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Profile: Islamic Cultural Institute
Islamic Cultural Institute was a participant or observer in the following events:
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).
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. [Chicago Tribune, 10/22/2001]
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).
The Algerian militant group Groupe Islamique Armé (GIA) gains influence in the mosque after Shaaban dies in the Bosnian Civil War (see After 1995).
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. [Boston Globe, 8/4/2002]
Anwar Shaaban. [Source: Evan Kohlmann]The Islamic Cultural Institute mosque in Milan, Italy is dominated by Al-Gama’a al-Islamiya, the Egyptian militant group led by Sheikh Omar Abdul-Rahman. The imam of the mosque, Anwar Shaaban, is a leader of that group and also a leader of the mujaheddin efforts in Bosnia. The Islamic Cultural Institute serves as a transit and logistical base for mujaheddin coming or going to Bosnia (see Late 1993-December 14, 1995). After the 1993 WTC bombing, US investigators will discover heavy phone traffic between the Milan mosque and the Jersey City mosque run by Abdul-Rahman. Furthermore, they learn that bomber mastermind Ramzi Yousef used the Milan mosque as a logistical base as well. [Chicago Tribune, 10/22/2001] Yousef also prayed at the Milan mosque prior to the WTC bombing. [Gunaratna, 2003, pp. 171] Shaaban is a close friend of Talaat Fouad Qassem, another leader of Al-Gama’a al-Islamiya and one of the highest ranking leaders of the mujaheddin fighting in Bosnia. Qassem is directing the flow of volunteers to Bosnia while living in political asylum in Denmark (see 1990). [Kohlmann, 2004, pp. 25] In April 1994, seven Arab men living in Denmark, including Qassem, are arrested. US prosecutors will later claim that fingerprints on documents and videotapes seized from the men match fingerprints on bomb manuals that Ahmad Ajaj was carrying when he entered the US with Yousef (see September 1, 1992). A raid on one apartment in Denmark uncovers bomb formulas, bomb making chemical, sketches of attack targets, some videotapes of Abdul-Rahman’s sermons, and a pamphlet claiming responsibility for the WTC bombing and promising more attacks. Also, phone records and documents found in Abdul-Rahman’s Jersey City apartment show the men in Denmark were communicating regularly with Abdul-Rahman. [New York Times, 4/15/1995] But no one in either Milan or Denmark will be charged with a role in the WTC bombing. Danish police will later say that none of the seized documents indicated that the Arab men personally took part in the bombing. The men all are released and ironically, two of them are granted political asylum in Denmark because they are members of Al-Gama’a al-Islamiya, which the Danish consider to be a persecuted group. [Associated Press, 6/28/1995] In 1995, an Italian magistrate will issue arrest warrants for Shaaban and 60 other extremists (see Late 1993-December 14, 1995), but Shaaban will flee to Bosnia, where he will die of bullet wounds in unexplained circumstances (see December 14, 1995). [Chicago Tribune, 10/22/2001] The US government will later call the Islamic Cultural Institute al-Qaeda’s main logistical base in Europe and some evidence will link figures connected to it to the 9/11 plot (see Late 1998-September 11, 2001).
Islamist radicals based at the Islamic Cultural Institute in Milan, Italy, obtain the CIA’s Redbook, two Arabic copies of which will be found at the institute in a 1995 raid. Several seals, rubber stamps, blank and counterfeit documents, and other tools used to forge documents are also found in the raid. [9/11 Commission, 8/21/2004, pp. 63 ] The Redbook is a manual produced by the CIA for immigration officials; it helps the officials identify terrorists using telltale signs in their passports (see 1992). The institute is a key support center for the 1993 World Trade Center bombing and al-Qaeda-linked radicals fighting in Bosnia (see 1993 and After and Late 1993-1994). It is unclear how the Redbook comes to be at the institute.
