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Context of 'Before Summer 1995: CIA Begins Tracking Islamist Militants in Europe'

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Friday prayers outside the Islamic Cultural Institute, on October 19, 2001. Friday prayers outside the Islamic Cultural Institute, on October 19, 2001. [Source: Reuters / Corbis]The Islamic Cultural Institute in Milan, Italy, has numerous ties to terrorist activities during this period and after 9/11, and the Treasury Department will call the mosque “the main al-Qaeda station house in Europe.” It is initially headed by Anwar Shaaban (see Late 1993-December 14, 1995 and December 14, 1995), an opponent of the current Egyptian regime and a supporter of the Al-Gama’a al-Islamiyya militant group, which is run by the ‘Blind Sheikh,’ Sheikh Omar Abdul-Rahman (see Late 1993-1994).
bullet It recruits fighters for militant Islamic causes and sends them to Afghanistan for training. One of the recruits, L’Houssaine Kherchtou, who will testify for the prosecution at the trial of men accused of bombing US embassies in Africa in 1998, will say that he knew Shaaban well, adding: “He was my guide. I went there every weekend to be with him.” After studying with Shaaban for some time, Shaaban arranges for Kherchtou and a group of other men to receive military training in Afghanistan. (Hundley 10/22/2001)
bullet There is heavy telephone traffic between the Institute and the New York mosque run by Sheikh Omar Abdul-Rahman, and Italian police say it is a logistical base for the WTC bombing (see Late 1993-1994).
bullet The Algerian militant group Groupe Islamique Armé (GIA) gains influence in the mosque after Shaaban dies in the Bosnian Civil War (see After 1995).
bullet It creates a “cottage industry in supplying false passports and other bogus documents” according to European intelligence officials, and serves as a gateway to Europe for operatives from Afghanistan. (Sennott 8/4/2002)

The CIA begins a program to track Islamist militants in Europe. The program is operated by local stations in Europe and CIA manager Michael Scheuer, who will go on to found the agency’s bin Laden unit in early 1996 (see February 1996). The program is primarily focused on militants who oppose the Egyptian government. It traces the support network that supplies money and recruits to them and that organizes their propaganda. US Ambassador to Egypt Edward Walker will later say that the operation involves intercepting telephone calls and opening mail. Suspects are identified in Egypt and in European cities such as Milan (see 1993 and After), Oslo, and London (see (Late 1995)). (Grey 2007, pp. 125) The intelligence gathered as a part of this operation will be used for the CIA’s nascent rendition program (see Summer 1995).

The CIA proposes a policy of abducting Islamic Jihad militants and sending them to Egypt which will soon be approved by President Bill Clinton (see June 21, 1995). The Clinton administration began a policy of allowing abductions, known as “renditions,” in 1993 (see 1993). At first, renditions were rarely used because few countries wanted the suspects. Michael Scheuer, head of the CIA’s bin Laden unit, is one of the architects of a 1995 agreement with Egypt to send rendered militants there. He will later recall: “It was begun in desperation.… We were turning into voyeurs. We knew where these people were, but we couldn’t capture them because we had nowhere to take them,” due to legal and diplomatic complications. The CIA realized that “we had to come up with a third party.” Egypt was the obvious choice because the Islamic Jihad is the prime political enemy of the Egyptian government, and many Islamic Jihad militants also work for al-Qaeda, an enemy of the US.
Turning a Blind Eye - However, the Egyptian secret police force, the Mukhabarat, is notorious for its torture of prisoners. As part of the program, the US helps track, capture, and transport suspects to Egypt (see Before Summer 1995) and then turns a blind eye while the Egyptians torture them. Scheuer claims the US could give the Egyptian interrogators questions they wanted put to the detainees in the morning and get answers by the evening. Because torture is illegal in the US, US officials are never present when the torture is done. Further, the CIA only abducts suspects who have already been convicted in absentia. Talaat Fouad Qassem is the first known person the CIA renders to Egypt (see September 13, 1995). But the number of renditions greatly increases in 1998, when the CIA gets a list of Islamic Jihad operatives around the world (see Late August 1998). These renditions result in a big trial in Egypt in 1999 that effectively destroys Islamic Jihad as a major force in that country (see 1999). (Mayer 2/8/2005)
CIA, NSC, Justice Department Lawyers Consulted - Scheuer will say that lawyers inside and outside the CIA are intensively consulted about the program: “There is a large legal department within the Central Intelligence Agency, and there is a section of the Department of Justice that is involved in legal interpretations for intelligence work, and there is a team of lawyers at the National Security Council, and on all of these things those lawyers are involved in one way or another and have signed off on the procedure. The idea that somehow this is a rogue operation that someone has dreamed up is just absurd.” (Grey 2007, pp. 140-141)
Leadership of Program - The rendition program does not focus solely on al-Qaeda-linked extremists, and other suspected terrorists are also abducted. Scheuer will later tell Congress, “I authored it and then ran and managed it against al-Qaeda leaders and other Sunni Islamists from August 1995, until June 1999.” (US Congress 4/17/2007 pdf file) A dedicated Renditions Branch will be established at CIA headquarters in 1997 (see 1997), but the relationship between Scheuer and its manager is not known—it is unclear whether this manager is a subordinate, superior, or equal of Scheuer, or whether Scheuer takes on this responsibility as well. After Scheuer is fired as unit chief in May 1999 (see June 1999), his role in the rendition program will presumably be passed on to his successor, Richard Blee, who will go on to be involved in rendition after 9/11 (see Shortly After December 19, 2001). In a piece apparently about Blee, journalist Ken Silverstein will say that he “oversaw… the [Counterterrorist Center] branch that directed renditions.” (Silverstein 1/28/2007)

