At the end of June, a major story broke that CIA operatives had kidnapped a man named Osama Moustafa Hassan Nasr ("Abu Omar") off the streets of Milan in 2003. The man was flown out of an American airbase to Egypt, where he was "rendered" or turned over to authorities there to be tortured to extract information.
That investigation is still ongoing, but on July 2 the Chicago Tribune presented an alternative view: that Abu Omar was actually a CIA informant who had stopped cooperating:
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.
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 may have hoped 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.
According to the article, Abu Omar was recruited in 1995 by the Albanian
National Intelligence Service, known by the acronymn ShIK. Due to a lack of funding, the ShIK turned over control of its counter-Islamic terrorism program to the American CIA.
ShIK picked up Abu Omar in a general security sweep and after interrogating him, they discovered he was a fount of information about Islamic organizations including Jamaat al Islamiya, which later fell under the "umbrella" of Al-Qaeda.
Although Abu Omar seemed to have an amicable relationship with both Albanian and later Egyptian security services, in 1997 he moved to Italy where he was granted "political refugee" status. He moved to Milan and began to preach, and after September 11, these sermons grew more "fiery". Italian authorities began to suspect he was part of a network:
When the Milan prosecutors applied for a warrant for Abu Omar's arrest, the only alleged offenses they listed were "association with terrorists," aiding the preparation of false documents and abetting illegal immigration.
Although the police had grounds for Abu Omar's arrest, the tap on his phone and the microphones hidden in his apartment and the Via Quaranta mosque made him far more valuable as a window into the comings and goings of other jihadists.
"When you find an important member of an organization," the senior prosecution official said, "you don't arrest him immediately, you follow him. When Nasr disappeared in February , our investigation came to a standstill."
What mystified the Italian authorities was why the CIA would want to take Abu Omar out of circulation—especially since they were sharing with the CIA the fruits of their electronic surveillance of Abu Omar—and why the Egyptians would want him back.
What makes the case even more mysterious is how poorly it was conducted - agents using ordinary cell phones, staying in luxurious hotels - and nearly every move traced
and recorded by Italian police:
According to the police version of events, the CIA's special removal unit (SRU) can whistle up private jets to fly its captives unseen across international frontiers.
A Learjet allegedly took Abu Omar from the joint US base at Aviano in Italy to another US base at Ramstein, Germany, then a chartered Gulfstream V whisked him to Cairo. Yet barely a dollar was spent on making the team's communications secure.
The secret agents used ordinary cellphones. Italian investigators put names to the abductors by matching their calls to the phone contracts they had signed. And they could be sure of the team's movements because they could see when the calls had been made and from which cellphone.
In at least one case, calls were traced to a phone that was apparently returned to a US diplomatic pool. After a silence it was reactivated by an American citizen using the antenna 100m from the US embassy in Rome.
Investigators suspected Abu Omar was taken to Aviano, on discovering three calls made after the abduction by the apparent leader of the SRU to the mobile of the base's then security chief.
A second surprise is the numbers involved. The Italian investigators say they have identified 23 members of the operation, and have been able to put names to 20 of them. At least six were women and -- a third surprise -- there seem to have been intimate links between male and female colleagues.
SRU members made several, apparently recreational, trips within Italy as they waited to seize Abu Omar and, on at least two occasions, couples booked into double rooms.
The Italian government, including Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi, later stated that they had absolutely no knowledge of the operation to abduct Abu Omar.
Which leads to a real conundrum - Abu Omar was being tracked and his movements monitored, his phone calls recorded, and all of this information was being passed on directly to the CIA. So why would the CIA suddenly swoop down and abduct this man in broad daylight (with witnesses) and neglect to tell the Italian authorities? And why would they do such a bungling job that nearly every step they made was later traced by the Italian authorities, up to and including the names of the people involved?
Now set aside that story for a minute and let's switch gears to a parallel story - that of Gaetano Saya and the DSSA.
On July 1
, Italian police made two arrests as part of an investigation into an organization called the Department of Anti-Terrorism Strategic Studies (DSSA). The investigation, started in Genoa, extends into more than nine regions and involves at least two dozen individuals.
The DSSA was an organization created after the 2004 Madrid bombings (March) to "combat Islamic extremism". While it has an official sounding name, it is actually an independent organization headed by a man named Gaetano Saya. Saya recruited up to 150
members of Italian police and security agencies to simultaneously work for DSSA. These members would share with DSSA the work their organizations were conducting, and it seems at least one member gave DSSA access to the Interior Ministry's computer network (with its anti-terrorism information).