Ahmed Idris Nasreddin. [Source: NBC News]A 1995 Italian intelligence report alleges the Switzerland-based Al Taqwa Bank is funding radical groups in Algeria, Tunisia, and Sudan, and is a major backer of Hamas, but Swiss authorities are slow to investigate. [Salon, 3/15/2002; Forward, 10/17/2003] The Italians are interested in Al Taqwa because of its connection to a radical Italian mosque, the Islamic Cultural Institute in Milan, which Al Taqwa founder and director Ahmed Idris Nasreddin helped create and finance in the early 1990s. The mosque is close to Al Taqwa’s headquarters in Lugano, a town on the border between Switzerland and Italy. It is also connected to the 1993 World Trade Center bombing and extremists fighting in Bosnia (see Late 1993-1994) and European investigators increasingly suspect that the Milan mosque is an important general recruiting and supply center for al-Qaeda and other radical militant groups. [Newsweek, 3/18/2002] Reportedly, the Italians tell a Swiss prosecutor that Al Taqwa “comprises the most important financial structure of the Muslim Brotherhood and Islamic terrorist organizations.” Italian intelligence also finds links between Al Taqwa and the Milan mosque through Nasreddin. Additionally, two other top officials in the mosque are Al Taqwa shareholders. [Salon, 3/15/2002; Forward, 10/17/2003] Italian officials get the impression that Swiss officials are loathe to look into Al Taqwa. In 1997, the Italians convince a Swiss prosecutor to start questioning Al Taqwa officials. But reportedly, an Al Taqwa lawyer is able to make phone calls to influential people and have the investigation stopped. [Salon, 3/15/2002]
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
A suicide bombing destroys the police station in the town of Rijeka, Croatia, wounding 29 people. The Egyptian militant group Al-Gama’a al-Islamiyya takes credit for the bombing, saying it is revenge for the abduction of Al-Gama’a al-Islamiyya leader Talaat Fouad Qassem in Croatia the month before (see September 13, 1995). The Croatians will later determine that the mastermind, Hassan al-Sharif Mahmud Saad, and the suicide bomber were both tied to Al-Gama’a al-Islamiyya. They also were tied to the Islamic Cultural Institute in Milan, Italy, which in turn has ties to many militant attacks, some committed Ramzi Yousef (see 1995-1997). CIA soon discovers that the suicide bomber also worked for the Third World Refugee Center charity front (see January 1996). [Kohlmann, 2004, pp. 153-155] In 1999, the FBI’s Bojinka investigation will notice that Khalid Shaikh Mohammed (KSM) was believed to be in neighboring Bosnia at the time and that the timing device of the bomb (a modified Casio watch) closely resembled those used by KSM and his nephew Yousef in the Bojinka plot (see January 6, 1995). Presumably, this would have increased the importance of catching KSM. [9/11 Commission, 7/24/2004, pp. 489]
The Algerian Groupe Islamique Armé (GIA) gains more influence in the Islamic Cultural Institute, a militant mosque in Milan, Italy, following the death of its former head, Anwar Shaaban. Under the leadership of Shaaban, who died in the Bosnian war, the mosque had been built up into a key European logistics center for militant Islamists. [Chicago Tribune, 10/22/2001] The mosque is described as “the main al-Qaeda station house in Europe” (see 1993 and After), but the GIA is said to be infiltrated by government informers at this point and is losing strength in Algeria due to the penetration (see October 27, 1994-July 16, 1996).
Following an investigation of extremists linked to the Islamic Cultural Institute mosque in Milan, Italy, arrests are made, but most of the suspects are eventually released. The mosque was a logistics base for radical Muslims fighting in Bosnia (see Late 1993-December 14, 1995 and Late 1993-1994) and has been under investigation for some time. However, according to the Chicago Tribune: “[T]he criminal case appears to [founder] on the vagaries of the Italian justice system. Because of limitations on jailing people charged with crimes committed outside Italy, most of the suspects [will be] released and [vanish].” [Chicago Tribune, 10/22/2001] People connected to the mosque will go on to be connected to numerous plots, such as the failed millennium attacks and 9/11 (see Late 1998-September 11, 2001).
The Islamic Cultural Institute in Milan, Italy. [Source: Public domain]By late 1998, US and Italian intelligence are already aware of the importance of a mosque in Milan, Italy, called the Islamic Cultural Institute. After 9/11, the Treasury Department will call the mosque “the main al-Qaeda station house in Europe. It is used to facilitate the movement of weapons, men and money across the world.” Additionally, they are aware that Ahmed Idris Nasreddin, a founder and director of Al Taqwa Bank, is also a founder and financier of the mosque. The mosque is also less than 50 miles away from Al Taqwa’s headquarters on the Swiss border.(see 1995-1997). [Newsweek, 3/18/2002] US officials will later say that al-Qaeda operatives involved in the 1998 US embassy bombings stayed at the Milan mosque. This causes US and Italian intelligence to watch the mosque more closely, and it also causes the US to look closer at Al Taqwa Bank (see 1997-September 11, 2001). [Newsweek, 3/18/2002] One member of the al-Qaeda cell in Milan lives in Hamburg with 9/11 plotter Ramzi bin al-Shibh for most of 1998 (see December 1997-November 1998). In 2000, Abderazek Mahdjoub, the head of the Milan cell, lives in Hamburg, attends the Al-Quds mosque that the Hamburg al-Qaeda cell attends, and has ties with some of the 9/11 hijackers (see 2000). Al-Qaeda operatives involved in the failed millennium bombing plot in Jordan also stay at the Milan mosque (see November 30, 1999). The Jordanian government later will claim that Al Taqwa helped fund these millennium bombers. [Newsweek, 3/18/2002; Newsweek, 4/12/2004] Starting in late 2000, Italian intelligence, wiretapping people associated with the Milan mosque and/or the Milan al-Qaeda cell, record conversations suggesting foreknowledge of the 9/11 plot (see August 12, 2000; January 24, 2001). This information is shared with the US in early 2001 (see March 2001). Additional evidence will come out after 9/11 suggesting some people in Milan had foreknowledge of the 9/11 attacks (see September 4, 2001; September 7, 2001). Given the closeness of the Al Taqwa Bank to the mosque, especially through Nasreddin, this raises the possibility of Al Taqwa involvement and knowledge of specific al-Qaeda plots, including the 9/11 attacks, though there is no known evidence of such direct ties except for the attempted millennium bombing mentioned above.
