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Context of 'May 1997-2000: Former CIA Informer Active in Rome, Obtains Asylum in Italy'

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In late 1993, the FBI discovers that WTC bomber Ramzi Yousef used a mosque in Milan, Italy, known as the Islamic Cultural Institute, as a logistical base (see Late 1993-1994). The Italian government begins investigating the mosque and soon discovers that it is the main European headquarters for Al-Gama’a al-Islamiyya, a radical Egyptian militant group, and is also the logistical base for mujaheddin traveling to fight in Bosnia. The mosque is run by Anwar Shaaban, who has a close working relationship with Sheikh Omar Abdul-Rahman, and who also stays in regular contact with al-Qaeda second-in-command Ayman al-Zawahiri. Shaaban runs a training camp thirty miles outside of Milan where fighters heading to Bosnia can practice using weapons and explosives. The mosque also helps smuggle men, money, and weapons to Bosnia. [Schindler, 2007, pp. 163-164] On June 25, 1995, Italian police raid the mosque and over 70 other locations in northern Italy. Seventeen people are indicted and eleven of them are arrested, but that is only a fraction of the hundreds investigated. Inside the mosque, police find forgery tools, letters to wanted radicals around the world, and hundreds of false documents. Plots to bomb targets in other countries and a US target elsewhere in Italy are averted. Shaaban escapes arrest, as he had already left the country, but he is killed in Croatia a short time later (see December 14, 1995). [United Press International, 6/26/1995; Vidino, 2006, pp. 216-218] But the Islamic Cultural Institute will soon reopen and continue to be a focal point for radical militants in Europe. It will be linked the 9/11 attacks and other violent plots (see Late 1998-September 11, 2001).

Entity Tags: Ayman al-Zawahiri, Al-Gama’a al-Islamiyya, Omar Abdul-Rahman, Anwar Shaaban

Timeline Tags: Complete 911 Timeline

The CIA and Albanian intelligence recruit an informer knowledgeable about al-Qaeda in the Balkans. The informer, whose name is Hassan Mustafa Osama Nasr, but is known as Abu Omar, is recruited by a special unit of the Albanian National Intelligence Service (ShIK) created at the behest of the CIA. An officer in the unit, Astrit Nasufi, will say that the unit is actually run by a CIA agent known as “Mike” who is based on the US embassy in Tirana, Albania, and who teaches them intelligence techniques. The CIA and ShIK are worried about a possible assassination attempt against the Egyptian foreign minister, who is to visit Albania soon, so about twelve radical Egyptians, members of Al-Gama’a al-Islamiyya and Islamic Jihad, are detained beforehand. Nasr is not on the list, but is detained because of a link to a suspect charity, the Human Relief and Construction Agency (HRCA). He is held for about 10 days and, although he initially refuses to talk, ShIK has a “full file” on him after a week. He provides information about around ten fellow Al-Gama’a al-Islamiyya members working for HRCA and two other charities, the Al-Haramain Islamic Foundation and the Revival of Islamic Heritage Society, both of which will be declared designated supporters of terrorism after 9/11. However, he says there are no plans to kill the Egyptian foreign minister, as this would mean Albania would no longer be a safe haven for fundamentalist Muslims. The intelligence Nasr goes on to provide is regarded as good quality and includes the identities of operatives monitoring the US embassy and entering and leaving Albania. The CIA is most interested in monitoring former mujaheddin joining the Bosnian Muslims, and Nasr also provides intelligence on Al-Gama’a al-Islamiyya branches in Britain, Germany, and Italy, in particular the Islamic Cultural Institute in Milan, which is a base for mujaheddin operations in the Balkans and is raided by the Italian government around this time (see Late 1993-December 14, 1995). Even though cooperation appears to be good, after a few weeks Nasr suddenly disappears and the CIA tells ShIK that Nasr has moved to Germany. [Chicago Tribune, 7/2/2005] Nasr will later surface in Italy and will become close to Islamic militants in Milan (see Summer 2000), but will be kidnapped by the CIA after 9/11 (see Noon February 17, 2003).

