Terror Watch: More Questions on Missing Imam

A radical imam allegedly abducted by CIA agents in Italy shortly before the U.S. invasion of Iraq was identified as a key figure in a jihadi network supplying foreign fighters for Ansar Al-Islam--a terror group that the Bush administration was then seeking to link to Saddam Hussein's government, according to Italian court records.

The court records laying out the Italian case against Egyptian-born cleric Mostafa Hassan Nasr Osama, or Abu Omar, suggest possible motives for an otherwise puzzling CIA operation that has created new tensions between U.S. and European counterterrorism officials. An Italian judge last week ordered the arrest of 13 purported CIA operatives on kidnapping charges and requested that Interpol, the international police agency, provide assistance in tracking them down.

The CIA has steadfastly refused to comment on any aspect of the case, much less discuss why the agency would have undertaken such a snatch operation--known as an "extraordinary rendition"--on the soil of a major European ally. But court records in the case show that the Italian police had assembled a large mass of evidence tying Abu Omar to Ansar Al-Islam, the Al Qaeda-linked group based in the Kurdish region in northern Iraq. Administration officials say Ansar was being protected by Saddam and run by lieutenants of the notorious terrorist Abu Mussab al-Zarqawi.

The alleged abduction of Abu Omar on the streets of Milan took place on Feb. 17, 2003, just one month before the U.S. invasion of Iraq. It was also two weeks after Secretary of State Colin Powell had, in his speech to the United Nations Security Council, invoked Ansar Al-Islam as the linchpin of the administration's case linking Saddam to Al Qaeda. Abu Omar, the abducted cleric, was flown to Egypt after his kidnapping, according to Italian court records that include the aircraft numbers of the rendition flights. He later phoned home to his wife and another imam in Milan and claimed that he had been tortured in an effort to turn him into a spy for the United States.

Although much about the alleged CIA operation remains shrouded in secrecy, the Italian court records and the timing of the alleged snatch suggest that it may have been driven by the agency's interest in quickly getting new information about what Abu Omar knew about Ansar Al-Islam, either to bolster the administration's argument in support of the invasion or to disrupt a terrorist network inside Iraq that would be fighting U.S. forces once the invasion began, according to some former CIA officials.

"There definitely seems to be a connection here to Iraq," says Robert Baer, a former CIA case officer who specialized in Middle East terrorism. "We either wanted to find out information about Zarqawi's connections to Saddam or to protect the troops. "I don't think they knew what they were going to get."

Many of the administration's claims about Saddam's links to Ansar Al-Islam were being strongly questioned by critics in Congress and elsewhere at the time. For example, the critics argued that Ansar Al-Islam's presence in northern Iraq was hardly evidence that the terror group was being protected by Baghdad because the semiautonomous Kurdish region was outside the control of Saddam's government. Other Powell claims about the group have not stood the test of time. The secretary had claimed in his Security Council speech that the group had established a "poison" camp that was manufacturing ricin and other poisons. After the invasion, U.S. troops located the camp--an aerial slide of which had been shown during Powell's speech--but found no poisons.

Still, some of the records in the Italian investigation--including wiretap transcripts of Abu Omar's phone conversations--would seem to strengthen the administration's arguments that Ansar Al-Islam was an increasingly dangerous organization that was becoming a new front line for anti-American jihadis around the world. The court records were recently obtained by NEWSWEEK Middle East Regional Editor Christopher Dickey, who first reported on them in his Shadowland Web column "Italy's Sleeper Cells" and "The Road to Rendition" two weeks ago.

"The investigation has documented the existence of a recruitment network for sending volunteer combatants or mujaheddin to training camps situated in ... a Kurd enclave in the northeast of Iraq under the control of the radical organization Ansar Al-Islam, along a route that began in Italy and with planned stops in Turkey and Syria," states one Italian court summary dated Nov. 25, 2003.

The court summary identifies Abu Omar--describing him as an "Egyptian extremist"--as one of a number of suspected terror operatives who were involved in recruiting fighters for the camps in Iraq, as well as procuring and distributing false travel documents and the raising of funds. It also quotes from a June 15, 2002, wiretap of a conversation between Abu Omar and an unidentified visitor from Germany in which the two talk about a "secret meeting in Poland with the sheiks" that would help build a new jihadi organization to be financed by sympathizers in Saudi Arabia. At one point, the visitor says, "We are also waiting [for] the sheikh from Iraq"--an apparent reference, the document asserts, to Mullah Krekar, the radical cleric believed to have been a founder of Ansar Al-Islam. The document states that the conversation "clearly demonstrated the intention to organize a new subversive international terrorist structure ... that obeyed the decisions of Al Tawhid [Zarqawi's organization] for the commissioning of attacks."

This transcripts and other records in the case show that Abu Omar was "directly in contact with the representatives of the Zarqawi group and Ansar Al-Islam," says Jean-Charles Brisard, a Paris-based terror researcher who works closely with lawyers representing families of September 11 victims.

The Italian judge who has issued the arrest warrants for the accused CIA operatives has charged that the Americans essentially acted on their own and disrupted an ongoing Italian criminal investigation into European terror cells. But two former CIA officials familiar with the agency's rendition operations, but who asked not to be publicly identified because of the sensitivity of the matter, say it is highly doubtful that the CIA operatives would have acted without some green light from elements of the Italian government. In every previous known case of a "rendition" or snatch by the CIA, the operations are closely coordinated with host governments, the former officials said. Moreover, among the evidence released in the case are records showing that the principal CIA operative alleged to have led the rendition team used a cell phone that was directly traceable to the U.S. Embassy in Rome--a level of openness that would have been inconceivable for a highly covert operation.