There is nothing particularly unusual about Abu Omar's story. Torture is a standard investigative technique of Egypt's intelligence services and police, as the State Department and human rights organizations have documented myriad times over the years. What is somewhat unusual is that Abu Omar ended up inside Egypt's torture chambers courtesy of the United States, via an "extraordinary rendition"—in this case, a spectacular daylight kidnapping by the Central Intelligence Agency on the streets of Milan, Italy.
First introduced during the Clinton administration, extraordinary renditions—in which suspected terrorists are turned over to countries known to use torture, usually for the purpose of extracting information from them—have been one of the cia's most controversial tools in the war on terror. According to legal experts, the practice has no justification in United States law and flagrantly violates the Convention Against Torture, an international treaty that Congress ratified in 1994. Nonetheless, Congress and the American courts have essentially ignored the practice, and the Bush administration has insisted that it has never knowingly sent anyone to a place where he will be tortured.
But Abu Omar's case is unique: Unlike any other rendition case, it has prompted a massive criminal investigation—though not in the United States. An Italian prosecutor has launched a probe of the kidnapping, resulting in the indictment of 26 American officials, almost all of them suspected cia agents. It has also generated a treasure trove of documents on the secretive rendition program, including thousands of pages of court filings that detail how it actually works. Late last year, I traveled to Milan to review those documents and to Egypt, where Abu Omar now lives. What I found was a remarkable tale of cia overreach and its consequences—a tale that could represent the beginning of a global legal backlash against the war on terror.
An avuncular, portly man in his mid-40s clad in a turban and a floor-length blue robe, Abu Omar met me at a corner store near his home, the first time he had agreed to talk to an American magazine reporter. He took me to his tidy, cramped apartment near Alexandria's run-down Victorian rail station. The walls were bare other than some religious calligraphy. The screen saver on his computer was a picture of Mecca.
Abu Omar, whose full name is Hassan Mustafa Osama Nasr, served me pungent coffee and sugary biscuits prepared by his unseen wife. Then, leaning forward in a massive gilded chair, he told me how in the weeks before the March 2003 invasion of Iraq, he'd felt he was being watched and followed as he walked the streets of Milan, where he'd been granted political asylum in 2001 following an earlier spell of imprisonment and torture in Egypt. A member of Egypt's militant Islamic Group and a part-time cleric, he had been waging a public campaign against the impending war; Italian authorities had been investigating his circle of acquaintances since mid-2002 and believed he might have been recruiting fighters to go to Iraq, a charge he denies.
A little before noon on February 17, 2003, Abu Omar was headed to his mosque, incongruously located inside a garage. He strolled down Via Guerzoni, a quiet street mostly empty of businesses and lined with high, view-blocking walls. A red Fiat pulled up beside him and a man jumped out, shouting "Polizia! Polizia!" Abu Omar produced his ID. "Suddenly I was lifted in the air," he recalled. He was dragged into a white van and beaten, he said, by wordless men wearing balaclavas. After trussing him with restraints and blindfolding him, they sped away.
Hours later, when the van stopped, Abu Omar heard airplane noise. His clothes were cut off and something was stuffed in his anus, likely a tranquilizing suppository. His head was entirely covered in tape with only small holes for his mouth and nose, and he was placed on a plane. Hours later he was hustled off the jet. He heard someone speaking Arabic in a familiar cadence; in the distance, a muezzin was calling the dawn prayer. After more than a decade in exile, he was back in Egypt.
Abu Omar was taken into a building, put in a blue prison suit, freshly blindfolded, and presented to someone described as an important pasha, or government official. The pasha said he'd be released if he'd go back to Italy to spy on the militants at his mosque. He said no.
And so began Abu Omar's descent into one of the 21st century's nastier circles of hell. His cell had no lights or windows, and the temperature alternated between freezing and baking. He was kept blindfolded and handcuffed for seven months. Interrogations could come at any time of the day or night. He was beaten with fists, electric cables, and chairs, stripped naked, and given electric shocks.
His tormentors' questions largely revolved around his circle of Islamists in Italy, though every now and again they'd indicate that they knew he wasn't a big-time terrorist. They were detaining him only because "the Americans imposed you on us." When he asked, "Why, then, do you abuse me so much?" they replied, "This is our family tradition."
