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interview: armando spataro

In the conversations between Rabei and his accomplices, they were referring to an imminent action for which all the equipment was ready, and this led us to act immediately. How did you first come across this man, Rabei?

The initial input came from the Spanish authorities, with whom we had excellent cooperation. Rabei's telephone number was found in possession of two terrorists who bombed themselves in Leganés during the investigation conducted by the Spanish police. The same number was found in possession of an individual who had been arrested for the Madrid attacks.

As a result, this telephone number, which turned out to be an Italian number, was put under surveillance through monitoring authorized by us. And right away it was clear that whoever was using that number had to be an important person who was involved both in the Madrid attacks of March 11 and in the preparation of other terrorist acts, of which he was talking about on the phone with accomplices who were in other parts of Europe.

So the Italian police followed him and put him under strict surveillance, and the investigation widened, involving also Spanish, French and Belgian authorities.

Finally, we need to say that we could have still kept him under surveillance for a long period of time in the hope to get to other accomplices, but at some point, Rabei was talking to his accomplices about terrorist acts to be imminently carried out. We were a few days away from the election for the European Parliament, and therefore, in agreement with police authorities and also with our colleagues from other nations, we decided to arrest him and to conclude that investigative phase.

Do you know what the imminent terrorist act was going to be?

Obviously, we still need to keep some sort of confidentiality. We were not able to ascertain with certainty where a terrorist act could have been carried out, but certainly in the conversations between Rabei and his accomplices, they were referring to an imminent action for which all the equipment was ready, and this led us to act immediately. Certainly, one group of people was also ready to leave, we imagine, for Iraq, because they were talking about this in their phone conversations. At this time, we can't tell you more about this.

As well as tapping his telephone, you took other actions. What were they?

We were tapping his telephone. Not only that, we were able to enter the apartment where he lived, and we positioned some hidden microphones that allowed us also to hear the conversations that he had with another person who was arrested. We also put under surveillance his flow of communications with respect to his computer, and we followed him during those times when he would meet with other people in Milan. He was arrested when, according to his phone conversations, Rabei was about to leave, most likely for Paris.

Now, that is quite an extensive operation. You have his phone, his house, his computer all under your control. Is this normal for your investigation, and how easy is it to get permission to do that in Italy?

photo of spataro

Armando Spataro is a senior prosecutor in Milan. Here, he discusses the surveillance and arrest of Rabei Osman El Sayed Ahmed in Milan. Ahmed had come to investigators' attention when his phone number was found in the possession of a suspect in the Madrid bombings. After being kept under surveillance 24 hours a day for two months, Ahmed was arrested when investigators listening to his conversations heard him "referring to an imminent action for which all the equipment was ready." Spataro says Rabei's case represents "a leap in quality" in terms of the terrorism cases he had previous investigated, including incidents involving the Red Brigades. This interview was conducted on Oct. 6, 2004 and has been translated from Italian.

I must say that in Italy -- and I say this with some degree of pride -- we have a deeply rooted tradition for these kinds of investigations against the organized crime, both of Mafia and terrorist nature. Therefore, judges give permission to monitor phone calls and conversations, obviously because our laws allow that, and our police force, as well as the public prosecutor, have an extensive expertise for these kinds of investigations. So certainly in Rabei's case, the investigative effort was remarkable, but it is not the first time that this has happened during important cases.

How quickly after you first learned of his presence in Italy did you launch this investigation, this effort?

Immediately after we received the information from Spain about this telephone number, as I said. As soon as we received this news, we put his telephone under control, so the investigation that I have described was launched immediately. Before that, we did not have any information of his presence in Italy.

Are you talking hours or a day or -- I mean, it seems very impressive.

Certainly the conversations were monitored right away because, I repeat, the judges immediately authorized the monitoring, and so we were listening 24 hours a day for about two months.

Now, in all of that, you have a lot of transcripts. What did you learn from the investigation?

We especially received confirmation of a picture of which we were already aware of, because in Milan there have been already a lot of convictions with respect to persons accused of international terrorism.

We can say that it was shocking to hear directly from Rabei about the details of the preparation for the Madrid attacks. In fact, our Spanish colleagues were notified in real time about everything that we were able to record.

Finally, I would say that it was also important to have confirmation of the close ties that exist among groups of alleged terrorists who operate in different countries in Europe. Rabei represented some sort of contact among these entities, and in fact, we verified his presence in Spain, France, Germany, Italy, besides contacts with Belgium and Holland. This is the overall picture of the results of our investigations.