Many of the DSSA-affiliated members are considered "top" police officials. And while the Genoa investigation says that DSSA was gaining access to this information illegally, Saya says that DSSA's work was both "legal" and "well-known".
So who is Gaetano Saya? He's a well-known member of an extreme nationalist group called "Destra Nazionale" or "National Rightists" in English. Their website is online and can be viewed here
. It's very open about its mission, which is to defend and support Italian "patriots" and to defend the "homeland". It's also anti-Palestinian and anti-Muslim extremists and uses a lot of imagery of soldiers of the Middle Ages in the Crusade to reclaim the "Holy Land" from Muslims. I note here that most of the figures pictured look like members of the Knights Templar.
Saya's organization is an offshoot of the Italian Social Movement
(MSI), which was a neo-fascist party founded after World War 2 by supporters of Mussolini.
The MSI was officially disbanded in 1995, with the more moderate (but still virulently nationalist) wing becoming the Allianza Nazionale (a coalition member of the gov't). More hardcore splinter factions emerged, including Mussolini's granddaughter's Alternativa Sociale and the Fiamma Tricolore (three-colored flame). And of course Saya's MSI-DN faction, which is not even a registered political party.
It was when Saya was arrested that RAI news reported that he and his associates might be linked to the Gladio network, which piqued my curiosity.
The word "Gladio" is Latin and refers to a short sword carried by Roman soldiers. Operation Gladio
was a codename for a NATO operation set up shortly after the end of World War 2 by the Supreme Headquarters Allied Powers Europe (SHAPE). Time for a brief history lesson
NATO was formed on April 4, 1949 as an alliance of the United States (and Canada) and western European countries to counter the threat of the Soviet Union. While Nazi Germany was firmly defeated, the threat of Soviet military domination of Europe was considered a realistic possibility.
SHAPE was created in 1951 as a way to unify the command of NATO, with Eisenhower as the first Supreme Allied Commander. One of SHAPE's first secret projects was Operation Gladio, a network of anti-communist "sleeper cells" referred to as "stay behind" (it's also interesting to note here that SHAPE's official symbol
is of two crossed Gladio swords). Their mission was that in the eventuality that communist forces came into power in W. Europe, these cells (consisting of people who didn't flee, or "stayed behind) would be activated to perform "partisan" or "guerilla" activities behind the lines. In other words, commit terrorism, distribute propaganda and coordinate with non-communist countries' agents to sabotage the conquering communists.
The CIA was the primary financier of Operation Gladio and it is reported that Allen Dulles
was one of the principle architects of Operation Gladio.
Operation Gladio was extremely extensive in Italy because there was (and remains) a strong Communist movement there. While the demise of the Soviet Union ended the overriding need for any Operation Gladio, it seems evident that remnants of that network still exist, their focus now shifted more to anti-immigrant, xenophobic and anti-Muslim activities.
One of the most famous, or notoriously public, members of Operation Gladio was a man named Licio Gelli
, who was both a fascist supporter of Mussolini as well as a member of Masonic and other secret societies. One of those secret societies was a "Masonic" organization called Propaganda Due
(P2), which Gelli was the leader of. I say "Masonic" because it is an offshoot of the establishment Masonic organization.
In 1981, a police raid on his house in Arezzo found documents that listed all of P2's members, which caused a major political scandal (and forced the Prime Minister to resign) because a lot of important politicians, government employees, intelligence agency members/agents and military officers were all members. I might add here that one P2 member was Silvio Berlusconi, now the Prime Minister of Italy, although at the time he had not run for any political office.
P2 has been involved with, or alleged to have been involved with, a long list of secret criminal enterprises, from the murder of Prime Minister Aldo Moro
to the 1980 bombing of a train station in Bologna (at the time the mayor was Communist and the Communist party was dominant in local politics) to the murder of Roberto Calvi
, who had strong ties with both the mafia and the Vatican.
Exploring what P2 has been involved with or allegedly done leads one into tinfoil hat
territory (including the death of Pope John Paul 1), but it must be stated that it is clear that P2 continues to exist today and that it has strong ties to the network of Operation Gladio.
Whether Fiamme Tricolore, Operation Gladio, the DSSA or Gaetano Saya's MSI-ND, there is an established xenophobic and virulently nationalistic and anti-Islamic group of powerful people operating in Italy. And while Saya may be somewhere far down the list, it seems reasonable that his ideology and activities are consistent with this network.
