The secret agents who captured Abu Omar weren’t very secret.
In the days surrounding their abduction of the radical Egyptian cleric on a Milan street nearly three years ago, they chatted openly on their cellular phones, ran up huge bills at luxury hotels and even managed to let their rental cars be photographed by traffic cameras as they drove illegally through pedestrian walkways.
The case became the most well-documented example of a secret CIA practice aimed at hunting down terrorism suspects. But Italy’s efforts to bring the perpetrators to justice have stalled, a casualty of political stonewalling, international intrigue and public apathy.
Italy has issued Europe-wide arrest warrants for the alleged captors of the cleric, whose full name is Hassan Osama Nasr: 22 CIA operatives, including the former station chief in Milan. Italian prosecutors say Abu Omar, whom investigators suspected of heading a terrorist network, was transported by U.S. agents to an Egyptian prison, where he has said he was tortured.
The operation in Milan was one example in what is now known to be the much wider practice by U.S. intelligence services of using European soil and airspace for the possibly illegal detention of dozens of suspects. The practice involves hidden prisons and clandestine flights in and out of European airports.
Getting to the bottom of the activities has proved difficult and, in some cases, embarrassing for governments not only in Italy but also Germany, Spain, Switzerland and Britain.
The men and women who grabbed Abu Omar as he walked to a Milan mosque in February 2003 are long gone, the last of them having left the country ahead of the decision of an Italian court in June to issue nationwide arrest warrants. Last week, another court expanded the warrants to the European Union, so the suspects now risk arrest anywhere in the 25-nation bloc.
State prosecutors based in Milan, who are pressing the case, believe the paper and electronic trail left behind by the CIA operatives provides a remarkable trove of evidence, especially for an operation that was supposed to be clandestine. The prosecutors asked the government to demand extradition from the U.S. of the 22 suspects.
And that is where the case has stalled.
The pro-U.S. government of Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi is refusing to forward the extradition requests and instead has asked for more documentation, a highly unusual request that prosecutors regard as a delaying tactic.
Berlusconi has repeatedly denied that his government knew about or authorized the abduction, even as former CIA officers in Washington said the operation was conducted with Italian government cooperation.
Berlusconi shrugged off the contradiction. Last week, he justified the operation, saying governments should not be expected to fight terrorism “with a law book in hand.”
The ease and openness with which the operatives acted in Milan suggest that they knew they had the green light from Italian authorities. Among other activities, they ran up bills totaling more than $150,000 at some of Milan’s best hotels.
“Berlusconi was an accomplice,” said Giusto Catania, a leftist Italian member of the European Parliament who sits on its civil liberties committee. Catania is one of a group of EU lawmakers spearheading a continent-wide investigation into alleged CIA activities, as reports of secret prisons and flights mount.
It is not in the prime minister’s interest for the Italian inquiry to advance, Catania said, because of his apparent role in permitting the rendition.
Berlusconi believes he will weather any domestic criticism, said a senior advisor to the prime minister, speaking anonymously because he was not authorized to discuss the matter publicly.
“The prosecutors did the right thing and developed all the evidence, but now it’s gone from the judicial [realm] to the political,” the advisor said. “The case is going nowhere.”
Abu Omar’s captors took him to the U.S.-run side of Aviano Air Base in northern Italy; from there he was flown in a CIA-contracted Learjet to the United States’ Ramstein Air Base in Germany, where he was transferred to a Gulfstream executive jet for the last leg of the journey to Egypt, according to Italian investigators and court documents.
He has told friends and family that he was questioned for hours at Aviano and tortured in prison in Egypt by interrogators who beat him and used electrical shocks on his body.
Phone records suggest that one of the CIA agents -- former Milan station chief Robert Seldon Lady -- may have been present in Egypt during the torture, prosecutors say. They have forwarded a request asking U.S. authorities to question Lady and his boss, the Rome CIA station chief, about his presence in Egypt.
Italian prosecutors said the CIA operation was an egregious violation of national sovereignty, a call taken up by some members of the political left. The prosecutors say that rather than furthering the war on terrorism, the stated goal of the Bush administration, the abduction was a setback.
“Kidnapping Abu Omar was not only a crime against the state of Italy, but also it did great damage to the war on terrorism,” lead prosecutor Armando Spataro told the Los Angeles Times over the summer, even as he amassed more evidence and lengthened the list of suspects. “We could have continued the investigation and found evidence on other people. He would be on trial by now.”
Senior counter-terrorism law enforcement officers in Milan concurred, saying they were weeks away from arresting Abu Omar when the CIA nabbed him. CIA officials later disputed that, but the bitterness felt by the Italian officials, who had considered themselves partners with the CIA agents in the fight against terrorism, was deep and unmistakable.
Abu Omar had received political asylum in Italy because of his claims of being persecuted in Egypt. But Italian investigators who were trailing him in Milan suspected the bearded cleric of helping to build a terrorist network in Europe and of recruiting volunteers to fight in Iraq. He was a veteran of wars in Bosnia-Herzegovina and Afghanistan and was using his position as imam in Milan to raise money for the “holy war” against the West, according to prosecutors who cite wiretaps of Abu Omar’s telephone conversations.
Abu Omar, who apparently is still being detained in Egypt, has told associates that he believes his capture was designed in part to turn him and have him spy for the West. He said his Egyptian interrogators asked him to return to the Islamic milieu of Europe and inform on people who might be planning attacks. He said he refused.
Italian prosecutors have tried to broaden the prosecution of his captors. But, in addition to official roadblocks, they are confronted with a general sense of resignation among Italians, another obstacle to the criminal case. Outrage over the abduction has been tempered by a feeling among many Italians that the Americans will do as they choose on national territory, and nothing can be done about it.
“In a certain sense, Italians expect Italy to be taken for granted,” said Giuseppe Cucchi, a retired army general with Italy’s civil protection office who is familiar with intelligence operations.
Cucchi, who for years was Italy’s military representative to the North Atlantic Treaty Organization, pointed to two incidents in recent years that fostered this belief.
A senior Italian intelligence agent was killed by American troops in Iraq this year at a checkpoint shooting; the U.S. government cleared its officers of any wrongdoing, despite Italian objections.
In 1998, a U.S. Marine pilot severed the cables of a ski gondola in northern Italy, killing 20 people; the Americans cleared their personnel of wrongdoing.