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Fazul: The making of a master terrorist

Saturday August 2 2008



Fazul Abdullah Mohammed, the leader of al-Qaeda in East Africa, has tried to attack Kenya five times in the last 10 years — and has succeeded twice with devastating results.

He succeeded 10 years ago this week, killing 218 Kenyans and injuring another 5000 in the Nairobi bombing.

Four years later he struck again at the Paradise Hotel, killing 13. The security services have thwarted him three times, the last time as recently as last year. In 2003 he planned to smash a hijacked plane into the new American embassy at Gigiri.(For full story see Monday’s Daily Nation.)

Like Adolf Hitler, Fazul is consumed by hatred and spends his reputedly considerable talents plotting the massacre of thousands. Kenya appears to be one of his favourite targets.

If it is true that the environment in which one grows up determines one’s character, then Fazul is a textbook case study.

The Comoros islands off the coast of southern Tanzania where one of the key architects of the Nairobi terrorist attack was born is a melting pot of chaos and bloodshed.


Since attaining pseudo-independence from France in 1975, the Indian Ocean archipelago has gone through 11 bloody military coups, six of them successful. Three of the eight presidents who have ruled the islands have been assassinated.

The current president, Ahmed Abdullah, is in power only courtesy of an AU peace-keeping force, notwithstanding four attempts on his life in which he escaped by a whisker.

With a life expectancy below 40 years, a newborn Comoro child enters a life paved with a thousand ways to a quick death.

In every major street in the capital, Moroni, there is an abandoned shell-shattered building, a stark reminder that life is a privilege in the country of just over 100 000 souls.

And there is a vandalised presidential palace and the tomb of the islands’ founding monarch to illustrate mayhem is no respecter of persons in the islands that the gods forsook.

The Sunday Nation journeyed to the Comoros, interviewed many intelligence officers, was allowed access to newly declassified documents and has reviewed many other in the public domain to build this story of the man who is Kenya’s Public Enemy Number One.

According to those who grew up with him in Moroni, Fazul was a recluse who twice contemplated suicide but was talked out of it by his teacher at the Muslim madrasa, Fundi Muhammad Ali.

Apparently in later life, his fantasies changed from a wish to kill himself to killing others by the thousands. The change coincided with the coming into his life of his second mentor, a radical politician and preacher, Soidiki M’ Bapandza.

But the obsession to kill would be preceded by a wish to save lives when Fazul went to study medicine in Pakistan. Midway he abandoned the medical course to study religion. That, too, he abandoned midstream to take up his real calling, guerrilla warfare and terrorism.

Mahamud Mze, a former schoolmate of Fazul at El-Falah madrasa at Magoudjou Estate in Moroni, remembers him as a reserved person. “Only arguments on matters of religion seemed to interest him.

There he could argue with heated passion,” said Mze, a librarian at University of Comoro.

At a fairly young age Fazul went to university in Pakistan. The next thing Mze heard was that he had quit to join the Mujahidin in Afghanistan, an Islamic militia opposed to Soviet occupation of the country in the twilight years of the Cold War.

The principal financer was Saudi billionaire and the world’s most-wanted man, Osama bin Laden.

Mze says Fazul always expressed extreme views on the rare occasions when he opened his mouth. His object of hate in the early days were the French who colonised Comoros and continue to have great influence there.

The landlord who owns the house where two of Fazul’s relatives, a sister and uncle, operated a business, almost threw the Sunday Nation out of the window when we asked him about Fazul.

“You people don’t ask me about that man! I don’t know anything about him,” he said as he motioned us to disappear from his office.

A sister, Halima, and an uncle, Sagaff Abdullah, have moved, and no one seems to know where.

Another acquaintance, Ismail Hakil, is a grocer in Volovolo Market near Fazul’s birthplace. They attended the same madrasa and worshipped at an old mosque in the town known as Mishiri wa Djouni. Ismail says Fazul was mysterious, even as a child.

He also remembers him as an “unhappy young man who was always complaining of this or that.” He recalls him as a bitter critic of the French and the Comoros founding president, the late Ahmed Abdullah.

To Fazul, Abdullah was a sellout. Ismail said he suspected Fazul used to communicate with some people outside Comoros who eventually got him a scholarship to study in Pakistan.

Fazul came from a large and prominent family in Moroni. His estranged father was a well known preacher; several of his cousins migrated to Pakistan in the 1970s.

Ismail said he thought that it was the relatives in Pakistan who “inducted Fazul to the world of extremism” before he sneaked off to Afghanistan to join the Mujahidin and later al-Qaeda.

Many who knew him in his childhood were surprised to hear that he had links with Osama bin Laden.

Issihaka Mahafidhou, a freelance photographer who trained in Kenya, knew Fazul from Comoros in their teenage years and didn’t notice any extremist tendencies.

Issihaka, who was living in Nairobi when the US Embassy was bombed, said he was surprised that his old acquaintance had degenerated to that level.

“It was a surprise to me because I had met Fazul in Nairobi a few weeks to the bomb blast. He never gave the impression that he was plotting a disaster of that magnitude!”

The gaps in Fazul’s early life may be filled in by a 40-page unfinished manuscript. The Kenyan anti-terrorism agents who retrieved it from a laptop computer confiscated from his wife, Mariam, when she was arrested early last year at the Kenya-Somalia border consider it his diary.

The document has since been declassified and exerpts will be serialized starting this Sunday.

The original manuscript in Arabic, now translated into English, is entitled, Who is a Reformer?