Entity Tags: Revival of Islamic Heritage Society, Islamic Jihad, State Intelligence Service (Albania), Central Intelligence Agency, Astrit Nasufi, Al-Gama’a al-Islamiyya, Al Haramain Islamic Foundation, Islamic Cultural Institute, Human Relief and Construction Agency, Hassan Mustafa Osama Nasr

Timeline Tags: Torture of US Captives, Complete 911 Timeline, Kosovar Albanian Struggle

Hassan Mustafa Osama Nasr (a.k.a. Abu Omar), a member of the Egyptian terrorist organization Al-Gama’a al-Islamiyya who previously informed for the CIA in Albania (see August 27, 1995 and Shortly After), arrives in Italy and settles in Rome. He obtains asylum in Italy and serves as an imam near the Italian capital for a few years. He will later move to Milan at the same time a key al-Qaeda operative moves there (see Summer 2000). [Chicago Tribune, 7/2/2005; Vidino, 2006, pp. 242]

Entity Tags: Hassan Mustafa Osama Nasr

Timeline Tags: Complete 911 Timeline

Mahmoud Es Sayed is arrested in Syria with other militants on weapons smuggling charges, according to Italian authorities. The Italians will learn this later based on wiretaps of Es Sayed, a close associate of al-Qaeda second-in-command Ayman al-Zawahiri. While in prison, Es Sayed is visited by Muftafa Tlass, the Syrian defense minister, and Es Sayed tells him that the weapons are meant to fight Jews. Tlass, a virulent anti-Semite who even claimed in a book that Jews kill non-Jews to use their blood to make pastries, arranges for the release of the whole group, and puts them in touch with Hamas and Palestinian Islamic Jihad. [Vidino, 2006, pp. 222]

Entity Tags: Mahmoud Es Sayed, Muftafa Tlass

Timeline Tags: Complete 911 Timeline

Hassan Mustafa Osama Nasr.Hassan Mustafa Osama Nasr. [Source: ABC]Italian resident Hassan Mustafa Osama Nasr, who previously informed for the CIA on extremists in Albania (see August 27, 1995 and Shortly After and May 1997-2000), moves from Rome to Milan to live with a close associate of al-Qaeda second-in-command Ayman al-Zawahiri (see Before Spring 2000 and Summer 2000). Al-Zawahiri’s associate, Mahmoud Es Sayed, and Nasr arrive in Milan at the same time, and it appears their movements are coordinated. Nasr actually lives in Es Sayed’s apartment and the pair make use of two radical mosques in Milan, the Via Quaranta mosque, which is their headquarters, and the Islamic Cultural Institute (ICI), which is associated with a cell of radical Islamists that works with al-Qaeda and appears to have foreknowledge of 9/11 (see August 12, 2000 and March 2001). The ICI has a reputation as the most radical Islamic center in Italy, was a key supply point for Muslims fighting in Bosnia (see Late 1993-December 14, 1995), and was connected to the first World Trade Center bombing (see Late 1993-1994). Nasr serves as deputy imam at the ICI and preaches anti-US sermons. Italian law enforcement authorities monitor him with bugs in his apartment and through a tap on his phone, finding out that after 9/11 he recruits Muslims to go and fight in Afghanistan. He does not seem to be directly involved in serious illegal activity, but the information the Italians gain helps them monitor other radicals. His relationship with the CIA during his time in Italy is unclear, but in one monitored call after 9/11 he appears to be dissuading another radical from attacking Jews and in another he tells an associate not to carry out a car bombing. [Chicago Tribune, 7/2/2005; Vidino, 2006, pp. 242] The CIA will kidnap Nasr in 2003 (see Noon February 17, 2003).

Entity Tags: Central Intelligence Agency, Mahmoud Es Sayed, Islamic Cultural Institute, Hassan Mustafa Osama Nasr

