Abu Omar isn’t allowed to receive visits from Western journalists. He says his “friends” — the Egyptian authorities — have “strongly advised” him to observe this prohibition. Abu Omar is nervous. The 46-year-old was released from jail on Feb. 11 and has been free, at least officially, ever since. The authorities have dropped all charges against him. Nevertheless, he is violating his orders by meeting with us. “I have two options,” he says. “Either I can keep quiet, do what I’m told and live a quiet life — or I can tell my story to the world and risk running into a lot of problems.”
He keeps looking over his shoulder throughout the few meters it takes to get to his decrepit apartment building in a side alley. He has to watch his back: The men lurking behind hookahs, the street vendors, the men loitering around — any one of them could be a policeman. “I’m under surveillance around the clock,” Abu Omar says. “To them, I’m a walking risk factor.” But his decision, preceded by lengthy negotiations with his lawyer in Cairo, now stands. Abu Omar wants to talk, “no matter what the consequences for me will be.” As his lawyer puts it: The world must be told “the truth.”
Abu Omar’s story is at the center of one of the most dubious CIA operations to be conducted since the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks. On Feb. 17, 2003, agents employed by the U.S. foreign intelligence agency kidnapped the radical imam right off the street in the center of Milan, Italy. The imam was certainly no docile pacifist: For years he had preached messages of hate against the United States to fundamentalist Muslims in Milan. He fought in Afghanistan himself and he’s said to have encouraged young recruits of jihad to do the same. To the Italians, Abu Omar was one of the big fish and his arrest was imminent. But for the CIA he was a target and the U.S. terrorist hunters didn’t want to wait for the rule of law to complete its course. They wanted men like Omar to be taken out of circulation as quickly and quietly as possible.
Omar’s kidnappers flew him back to his home country of Egypt, using one of the CIA’s Learjets — planes that have since become notorious for their role in clandestinely shuttling suspected terrorists through Europe on their way to countries that often permitted torture to extract confessions and information. The plan was for the Egyptian intelligence agency’s unscrupulous interrogators to extract as much information out of Omar as possible.
Egypt complied with its ally’s request. If what Abu Omar says is true, what began for him on the other side of the Mediterranean was an experience of martyrdom reminiscent of the darkest days of Latin American dictatorships: Omar’s torturers, whom he describes as “vassals of the United States,” connected electrodes to his genitalia to make him talk. They almost drove him insane by playing loud music. He says he still can’t control his bladder today. As evidence, he reveals small black spots on his skin, burns from the electric shocks.
The investigators didn’t extract any useful information from Abu Omar and the operation became a disaster for the CIA. There is not a single case of the agency’s kidnappings — known as “renditions” in the jargon of its employees — that is better documented than that of Abu Omar. After finding the passports of the agents involved, as well as their enormous restaurant expense claims, and tracing their phones calls, the Milan prosecutor ultimately moved to file charges against the kidnappers. The main trial proceedings are set to start in June. And even if the 26 CIA agents charged in the case don’t appear in the dock, the trial is still expected to be a highly uncomfortable affair for many high-profile parties. That includes the Italian government, which is seeking to put the brakes on the trial using the country’s highest court.
Abu Omar breathes heavily at the top of the four flights of stairs to his three-room apartment. As soon as he’s inside, he immediately bolts the door and pulls the curtains shut. Groaning, he drops onto one of the simple, gold-dyed armchairs in the tiny living room, illuminated by the cold light from a neon tube on the ceiling. “I feel like an old man,” the 46-year-old says. “Every movement hurts my back, and my joints are still sore from being constantly restrained in prison.” His release from jail may have been a “gift from God,” but his life has been left in ruins and it is unlikely he will ever be able to put it back together, he says.
Indeed, there’s not much left of the man Italian intelligence dossiers describe as a fundamentalist Muslim agitator and a fiery advocate of jihad. Abu Omar sits in the cramped apartment with his veiled wife, Nabila, and his son, Mohammed. His brother pays the rent. Egypt has banned Abu Omar from preaching in the country, but it’s the only profession he knows. “My only diversion is the walk to a little mosque. Apart from that, I just sit here all day,” he says.
Images from Italy are flashing on the small TV set — another report on the trial against the CIA’s terrorist hunters. Abu Omar begins telling his story. He vividly remembers the late morning of Feb. 17, 2003. It seemed like it would be a day just like any other. He was on the way to his mosque, located just a few minutes from his apartment, when a man in a red car pulled alongside him. The man claimed to be with the police and asked for his papers. “I knew right away that something was wrong, but it all happened very, very quickly,” Abu Omar says. The operation had begun.
A moment after being asked to present his papers, Abu Omar felt the hands of two brawny men on his body. “They grabbed me from behind and dragged me into a white delivery van, then beat me,” he recalls. “I thought they were going to kill me.” He says he only got a quick glimpse of the “hulks,” as he calls them. He says they quickly pulled a hat over his head and tied his hands with plastic cuffs. Abu Omar lay gasping in the van’s cargo bay as it sped off, tires squeaking, in the direction of the U.S. air base at Aviano, about a two-hour drive from Milan.