Perusing it one gets the impression of a born religious fanatic and an extremist. He begins by introducing himself by three different names: Abdallah Muhammad, Ali Fadil Husyn Mulla Ati, and Harun Fazul.

“I have decided to take a risk and write this book to clarify the truth and to raise morale of the Mujahidin everywhere.

"I have purposely written it in Arabic because I love the language of the Qur’an, and hope that every Muslim will benefit from it. If I get the opportunity I will translate it into Swahili, English and French,” he writes.

He gives vivid details of undergoing training in guerrilla warfare and sabotage after leaving university in Pakistan at the age of 18 to join the Mujahidin in Afghanistan.

He also gives a sketchy account of his life in Sudan and Somalia in the late 1990s and early in this century. That is when he planned and executed the August 7 terrorist bombing in Kenya.

It is clear that Fazul had decided what he wanted from an early age.

This is what he says about his decision to change course at the university in Karachi: “I always wondered how my mother would feel when she heard that I opted for a religious university considering that she wanted me to take modern studies.

What is worse, how would she react if she heard that I was going to Afghanistan when I had not completed even one year in Pakistan?”

Counter-terrorism agents told the Sunday Nation that though it is not impossible to capture Fazul, it is extremely difficult because he is highly intelligent, very well trained, has extensive contacts throughout the continent and is a master at disguising himself.

In his al-Qaeda career, he has successfully passed himself off as a Kenyan, a Somali, a Sudanese, a Moroccan, a Yemeni, and a South Asian. He speaks five languages, including Kiswahili.

Fazul is believed to have maintained close relationships with his family, with the exception of his father, who claimed in a 1998 interview, to have rarely seen his son since childhood.

Fazul has made frequent trips home to visit with is mother’s family as well as that of his father-in-law. He wrote letters to his family as well, and in at least one to his elder brother Omar, he frankly discussed his conversion to terrorism.

In 1996, Fazul paid for his mother to be flown to Paris for cancer treatment; on the very day of the embassy bombing in Nairobi, he arranged for his father-in-law to be flown from Nairobi back to Moroni.

Despite the fact he has constantly been on the move since joining al-Qaeda, Fazul had managed to keep his wife and children with him for much of the time.

Fazul’s father-in-law died soon after the embassy bombings. Already in the late stages of a terminal illness, he died of injuries sustained when Comoran police tipped him out of his bed during a search after the bombings in Kenya and Tanzania.

As far as can be established, Fazul joined al-Qaeda in 1990 and three years later was sent to Somalia with a large number of operatives including Mohammad Saddiq Odeh and Ali Mohammad, who was sent to Nairobi to identify US targets.

The US Embassy was identified as a future target at this time.

Fazul returned to Comoros in 1994 and married his 17-year-old cousin Halima in April. Three weeks later, they moved to Kenya, and Fazul operated under the pseudonym Harun Fazul.

In the same year, he and Wahid al-Hage, who worked as Osama bin Laden’s secretary in Khartoum, reportedly attended the wedding of Mohammad Saddiq Odeh in Mombasa. The three would later organise the August 7, 1998 bombings.

At the end of the 1994, Fazul moved his family to Khartoum and would shuttle between Khartoum, Nairobi and Mogadishu undertaking a variety of tasks related to the plot. He would travel under the guise of transporting miraa (khat).

In Nairobi, he worked a for an charity founded by Wadih al-Hage. He also used to ferry money to al-Qaeda operatives in Kenya.

Key leaders of the al-Ittihad al-Islami (and later of the Somalian Council of Islamic Courts), including Hassan Dahir Aweys and Hassan Turki, were also involved in the preparation and helped provide shelter, identity and travel documents and access to the Somali arms market.

Fazul sent his wife to the Comoros in 1996, after al-Qaeda closed shop in Sudan and Bin Laden returned to Afghanistan.

He returned to Kenya the same year to confirm the death of senior al_Qaeda mlitary commander abu Ubayda al-Banshiri in the May 21, sinking of a ferry on Lake Victoria.

Joined by Wadih al-Hage and other operatives, Fazul stayed in Mwanza, Tanzania for several days to report back to bin Laden.

Hours after he drove the pickup truck with the bomb to the US Embassy on Nairobi’s Haile Selassie Avenue, Fazul had his family and father-in-law flown to the Comoros.

Spent time

He reportedly stayed in Nairobi for a week and on August 14 flew to the Comoros. On August 22, he left for Dubai and is said have spent time in Pakistan.

In March 2005, he was spotted taking a kwassa kwassa (a kind of boat) from Moroni to the island of Mayotte, a French territory.

He continued to work with the CIC in Somalia through 2006. A wife and their three children joined him in Mogadishu from Pakistan.

On January 8-9, 2007, US aircraft failed to kill Fazul and other al-Qaeda operatives in soutern Somalia. Two days later his fleeing wife, Mariam, was arrested on the Somali border, questioned and deported to Somalia.

There were reports that he had been with his family but that he and two bodyguards disappeared shortly before the party was arrested.

According to Al Qaeda’s (Mis) adventures in the Horn of Africa, a report by Combating Terrorism Centre, a unit at West Point, the US military academy, between 2002 and 2007, Fazul was the leader of al-Qaeda in this region.

In 2002, he was based at Siyu village, Lamu where he established his own madrasa.He married a local girl, Amina, and organized a network that attacked the Paradise Hotel at Kikambala.

A senior security official told the Sunday Nation on Saturday that Fazul is alive in Somalia and that there are ongoing operations to apprehend him.

He, however, declined to comment on how optimistic they are that they will succeed.

Staff writers DAVID OKWEMBA and STEPHEN MBURU contributed to this report.