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Who is Abu Omar? Extracts from the Italian Police Surveillance Tapes

Wednesday, June 11, 2008

Twenty-six Americans are presently being tried in absentia in an Italian court for the 2003 abduction of the Egyptian cleric Osama Mostafa Hassan Nasr: better known, as "Abu Omar." The Americans are accused of having kidnapped Nasr as part of the CIA's program of "extraordinary renditions." They are supposed to have held him in an American military base before "rendering" him to Egypt for interrogation. Seven Italian intelligence officials who allegedly aided in the operation have been charged as well.

Last month, the New York Times, Associated Press, and Los Angeles Times all ran stories citing in dramatic and sometimes excruciating detail from the testimony of Nasr's wife Nabila Ghali. Ghali claimed that her husband had been tortured by his Egyptian captors. He was, she said, subjected to electric shocks "all over his body," including his genitals.

The American news organizations did not bother noting that the testimony amounted to hearsay, nor did they bother asking why Nasr -- who is in the meanwhile again a free man -- did not return to Italy to testify himself. According to some earlier Italian reports, Egyptian authorities have prohibited Nasr from leaving the country. But whether or not this is so, it can well be doubted that he would want to return to Italy under present circumstances in any case. For, as so happens, Osama Mostafa Hassan Nasr, alias Abu Omar, is himself the subject of an Italian arrest warrant. The charge: involvement in international terrorism.

For nearly a year before he went missing in February 2003, Abu Omar was the target of intensive surveillance on the part of the Italian police. The surveillance measures included a wiretap on his home phone and audio surveillance of office space in the Via Quaranta mosque in Milan, where Abu Omar served as imam and where he is alleged to have conducted "theoretical training sessions" for prospective mujahideen. The wiretap was maintained after his disappearance and allowed Italian authorities also to intercept calls he made home from Egypt in spring 2004.

In addition to the recorded conversations, the evidence against Abu Omar includes jihadist materials seized from his home and computer, depositions, and corroborative evidence gathered in parallel investigations of other terror suspects. As laid out in the arrest warrant, investigative magistrate Guido Salvini concluded based on this evidence that Nasr formed part of a "criminal" association with other known terror suspects that existed "for the purpose of committing acts of violence to further the aims of international terrorism . . ." (p. 1). Within the organization, Judge Salvini writes, Abu Omar was "a Kaid, a supreme commander" (p. 21); his "engagement in supporting the terrorist cause" is "documented by numerous elements of proof that are unquestionably serious and concordant" (p. 68).

Whereas Judge Salvini's warrant indicates that the co-conspirators aimed to commit acts of violence both "in Italy and abroad," the principal focus of his investigation of Abu Omar is the latter's alleged activity as a recruiter of mujahideen for the Qaida-affiliated terror group Ansar al-Islam, which was based in northern Iraq prior to the American-led invasion of the country. At least two witnesses deposed by Italian authorities identified Abu Omar as an al-Qaida member. More specifically, Judge Salvini's warrant identifies him as an adherent of "the most radical wing" of the Egyptian organization Gama'a Al Islamiya, which in 1998, under the leadership of Refa'i Ahmed Taha Musa, became one of the founding member organizations of Osama Bin Laden's "Global Islamic Front Against Jews and Crusaders." The historic leader of Gama'a Al Islamiya is Omar Abdel-Rahman: the famous "blind sheikh" who is currently serving a life sentence in an American prison for his alleged role in the 1993 World Trade Center bombing.

The Italian investigation of Abu Omar has been largely ignored by the American news media. For instance, the most recent New York Times article on the Milan trial notes briefly that a witness "said" that Nasr had been under investigation by the Italian police -- as if this might not be the case and the results of the investigation were not publicly known. When the investigation has been acknowledged, moreover, its findings have been misrepresented. A particularly glaring example is provided by a July 2005 Chicago Tribune report that spectacularly alleged that Abu Omar had once served as a "CIA informant." The same report suggests that passages from Abu Omar's recorded conversations are exculpatory. "A conversation recorded by police on April 24, 2002 . . . appears to portray Abu Omar as something of a force for moderation," the Tribune article asserts, "When an unidentified Egyptian man says he wants to attack 'all establishments or Israeli interests . . . anything that belongs to the Jews, in all the world,' Abu Omar tells him, with a laugh, 'Use your head!'"

But far from being exculpatory, this very conversation is in fact cited in the warrant issued by Judge Salvini as proof that Abu Omar condoned acts of violence directed against civilians (p. 39). "Use your head!" Abu Omar responds to his impetuous visitor, before adding: "Every attack has its own rules." A fuller extract from the conversation is provided below.

In what follows, World Politics Review publishes extensive extracts from the transcripts of the Abu Omar surveillance tapes for the first time in English. The Italian transcripts are included in the June 2005 warrant for Abu Omar's arrest issued by investigative magistrate Guido Salvini. The full 103-page document can be consulted in Italian here.

The first two extracts are taken from calls to Italy that Abu Omar made from Egypt in 2004 after being released from a first period of detention. He would later apparently be imprisoned a second time by Egyptian authorities and then released again in early 2007.

The remaining extracts are taken from earlier conversations recorded while Abu Omar was the imam of the Via Quantara mosque in Milan. Page references are to Judge Salvini's arrest warrant.

