Sept. 11 plot based largely on wiretaps of Islamic extremists.
An unidentified suspect in London told the head of the Madrid cell in a taped phone call last August that he "was taking courses and had entered the field of aviation." Spanish investigators interpreted that and other comments as references to the airborne attack plot.
In the Milan transcripts, Abdulrahman used similar language. He told Es Sayed: "I'm studying airplanes. I hope, God willing, that I can bring you a window or a piece of an airplane the next time we see each other." The transcript says that comment was followed by laughter.
Later, according to the transcript, he said the fight against Islam's enemies would be waged "with any means we can combat them, using ... airplanes: They won't be able to stop us even with their heaviest weapons."
Rotella reported from Paris and Meyer from Washington. Times staff writer Bob Drogin in Washington contributed to this report.