The Egyptian Imam
February 17, 2003
Shortly before noon on a bitterly cold February day, a plainclothes maresciallo (marshal) of the Carabinieri military police shouted “Polizia!” and stopped a Muslim man on Via Guerzoni in Milan. *1
The Muslim was an imam dressed in a traditional galabia tunic and taqiyah skullcap on his way to noon prayers at the Islamic Cultural Institute on Viale Jenner. The policeman flashed his identification and asked for the man’s papers. Hasaan Mustafa Osama Nasr, also known as Abu Omar, handed over his passport, residency permit, and identification papers. He said in broken English that he didn’t speak Italian.
The policeman took his time examining Omar’s papers. Suddenly, a white cargo van that had been parked across the street pulled up, and the panel door swung open. Two husky men pulled Omar into the van and pushed him to the floor. The door slammed shut, and the van sped up Via Guerzoni into Milan’s heavy traffic.
Omar was kicked in the head, chest, and stomach. A rag was stuffed in his mouth and a mask pulled over his eyes. Within minutes, the van reached the Milan suburb of Cormano and entered the eastbound A4 autostrada, where it was joined by a car and another van as escorts. The vehicles sped north past Bergamo, Brescia, Verona, Vicenza, Padua, and Venice. The caravan left the A4, turned north on the A28, and four hours later reached a security gate at the joint Italian–U.S. Air Force Aviano Air Base, two hundred miles from Milan. *2
Omar, a fifty-eight-year old Egyptian, was a radical imam at Milan’s Islamic Cultural Institute (ICI), considered by the American CIA and Italian intelligence as a center for recruiting European Muslims to go to al Qaeda training camps in Afghanistan. Since the 1990s, the ICI, a former garage converted into a mosque, had become a spiritual refuge for thousands of Muslims living in Milan. During Friday services, worshipers spilled onto the streets, kneeling on prayer rugs on sidewalks and around the block, snarling traffic and forcing retailers to close during prayers.
Italian intelligence knew the ICI was the European headquarters of Gamaa Islamiya, a terrorist Egyptian group responsible for killing hundreds of Egyptians and Westerners in attempts to overthrow the Egyptian government. Tunisian, Libyan, Moroccan, and Algerian radicals also found a spiritual home at the ICI. *3
Omar and his captors flew on a military plane to Ramstein Air Base in Germany and transferred to a private Lear jet contracted by the CIA. The plane flew to Cairo, where Omar was arrested and taken to a prison, where he was stripped, prodded, whipped, and isolated in a small concrete box. He was repeatedly tortured. He was beaten with clubs, shocked with electrical prods, his hands and feet shackled, and forced to lie on a mat on a hard floor, freezing in cold weather, constantly attacked by mites, fleas, and mosquitoes.
After seven months, Omar was transferred to the notorious Tora prison complex known as Al-Aqrab, “the Scorpion,” where he was interrogated twice daily. Both sessions lasted for hours. He was stripped and pushed onto to a wet mattress, with guards sitting on wooden chairs over him as electricity surged through the mattress.
After attempts to locate Omar, the Italian police investigated reports that he had been kidnapped. The antiterrorism police, Divisione Investigazioni Generali e Operazioni Speciali, or DIGOS, had raided the ICI in 1995 under code name “Sphinx” and had found tools for forging passports and legal documents, radical Islamic publications, and forged papers. On September 4, 2001, DIGOS discovered downloaded photos of the Twin Towers taken at night on a computer at the Via Quaranta mosque in southern Milan, suggesting there was prior knowledge of the 9/11 attack in the Milan Muslim community. *4
DIGOS studied logs of cell phone SIM cards from cell towers on the Best Western hotel near Via Guerzoni and tracked 10,317 calls made between 11 a.m. and 1 p.m. They narrowed the calls to eleven made to each other in a flurry around 11 a.m. The calls trailed off until seven more SIM cards were tracked near Cormano, calling each other from escort vehicles approaching the A4 autostrada. DIGOS identified another thirty-four SIM cards, a network of connected callers, leading up to and after the kidnapping. DIGOS traced the owners of the SIM cards with further data collected from hotel registries, car rentals, and frequent flyer numbers. They identified twenty-five Americans, many with post office addresses near the CIA headquarters in McLean, Virginia. *5
One of the cards belonged to the CIA station chief at the American consulate in Milan. Another SIM card was linked to an American diplomat in Rome known to be a CIA agent. A third SIM card was traced to the American security chief at Aviano Air Base. One caller had photos of Abu Omar on his laptop computer, taken before his kidnapping.
Prosecutor Armando Spataro was assigned to the case to see if charges could be brought against the suspected kidnappers. Spataro was a highly respected jurist who had prosecuted cases in the infamous 1980s Anni di Piombo (Years of Lead) involving left- and right-wing terrorists, including the infamous Brigate Rosse (Red Brigades), who had murdered hundreds of people in hopes of igniting a violent revolution in Italy.
In April 2005, Spataro issued indictments and arrest warrants for nineteen Americans traced from SIM cards. The warrants were valid throughout the European Union, making Italy the first country to take such legal actions against American citizens. Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi summoned the American ambassador to Chigi Palace in Rome for what was described as a stern lecture on Italian sovereignty. *6
In July 2006, two high-ranking officials of the Italian Military Intelligence and Security Service (SISMI) were also charged with assisting the CIA in the operation.
The kidnapping of foreigners is a violation of American law under the United Nations Convention Against Torture signed by President Clinton in 1994. But after 9/11, President George W. Bush authorized American agencies to kidnap and transport suspected terrorists to foreign prisons to be tortured under the term “extraordinary rendition.” Abu Omar was one of hundreds of suspected foreign terrorists American agencies “rendered” after 9/11. *7
In June 2007, the Tribunal of Milan set a trial for the twenty-three Americans in absentia. Italian law allows trials for defendants who do not show up in court. In November 2009, Judge Oscar Magi convicted twenty-three Americans, all but one of whom were CIA agents. Many were given prison sentences, including the Milan CIA station chief. Two high officials from the Italian Military Intelligence and Security Service (SISMI) were also convicted. In December 2010, the sentences for the convicted Americans were increased to seven to nine years on appeal, and these Americans were ordered to pay damages to Omar. *8
Italy’s Justice Ministry issued a formal request for extradition of the convicted agents. The United States refused the request. Any of the convicted who traveled to the EU faced extradition to Italy.
In April 2016, the Portugal Supreme Court authorized the extradition of one of the convicted CIA agents, a dual citizen of the U.S. and Portugal, to face prison in Italy after she traveled to Portugal in 2015.
Abu Omar spent four years in Egyptian prisons before he was released. In December 2013, he was convicted in absentia by an Italian court of terrorist crimes. He remains living in Egypt.
- Steve Hendricks, A Kidnapping in Milan: The CIA on Trial (New York: W.W. Norton, 2010), p. 32
- Ibid., pp. 122–123
- Lorenzo Vidino, Al Qaeda in Europe: The New Battleground of International Jihad (Amherst, New York: Prometheus Books, 2006), pp. 216–219
- Vidino, p. 226
- Hendricks, pp.167–169
- Hendricks, p. 220
- Hendricks, p. 147
- Hendricks, p. 277
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I’m currently writing a thriller series based in Milan featuring the anti-terrorism police, DIGOS, as they track down domestic and international terrorists.
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