An Italian judge has ordered the arrest of a group of CIA operatives who investigators believe kidnapped a radical Egyptian imam from the streets of Milan and bundled him off to Cairo, where he said he was tortured.
As part of the inquiry, Italian police Thursday night raided the Italian home of an American man identified in arrest warrants as the former CIA station chief here and confiscated a computer, disks and documents, judicial sources said.
The warrants name 13 American operatives from a group of 19 men and women who authorities here believe pursued and then snatched Hassan Osama Nasr, a radical cleric better known as Abu Omar, nearly 2 1/2 years ago. Officials, who announced Friday that warrants had been issued, said none of the operatives were in Italy any longer and that no one was taken into custody.
The Abu Omar case appears to be an example of an “extraordinary rendition,” a controversial practice employed by U.S. authorities against suspected terrorists with increasing frequency since the Sept. 11 attacks. U.S. counter-terrorism operatives seize and transport a suspect in one foreign country to another without seeking court permission. Human rights organizations say treatment of the suspect in the destination country can be brutal.
Italy is one of three European countries, along with Sweden and Germany, that are examining alleged renditions on their soil. It is rare for a country friendly to the United States to attempt to prosecute its secret agents.
The suspected agents were identified, with names and addresses, through cellular phone records and hotel and rental car receipts amassed from the weeks they were in Milan preparing and executing the operation, three officials said in interviews during the last several days.
“We will be asking for judicial assistance from both Egyptian and
Another leading prosecutor, Armando Spataro, opened the Italian investigation this year and sought and secured the arrest warrants. “I think it’s nearly impossible to arrest anyone,” Spataro said in an interview. “The important thing is to get to the truth.”
He said he hoped to be able to ask for the extradition of the operatives and to take depositions from witnesses in the U.S.
It was not clear to what extent the U.S. operation was approved by the government of Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi, a staunch ally, Italian sources said. But the Italian judiciary frequently acts independently, and government approval of the operation would not necessarily have stopped prosecutors from pursuing the case.
The U.S. Embassy in Rome and the State Department declined to comment on the case Friday. Adam Ereli, a State Department spokesman, said the government would not comment in the future on any aspect of the case. The CIA has defended extraordinary renditions, saying it receives assurances from the destination countries that the suspects will be treated well.
Several U.S. officials said the case was extraordinarily sensitive, given Washington’s close working relationship with Italy on many issues. One former U.S. intelligence official said that the prospect of Italy issuing arrest warrants had been discussed privately within the CIA for months, and that agency officials in Italy were told six months ago to clear out in anticipation of possible legal action.
A current U.S. official, who spoke on condition of anonymity, said the Italian warrants would probably be considered valid by Europol, the European Union police agency, meaning that the operatives could be arrested anywhere on the continent.
“We have a very solid case,” a senior Italian justice official said.
“I realize this won’t change U.S. policy, but it will be embarrassing, at the least,” said another Italian law enforcement official familiar with the case.
Details of the Abu Omar case were first reported in the Los Angeles Times on March 3. Spataro requested arrest warrants March 22, and Judge Chiara Nobile issued them late Thursday.
The abduction of Abu Omar forced Italian authorities to abort an extensive case they were building against him. His arrest had been imminent, they said, and formal charges against him are pending.
Italian authorities suspected Abu Omar of helping to build a terrorist network in Europe, of recruiting volunteers to fight in Iraq on the eve of the U.S. invasion and of possibly plotting a bombing. He was a veteran of wars in Bosnia-Herzegovina and Afghanistan and was using his pulpit in Milan to raise money in the name of jihad, or holy war, Italian officials said, citing information from wiretaps, including one at a mosque where he preached.
According to court papers, he was recorded in numerous conversations with other terrorism suspects who have since been prosecuted. In one, he is heard praising a man later accused of recruiting suicide bombers for his success in reaching out to “the youth.”
Abu Omar’s disappearance angered several officials who thought they had always cooperated fully with U.S. anti-terrorism efforts, only to be trampled on in this operation.