Anwar al-Awlaki. [Source: Public domain]The FBI conducts a counterterrorism inquiry into Anwar al-Awlaki, an imam who will later be suspected of involvement in the 9/11 plot. He serves as the “spiritual leader” to several of the hijackers (see March 2001 and After), and by 2008 US intelligence will determine he is linked to al-Qaeda (see February 27, 2008).
The investigation is opened when it is learned he had probably been visited by a “procurement agent” for bin Laden, Ziyad Khaleel. Khaleel had helped buy a satellite phone for bin Laden; when he is arrested in December 1999 he reportedly tells the FBI crucial details about al-Qaeda operations in the US (see December 29, 1999).
In early 2000 the FBI is aware when al-Awlaki is visited by an unnamed close associate of Sheikh Omar Abdul-Rahman. [US Congress, 7/24/2003, pp. 131 ; Washington Post, 2/27/2008]
He also serves as vice president of the Charitable Society for Social Welfare (CSSW), the US branch of a Yemeni charity founded by Sheikh Abdul Majeed al-Zindani, a Yemeni imam who the US will officially designate a terrorist in 2004. CSSW also has ties to the Islamic Cultural Institute in Milan, Italy, considered one of the centers of al-Qaeda activity in Europe. The FBI begins investigating CSSW in 1999 after a Yemeni politician visits the US to solicit donations for the charity, and then visits Mahmoud Es Sayed, a known al-Qaeda figure at the Islamic Cultural Institute, on the same trip. [Burr and Collins, 2006, pp. 243; Washington Post, 2/27/2008]
The FBI learns that al-Awlaki knows individuals from the suspect Holy Land Foundation and others involved in raising money for Hamas. Sources allege that al-Awlaki has even more extremist connections.
But none of these links are considered strong enough for criminal charges, and the investigation is closed. [9/11 Commission, 7/24/2004, pp. 517] Al-Awlaki is beginning to associate with hijackers Nawaf Alhazmi and Khalid Almihdhar shortly before the investigation ends. For instance, on February 4, one month before the FBI investigation is closed, al-Awlaki talks on the telephone four times with hijacker associate Omar al-Bayoumi. The 9/11 Commission will later speculate that these calls are related to Alhazmi and Almihdhar, since al-Bayoumi is helping them that day, and that Alhazmi or Almihdhar may even have been using al-Bayoumi’s phone at the time (see February 4, 2000). Al-Bayoumi had also been the subject of an FBI counterterrorism investigation in 1999 (see September 1998-July 1999).