In the fall of 2003, Abu Omar was taken to another prison; it was here that he was crucified and raped by the guards. After seven more months of torture, a Cairo court found there was no evidence that Abu Omar was involved in terrorism and ordered him freed. He was told not to contact anyone in Italy—including his wife—and not to speak to the press or human rights groups. Above all, he was not to tell anyone what had happened.
After agreeing to the conditions, he was deposited at his mother's home in Alexandria. He promptly called his wife in Italy. It was the first time she'd heard from him in 14 months. Italian investigators, who'd been monitoring Abu Omar's phone in Milan for years, recorded the call. His wife asked him how he had been treated. He told her sarcastically, "They brought me food from the fanciest restaurant," though nearly three weeks later, he admitted to her, "I was very close to dying." He also spoke with a friend in Milan, Mohamed Reda El Badry, whose phone was also being tapped by Italian investigators. "I was freed on health grounds," he told El Badry in one of the recorded calls. "I was almost paralyzed; still today I cannot walk more than 200 yards.... I was incontinent, suffered from kidney trouble."
And then, just as suddenly as Abu Omar had reappeared, he vanished again. Egyptian authorities had gotten wind of his calls to Italy. This time he was imprisoned for three years. He smuggled out a letter describing his ordeal, which found its way to the Arab and Italian press and international human rights organizations. Inevitably, that led to more torture.
Was it illegal for American officials to send Abu Omar to Egypt? Yes, according to the United Nations Convention Against Torture, which prohibits delivering someone to a country where there are "substantial grounds" to assume that he might be tortured. Were there substantial grounds to believe that transferring Abu Omar to Egypt would result in his being tortured? Plenty, according to a State Department report that detailed the methods used by Egypt's security services during the year that Abu Omar was abducted and confined, including stripping and blindfolding prisoners; dousing them with cold water; beatings with fists, whips, metal rods, and other objects; administering electric shocks; suspending prisoners by their arms; and sexual assault and threats of rape.
The White House has routinely claimed that when the United States renders individuals to other countries it receives assurances that, as President Bush stated at a press conference in March 2005, "they won't be tortured...This country does not believe in torture." Several months later, Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice reiterated, "The United States has not transported anyone, and will not transport anyone, to a country when we believe he will be tortured."
But in the case of Abu Omar, Rice's assertions are demonstrably false. According to a previously unpublished study conducted by Katherine Tiedemann of The New America Foundation and myself, the same is true of many of the extraordinary renditions going back to the program's beginnings in 1995. (See "Rendition by the Numbers," above.) Fourteen documented extraordinary renditions took place under the Clinton administration. Almost all of those prisoners were rendered to Egypt, where at least three were executed. After 9/11 the pace of renditions sped up and the program expanded dramatically. Prisoners were now also transferred to Jordan, Yemen, Morocco, Algeria, and even Libya, Sudan, and Syria. In all, we found 53 documented cases of extraordinary rendition since September 2001; only one prisoner specifically said he had not been tortured. Of the sixteen men who have been released, eight claimed they were tortured and/or mistreated while in foreign custody; one died within weeks of being released. Nineteen of the rendered men have not been heard from since they disappeared.
Brad Garrett is a former fbi special agent who obtained uncoerced confessions from two of the most high-profile terrorists in recent American history: Ramzi Yousef, who bombed the World Trade Center in 1993, and Mir Aimal Kasi, who shot and killed two cia employees outside the Agency's headquarters the same year. "The whole idea that you would send anyone to some other country to obtain the intel you want is ludicrous," he told me in an email. "If we want the intel, there are approaches that will render the information without torture. The problem is that someone in the U.S. government is convinced that torture is the way to go, and so if we are not allowed to do it, then send them to someplace where torture is sanctioned."