“Kidnapping Abu Omar was not only a crime against the state of Italy, but also it did great damage to the war on terrorism,” said Spataro, the prosecutor. “We could have continued the investigation and found evidence on other people. He would be on trial by now instead of missing.”
As part of the investigation into the abduction, Italian law enforcement officials put together an extensive dossier on the team of men and women who they said spent several days tracking Abu Omar and then intercepted him as he walked to Milan’s Viale Jenner mosque on Feb. 17, 2003. The operatives surrounded and subdued him, then shoved him into a minivan and sped away, witnesses have told investigators.
The group that captured Abu Omar numbered 13, and six other men and women were involved in surveillance and setting up the abduction, law enforcement officials said. All 19 were American, and many if not all were thought to be CIA agents, the officials said.
Although Spataro asked for the arrest of all 19, Nobile only approved warrants for the 13 allegedly involved in the actual abduction. The prosecutor said he might appeal the decision on the other six.
By tracing the operatives’ traffic on up to 17 cellular phones and putting together credit card receipts for rental cars, hotels and restaurants, Italian investigators were able to reconstruct the their movements, prosecutors said. They compiled first and last names for the Americans, poor-quality photographs from copies of driver’s licenses, and some addresses and U.S. phone numbers.
The officials acknowledged that many of the names and much of the information may be false. But one name was very familiar to them: The then-station chief of the CIA in Milan, an agent with whom senior Italian police officials had frequently worked and socialized. The official had held a consular position at the U.S. mission in Milan.
Police on Thursday raided a home of the American near Turin, seizing papers and a computer. Judicial sources said that the man had left U.S. government service and was outside Italy but that his wife was at home.
The people who spirited Abu Omar away took him to the American side of the joint U.S.-Italian Aviano Air Base, Italian prosecutors said. He was then flown in a CIA-contracted Learjet to the U.S. Ramstein Air Base in Germany, where they transferred him to a Gulfstream executive jet for the last leg of the journey, to Cairo, they said.
Some of the cellphone calls tracked by the Italians were made by the operatives to Aviano, they said.
Once in Cairo, Abu Omar later told associates, he was put in prison, beaten and given electrical shocks on his genitals. Italian investigators said they found those claims credible.
Within a few weeks of the imam’s disappearance, Italian police asked U.S. officials for information on his whereabouts and were told he was in a Balkan country, the prosecutor’s office said.
The following year, Abu Omar was released and telephoned his wife in Milan. Italian investigators had not stopped their wiretapping of his home and were then able to learn where he was.
They quoted him as saying he had been released because of his deteriorated physical condition.
“He had been detained for a long time and had undergone physical violence to make him respond to his interrogators’ questions,” the prosecutors’ office said.
Egyptian police quickly rearrested him, Italian officials said. His location and condition today are unclear.
Most experts, including former intelligence officers, said it was unlikely that the CIA would mount such an operation without some level of approval from the host nation.
Berlusconi considers himself the most loyal supporter of the Iraq war among leaders in continental Europe.
“It is impossible that they did this without Italian cooperation, but we found no evidence,” an Italian law enforcement official said.
Leftist political parties that oppose Berlusconi’s right-wing government have been especially vocal in demanding to know more about the case and whether the prime minister approved the abduction. They renewed those calls Friday.
“I repudiate the silence of the Italian government,” said Sen. Tana de Zulueta, adding that repeated inquiries to the foreign minister, justice ministry and prime minister’s office had gone unanswered.
Berlusconi has not commented on the case.
Ties between Italy and the U.S. were already strained over the killing in Iraq of a senior Italian intelligence officer by American troops who fired on his car as he escorted a freed Italian hostage to safety. U.S. authorities judged the shooting a mistake.
Attempts to prosecute U.S. intelligence agents “will create quite a diplomatic headache,” Zulueta said.
Times staff writers Josh Meyer in Washington and Sebastian Rotella in Paris contributed to this report.