Italy: U.S. 'Rendition' Operations in the War on Terrorism

6 MINS READJun 27, 2005 | 22:44 GMT
Judge Chiara Nobili, prosecutor for the prefecture of Milan, Italy, issued arrest warrants June 25 for 13 U.S. citizens allegedly linked to the CIA — though all 13 were outside Italy at the time, and no arrest has been made. The warrants stem from a 2003 incident in which two individuals allegedly seized Muslim cleric Hassan Mustafa Osama Nasr, also known as Abu Omar, off the streets of Milan and took him to Egypt for interrogation, reportedly in connection with his alleged ties to international terrorism. The warrants are the first issued in a foreign country against U.S. citizens for carrying out an operation known as a "rendition." Italian investigators say Nasr was walking to his mosque in Milan on Feb. 17, 2003, when two men dressed as Italian police officers snatched him, bundled him into the back of a van and drove off at high speed. The investigators claim that Nasr, then aged 42, was taken to Aviano Air Base near Venice and flown out of the country. The investigation into the incident led to the 13 U.S. citizens, whose alleged CIA links supposedly were established through credit card transactions and cell phone records. A "rendition" is the extraction of a terrorism or criminal suspect from a country by U.S operatives — with or without the knowledge of that country's government. The operation consists of surveillance, the actual abduction operation and the transportation of the individual out of the country. Agents of Israel's Mossad conducted perhaps one of the most well-known renditions on May 11, 1960, abducting fugitive Nazi Adolph Eichmann from Buenos Aires, Argentina, and flying him to Israel, where he was tried, convicted and, on June 1, 1962, hanged for crimes against humanity. The U.S. government authorizes the CIA to carry out renditions under a presidential directive dating to the Clinton administration, which the Bush administration has reviewed and renewed. U.S. agents also have conducted several major renditions, including that involving Mahmoud Abouhalima, who was rendered from Egypt in 1993 and later convicted in the United States for his part in the 1993 attack against the World Trade Center (WTC). Abdel Basit, better known as Ramzi Yousef, was taken from Pakistan in a February 1995 rendition operation for his part in the 1993 WTC bombing, as well as for planning Operation Bojinka, a plot to blow up airliners over the Pacific Ocean. Two of Basit's accomplices, Wali Khan Amin Shah and Hakim Murad, were rendered in Manila, Philippines, the previous month in connection with Operation Boijinka. Some renditions, including the 1987 operation to grab Hezbollah member Fawaz Younis, rely on deception rather than force. Younis was wanted in connection with the June 1985 hijacking of Trans World Airlines flight 847 from Athens to Rome. Robert Stethem, a member of the U.S. Navy who was on leave at the time, was killed during the hijacking, his body dumped on the airport tarmac in Beirut, Lebanon. In 1987, U.S. agents lured Younis onto a boat in the Mediterranean Sea, where he was seized and flown to the United States to stand trial for his involvement in the hijacking. He was sentenced to 30 years on the conviction. Since 2001, U.S. operatives reportedly have conducted renditions in Indonesia, Pakistan, Egypt and Sweden, among other countries. Many suspects allegedly are flown to third countries, such as Egypt, Jordan, Morocco, Pakistan and Uzbekistan, where they are handed over to interrogators who reportedly use methods that are outlawed in the United States. Media in the United States and abroad have reported claims that these interrogators torture suspects to obtain information, although this cannot be independently confirmed. Italian newspapers, for example, reported in 2004 that Nasr had been released from custody in Egypt for reasons of ill health and that he had called his wife in Milan to say he had been tortured with electric shocks. Some reports, however, indicate he is in custody again in Egypt. Nasr is an Egyptian-born cleric who came to the attention of Italian counterterrorism officials in 1997, shortly after he arrived in Italy from Albania. While in Albania, he was accused of involvement in the 1996 attempted killing of Egyptian Foreign Minister Amr Moussa. Claiming persecution in Albania, Nasr obtained refugee status in Italy in 1999 and moved to Milan the next year, joining that city's large Muslim community. He became the imam of the Via Quaranta mosque. After the Sept. 11 attacks, U.S. and Italian intelligence officials identified Nasr, a former fighter in Afghanistan and Bosnia, as an al Qaeda supporter. U.S. and Italian counterterrorism officials are investigating the possibility that Milan is a recruiting ground for al Qaeda in Europe. At the time that he disappeared, Italian authorities were investigating Nasr for allegedly attempting to recruit jihadists from Milan's Muslim community. Although her position is not an elected office, Nobili's motive for issuing the arrest warrants — and bringing Nasr's alleged abduction to light — more than two years after the incident could be an attempt to play to anti-U.S. or nationalist sentiments in northern Italy. This is the first time that individuals carrying out a rendition have ever been charged by the host country — and the fact that Rome has been a major ally in Washington's war on terrorism makes this case noteworthy. Relations between Rome and Washington have been strained since the accidental killing in March of Italian intelligence officer Nicola Calipari by U.S. troops in Iraq during the operation to rescue Italian journalist Giuliana Sgrena. It is possible that the Italian government knew of Nasr's rendition when it occurred, but had an understanding with the U.S. government that enabled Rome to deny any knowledge of the operation should it come to light. This often is part of the agreement between the United States and foreign governments for permission to carry out renditions in their territory. In exchange, the host country can be expected to deny knowledge of the rendition and to feign outrage when in comes to light, thereby minimizing domestic political fallout. Although the June 25 arrest warrants and media reports about renditions in Europe, Asia and the Middle East have shed light on a program that Washington would prefer to keep quiet, the practice likely will continue. Covert rendition operations are a valuable tactic for counterterrorism efforts by the United States and other governments.

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