The extraordinary rendition program was not primarily intended to yield information, according to Michael Scheuer, the cia official whom the Clinton White House tasked with implementing it. "It came from an improvisation to dismantle these terrorist cells overseas. We wanted to get suspects off the streets and grab their papers," Scheuer explains. "The interrogation part wasn't important." He also claims that the program was overseen by congressional committees and "was lawyered to death." After 9/11, "The White House was desperate," Scheuer says. The rendition program quickly expanded because holding any but the most important Al Qaeda prisoners was a "burdensome proposition" for the Agency.
"Before 9/11 we never asked for some guarantee that prisoners would not be tortured or coerced," says Scheuer. The Bush administration says it has since sought such assurances, but Garrett, the interrogator, thinks those promises are worthless in any case. "In my view it is a shell game and a legal cya to say that the other country (Egypt—give me a break) will not use torture," he wrote. "We are unfortunately promoting terrorism by using these abhorrent approaches. Shame on us."
Milan's slate-grey skies glower over the city in both summer and winter, and charmless skyscrapers dominate the skyline of the financial, media, and fashion capital of Italy. It's an unlikely setting for the operatic tale of Abu Omar's cia kidnappers and their nemesis, Deputy Chief Prosecutor Armando Spataro.
Spataro may have launched the first-ever criminal case against American officials over an extraordinary rendition, but he's hardly a bleeding-heart Euro-liberal. A prosecutor for more than three decades, the affable 59-year-old has put droves of drug traffickers, mafia dons, and terrorists behind bars. When I asked him if he was anti-American, he laughed and asked, "What do you think?" gesturing around his massive office inside the gloomy, Mussolini-era Palace of Justice. The walls were festooned with photographs of marathons he has run in the United States, certificates of appreciation from the Drug Enforcement Administration, and reproductions of paintings by Warhol, Rockwell, and Hopper.
Spataro had been building a potential terrorism case against Abu Omar for months before his kidnapping; as a result of his investigation, a number of Abu Omar's acquaintances were convicted of terrorism offenses and in 2005 Abu Omar himself was indicted in absentia on charges that he had been recruiting fighters to go to Iraq. But his sudden disappearance into the bowels of Egypt's prisons had set back Spataro's probe dramatically.
I asked Spataro why he'd pushed so hard to investigate the snatching of a militant he himself was about to indict. In measured tones, he explained, "Kidnapping is a serious crime. It is important for European democracy that all people are submitted to the law. It is possible to combat terrorism without extraordinary means."
The prosecutor also didn't appreciate being lied to—American officials had let it be known around Milan that Abu Omar had likely fled to the Balkans. It didn't take Spataro long to get past the smoke screen and even track down an eyewitness to the abduction. But the bulk of his case would revolve around a rookie mistake made by the kidnappers: using cell phones, and unencrypted ones at that. Spataro's investigators reviewed the records from three Italian cell phone companies with relay towers in the vicinity of where the Egyptian militant disappeared and ran them through a commercial data-crunching program. Of the more than 10,000 cell phones in use during a three-hour window around the kidnapping, 17 were in constant communication with each other. The investigators also determined that soon after the abduction, some of the cell phones' users traveled to Aviano Air Base, a major American installation several hours east of Milan. And virtually all of the phone numbers stopped working two or three days after the abduction.
The suspicious cell phones had made calls to the American consulate in Milan and to numbers in Virginia (where the cia is headquartered). The phones, most registered under bogus names, also made many calls to prominent hotels in Milan—hotels where, the Italian investigators found, a dozen Americans had stayed in the weeks before the kidnapping. They registered under addresses in the Washington, D.C., area, and Spataro believes they used their real passports. Their movements matched those of the suspicious cell phones. Over the course of several weeks the Americans had blown more than $100,000 on easily traceable credit cards at hotels such as the Principe di Savoia, where rates start at $345 a night and which offers a special room-service menu for dogs. Others took side trips to Venice, where they stayed at the five-star Danieli and Sofitel hotels.
If the Americans had only used encrypted satellite phones and paid in cash—standard tradecraft, according to cia veteran Robert Baer, the former operative who was the model for George Clooney's character in Syriana—Spataro would have had fewer leads to follow. Why the sloppiness? Very probably, say law enforcement sources in Milan, because the Americans had clued in senior Italian intelligence officials about their plans and thus felt safe.
