- Duo was picked out for surveillance because immediately after setting foot on Kenyan soil they “made contact” with a Kenyan who had been on security watch
The two Iranian suspects being held over terrorism links were trailed for eight days by Kenyan detectives before being arrested, the Sunday Nation can reveal.
Moments after the two, Mr Ahmad Abolafathi Mohammed and Mr Sayed Mansour Mousa, landed at the Jomo Kenyatta International Airport, a team of undercover agents was assigned to trail them round the clock.
They were picked out for surveillance because immediately after setting foot on Kenyan soil they “made contact” (meaning they made a telephone call) with a Kenyan who had been placed on security watch because of suspected links with Somalia terrorist group Al-Shabaab.
The pair then walked across to the domestic flights terminal where they boarded a flight to Mombasa.
For the eight days that undercover officers trailed them, the Iranians made several flights between Nairobi and Mombasa. In both cities, they stayed in five-star hotels in the central business districts.
They were arrested at a five-star Nairobi hotel after one of their local contacts was interrogated by police and revealed that he was awaiting a call about a “package” that was hidden somewhere.
He told the police that once the call came through, his work would be to collect the package and deliver it.
It’s then that police pounced on the Iranians at the hotel, drove them away and detained them for interrogation.
A senior officer privy to the interrogation told the Sunday Nation that the Iranians confessed that the “package” was the dangerous explosive RDX and they knew where it was hidden.
But all through the questioning, the two denied being terrorists “but they have not told us what they intended to do,” the officer said.
Immediately after the alleged confession, a flight was quickly arranged and detectives flew with the Iranians to Mombasa by night.
Sources said the decision was made because they feared that any person who knew about the package’s location would take it away if he or she discovered the Iranians had been arrested.
On arrival in Mombasa, the Iranians led police to the location – the grounds near Mombasa Golf Club.
Squads of armed officers were mobilised and stationed in the area throughout the night to ensure that nobody gained entry.
Specialist officers moved in the next morning and recovered 15 kilogrammes of the white crystalline substance. Tests done at the government chemist ascertained the chemical to be RDX.
RDX is a more powerful chemical than TNT, which is widely used in making conventional bombs. It was TNT that the attackers of the 1998 US embassy bombings in Nairobi and Dar es Salaam used, pointing to the potency of the material seized from the two Iranians.
The amount of RDX recovered in Mombasa is enough to make a bomb that can bring down a multi-storey building, a detective involved in the investigations told the Sunday Nation.
“The chemical could have caused great damage if it was used to assemble a single bomb and equally extensive destruction if it was used in bits for a series of explosions,” police commissioner Mathew Iteere said.
After the foreigners were arrested in the night of June 19, Kenyan security authorities compiled a classified report and shared it with foreign intelligence agencies.
The report caused fresh fears of attacks and prompted a renewed joint effort in the war against terrorism.
The report was shared with Israel, United States and Britain. Kenya sought the countries’ help in profiling the suspects, in order to understand their previous operations and possible links to terror organisations.
“We are liaising with other friendly agencies so that we can compile their (the suspects’) history,” Mr Iteere confirmed.
The arrest of the two Iranians has sucked Kenya into a new level in the international terrorism circuit.
America’s Associated Press reported that the two are believed to be members of Iran’s Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps Quds Force, an elite and secretive unit that acts against foreign interests.
The UK’s Daily Telegraph reported that Iran might attack Western and Israeli targets in various countries in retaliation for a spate of assassinations of nuclear scientists in the country, which it blames on Israel.
It further reported that the pair toured Nairobi surveying the British High Commission, the Israeli embassy and a church in the week before their arrest.
Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu said “Iranian terrorism knows no borders” and, alluding to the events in Kenya, added:
“After Iran sent its agents to murder the Saudi ambassador on US soil, the country has now engaged in attacks in Azerbaijan, Bangkok, in Tbilisi, in New Delhi, and now we have just discovered a plot for a terrorist attack in Africa.”
When they were presented in a Nairobi court the Iranians said they had been interrogated by agents of Mossad, the Israeli intelligence agency. The Iranian embassy in Nairobi denied that the two were part of a Tehran-sponsored terror network that planned attacks on Israeli interests.
Iranian ambassador Malek Givzad said Kenya and Iran enjoyed cordial relations, adding that his country had lost five nuclear scientists in assassinations, equating it to the same predicament Kenya is facing with Al-Shabaab terror attacks.
The recovery of RDX led local and foreign detectives to speculate that there could have been similar “packages” hidden elsewhere.
Days after getting the classified report, the US embassy in Nairobi reacted by shutting its offices in Mombasa and pulling out its staff from the coastal town and further warning its citizens against travelling there.
The US had cited intelligence reports “of an imminent threat of a terrorist attack” at the coastal town, in issuing the warnings on June 23. The advisory has since been withdrawn.
The decision angered Kenyan authorities with the head of public service Francis Kimemia saying it had been shared in “good faith”.
According to Mr Kimemia the US government had backtracked on an agreement.
“The US had assured us on Wednesday (June 20) that there would be no advisories when we got wind of it (planned attack).”
A senior security officer told the Sunday Nation that US officials took the step because they were not satisfied with the level of preventive measures Kenya had put in place.
A grenade explosion at Jericho Beer Garden in Mishomoroni, Mombasa, barely 48 hours after the US issued the warning, in which three people died, did not deter the Kenyan government from demanding that the US withdraws the advisory.
Mr Kimemia described it as an isolated incident that was not connected to the “imminent attack” the Americans had alluded to.
Even with the tiff over the advisory, the US State Department praised Kenya for making the arrests describing it as “quick and vigilant action” by the Kenyan authorities.
State Department spokeswoman Hilary Fuller Renner said the arrests “potentially prevented a terrible tragedy which could have taken numerous lives”.
“We cooperate closely with Kenya and stand ready to help them with any counter-terrorism investigation,” Ms Renner said.
“We do know Iran – principally through [its Revolutionary Guards’] Quds Force and its proxies and surrogates – continues to pursue destabilising activities in various places across the globe.”