A top anti-terrorism official told an Italian court Wednesday that investigators reconstructed the alleged CIA kidnapping of an Egyptian cleric in Milan by tracing cell phones used by Americans.
Bruno Megale, the head of Milan's anti-terrorism police, identified 17 cell phone numbers in use by U.S. citizens that he said were active and present in the area where the cleric was kidnapped — allegedly as part of the CIA's so-called extraordinary rendition program.
Megale testified during the trial of 26 Americans and others in the kidnapping of Osama Moutafa Hassan Nasr, the cleric also known as Abu Omar, on Feb. 17, 2003.
He said investigators were able to initially identify 11 cell phones in close contact with each other during the two hours surrounding Nasr's disappearance. They used software to identify traffic patterns, Megale said.
"We saw strong anomalies. Eleven users were in strong contact with each other," Megale said. "The telephone calls got more intense closer to the time of Abu Omar's kidnapping."
By further analyzing traffic, investigators identified a total of 17 cell phones deployed in the operation in Milan — one group around the area of the kidnapping and another group closer to the highway that appeared to be the transfer unit, Megale said.
"From noon on February 17 we find that there are 17 people who were working in close cooperation. There is no other explanation," he told the court.
Further analysis enlarged the number to 33 cell phones used also by members of an advance team that organized the abduction and other aspects of the operation, Megale testified.
Megale said investigators believed that U.S. citizens used the 17 cell phones identified in the investigation. He said all were activated between September and October 2002 and all went inactive around the time of the kidnapping.
U.S. numbers called
Many had been present around the area of the kidnapping multiple times — with one user showing up 95 times, Megale said.
"They were used by Americans because some of these telephones called American numbers. Some in Virginia and some called the American consulate in Milan," Megale said.
Some of the cell phones also called a number that the counterterrorism unit chief said belonged to Robert Seldon Lady, the former Milan CIA station chief who is one of the defendants in the case.
Alleged link to air base
Four of the 17 cell phones also were traced traveling from Milan to the Aviano Air Force base in northeastern Italy, about a five-hour drive, immediately after the kidnapping, Megale said.
Prosecutors say Nasr was transferred to Aviano by road, then flown to Ramstein Air Base in Germany before being taken to Egypt, where he said he was tortured.
His first known contact outside of prison was on April 20, 2004, when he contacted his wife in Milan by telephone.
Italian prosecutors say Nasr was abducted as part of the CIA's program of extraordinary rendition, in which terror suspects are moved from country to country without public legal proceedings. The CIA has declined comment on the case, and the Americans are being tried in absentia.