The Italian Job

REPORTER: Bronwyn Adcock

For the faithful, coming to Friday prayers at Viale Jenner Mosque in the Italian city of Milan means crowding on to the footpaths and the median strip.

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Tucked in behind a garage, the mosque can’t accommodate the thousands of predominantly young migrant men who come to pray here. Across the street, police conduct surveillance. This mosque has been watched for years, suspected of being a base for Islamic radicals in Europe. One man being observed was the mosque’s Imam, Hassan Mustafa Osama Nasr, also known as Abu Omar. But in 2003, right under the noses of Italian police, Abu Omar just disappeared.

Guido Olimpio is an investigative journalist for Italian newspaper ‘Corriere Della Sera’. He specialises in reporting on security and terrorism.

GUIDO OLIMPIO, JOURNALIST: Abu Omar he disappear. And for us it was a big story because Abu Omar was so important this the radical community in Milano. So why he disappeared?

Details were scant. On the morning of February 17, 2003, Abu Omar left his home to walk the 1km to Viale Jenner Mosque. He never arrived, apparently vanishing into thin air.

Abu Imad, an Imam at the same mosque, asked at Friday prayers if anyone had seen Abu Omar. One man came forward and said his wife had seen him on a street near his house having an altercation with men in a white van.

ABU IMAD, IMAM, VIALE JENNER MOSQUE: This woman tell her husband, her husband tell us and then we believe that he is kidnapped but whom, until this moment we can’t say whom.

Italian police drew blanks on this one lead and Abu Omar’s disappearance remained a complete mystery. Then, one year later, he suddenly reappeared.

GUIDO OLIMPIO: It was in April 2004 when we receive again a call from a friend in the Islamic community. He told us look, Abu Omar is appear again, he’s in Cairo. He phoned to his wife in Milano.

Abu Omar’s phone calls from Egypt, the country of his birth, were recorded by Italian police. This is a translation of a call to his wife.

ABU OMAR: There are no problems. Listen, they have warned me that journalists from all over Europe will come looking for you, don’t meet with anyone, no journalist, please, that’s what they ordered.

WIFE: Don’t worry I won’t meet anyone.

ABU OMAR: Neither newspapers, no television.

WIFE: Nobody nobody.

ABU OMAR: Just tell our brothers that I’m back.

In these calls from Egypt, Abu Omar revealed for the first time what happened to him the day he disappeared. Walking to the mosque he was stopped by a number of Italian speaking men who said they were police. They asked for his identification but suddenly grabbed him.

ABU IMAD: He tried to fight with them but two or three, they are more. They put tape on his mouth and push him in the van.

From being bundled into the back of a white van, Abu Omar ultimately ended up thousands of kilometres away in an Egyptian prison cell. By listening in on Abu Omar’s phone conversations, Italian police learnt about this story and started an investigation. The result was extraordinary.

Here at the National Court in Milan, arrest warrants have been issued for 22 operatives with the American spy agency the CIA, accusing them of kidnapping Abu Omar. The prosecutor who led the investigation is Armando Spataro, a veteran investigator of organised crime and terrorism.

ARMANDO SPATARO, PROSECUTOR: The kidnapping of Abu Omar in Milano in February 17, 2003, was a serious crime but not only serious crime against people’s freedom and against Italian sovereignty, but it was only serious damage in the fight against terrorism.

What Armando Spataro uncovered was an amazing story of the CIA acting with seeming impunity right in the heart of Milan. He uncovered in minute detail how they plotted and successfully pulled off the kidnapping.

GUIDO OLIMPIO: This investigation was an amazing investigation. Why? Because Armando Spataro used through the police, through the special unit, used very sophisticated technique to follow the CIA agent.

The key to the investigation was mobile phones. On top of buildings all around the city, are small towers that belong to mobile phone companies. These towers track the location of every phone nearby. By cross checking all the phones near the kidnapping spot that day to those who owned them, police came up with a list of suspects.