Timeline Tags: Torture of US Captives, Complete 911 Timeline

Abdulsalam Ali Abdulrahman.Abdulsalam Ali Abdulrahman. [Source: US Defense Department]Italian intelligence successfully wiretaps an al-Qaeda cell in Milan, Italy, starting in late 1999. [Boston Globe, 8/4/2002] In a wiretapped conversation from this day, Abdulsalam Ali Abdulrahman, a section chief in Yemen’s Political Security Organization (PSO - roughly the equivalent to the FBI in the US) traveling on a diplomatic passport (see Spring-Summer 1998), talks about a massive strike against the enemies of Islam involving aircraft and the sky. The conversation takes place in a car on the way to a terrorist summit near Bologna (see August 12, 2000 and Shortly After), and the person Abdulrahman talks to is Mahmoud Es Sayed, a close associate of al-Qaeda second-in-command Ayman al-Zawahiri (see Before Spring 2000). There are several significant aspects to the conversation:
bullet Abdulrahman makes comments indicating he has foreknowledge of the 9/11 attacks. He says that he is “studying airlines,” comments, “Our focus is only on the air,” and tells Es Sayed to remember the words “above the head.” He also says that next time they meet he hopes to bring Es Sayed “a window or piece of the airplane,” and that the security on Alitalia and at Rome airport is poor. The name of the operation is given as “Jihadia,” and Abdulrahman says, “the big blow will come from the other country: one of those blows no one can ever forget.” He adds: “[It is] moving from south to north, from east to west: whoever created this plan is crazy, but he’s also a genius. It will leave them speechless.” He also says: “We can fight any power using candles and airplanes: they will not be able to stop us with even their most powerful weapons. We must hit them. And keep your head up.… Remember, the danger in the airports.… If it happens the newspapers from all over the world will write about it.”
bullet Es Sayed remarks, “I know brothers who went to America with the trick of the wedding publications.” The phrase “Big wedding” is sometimes used by al-Qaeda as code for a bombing or attack, including 9/11 (see November 30, 1999 and Late Summer 2001), so, taken together with Abdulrahman’s remarks, this indicates an unconventional attack in the US using aircraft;
bullet The two discuss training camps in Yemen, which are “proceeding on a world scale.” They also mention youth in Italy, and presumably the youth are training;
bullet Es Sayed says, “my dream is building an Islamic state,” and Abdulrahman replies that this is possible because the Yemeni government is weak and “sooner or later we will dominate it;”
bullet Es Sayed asks after a person named Ayman, evidently al-Qaeda second-in-command Ayman al-Zawahiri;
bullet Abdulrahman twice mentions the name of Abdul Mejid, apparently a reference to Abdul Mejid al-Zindani, a radical leader in Yemen and associate of Osama bin Laden (see January-August 1998);
bullet Es Sayed makes the cryptic comment, “One must be cautious, like in Iran; not a single photo.”
Beginning in October 2000, FBI experts will help Italian police analyze the intercepts and warnings. Related conversations are overheard early the next year (see January 24, 2001 and February 2001). Neither Italy nor the FBI will fully understand their meaning until after 9/11, but apparently the Italians will understand enough to give the US an attack warning in March 2001 (see March 2001). After 9/11, this conversation and others like it will cause US intelligence to think there may be a link between the 9/11 plot and Yemen’s PSO. [Los Angeles Times, 5/29/2002; Guardian, 5/30/2002; Washington Post, 5/31/2002; Wall Street Journal, 12/20/2002; Vidino, 2006, pp. 224-5] Author Lorenzo Vidino will later comment: “The chilling conversation alarmed officials before 9/11, but it took on a completely different resonance after the attacks had taken place. [Abdulrahman], who had close connections to the highest ranks of al-Qaeda, likely knew about the plan in advance and had told Es Sayed about it.” [Vidino, 2006, pp. 226]

Entity Tags: Abdulsalam Ali Abdulrahman, Federal Bureau of Investigation, Al-Qaeda, Mahmoud Es Sayed

Timeline Tags: Complete 911 Timeline, 9/11 Timeline

The Italian government gives the US information about possible attacks based on apartment wiretaps in the Italian city of Milan. [Fox News, 5/17/2002] Presumably, the information includes a discussion between two al-Qaeda agents talking about a “very, very secret” plan to forge documents “for the brothers who are going to the United States” (see January 24, 2001). The warning may also mention a wiretap the previous August involving one of the same people, who discussed a massive strike against the enemies of Islam involving aircraft (see August 12, 2000) and another of his monitored conversations in which he discusses travel by al-Qaeda operatives to the US (see February 2001).

Entity Tags: Al-Qaeda

Timeline Tags: Complete 911 Timeline, 9/11 Timeline

Italian authorities monitoring a cell of Islamist extremists based in Milan, Italy, overhear one of the radicals plotting to create a new trans-European network. The surveillance target, Hassan Mustafa Osama Nasr, who previously informed for the CIA in Albania (see August 27, 1995 and Shortly After), tells an unidentified man that they will use the network to “eliminate the enemies of God.” News of the network, which is to be based in Britain, causes the Italians to place Nasr under round the clock surveillance. [Vidino, 2006, pp. 236-41] Nasr will subsequently be kidnapped by the CIA (see Noon February 17, 2003).