Diplomats at the US embassy in Egypt are not informed of the CIA’s rendition program. At this time the program is primarily aimed at locating enemies of the Egyptian regime and bringing them back to Egypt, where they are tortured (see Summer 1995 and Before Summer 1995). The only exception to this is US ambassador to Egypt Edward Walker, who is read into the CIA program although he is actually a State Department employee. One of the diplomats’ jobs is to report on Egypt’s extremely poor human rights record, including its torture methods. Walker will later comment, “It wasn’t a question of mincing words… I think the human rights reports were correct.” He will add that there are Chinese walls at the embassy to keep the CIA program secret from the diplomats: “The walls were huge and they only come together at the ambassador level… [The diplomats working on human rights] might have been a little upset if they knew what was going on.” (Grey 2007, pp. 126)

In June 1995, al-Qaeda sponsors a failed assassination attempt on Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak (see June 26, 1995 and Shortly After June 26, 1995). Some time in 1995, al-Qaeda leader Anas al-Liby moves to Britain and applies for political asylum. Not long after he arrives, Egypt asks the British government to extradite him for his alleged role in the assassination attempt. They send a detailed file on him, including information on how he had fought with Osama bin Laden in Afghanistan and then moved with him to Sudan. But the extradition request is refused. British officials question whether al-Liby could get a fair trial in Egypt and fear he could face the death penalty. The next year, British intelligence hires al-Liby, a Libyan, to assassinate Libyan ruler Colonel Mu’ammar al-Qadhafi (see 1996). Al-Liby will continue to live openly in Britain until 2000 (see Late 1995-May 2000 and May 2000). (McGrory 1/16/2003)

The CIA’s Counter Terrorism Center creates a special unit focusing specifically on bin Laden. It is informally called Alec Station. About 10 to 15 individuals are assigned to the unit initially. This grows to about 35 to 40 by 9/11. (US Congress 9/18/2002) The unit is set up “largely because of evidence linking [bin Laden] to the 1993 bombing of the WTC.” (Gellman 10/3/2001) Newsweek will comment after 9/11, “With the Cold War over, the Mafia in retreat, and the drug war unwinnable, the CIA and FBI were eager to have a new foe to fight.… Historical rivals, the spies and G-men were finally learning to work together. But they didn’t necessarily share secrets with the alphabet soup of other enforcement and intelligence agencies, like Customs and the Immigration and Naturalization Service, and they remained aloof from the Pentagon. And no amount of good will or money could bridge a fundamental divide between intelligence and law enforcement. Spies prefer to watch and wait; cops want to get their man.” (Hosenball 10/1/2001) Michael Scheuer will lead the unit until 1999. He will later become a vocal critic of the US government’s efforts to combat terrorism. He later recalls that while bin Laden is mostly thought of merely as a terrorist financier at this time, “we had run across bin Laden in a lot of different places, not personally but in terms of his influence, either through rhetoric, through audiotapes, through passports, through money-he seemed to turn up everywhere. So when we [created the unit], the first responsibility was to find out if he was a threat.” (Zeman et al. 11/2004) By the start of 1997, the unit will conclude bin Laden is a serious threat (see Early 1997).

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