Next, Spataro's investigators began reviewing records from Italian air-traffic control, nato, and the main European air-traffic facility in Brussels. They discovered that a 10-seat jet departed from Aviano a few hours after Abu Omar was abducted and flew to Ramstein Air Base in Germany. An hour after it landed, an Executive Gulfstream with the tail number N85VM departed Ramstein for Cairo. In March 2005, the Chicago Tribune reported that this jet was owned by Phillip Morse, a partner in the Boston Red Sox and one of a number of individuals whose planes are occasionally rented by the cia.
One of the suspicious cell phones had made hundreds of calls in the vicinity of both the Milan residence and the country house of the cia's station chief in Milan, Robert Lady. Armed with a warrant, Spataro's investigators searched Lady's country house in June 2005 and found that he'd gone on a 10-day trip to Cairo a week after Abu Omar's abduction. The investigators also found surveillance photos of Abu Omar taken on the street where he was picked up, as well as printed directions to Aviano Air Base. And they discovered a telling email sent to Lady from a former colleague in the Milan consulate: On Christmas Eve, 2004, as Spataro's inquiry was gathering momentum, she told Lady she'd received an email "through work" titled "Italy, don't go there"—an apparent reference to the investigation. She'd also heard that Lady, who has since retired, had relocated to Geneva "until this all blew over."
Even Arianna Barbazza, the court-appointed public defender for 13 of the 26 American officials indicted in the Abu Omar case, conceded that the case against Lady and his colleagues is substantial. Lady could receive a sentence of up to 15 years. (The trial is scheduled to start in March, although none of the indicted Americans is expected to show up. The cia has refused to comment on the case or its rendition program.)
Another important break came when Luciano Pironi, the mysterious Italian police officer who had first "arrested" Abu Omar on the street, began to cooperate with Spataro. Prior to Abu Omar's arrest, Pironi was found to have been "frequently and intensely" in contact with Lady. Pironi said that Lady had told him that the operation was approved by the Italian military-intelligence agency, sismi, and that Lady had received a tip that Abu Omar was planning to hijack a school bus operated by the American school in Milan—a claim Italian law enforcement officials say is false.
Lady, who speaks fluent Italian and had good relations with his local counterparts, emerges from this tale as something of a tragic figure. He had opposed the snatch of Abu Omar on the grounds that it was counterproductive; he knew that Italy's counterterrorism police had been trying to build a case against the Egyptian militant and had even warned a top Italian counterterrorism official, Stefano D'Ambrosio, that the cia was planning the Abu Omar operation. D'Ambrosio told Italian investigators that Lady considered the whole scheme "stupid." But Lady was forced to lead the operation by his bosses in Rome and Langley, who were under intense pressure from the White House to produce results in the war on terrorism. Lady told Pironi that he'd never have spent all his savings to buy a retirement house in the Italian countryside "unless he had been sure that no inquiry against him was under way."
Today, that house has been seized by Italian authorities and Lady, who fled to the States, is the subject of a Europe-wide arrest warrant. In a final twist of irony, Lady told a friend in the Italian police that in his retirement he'd hoped to work for a firm made up of former cia officers who specialize in negotiating releases for people abducted in South America.
In february 2007, Abu Omar was finally released—this time, it seems, for good. "Without the human rights and media campaign, I would still be in prison," he told me. The conditions of his release were that he stay in Egypt and keep quiet about his treatment. But realizing that notoriety might be his best protection, Abu Omar attended the trial of a 22-year-old blogger whom the Egyptian government accused of insulting President Hosni Mubarak. (He was sentenced to four years.) In the Alexandria courtroom, he paraded his scars before the cameras and talked about his years of torture. "Now I am a public figure," he told me. "It protects me."
Jobless and still monitored by Egypt's security services, Abu Omar now spends most of his time cruising the Internet and posting occasional comments on Arabic-language newspaper sites. Toward the end of our interview he pulled out a plastic bag stuffed full of Christmas cards with pictures of windmills and little red robins sent by people in the United Kingdom who'd learned about his case through a letter-writing campaign organized by Amnesty International. He told me he is happy that these kind people write, sending the message that someone out there knows he hasn't disappeared.