When Abu Omar speaks, his voice fails. “I was completely at their mercy,” he stutters. He only saw his kidnappers once at the airport in Aviano. “They stood me on my feet, cut my clothes off and put a diaper on me,” he says. “I saw eight men in beige military uniforms and face masks.” Within the space of a second, a camera flashed and then his head was wrapped in duct tape. He wouldn’t be able to identify any of the men he saw. “They knew exactly what they were doing,” he insists.
He had no inkling of where the men were taking him. He was dropped roughly onto the floor of an airplane that took off soon after. His hearing was impaired by a headset placed over his ears, but he could still sense in his stomach that he was in a plane. The kidnappers treated him like an animal, he says. “Their only concern was that I did not die,” he continues. Earlier, in the white minivan, the men suddenly broke into a panic, afraid Abu Omar might die. “They shouted wildly, one even inspected my pupils,” he says excitedly. Later, in the airplane, they kicked him when he spat out the water they funneled into his mouth.
When the airplane doors opened about eight hours later, Abu Omar felt the oppressive heat and heard a muezzin announce the morning prayer somewhere in the distance. His feet restraints were loosened and he was led down the gangway, still blindfolded. “Someone called out to me in Arabic to come down,” he remembers. “That was when I knew I must be back in Egypt.” Still blindfolded, he was taken by car to the headquarters of the Egyptian intelligence agency in the center of Cairo.
Even today, Abu Omar still doesn’t understand what the agents actually wanted from him. First, they asked him whether he wanted to help spy on fundamentalist Muslims in Milan. He refused repeatedly and was placed in solitary confinement. Then, he was suspended from the wall with his hands restrained for several days. “I was interrogated, blindfolded, again and again. They kept asking who I knew and whether I knew anything about plans for terrorist operations,” he says. But according to his own account, he didn’t have any information to give, nor did he tell them anything.
Then came the electric shocks. Abu Omar is embarrassed to talk about them. He doesn’t like having to recollect that he “begged for mercy because of the pain” when electrodes were attached to his genitals and other body parts. “I would have told them anything, but I didn’t know what they wanted to hear,” he says. Still the interrogators continued to torture him every few days until he lost consciousness. Once, he says, someone whispered to him that Egypt had nothing against him and that he was being held purely because of the United States. It would be better for him to cooperate, the person said, otherwise the torture would continue.
But Abu Omar was, in fact, a problem for Egypt. The authorities released him one year after the kidnapping — on the condition that he spoke neither about the kidnapping nor about his time in prison. But the imam immediately made phone calls to Italy, speaking to his wife and friends. The police, who had long wanted to find out more about Abu Omar’s disappearance, had wiretapped his phone lines. Ultimately his brief release from jail turned out to be counterproductive for his captors, since the phone calls provided Italian legal authorities with proof that Abu Omar had in fact been kidnapped.
It didn’t take more than a few days before Egyptian police had hauled the imam back to jail. And though it may have been a normal jail this time, they still put him in solitary confinement. “The first thing they did was punish me because I had talked,” Abu Omar says. Once again, he was tortured with electric shocks and loud music was played, preventing him from sleeping for days. But one thing changed: He was no longer interrogated. He says he was suddenly presented with offers such as being given $2 million and a U.S. passport. Still, it’s impossible to verify whether the claim is true — a fact he is aware of himself.
The reasons for Abu Omar’s release in February remain a mystery, even to his attorney. Abu Omar’s lawyer is devoting much of his time to pushing forward legal charges, despite the danger of Abu Omar being incarcerated again. A lawsuit against the CIA is certain. But the lawyer also found plenty of incriminating information against Italy in the case files. Italy’s intelligence agency seems to have known about the CIA’s plans, at least on the operative level, and some of its employees appear to have been involved in the kidnapping; his lawyer is requesting no less than $20 million from Rome and Washington.
Abu Omar has found an additional guilty party. He may have been blindfolded through most of his ordeal, but Abu Omar says reading the news each day online has shed light on a number of facts in the case. While surfing the Internet, he became aware of the U.S. military base in Ramstein, Germany, where the plane that took him to Cairo made a brief stopover. “Germany certainly shares responsibility for what happened to me. After all, the German government allowed the CIA jet to land in Ramstein and then fly on,” he says in an unwavering tone. “All those who did nothing to prevent the CIA’s activities abetted them.”
Abu Omar’s lawyer is still in the process of making concrete plans about which steps to take next. For now, he wants to fly to Milan and inspect more of the trial records. Back home in Alexandria, Abu Omar is well aware that any statements he makes about his kidnapping could quickly land him back in jail. Egyptian authorities do not want further light being shed on the case; nor does the Arab country, with its dependence on the United States, want to see any legal action against the CIA. “From their point of view, it would probably be best if I just disappeared somewhere,” he says.
Of course, the imam knows that meeting with Western journalists and his critical statements on the Egyptian government could have serious consequences.
“Look here, next to the door,” he says as his visitors are about to leave. “There’s a little bag with a few clothes.” His wife, Nabila, packed the duffel bag for the next trip to prison, he says. “Let me know before you publish the story,” he calls after us as we walk down the staircase. “That way I can prepare for the visit from the police.”
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