In the transcripts, he's boasting about his involvement, and some people have suggested that maybe is it possible he wasn't really the organizer; he was just pretending to get attention.

Obviously this is a possibility that we also took into consideration. I would like to say, first of all, that the assessment of that specific point is obviously something that falls under the jurisdiction of our Spanish colleagues. But I want to add that from the same arrest warrant that was issued by the Spanish judges, it appears that there are other elements against Rabei besides his own words. Not only his telephone number was found in possession of other terrorists who were involved in the attacks, but there are also some witnesses who identified him as one of the people who visited the house in the countryside where they built the bombs that were used in the attacks. Finally, Rabei himself, in order to defend himself, did not state that he boasted, that he exaggerated, but he denied that he was the one who was saying those things. He accused the Italian magistrates and police of altering his voice through technological means.

Therefore, these elements, together with the relationships he had with other terrorists that we verified, led us to believe that we are not dealing with a boasting act, but with the real thing. It is obvious, though, that as a public prosecutor, I also have to state something specific, that the last word lies with the judges. This is the situation and beliefs of Italian and Spanish public prosecutors. ...

What do you know about his background, Rabei? Where does he come from? What expertise does he have?

Rabei is a very young person. He is 33 years old. We do not have any specific information about his activities in Egypt or elsewhere before he became a terrorist. We can only say that he was certainly an element of connection among many European groups and many European people or those who were based in Europe, and that for sure he was an expert in computer and technology. Everyone knows that the Madrid attacks were also carried out with the assistance of cell phones that triggered the explosions. In the conversations that Rabei had, he appeared to be very knowledgeable in these techniques of cell phone use.

Where would he have learned such techniques?

We don't know directly where he would have learned them, but I want to say that the reality of this investigation on an international level tells us that these people are very knowledgeable in the use of technologies of all kinds. Therefore, I am not surprised of Rabei's ability and knowledge.

Have you met him and interviewed him yourself?

He was interviewed by the magistrate of the group that is coordinated by me, who is directly involved in the case and whose name is Dr. [Maurizio] Romanelli. He told me of a very cold person who did not appear fearful at all, who was actually firm and attentive to see how much the magistrates could know about him. Basically, the appearance is certainly such to make us believe that it is matched by the important role of this individual.

Does he reveal any ideological motive for his action? Is he a Salafist?

Absolutely not, because he obviously denied belonging to any terrorist group, and he denied his involvement with the Madrid attacks.

Does it concern you that, despite your efforts, you actually didn't know about him until the bombing in Madrid, and it's almost by accident that he comes to the foreground?

Naturally, yes, it is a reason for concern. Keep in mind that in Milan, we have had on our shoulders almost 10 years of investigation of this phenomenon, the Islamic terrorism, but unfortunately, it is a very difficult field to investigate. Also, our American colleagues and those in other parts of the world know that, and therefore, often we find ourselves before new findings; that is, names of people who are involved in the investigations, and some of them quite important, of whom we didn't have previous knowledge.

This is a reason of concern, a reason why it is even more important to have international cooperation, not only within the European countries, not only between European countries and the Americans, but also with respect to North African countries, for example. I believe we should intensify our efforts in order to create a permanent and fast cooperation.

Well, for example, in this instance, has Egypt been cooperative with you on the background of Rabei?

Look, obviously there are very different judicial systems. And, for instance, between Italy and Egypt, it seems strange, but there is no treaty in terms of judicial cooperation; therefore requests for cooperation are formulated on the basis of the principle of reciprocity. I am sure that cooperation with Egypt will happen and will be effective, also with respect to other cases.

How is this cooperation going? Let us take the cooperation with the Americans. What needs to be done to improve that, in your opinion?

Look, I am fairly convinced that we already have many conventions, international resolutions, by the United Nations, the European Union. We have agreements among police forces, and we also have physical places where we meet. I believe that it is important to really keep alive this cooperation. This means to blindly trust mutual reliability of the systems.

I also have to say, though, that with respect to Italy, our relationship is excellent, our requests have always been answered quickly, and we did the same when it was the other way around. Also, with respect to Rabei's case, we immediately notified the Americans, as well as other main European countries that were involved in the investigation, with copies of conversations, recordings, interviews, because it is good that the knowledge of these phenomena grows everywhere in the same way and at the same time.

In the transcripts of Rabei, he talks about having a woman who is prepared, perhaps, to do a suicide action and take out an American neighborhood. When you heard that, what did you think?

