Egyptian imam reportedly worked as CIA source

Cleric at the center of U.S.-Italy controversy said to inform in Albania

July 03, 2005|By John Crewdson and Tom Hundley | John Crewdson and Tom Hundley,CHICAGO TRIBUNE

MILAN, Italy - Among the multiple mysteries swirling around the abduction of Osama Moustafa Hassan Nasr in Italy, one stands out as by far the most perplexing.

Why would the U.S. 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?

Neither the Bush administration nor the CIA has acknowledged any role in the operation. But U.S. government officials privately paint Nasr, better known as Abu Omar, as a dangerous terrorist who once plotted to kill the Egyptian foreign minister and was worthy of an audacious daylight abduction involving more than 20 operatives, weeks of planning and hundreds of thousands of dollars.

One senior U.S. official, who spoke on condition that she not be identified, asserted: "The world's a better place with this guy off the streets."

But evidence gathered by prosecutors here, who have charged 13 CIA operatives with Abu Omar's kidnapping, indicates that the abduction was a bold attempt to turn him back into the informer he once was.

As a result, Italian-American relations are at their lowest point in years, 13 Americans are fugitives from Italian justice, and Milanese prosecutors and police, who had been closely monitoring Abu Omar and knew nothing about his planned abduction, are furious.

"Instead of having an investigation against terrorists, we are investigating this CIA kidnapping," a senior prosecution official fumed last week.

According to the prosecutor's application for the 13 warrants, when Abu Omar reached Cairo on a CIA-chartered aircraft, he was taken straight to the Egyptian interior minister.

If he agreed to inform for the Egyptian intelligence service, Abu Omar "would have been set free and accompanied back to Italy," the document said.

Alternatively, the senior official said, the Americans might have hoped that the Egyptians could learn something by interrogating Abu Omar about planned resistance to the impending war on Iraq.

Abu Omar refused to inform, according to the document, and spent the next 14 months in an Egyptian prison facing "terrible tortures." After a brief release in April 2004, he was imprisoned again.

The source of the prosecution's information is Mohammed Reda, another Egyptian imam living in Milan and one of the first people Abu Omar called during his brief release.

Asked to assess Reda's credibility, the prosecution official asserted that "in this case, he had no reason to lie. And when he made his first statements, he was unaware he was being intercepted" by a police wiretap on his cell phone.

Abu Omar was first offered a chance to inform in Albania in 1995. According to former officials of ShIK, the Albanian National Intelligence Service, he was far from reluctant.

At the behest of the CIA, ShIK had created an anti-terrorist unit that, former ShIK officials said, was essentially an arm of the CIA.

In those years, the Albanian government, increasingly worried that it might be playing host to Islamic terrorists, accorded the CIA far more leeway than most other countries to operate within its borders.

The real boss of the anti-terror squad, according to its former second-ranking official, Astrit Nasufi, was a CIA officer known as Mike who worked in the American Embassy in Tirana, the Albanian capital.

ShIK sprang into action in August 1995, when the Egyptian foreign minister, Amr Moussa, visited Albania. There was no evidence that an assassination plot against Moussa was in the works. But two months before, exiled Egyptian fundamentalists had tried to kill Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak during Mubarak's visit to Ethiopia.

According to both Nasufi and Flamur Gjymisha, the chief of ShIK's First Intelligence Directorate, "Mike" told ShIK to detain a dozen or so Egyptians living in Tirana who might pose a threat to Moussa.

A few days before Moussa's arrival, ShIK got the pickup list. It included seven or eight members of Jamaat al Islamiya ("The Islamic Group") and a few from another Egyptian exile group, the Islamic Jihad, which later merged with al-Qaida.

Nasufi said Abu Omar, an Egyptian, had been living in Albania for four years and working for a Muslim charity, the Human Relief and Construction Agency (HRCA). His name was not on the pickup list, Nasufi said, because "no previous suspicion" had been attached to him, and he had never been mentioned in the CIA's requests for information about individuals in Tirana.

The CIA also gave ShIK the license plates of four cars, including a dark green Land Rover that allegedly belonged to the HRCA. "We started looking for the cars on Aug. 27 in the morning," recalled Nasufi.

By midafternoon they had found the Land Rover in a parking lot near the former Institute for Physical Education. When ShIK checked the registration, the person listed as responsible for the vehicle was Osama Nasr - Abu Omar.

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