Entity Tags: Hassan Mustafa Osama Nasr

Timeline Tags: Torture of US Captives, Complete 911 Timeline

A dispute breaks out at the CIA after a proposal is made to render an Islamist extremist named Hassan Mustafa Osama Nasr from Italy to Egypt. Nasr had previously informed for the CIA (see August 27, 1995 and Shortly After), but had been close to a senior al-Qaeda figure (see Summer 2000). Robert Seldon Lady, the CIA’s senior official in Milan, disagrees with the plan. The CIA and local Italian authorities are co-operating on surveillance of Nasr, and in a few months Lady thinks they will have enough evidence to arrest and convict him. In addition, kidnapping a man in Italy could endanger US-Italian relations. However, the rendition is supported by Jeff Castelli, the chief of the CIA station in Rome. [GQ, 3/2007 pdf file] Reporter Jeff Stein will even say that the rendition is Castelli’s “brainchild.” [Congressional Quarterly, 4/19/2008] Opinion appears to be divided at CIA headquarters. According to one account, the CIA’s Counterterrorist Center is against the idea, but the plan is ultimately approved by unspecified CIA managers. [GQ, 3/2007 pdf file] According to another account, it is the Counterterrorist Center that approves the rendition. [Congressional Quarterly, 4/19/2008] One of the CIA officials involved in the rendition is Stephen Kappes, assistant director of the Directorate of Operations. However, details of his opinions on it are unknown. [New York Times, 11/4/2009] CIA Director George Tenet also agrees to the rendition. [GQ, 3/2007 pdf file]

Entity Tags: Robert Seldon Lady, Stephen Kappes, Counterterrorist Center, Jeff Castelli, Central Intelligence Agency

Timeline Tags: Torture of US Captives

A surveillance photograph of Hassan Mustafa Osama Nasr.A surveillance photograph of Hassan Mustafa Osama Nasr. [Source: Central Intelligence Agency]The CIA kidnaps an Islamic extremist who previously informed for it in Milan, Italy. The man, Hassan Mustafa Osama Nasr (a.k.a. Abu Omar), who was a member of the Egyptian terror group Al-Gama’a al-Islamiyya and was close to al-Qaeda, provided information to the CIA in Albania (see August 27, 1995 and Shortly After) and operated in Italy (see Summer 2000). [Chicago Tribune, 7/2/2005] While the kidnap is happening, one of the CIA officers involved in the operation, Robert Seldon Lady, is having a meeting on the other side of Milan with Bruno Megale, head of Milan’s antiterrorism police service, DIGOS. The meeting’s purpose is to allow Lady to keep an eye on Megale in case something goes wrong. [GQ, 3/2007 pdf file] The US will say that Nasr is a dangerous terrorist and that he once plotted to assassinate the Egyptian foreign minister. However, Italian officials, who were monitoring him, will deny this and say his abduction damages an intelligence operation against al-Qaeda. A senior prosecutor will say, “When Nasr disappeared in February [2003], our investigation came to a standstill.” Italian authorities are mystified by the kidnap, as they are sharing the results of their surveillance with the CIA. Nor can they understand why Egypt wants Nasr back. When Nasr reaches Cairo, he is taken to the Egyptian interior minister and told that if he agrees to inform again, he will be set free. However, he refuses and spends most of the next 14 months in prison, facing “terrible tortures.” The Chicago Tribune will ask, “Why would the US government go to elaborate lengths to seize a 39-year-old Egyptian who, according to former Albanian intelligence officials, was once the CIA’s most productive source of information within the tightly knit group of Islamic fundamentalists living in exile in Albania?” One possible answer is that he is kidnapped in an attempt to turn him back into the informer he once was. The kidnapping generates a substantial amount of publicity, leading to an investigation of the CIA’s practice of extraordinary rendition, and an Italian official will comment, “Instead of having an investigation against terrorists, we are investigating this CIA kidnapping.” [Chicago Tribune, 7/2/2005] Arrest warrants will later be issued for some US intelligence officers involved in the kidnapping (see June 23, 2005 and After).

