Official accuses CIA of abduction

Italian intelligence said agency had list of Muslim targets suspected of al-Qaida ties

July 31, 2006|By JOHN CREWDSON | JOHN CREWDSON,CHICAGO TRIBUNE

WASHINGTON -- Shortly after Sept. 11, 2001, the CIA targeted for abduction and rendition nearly a dozen Muslims living in Italy whom it suspected of having ties to al-Qaida, a senior Italian intelligence official has told prosecutors in Milan.

Meanwhile, aircraft flight records suggest the possibility of the CIA's previously unsuspected involvement in the disappearance of Mohamed Morgan, an Islamist militant living in Milan who now is believed to be in an Egyptian prison.

The testimony about the CIA's target list was given in June by Gen. Gustavo Pignero, a senior official of the Italian intelligence agency, SISMI, to prosecutors investigating the disappearance of an Egyptian-born imam, Osama Mustafa Hassan Nasr, also known as Abu Omar.

Pignero's testimony is the first indication the CIA may have made far more extensive use than previously known of its paramilitary Special Operations Group to seize people suspected of terrorist links and render them without trial to Egypt and other Middle East countries for detention and interrogation.

In addition to the CIA list, which Pignero recalled included "certainly more than 10" residents of Milan, Turin and Naples, Pignero said he was told by the then-chief of the CIA's Rome station that similar clandestine abductions were planned for Austria, Belgium and the Netherlands.

No unexplained disappearances have been reported in Belgium or the Netherlands. But the Italian newspaper Corriere della Sera reported yesterday that Gamal El-Minshawy, an Egyptian living in Austria, vanished in early 2003 from Mecca.

Pignero's testimony was excerpted in an Italian arrest warrant issued this month for the former CIA station chief, who CIA sources say is assigned to the agency's headquarters in Virginia.

A Milan court last week asked the Italian justice minister to formally request that the Bush administration extradite the former station chief and two dozen other CIA operatives to Italy to stand trial for Abu Omar's alleged kidnapping.

Prosecutors also have charged two senior SISMI officials with aiding the CIA's "unlawful restraint" of Abu Omar.

Accusations that SISMI knew of the CIA's plan to snatch Abu Omar, and revelations that the agency was paying reporters to spy and tapping the phones of the politically powerful, has produced a furor in Italy.

Pignero's disclosure has refocused prosecutors' attention on Morgan, who disappeared from Vigevano, Italy, near Milan, eight months after Abu Omar allegedly was abducted in early 2003.

Pignero didn't say whether Morgan was on the CIA's "black list." But official documents show that Morgan, a regular at the Milan mosque where Abu Omar often preached, was being monitored by Italian police at the time he vanished.

Prosecution sources in Milan said the case was closed after the discovery that Morgan had booked a commercial airline ticket to Egypt, leading prosecutors to believe he had traveled voluntarily.

But some sources close to the Abu Omar investigation now question whether the commercial airline booking may have been an attempt to mask Morgan's abduction.

A key piece of potential evidence is U.S. Federal Aviation Administration records showing that a Gulfstream jet - the kind the CIA allegedly used to fly Abu Omar to Egypt - left Cairo on Oct. 31, 2003, en route to its home base at Fort Bragg.

John Crewdson writes for the Chicago Tribune.

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