ARMANDO SPATARO: Our police with the modern instrument and technology identified in the place and the area of the kidnapping, identified 17 mobile phones that were in the area on the hour and day of kidnapping.

Dateline has access to the documents supporting the police case. They show how police used the mobile phone towers to locate the CIA agents in the vicinity of the kidnapping. This same technique also revealed their movements in the months leading up to the kidnapping.

According to the records, the CIA agents began arriving in Milan around two months before the kidnapping. They began staking out the predominantly migrant neighbourhood of Abu Omar, using strategies to make sure they weren’t detected.

GUIDO OLIMPIO: But you need to change faces in the street because you know the Islamic community, especially the radical community, is aware there is a lot of intelligence around them. So – around the community. So they say agent need to change their face so one day one man, one woman, a lot of women were used in the operation.

Police also tracked the hotels the agents stayed at. Incredibly, they used credit cards to pay for bills and at least on one occasion handed over a frequent-flyer card.

It was an extravagant job. Here at the 5-star hotel Principie Savoa, just seven agents spent more than $55,000 Australian.

GUIDO OLIMPIO:They spent nights in the hotels, very nice hotels , expensive hotels. But they left trails, they paid with credit cards. They had meetings in the hotels, so again, following phones, hotels, the police had a good picture of the story.

The picture of the day of the kidnapping shows just how well planned it was. Phone records showed two groups at work.

GUIDO OLIMPIO: One was in charge of the operation, so it was the group in charge to Kidnap Abu Omar, and then was another group we could say support group. This group was attending at the gate of Milano.

Other agents were strategically placed around the neighbourhood as lookouts.

GUIDO OLIMPIO: Maybe the police could come, maybe could happen something. Maybe the people in the Islamic community could act or react.

With Abu Omar bundled into the back of the white van, the kidnappers headed out of Milan. The movement of the phones showed the kidnappers travelled in convoy – two cars behind and one in front. By using electronic tags that record number plates every time they went through toll gates, they gave police a virtual road map to follow. It led them here, to Aviano, an air base in northern Italy used by the United States military. From here, flight records show Abu Omar was flown to another US base in Germany, then on to Egypt.

So why did the CIA undertake such an elaborate and risky mission to bring Abu Omar all the way here? The answer lies in the brutality of the Egyptian prison system.

WOMEN (Translation): Weep, weep, daughter of the Nile! They took your husband away in the middle of the night.

Arbitrary arrest, torture, even death are all well documented within Egypt’s prisons. The women at this conference in Cairo are the wives of just some of the thousands of men either detained without charge or simply missing.

With increasing frequency since the war on terror began, the United States has been taking advantage of this abusive and unaccountable system by sending their suspects here for interrogation.

The guest speaker, Montasser Al Zayat is also the lawyer for Abu Omar.

MONTASSER AL ZAYAT, LAWYER FOR ABU OMAR (Translation): No, he is not the only one, maybe the only one from Italy. Other Egyptians were abducted from Albania, abducted from Bulgaria, abducted from countries in the Balkans.

It’s one of the most secretive counter-terrorism tactics used by the United States and it’s called rendition. It involves illegally sending terrorist suspects to countries like Egypt for tough, off-the-books interrogations. Effectively the out sourcing of torture. The US can get the information but keep their hands clean.

MONTASSER AL ZAYAT (Translation): Abu Omar was tortured so that they could get information out of him, about Egyptians on Italian soil and about some Islamic people who are there. Of course he sustained injuries. He was given electric shocks to sensitive parts of his body. He was strung up, he was beaten with cables and with sticks which left marks on his body.

Back in Italy, outside a train station in central Milan, Italian authorities are testing their emergency response to a terrorist bomb going off in the Underground. Italy takes its obligations to combating international terrorism seriously. And for this reason, the kidnapping of Abu Omar has outraged many in the judicial community. Including Judge Guido Salvini.