Now... there are allegations
that it wasn't actually the CIA who abducted Abu Omar off the streets of Milan in 2003, but agents tied to this network:
Former Italian President Francesco Cossiga has quickly distanced the parallel intelligence network from official intelligence and police networks by claiming the two men arrested are just criminals and not tied to the Italian Gladio, which a number of intelligence experts believe Cossiga once headed. Cossiga also defended the secret U.S. intelligence operation in Italy that is presently under attack by Milan prosecutors. Cossiga said that by not telling the Italian government of the operation, the U.S. avoided having its secret plans spread throughout the Middle East.
By mentioning both the Milan and Genoa cases, Cossiga may have unintentionally linked the two. The parallel intelligence network is reportedly the outgrowth of a Gladio network consisting of six divisions that operated in Italy, North Africa, and the Middle East during the Cold War. The P-2 Lodge, headed by fascist leader Licio Gelli, reportedly maintained close links to former Secretary of State Alexander Haig and his one-time foreign affairs adviser, Michael Ledeen.
A number of SISMI agents and assets have also been tied to the group, including Francesco Pazienza, an SISMI agent, and Rocco Martino, who said he was the source of the faked Niger yellowcake uranium documents that were laundered through Rome and used as proof by the Bush White House that Saddam Hussein was shopping for uranium in Niger. That charge prompted the CIA to send Ambassador Joseph Wilson to Niger, resulting in a retaliatory outing of Wilson's wife as a covert CIA operative and exposure by the White House of the CIA's covert weapons of mass destruction counter-proliferation network.
If so, it would explain the apparently unprofessional actions the group who abducted Abu Omar, using ordinary cell phones and conspicuously living the high life in major Italian hotels. It also helps explain the apparent contradiction of the CIA abducting a man whom they had under full surveillance and why they wouldn't inform the Italians of their plan to grab him.
In fact, Robert Bauer, a former CIA agent, stated that the CIA would never have abducted Abu Omar without informing
the Italians beforehand:
"I just have one clear and simple thing to say about this story of the Egyptian imam. In my career I have never seen, taken part in or known of one single extraordinary rendition operation carried out by the CIA without the assent of the country in which a suspect was kidnapped. Never."
Michael Scheuer, another ex-CIA (known for his book Imperial Hubris
and also for being the former chief of the Bin Laden taskforce), said that he thought Italy's SISMI (akin to the CIA but a division of the military) had authorized the abduction, but Berlusconi said:
"Neither the government, nor diplomatic corps, nor the director of the SISMI, nor the information and security apparatus ever received any sort of advisement from United States authorities." Berlusconi later summoned the US ambassador, Mel Sembler, and is reported to have told him that the US must respect Italian sovereignty.
"It is a known fact that Italy is the country that, on the eve of the war in Iraq, helped our administration fabricate fake evidence which justified our military intervention," said Bauer. "And so it isn't even imaginable that the CIA, on the eve of the war in Iraq, could have even conceived of embarrassing Silvio Berlusconi with a clandestine operation that didn't have Italy's approval."
"The Abu Omar case has turned into a mess because no-one should ever have known about it. But as Italy has an independent judicial authority and those who carried out the operation did it in a superficial way, we find ourselves here discussing it," the former CIA agent said.
"In clandestine operations, they don't use mobile phones, they use transmitter receivers which they take with them for the occasion. The team removing the target doesn't stay in big hotels, but lives in a "sterilised" apartment rented earlier, and not in the name of a non-existent American citizen, but rented to an non-existent European citizen."
Looking at Saya's website however, he seems to agree with Bauer in the fact that Nicolo Pollari, the head of SISMI, was affiliated with his organization, leading to the possibility that he did
secretly authorize the abduction of Abu Omar. Authorities have found a greeting card from Pollari
to Saya in Saya's home in Florence, which Saya's wife is saying "proves" that the Italian authorities were well aware of DSSA and its activities. According to Saya:
About the [DSSA's] existance, the Interior Ministry, Ministry of Defense, Justice Department, Attorney General's Office, the [Italian version of the] IRS, the American and Israeli Embassies all knew. And SHAPE, the Supreme Allied Command of Europe."
In a separate but related case, an agent named Antonio Arconte (whose code name was Agent G71), who worked for the Italian Ministry of Defense, has given information to prosecutors in Palermo, including 40 pages of documents that allegedly show that Nicolo Pollari had falsified documents about the abduction of Aldo Moro.
Clearly there's a lot more investigation that needs to be conducted before anyone will get to the truth, whatever that is. In my own research, it seems that more questions have been asked than answered, but it seems imperative that the spotlight be kept on this case.