John Rosenthal


Abu Omar and Ghali Nabila (his wife); Telephone Call made from Egypt, April 20, 2004 (p. 4)

Nabila: Are you alright?
Abu Omar: I'm good, I'm good!
Nabila: Really?
Abu Omar: I swear! They brought me food every day.
Nabila: Seriously?
Abu Omar: Yes, they brought me food from the best restaurant!
Nabila: Thank God!
Abu Omar: The whole deal is very simple. Unfortunately, there was a little problem . . . so . . . they were supposed to detain me for a month . . . but they kept me inside. No matter, I thank God.
Nabila: Thank God!
Abu Omar: Listen, I want to talk . . . but don't call me on the home phone.
Nabila: Alright, God willing.
Abu Omar: Do you understand?
Nabila: Yes, yes!

Abu Omar to Elbadry Mohamed Reda; Telephone Call made from Egypt, May 8, 2004 (p. 14, note 22)

Thank God, I'm good. When I went inside [into prison -- Note by Judge Salvini], God gave me strength. I fasted for two months and didn't miss a single day. I was fine. I never in my life dreamt of anything so great . . . it was the best year of my life . . . thank God . . . eh . . . and are you OK?

[Abu Omar goes on to say that he was released for health reasons: that he had "a sort of paralysis." He does not link the condition to physical mistreatment.]

Abu Omar to Bouyahia Hamadi Ben Abdelaziz; Via Quaranta mosque, April 7, 2002 (p. 30-31)

[Hamadi has been complaining about associates of the mosque.]

Hamadi! I just don't get you. I don't understand this hatred for the brothers. Why don't you use it for the Jews? Or for the enemies of God?

. . . all the same aim and the same cause. Our dearest wish is to get out of these God-forsaken countries . . . our desire is for all of us to die as martyrs.

Abu Omar and Bouyahia Hamadi Ben Abdelaziz; Via Quaranta mosque, April 11, 2002 (p. 34)

Hamadi: I have good news for you. They carried out an attack in Tunisia this morning and several people were killed.
Abu Omar: Those who carried out the attack are beloved of God.

[The reference is to the suicide attack on the historic El Ghriba synagogue in Djerba. As Judge Salvini points out, nineteen people were killed in the attack and several others suffered severe burns and died later from their wounds.]

Abu Omar and unidentified Egyptian Man; Via Quaranta mosque, April 24, 2002 (pp. 38-39)

Man: Let me explain. I want to hit them in their country, outside their country . . . in any country in the world, all the Israeli facilities . . . or interests . . . everything in the whole world that has anything to do with the Jews.
Abu Omar: (laughs) Use your head!
Man: Listen, they come in and kill the Palestinians . . . so why don't we go to France or anywhere else and attack them . . . we hit them so they realize that the power to strike is there . . . excuse me, these armed groups exist, don't they? It's a duty on each one of us . . .
Abu Omar: Every attack has its own rules . . . and there's news coming in from over there . . .
Man: Listen, I don't believe anyone over there . . . the cassettes you see from there are all garbage . . . lies . . .
Abu Omar: There is, there is. They're going to do it, they're going to do it.
Man: When, when? Who, who?
Abu Omar: The ones who are sitting below . . . the brother from London.

Abu Omar and unidentified North African Man; Via Quaranta mosque, June 6, 2002 (p. 48)

Man: A car into a bus, like the car that exploded against a bus. But there was a brother inside, I don't like that . . .
Abu Omar: But the car went into the bus with a brother inside.
Man: Personally, I like to be protected and I like to protect the "youth." Personally, I prefer a remote control. It's better that way. You do it from a distance so you're protected. Let's say God is with us and with them.
Abu Omar: Amen.
Man: What's needed is an attack like the one they did on the Jews. That way they get scared and do what the Jews do: even if they're tired, they don't take the bus. Bus, bus . . .
Abu Omar: Well, all in good time. For now, let's thank God. (Both laugh.)

Abu Omar and unidentified visitor from Germany; Via Quaranta mosque, June 15, 2002 (pp. 51-52)

Man: . . . our plan needs intelligent, highly educated people. Regarding the Jihad front, Abu Serrah is looking to create a battalion of 25 or 26 units but the project has to be carefully planned.
Abu Omar: Just so long as the Devil doesn't sneak in.
Man: The first thing I say to you is that we know we are being monitored.
We know that half the brothers are in jail, including the ones who were accused of raising funds. I tell you again that the project has to be planned in detail because the thread starts in Saudi Arabia. The man looking after this project is Abu Salma (or Abu Suleiman), who shares the same blood as Emir Abdullah* so there's no need to say more. (At this point both laugh.)


Man: This is our objective. Each of us has a task. Say one of us has ten men; he becomes the leader and then it's up to him to decide whether to organize them into smaller units or keep them as they are. The main thing is to use your judgment.
Abu Omar: Even if they're foreigners [i.e. non-Arabs]?
Man: It doesn't matter. We need foreigners, too. We've got Albanians, Swiss, British . . . they just have to be well educated. In Germany we've got interpreters and interpreters who translate the books. We've got people in telecommunications, in Austria too. The main thing is that their faith in Islam is sincere.
Abu Omar: We've never had any problems with them. To the contrary, we've noticed that they're very eager and committed.
Man: And it's not up to you or me to decide whether to take them. The ones who make the decisions are the people from Hizb Al-Tawid.**
Abu Omar: I'm very excited about this program.
Man: Don't ever worry about money because Saudi Arabia's money is your money. The important thing is not to get ahead of yourself, because it's all new. There's the old stuff, but the instruction is all new. The man behind the program is close to Emir Abdullah and we are grateful to Emir Abdullah. Be prepared.
Abu Omar: I'm ready.
Man: We're also waiting for the sheik from Iraq . . .

*A footnote to the warrant notes that the reference here is to Osama Bin Laden.
** Judge Salvini notes that this "could be a reference to the terrorist organization Tawhid wal Jihad of Abu Mussab Al Zarqawi."

Extracts translated by Giles Watson