Page 2 of 3   <       >

CIA Ruse Is Said to Have Damaged Probe in Milan

This surveillance photo of Hassan Mustafa Osama Nasr was found on a disk in the home of the CIA's ranking official in Milan, according to Italian police.
This surveillance photo of Hassan Mustafa Osama Nasr was found on a disk in the home of the CIA's ranking official in Milan, according to Italian police. (Courtesy Corriere Della Sera)

There are signs that Berlusconi's government has become increasingly uncomfortable with the criminal investigation, which is being carried out by independent judicial authorities in Milan. Prosecutors and judges signed papers last month seeking to compel the United States to extradite the alleged CIA operatives, but Justice Minister Roberto Castelli, a member of Berlusconi's cabinet, so far has not given his approval -- a step that is usually a formality.

After meeting with U.S. Attorney General Alberto R. Gonzales in Washington in early November, Castelli questioned whether the prosecution was politically motivated, calling the lead prosecutor a leftist "militant" whose work needed to be reviewed carefully. Prosecutors have denied any political bias and said they continue to work closely with the FBI on terrorism investigations.

Warnings Are Delivered

One enduring mystery surrounding the case is why the CIA would want to abduct Nasr in the first place.

Italian anti-terrorism police said they were close to arresting Nasr at the time he disappeared. They had him under regular surveillance, with wiretaps on his home telephone, as part of an investigation into a network of Islamic extremists in northern Italy. His disappearance meant that Italian authorities lost a valuable window into the Islamic underground, prosecutors say.

Moreover, Nasr's actions in Egypt complicated their investigations, they say. In April and May 2004, the cleric was heard from briefly when he made a series of telephone calls to family members and acquaintances in Milan. He told them that he had been kidnapped by foreign agents and taken to Cairo, but that he had been released under house arrest after spending more than a year in prison, according to wiretaps of the calls recorded by Italian investigators.

During the telephone conversations, Nasr also warned religious colleagues at a Milan mosque that his Egyptian interrogators wanted to abduct three other people as well, transcripts of the wiretaps show. He was taken back to prison shortly thereafter when Egyptian security officials discovered that he had been in contact with the people in Italy, according to court records.

Mohammed Reda, an Egyptian exile who lives in Milan, told Italian investigators that Nasr warned him on the phone that he was next on the Egyptian government's list of kidnapping targets.

"They told him that sooner or later the same fate would befall the three of us, that they would catch us as soon as possible," Reda told investigators, according to court documents. "They said they had agreements with the Italian authorities that could easily ensure our capture. If we didn't turn ourselves in voluntarily they would kidnap us."

Court records and interviews with Nasr's acquaintances and investigators in Milan suggest that the Egyptian government had wanted for years to capture Nasr, who had been part of an Islamic opposition group. Egyptian authorities had been prevented from capturing him because he had been granted asylum in Italy.

Nasr was wanted by the Egyptian authorities for his involvement in Jemaah Islamiah, a network of Islamic extremists that had sought the overthrow of the government. The network was dispersed during a government crackdown in the early 1990s, and many leaders escaped abroad to avoid arrest. Nasr fled to Albania but also sought refuge in Germany and Bosnia before settling in Italy in 1997.

Arman Ahmed Hissini, the director and imam of the Viale Jenner mosque and cultural center in Milan, was also sought by the Egyptians, court records show. Hissini said Nasr had been afraid for years that the Egyptian security services would come after him even though he was living in Europe.

"He was even afraid to go to Mecca after he got asylum in Italy," Hissini, who is known locally as Abu Imad, said in an interview at the mosque. "He couldn't go out because he was afraid they would catch him."

<       2        >

© 2005 The Washington Post Company