Obviously, we immediately asked the American police to conduct an assessment to identify not only this woman but also another one who, according to the conversation, had been previously arrested. I must say that so far our search has been fruitless. We'll look into continuing it more thoroughly, but at this time we have not identified this episode.

How seriously did you take that, or do you take that claim?

Certainly everything needs to be taken seriously. It could also happen in the course of this or other investigations that some of the main characters, perhaps in their conversations with some accomplices, say things that are untrue or partially untrue. The best rule is to investigate to find the evidence.

What did your gut tell you about that? Because it is a rather frightening scenario.

I believe that we can draw some conclusions. Before March 11, 2004, experts, and not only the Italian ones, were fairly convinced that Europe was some sort of rear guard of the terrorist front; that is, that Europe was needed, for logistic purposes, to find false documents, money, new followers to send to the "hot" zones.

I believe that the Madrid attacks and the arrest of Rabei, who was preparing other tragic actions, lead us now to the conclusion that those convictions are outdated. Now Europe is also a place for attacks. We do not have the threats anymore, but we have bombs and plans for bombings. This, obviously, forces us also to assess in a different way the seriousness of the phenomenon. Terrorism is here among us. It is not far, and therefore we have to fight it with all the determination that is possible. ...

You're investigating terrorism cases all the time. How important is Rabei, in your experience?

I honestly have to say that I dealt for almost 20 years with the terrorism of the Red Brigades, a group of extremist leftists, which operated and killed in Italy hundreds of people. Islamic terrorism is obviously an entirely new phenomenon, even though they have certain aspects in common, for instance, in their rules of behavior, the daily mingling with other people without being recognized. But Rabei's case, in my experience in this new field, is certainly the case that marked a leap in quality. I believe that for the first time in Italy we arrested an individual of this level, and immediately our investigations became projected all over the world. This is the new aspect, also in my professional experience.

And you say Rabei is that leap in quality?

I believe so. We will have our confirmation from the judge's sentences, but I believe that nobody of his caliber was ever arrested in Italy before him.

Tell me more about the difference between the terrorism of the past, the Red Brigades and others that you faced, and Islamic terrorism.

Certainly. First of all, the difference is in the reasons. Obviously, the terrorism of the Red Brigades had Marxist origins and was based on the conviction that they were going to overturn the Italian government to replace it with the dictatorship of the proletariat. The reasons for Islamic terrorism are rooted in the centuries, even though obviously we are before an absurd and unorthodox interpretation of the principles of the Islamic religion.

Furthermore, the Red Brigades was a quite limited group, which acted on a national basis and struck specific targets; these were people with firearms, without explosives. On the other hand, with respect to Islamic terrorism, we are facing an organization, or several organizations, which are branched all over the world and which indiscriminately strike to spread terror even among civil and unarmed populations. And therefore it is even harder for us to defend ourselves, because you cannot protect an entire country.

One last element that is of crucial difference is this: The Red Brigades and other similar organizations were very structured groups, rigidly formalized, with a leader, a management and with an internal subdivision of tasks. On the other hand, with the Islamic groups, we are facing a more flexible situation. Not even the ethnic background of the people is a characterizing feature. We can no longer call it the Algerian, the Egyptian or the Moroccan organization. In the last trial we concluded, the 15 defendants were of nine different nationalities. Therefore, the lack of a rigid and formal structure, contrary to what we may think, makes the investigation more difficult.

How would you categorize the danger level now compared to before 9/11? Has it changed in Europe?

I would say so. I would say so, because, obviously, Islamic terrorism has not yet caused any dead in our country, fortunately, but there is no doubt that the escalation is before everybody's eyes. And after Sept. 11, as I said before, terrorists are also ready to strike in Europe, as they did in Spain. I remember that the Red Brigades, in their historical years, in the '70s and '80s, unfortunately they managed to kill even three or four times a week in Italy. But the category of their targets was easy to identify. We knew that they could strike politicians, magistrates, policemen, journalists, businessmen. Now terror and risks involve everyone, and therefore the attention that governments place on this phenomenon is fully justified. …

Let me ask you a straight question: Are we winning the war on terror?

We need to distinguish the judicial aspect from the political and military aspect. Even though I may be aware of the international situation, I feel like talking only about the judicial aspect, because as far as the political and military aspect, I believe that today it is not easy to make an assessment, even for politicians and military personnel. We can say that on the judicial level, I believe that we have obtained much success all over Europe. I don't think that this is enough yet. I believe that we still have a lot to do.