Entity Tags: Omar al-Bayoumi, Ziyad Khaleel, Nawaf Alhazmi, Osama bin Laden, Mahmoud Es Sayed, Omar Abdul-Rahman, Islamic Cultural Institute, Abdul Mejid al-Zindani, 9/11 Congressional Inquiry, Anwar al-Awlaki, Khalid Almihdhar, Federal Bureau of Investigation, Charitable Society for Social Welfare
Timeline Tags: Complete 911 Timeline, 9/11 Timeline
Sami Ben Khemais. [Source: Agence France-Presse]Telephone wiretaps and listening devices used against a Milan-based Tunisian operative named Sami Ben Khemais provide investigators with “a trove of fresh information” and help them uncover a European network of Islamist radicals. Ben Khemais fell under surveillance some time after arriving in Italy from Afghan training camps in 1998 and has dealings with other radicals in Germany, Spain, Britain, France, Belgium, and Switzerland. Shortly after 9/11, a German official will say the network of interlocking cells uncovered changes counterterrorist thinking in Europe: “In the past, we had seen some links to Afghanistan, but we saw them as more or less acting here without close connections to al-Qaeda. Now we are seeing more and more links between cells and to al-Qaeda. We are rethinking everything.” The European cells are organized under two umbrellas, Takfir wal Hijra and the Salafist Group for Preaching and Combat (GSPC), and its three leaders are Abu Doha, who will be arrested in London (see February 2001); Mohamed Bensakhria, based in Frankfurt, but arrested in Spain; and Tarek Maaroufi, who is arrested in Belgium. The Milan cell of which Ben Khemais is part and which he finances by drug-trafficking, counterfeiting money and documents, and money laundering, is connected to the “Hamburg cell” that provides three 9/11 hijackers in various ways (see December 1997-November 1998, October 2, 1998, and 2000). [Boston Globe, 10/23/2001]
Al-Qaeda second-in-command Ayman al-Zawahiri sends a close associate, Mahmoud Es Sayed, to Italy. His task is to revitalize an Egyptian Islamist network in Milan and northern Italy, by setting up new cells and establishing contacts with other extremist networks operating in the area. He applies for asylum and, during the proceedings on his application, states that he is connected to Islamic Jihad. However, he is granted asylum anyway. He maintains close ties with one radical mosque in Milan, the Islamic Cultural Institute, and immediately becomes the undisputed leader of the city’s other extremist mosque, the Via Quaranta mosque. The Italian authorities, who are investigating radical Islamist networks at this time, learn of his arrival and importance within a few months. [Vidino, 2006, pp. 52, 221-2] There is evidence to indicate that Es Sayed has foreknowledge of 9/11 (see August 12, 2000 and September 4, 2001).
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).
Italian counterterrorist authorities monitor a summit of leading Islamist militants near Bologna. Attendees at the meeting, which is arranged through an extremist mosque in Milan called the Islamic Cultural Institute, include:
Mahmoud Es Sayed, a close associate of al-Qaeda second in command Ayman al-Zawahiri (see Before Spring 2000). He had recently been sent by al-Zawahiri to revise the militant network in northern Italy (see Summer 2000).
Abdulsalam Ali Abdulrahman, a section chief with Yemen’s Political Security Organization (PSO—roughly equivalent to the FBI). Es Sayed and Abdulrahman are overheard discussing an attack using aircraft on their way to the summit, indicating they have foreknowledge of 9/11 (see August 12, 2000). The two of them will be recorded a few months later discussing trying to get some of their associates into the US (see February 2001). In 2002, Abdulrahman will be arrested and sent to the US-run prison in Guantanamo, Cuba (see September 2002).
Ayub Usama Saddiq Ali, an Islamic Jihad leader and another close associate of al-Zawahiri’s. Ali was convicted of murder in Egypt but fled to Germany and was granted political asylum there in 1999. Future 9/11 hijacker Ziad Jarrah called him once in 1999 and will call him again in August 2001 (see November 7, 1999 and August 4, 2001).
Mohammed Fazazi, the spiritual leader of the Moroccan group Salafia Jihadia, which will be responsible for a 2003 attack in Casablanca (see May 16, 2003). Fazazi is also the imam at Hamburg’s Al-Quds mosque, which is attended by the core cell of future 9/11 hijacker pilots, including Jarrah (see Early 1996 and (April 1, 1999)). Fazazi’s presence indicates a further connection between the cell in Milan, which is under heavy surveillance by Italian authorities (see 2000), and the cell in Hamburg, but this link will not be exploited to prevent 9/11. [Vidino, 2006, pp. 230]
Following the arrest of extremists based around Milan, Italy, in April 2001 (see 2000-April 2001 and Early 2000-2001), local authorities begin to investigate associates of the arrested men. They find that when the group wants to send people to training camps in Afghanistan, this is arranged through two people based at the Islamic Cultural Institute, a well-known radical mosque in Milan. The two men who take care of the arrangements are Abdelhalim Remadna, an Algerian secretary of the mosque’s imam, and a Moroccan named Yassin Chekkouri, both of whom live inside the mosque and almost never leave. After several months of investigation, the authorities find them to be key players in a sophisticated network that is recruiting hundreds of European Muslims for al-Qaeda training camps in Afghanistan. They also find that Remadna communicates frequently with a man named Abu Jaffa (a.k.a. Abu Jafar al-Jaziri), who runs a guesthouse for Algerian militants in Jalalabad, Afghanistan, and that the two of them coordinate the trainees’ movements. The group does not use the usual route for trainees through Pakistan, as it is aware Pakistani stamps in a passport indicate an affiliation with al-Qaeda. Instead, volunteers travel through Turkey and Iran. Members of Remadna’s network say that Iran provides “complete cooperation” with this. Remadna provides the volunteers with addresses of hotels and safe houses, where members of the network meet them and help them cross from Iran into Afghanistan. By analyzing phone traffic, the authorities find that militants from at least six European countries rely on Remadna to reach the Afghan camps. [Vidino, 2006, pp. 219-221]
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