Entity Tags: Central Intelligence Agency, Robert Seldon Lady, Bruno Megale, Hassan Mustafa Osama Nasr

Timeline Tags: Torture of US Captives, Complete 911 Timeline

A group of CIA officers arrives at Aviano Air Force Base, north of Venice, Italy, with Hassan Mustafa Osama Nasr (a.k.a. Abu Omar), an Islamist extremist they kidnapped in Milan five hours previously (see Noon February 17, 2003). Some English-speaking interrogators strip Omar’s clothes, putting him in blue overalls, and photograph him. They ask him some questions about his connections to al-Qaeda, his sending of recruits to fight in Iraq, and his relationship with Islamist radicals in Albania (see August 27, 1995 and Shortly After). However, Nasr says nothing. The interrogators punch him in the stomach and slap him across the face. Then they wrap his head in a sticky bandage, cut some breathing holes into it, and put him on a plane that arrives in Cairo seven hours later. [GQ, 3/2007 pdf file] Twenty-six US officials will later be charged in Italy with the kidnap. One of them is Joseph Romano, a US Air Force officer whose role is to help the kidnappers at the air base in Aviano. [Congressional Quarterly, 9/23/2009]

Entity Tags: Central Intelligence Agency, Joseph L. Romano III, Hassan Mustafa Osama Nasr

Timeline Tags: Torture of US Captives

Page from a passport used by Anne Linda Jenkins, one of the CIA officers who kidnapped Hassan Mustafa Osama Nasr.Page from a passport used by Anne Linda Jenkins, one of the CIA officers who kidnapped Hassan Mustafa Osama Nasr. [Source: CBC]Italian authorities issue arrest warrants for nine Italians and 26 Americans, including former CIA Milan substation chief Robert Seldon Lady, over the kidnapping of an Islamic extremist in Italy (see Noon February 17, 2003) [Washington Post, 12/6/2005; Associated Press, 1/26/2007; CNN, 2/16/2007] The kidnapped person, Hassan Mustafa Osama Nasr (a.k.a. Abu Omar), had previously informed for the CIA (see August 27, 1995 and Shortly After and Summer 2000), but was held hostage at two US airbases, Aviano in Italy and Ramstein in Germany, and then reportedly tortured in Egypt. This is the first time a foreign government files criminal charges against the CIA for an overseas counterterrorism mission. The Washington Post will comment, “Coming from a longtime ally, Italy, which has worked closely with the US government to fight terrorism and has sent troops to Iraq, the charges reflect growing unease in Europe about some US tactics against suspected Islamic terrorists.” The 13 are not in Italy to be arrested and many appear to have been using fake names. Court documents show they spent over $100,000 staying in luxury hotels in Milan, Florence, and Venice before and after the kidnapping. Nasr is released temporarily after being held for about a year, and Italian authorities monitor a call in which he says he has been tortured with electric shocks in Egypt. The operation is so badly planned and executed that former CIA bin Laden unit chief Michael Scheuer has difficultly believing the CIA could have done it, saying, “The agency might be sloppy, but not that sloppy.” [Washington Post, 6/24/2005]

Entity Tags: Central Intelligence Agency, Michael Scheuer, Robert Seldon Lady, Hassan Mustafa Osama Nasr

Timeline Tags: Torture of US Captives, Complete 911 Timeline

An Italian judge rules that there is enough evidence to try thirty-five people in the affair of kidnapped imam Hassan Mustafa Osama Nasr (a.k.a. Abu Omar). Nasr was kidnapped by the CIA, with the knowledge of the Italian military intelligence service Servizio per le Informazioni e la Sicurezza Militare (SISMI), in Milan in 2003 (see Noon February 17, 2003). Nasr, a former CIA asset (see August 27, 1995 and Shortly After), was then taken to Egypt, where he says he was tortured (see April-May 2004). The 26 Americans that are indicted can be tried in absentia in Italy and include Robert Seldon Lady, former chief of the CIA’s substation in Milan, the former CIA station chief in Rome, and an officer from the US air base in Aviano, near Venice. The nine Italians include former SISMI head Nicolo Pollari, but three of them are only charged with complicity in the kidnapping, not the kidnapping itself. However, none of the Americans are in Italy at this time, and Italy has not asked for them to be extradited. [Associated Press, 1/26/2007; CNN, 2/16/2007]

Entity Tags: Nicolo Pollari, Central Intelligence Agency, Robert Seldon Lady, Hassan Mustafa Osama Nasr, SISMI

Timeline Tags: Torture of US Captives, Complete 911 Timeline

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