I must also say, though, that prosecutors and judges all over Europe do not think that they can solve [by] themselves the problem of terrorism. We deal with a part of the phenomenon. Our action deals with the past; that is, it is geared towards finding responsibility for crimes already committed. Obviously, in this perspective, our actions must respect the individual guarantees and rights. If we failed at this level, if we behaved differently than what our judicial traditions dictate, we would have already given a big present to terrorists. And therefore, I am convinced that the judicial road, even though [it] may be partially useful, is managed today with much carefulness and good results.

But the current administration in America is on the record saying they are more interested in prevention than prosecution.

Well, I believe that everyone is interested in prevention, even in Italy. For instance, during the summer or close to Sept. 11, controls were intensified, and even the media worked a lot. And this is the right thing to do. But at the same time, it is obviously unthinkable to keep someone in prison or in a prison camp in one of our nations without a trial. And I must add, it is difficult to think about freezing and seizing the assets of someone suspected of being a terrorist without listening to his version. Therefore, I tend not to put in contrast the level of prevention with the level of judicial repression. These are two different levels that must be combined together, and the system will work if both of them work. …

Going back to Rabei, what does he tell us about the current state of the Islamic jihadists and how well organized they can be? Essentially, how are they organized?

Well, it is interesting to read some of the manuals on behavior that were seized. One of them was seized in 2000 in Great Britain, in London; one of them was seized in 2002 in Milan; and it is important to see how the instructions about behavior are very detailed.

For example, I was struck by the almost maniacal attention that is reserved to military training and physical training. I was struck by the prescription for those who belong to terrorist groups to blend in with the people and the place where they live without appearing to be Islamic extremists. For instance, it is prescribed not to grow a beard; it is prescribed to drink, to not talk about religion. There is, therefore, an effort in order to mingle with the world.

Also, prescriptions with respect to financing are important. We know that zakat [charity] is also a religious offer. Religion says that those who can [must] offer to those who cannot, but often money collections are used to finance terrorist activities. There is no need for large and sophisticated bank transactions. We were able to confirm that even through small robberies, small extortions, small drug trafficking and false currency trafficking, it is possible to finance terrorist groups. Therefore, this means that these people live in the Western world, trying to mingle and to take advantage of its components to grow and finance their activities.

Rabei was also living in this fashion. For instance, we have proof that he attended the mosque in Milan. And I'm sure that not everybody knew who he was. But I'm also sure that, most likely, he was thinking about recruiting other people. Therefore, the way that these people used to behave in the Western world is clearly dangerous. It is not easy to distinguish those who are moderate and practice the Islamic religion from those who take advantage from these situations in the mosques and religious places to proselyte for their circles.

But is there any evidence that Rabei was taking orders from someone above him?

I must necessarily say a few things only because the investigation is still open. We have evidence of contacts also with people who are quite important, for example, with a person who is believed to be living and operating in Saudi Arabia. At the same time, the same flexible features of these organizations lead us to believe that, for instance, to carry out the Madrid attacks, certainly there was no need for an order from above.

The appeal launched by bin Laden and other terrorist leaders, which is the appeal to "fight Jews and Crusaders," as they say, is something that, unfortunately, is received on a very ample basis; even individually, it is possible that a jihadist conceives to carry out a jihadist act by himself. It happened in Brescia a few months ago. An extremist tried to cause an explosion at a McDonald's restaurant in Brescia. Fortunately, he was the only one who died. But that episode is alarming. Therefore, we need to investigate in all directions, but we need to believe that these groups can also act on the basis of autonomous decisions, without any orders from above. ...

How did you feel, reading the transcripts, on a human level? …

Yes, but I have to tell you that on a human level, more than fear, my feeling was that of incredulity, and that is, when you read with your own eyes what you imagine that occurs far away in another continent, the first reaction is, but is it possible that even here, in a democratic regime, in a country that also welcomes immigrants from all over, there may be someone who harbors so much hatred to consider his own death in order to kill? Incredulity, though, also forces you to ask some questions. Why is all this possible? I am convinced that everyone is responsible for his own actions and choices, but this does not mean that the Western world must also question itself on how it has lived the relationship with Islam during the centuries. But here I would go into history, religion, philosophy. I am a simple public prosecutor. ...

Did you find [propaganda] when you raided Rabei's house?

Yes, and also in his computer. We also said this openly. We also found material on how to make explosive jackets that can be worn by a suicide bomber. We found instructions on how to build explosive briefcases. Rabei was in possession of these, even though I have to say that, unfortunately, it is possible very often to find material of this kind on the Internet. So it's not like these images can only be available to terrorists or alleged terrorists. ...

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posted jan. 25, 2005

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