Al-Qaeda mastermind Fazul Abdullah escaped a police dragnet at the weekend only three hours after two of his accomplices were arrested and interrogated by the Anti-Terrorism Police in Malindi.
Two men were arrested on Saturday as the officers foiled a plot they believe would have resulted to a terrorism attack in Kenya.
Fazul is wanted over the August 7, 1998 bomb attacks on the American embassies in Nairobi and Dar-es-salaam. A Sh325 million reward has been offered to anybody who helps the police to capture Fazul. Security officers have asked anyone with information to reach them on telephone number 0714746144.
On the run
During the weekend crackdown, the squad of 25 officers backed by the GSU’s Recce Company, raided a house in Malindi where Fazul was believed to have been hiding. They were acting on information they received after interrogating the suspects identified as Ibrahim Mahfoudh and his father, Mahfoudh Ashour.
The officers narrowly missed Fazul but found two passports and a laptop computer they believe were abandoned as the terror suspect escaped the police dragnet. The foreign passports bore photographs of Fazul while the computer had not been switched off.
On Sunday, a police source told the Nation that those in custody had earlier in the day met “al-Qaeda chiefs for an unknown mission.”
On Sunday evening, Human Rights Forum official Al-Amin Kimanthi said Mahfoudh was being held alongside his wife, Lutfia Abubakar and their eight-year-old daughter. He described Mahfoudh as a restaurant owner in Malindi.
Mr Kimanthi said it was illegal to hold a child in custody just because its parents were under arrest.
Initially, the suspects were taken to Malindi police station where they were held overnight and interrogated. On Sunday, they were moved to Mombasa under a heavy police escort.
During the 1998 attack on the US embassy in Nairobi, 206 Kenyans were killed while another 5,000 were injured. Since then, authorities have always believed that Fazul has been hiding in Somalia but there have been indications that he could have sneaked back to Kenya.
Sources said Fazul may have crossed the border to escape US intelligence officers who have been concentrating their search in Mogadishu, the Somalia capital. Other sources said the man could have fallen ill and was seeking treatment in Kenya.
Mahfoudh, also believed to have been running errands for Fazul, is expected in court Monday on accusations of harbouring a fugitive.
The weekend arrests mark another dramatic development in the fight against terrorism in Kenya. In the past, security officers have foiled several bombing plots on Kenyan soil.
They include a planned aerial attack on the new US embassy at Gigiri, an attempt to bomb a tourist hotel at Diani in Mombasa, and plans to detonate a bomb at a strategic Mombasa location during the World Cross Country Championships held in the town early last year.
All the three attempts have been traced to Fazul, who has also been accused of masterminding the November 2002 bombing of Mombasa’s Paradise Hotel that left 15 people dead.
Sources say plans to bomb the new US embassy in June 2003 had been uncovered six months in advance and a trap laid to capture the plotters. Counter-terrorism agents learned of the attack in late 2002 after interrogating two suspects who had been arrested in connection with the bombing of Paradise Hotel.
Detained in Cuba
Using vital tips extracted from the two — who are now detained by the US in Guantanamo Bay, Cuba — the agents intercepted vital communication between Somalia and Mombasa in regard to the plot. Key names in the plan included Fazul, Swaleh Nabhan and Feisal Ali, a Yemeni citizen.
According to the information given by the two men, the terrorists had recommended an aerial attack that would involve crash-landing a plane on the embassy building, then still under construction, and simultaneously crash into the premises a truck laden with explosives.
It later emerged that Fazul had sneaked into Mombasa in May, 2003, to finalise the attack plan which was to be executed the following month. Acting on a tip-off, counter-terrorism agents later trailed him to Mogadishu where they narrowly failed to capture him. However, an accomplice, one Sulayman Hemed, a Yemeni, was captured. He revealed details of the attack during interrogation.
An earlier plan to attack on US interests in the region would have been in July 2001 where a hotel frequented by Americans at Diani was identified as a target. Also targeted was a US cruise ship scheduled to dock at Mombasa in August of the same year.
The attacks would be part of a series targeting US interests across the continent ahead of the September 11, 2001, attacks in New York and Washington DC.
And in March last year, the terrorists had planned to strike again when Kenya was hosting the World Cross Country Championships in Mombasa. Three weeks to the event whose opening was officiated by President Kibaki, a suspect, Abdulmalik Mohamed, was arrested at a forex bureau near Fort Jesus in Mombasa. He had gone to change some $6,000 and receive another $10,000 from a known al-Qaeda linkman in London. The sender of the money was also arrested the same day.
Abdulmalik was supposed to use the money to hire a vehicle which would have been used to transport a bomb to a location on the cross-country route. Intelligence agents later traced the planning of the attack to Fazul.