JUDGE GUIDO SALVINI (Translation): Moreover such an act offends the Italian police and judiciary, especially because they have always actively participated in the fight against International terrorism. Hence to kidnap a person under investigation by the Italian authorities is without a doubt a somewhat humiliating act.

In recent months Judge Salvini has issued an arrest warrant for Abu Omar. It’s purely symbolic as long as he remains in Egypt but it contains the serious allegation that Abu Omar was recruiting and indoctrinating militants to fight many the name of jihad.

REPORTER: If Abu Omar was such a dangerous man as this arrest warrant suggest, could it be argued that the Americans then did the correct thing in taking him off the streets instead of waiting for Italian justice?

JUDGE GUIDO SALVINI (Translation): In our arrest warrant we have written that under no circumstances may International law be violated. Should such a violation occur it would discredit the fight against terrorism because it could also be construed as a violation of human rights which is never a good policy.

Prosecutor Armando Spataro also rejects the American approach.

REPORTER: What though if Abu Omar was an imminent threat, surely it’s better to have him taken away?

ARMANDO SPATARO: I did not tell that he was a serious danger and imminent danger. I did not tell.

REPORTER: So you don’t think he was an imminent threat?

ARMANDO SPATARO: I can confirm that we had no evidence against an imminent danger.

What’s upset the Italians the most though is that they believe the kidnapping was actually counterproductive to the fight against terrorism. By conducting surveillance of Abu Omar, they had hoped to gain wider intelligence.

REPORTER: When Abu Omar was kidnapped, in terms of potential future information, what did you lose?

ARMANDO SPATARO: We lose the possibility to continue the investigation. I want to repeat, I want to explain with an example.

Many years ago when we investigated Red Brigades, a very dangerous internal terrorism group, we in Milano identified one of the members of the Red Brigades. He was a fugitive. It was possible to arrest him, but we preferred to continue the investigation, we observed his home, we followed him, we tapped his conversation, so after some months we arrested 12 or 13 members of the Red Brigades. So it was an intelligent way of investigation because we arrested whole structure of Red Brigades. Not one people. So when Abu Omar was kidnapped, all that I tell you was impossible, the investigation cannot be continued.

Here at the headquarters of Italian police in Milan, they’re sure that the CIA would have known about their long-term surveillance of Abu Omar. One of the names of the CIA agents on the indictment is Robert Lady. At the time of the kidnapping, Robert Lady was a CIA station chief in Milan working out of the US consulate. It’s believed he and Italian police frequently shared information.

GUIDO OLIMPIO: According to several sources, Robert Lady was very close to the Italian investigators in the anti-terror branch.

REPORTER: Would Robert Lady have known ha the Italian police were investigating Abu Omar?

GUIDO OLIMPIO: Yeah, yeah, definitely, everybody know.

REPORTER: Given that there was a good working relationship, is there now, do you think, a sense of betrayal that this was broken?

ARMANDO SPATARO: Of course I prefer not to say any specific comment on the people involved in the investigation. I can only confirm that there was a good collaboration between Italian authorities and the US authority.

But – so it was a surprise also for Italian police to find that some American people were involved in the kidnapping.

The relationship between two allies is not the only casualty of this story. Shortly after making those phone calls from Egypt, Abu Omar was rearrested and remains in prison today, still without charge. His lawyer Montasser Al Zayat thinks he was rearrested because he revealed the secrets no-one wanted told.

MONTASSER AL ZAYAT (Translation): What I am sure of is that the Egyptian authorities released him then re-arrested him when he talked to others about his arrest conditions and torture.

In Milan, Armando Spataro is about to formally request the extradition of the 22 CIA agents to stand trial in Italy. An extradition treaty does exist between the United States and Italy, but whether the US will honour this element of international law remains to be seen. Armando Spataro is optimistic.

ARMANDO SPATARO: I hope that it will be possible to celebrate very soon a trial for this serious crime.