Thursday, October 25, 2007

The Road to Rendition (from 2005)

This is a very rough video about the rendition of Abu Omar and what went wrong for the CIA. I hope to be able to produce a more polished product by the end of the year, once I've updated my editing equipment.

Shadowland: The Road To Rendition, 16 March 2005
Kidnappings by terrorists are a dirty business. But what happens when the terrorists themselves are kidnapped?

By Christopher Dickey

[Note: this is undedited copy off my hard drive. During the transition to the new Newsweek Web site ( several stories were lost from the archives. They are gradually being re-loaded, but I’m posting this in the meantime for reference purposes.]

Via Guerzoni is a quiet street on the outskirts of Milan, Italy, in a former industrial neighborhood that is somewhere between decrepitude and redevelopment. High walls line both sides of the road for about 100 yards as it runs between a park and a half-abandoned plant nursery. If you’re in the business of making people disappear – call it kidnapping, or maybe counter-terrorism, or, in the Bushian jargon of the moment, “rendition” – then Via Guerzoni is a good venue. Few people are around, and many of those are Muslim immigrants who want as little to do with the police as they can.

So whoever snatched an Egyptian-born imam known as Abu Omar off Via Guerzoni in broad daylight on Feb. 17, 2003, had planned well. And if their tradecraft had been a little bit better, the incident could have been kept very quiet, and forgotten quickly. But they screwed up, and soon, possibly as early as next week, you can look for the abduction of Abu Omar to emerge as a major embarrassment to President George W. Bush and Italian Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi.

The fiercely independent judiciary in Milan, led by investigating magistrate Armando Spataro, has prepared a case and expects to issue warrants alleging that a dozen or more foreign agents, some of them reportedly Americans, were involved in the abduction of Abu Omar. They are supposed to have driven him in the truck to the U.S. airbase at Aviano, Italy, then flown him to Cairo. In Egypt, as the saying goes, “they have ways of making you talk.”

Since Italian reporter Carlo Bonini first broke the story of this investigation in the Rome daily La Repubblica last February, U.S. officials have been waiting for the other shoe to drop. Washington is wondering how much the courts think they know? How much can they prove? Spokesmen at the U.S. consulate in Milan and the U.S. embassy in Rome said they were unable to comment on any of the substantive questions, and they believed no official requests for information have been received from the Italian government. That will change if and when the arrest warrants are issued.

Now that the second-term Bush administration is advocating democracy and the rule of law around the world, its own lawless ways during the first term are an embarrassment. What’s been called, with a bit of hyperbole, the Guantanamo Gulag has become a liability. So are ongoing revelations about the practice of “renditions”: sending suspected terrorists to countries with even fewer scruples about interrogation practices than the Bush administration. (“Outsourcing torture,” is the catch phrase used by human rights activists in Italy and elsewhere.)

The agents involved in Milan, whoever they were and wherever they came from, must be cursing their luck. At first, everything went so well. The 42-year-old Abu Omar, née Mostafa Hassan Nasr Osama, was no common immigrant, after all. His bad-guy credentials were all in order. An Islamist firebrand, he came to Italy in 1997 by way of Afghanistan and Albania. In the famously radical mosques on Via Quaranta and Viale Jenner, he was always recruiting what he called “the youth” to go blow themselves up as “martyrs” in one jihad or another.

The Italian secret service known as DIGOS (formerly “the political police”) had focused on him in the summer of 2002, when a bug they’d placed in the Via Quaranta mosque picked up a conversation he had with a visitor from Germany outlining plans to re-structure a terrorist organization that’s been connected to both Al Qaeda and the now-infamous Abu Musab Al Zarqawi. So even people who knew and sympathized with Abu Omar weren’t sure, at first, that he hadn’t decided secretly to go fight the Americans in Afghanistan – or maybe Iraq, where the war was just about to begin.

Too bad, from the kidnappers’ point of view, that a woman walking out of the park on Via Guerzoni that chilly February afternoon in 2003 saw two men spray something in Abu Omar’s face and bundle him into the back of a truck. Even worse, for those who wanted to hush up the whole affair, Abu Omar resurfaced – at least by telephone. On April 20, 2004, more than a year after he’d disappeared, the Italian cops listened in on a phone call he placed from Egypt to his wife in Milan, telling her he’d been in prison, but was now under a kind of house arrest; he would send her money, and she should be quiet. But Abu Omar didn’t take his own advice. He called another imam in Milan, and eventually recounted the tale of how he’d been abducted and where he’d been taken. Soon afterward, Abu Omar dropped out of sight again in Egypt, presumably re-imprisoned. A lawyer for the Gamaa Islamiya, an Egyptian group to which Abu Omar belonged, says he has no idea where the imam is now, whether in jail, alive, or dead.

Over the last year, I’ve collected many hundreds of pages of court documents, warrants, official transcripts, rulings and appeals related to the various terrorist cases in Italy. Abu Omar figures in almost all of them. And in bits and pieces, more or less discretely, the public documents confirm much of what Bonini first wrote last February, based on unnamed sources.

In a pleading issued last month by Judge Guido Salvini against a group of Tunisians suspected of terrorist connections, for instance, there is a concise description of Abu Omar’s case: “It is now possible to affirm with certainty that he was kidnapped by people belonging to foreign intelligence networks interested in interrogating him and neutralizing him, to then hand him over to Egyptian authorities.” Salvini writes that Italian investigators have confirmed the substance of what Abu Omar recounted in those phone calls from Egypt. In “a kidnapping that was the work of Western agents and which undoubtedly constitutes a serious violation of Italian national sovereignty,” says Salvini, Abu Omar “was taken to an American base, interrogated and beaten and the next day taken an on U.S. military plane directly, with an intermediate stop, to Egypt.”

Who were the agents involved? According to Bonini, they left a lot of evidence behind, including rental car contracts, hotel bills, and passport details. When Spataro issues his warrants, the names on those documents certainly will be included.

Last week, I passed through Milan and decided to visit the scene of the crime. As I walked the quiet roads between Abu Omar’s apartment and that lonely stretch of Via Guerzoni where he was kidnapped, I kept thinking of something he was told by the mysterious visitor from Germany in that conversation tape recorded back in the summer of 2002. They talked about reorganizing the Hizb Al Tahrir group after the post-9/11 arrests in Europe. They talked about money: where to get it (from Saudis); how to use it (to make more money). They talked about “the youth” who could be used as martyrs. And toward the end of the chat, the Unidentified Man warned Abu Omar, as if from nowhere, “You need to study the street, because war ought to be studied…” In the shadow world of terror and counter terror, even a quiet street like Via Guerzoni can be a battlefront.

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