Weakened al-Qaeda reduced to attacking poor backyards

Saturday November 24 2012

File |  Nation A victim of the Eastleigh minibus bomb attack last Sunday is helped into an ambulance. At least seven people died in the blast believed to have been executed by Al-Shabaab sympathisers. The terrorists are now targeting poor neighbourhoods as they lack capacity for high level attacks.

File | Nation A victim of the Eastleigh minibus bomb attack last Sunday is helped into an ambulance. At least seven people died in the blast believed to have been executed by Al-Shabaab sympathisers. The terrorists are now targeting poor neighbourhoods as they lack capacity for high level attacks. 

By MURITHI MUTIGA [email protected]

Ten years ago this week, two terrorists drove up to the gates of the Paradise Hotel and detonated their truck aiming to kill dozens of Israeli tourists who had just checked in.

They missed their targets. Instead, just as happened in Nairobi’s Eastleigh estate on Sunday, their victims turned out to be young, predominantly female Kenyans who had no idea what causes the terrorists were pursuing.

In Kikambala, the vast majority of the dead were dancers who had been performing a jig to welcome the Israeli tourists.

They were mainly peasant farmers like 60-year-old Kadza Masha’s daughter – Kafedha, 20, – for whom the hotel was a useful source of extra income.

In Nairobi, the profile of the victims was similar. They were women like petty trader Mercy Mwithaka who was blown apart when the explosion tore through the bus in mid afternoon.

Ms Mwithaka left behind a three-day-old baby, Angel, who she had delivered at the Pumwani Maternity Hospital.

Angel’s sister, Florence, also died in the blast. She was only two days away from finishing her Form Four examination and, as is typical in poor families, she was already shouldering responsibilities beyond her years. Minutes before the explosion, she had helped discharge her mum from the maternity.

To many Kenyans, terrorism has become a pressing issue in the last one year as incidents targeting innocent wananchi and law enforcement officers have become more common.

Yet in fact, Kenya has been a chosen destination for Al- Qaeda militants since at least 1993 when Osama bin Laden identified the country as a rich target while in exile in Sudan’s capital, Khartoum.

Kenya was attractive for a number of reasons not least the fact that it was home to so many Western targets.

Bin Laden first instructed one of his most trusted lieutenants, the Egyptian Ali Abdul Saoud Mohammed, to set up an Al-Qaeda cell in Kenya in 1993, according to the official American investigation into the September 11 terrorist attacks.

Mohamed set up a cell comprising at least a dozen operatives and formed a front company selling cars, engaging in commercial fishing in Mombasa and renting out scuba diving equipment.

That cell would later carry out the attacks on the US embassy on August 7, 1998. Ali Mohamed and his militants, flown in from the Qaeda training camps in Afghanistan, also helped train the Somali militiamen who killed 18 US soldiers in Mogadishu in 1993, according to the 9/11 report.

Yet if there is one man who helped deepen the roots of Al- Qaeda in the Horn of Africa and sowed the seeds of radicalism in Somalia and elsewhere, it is the young, multilingual Comoran, Fazul Abdullah Mohammed, who for years was bin Laden’s most trusted henchman in East Africa.

A bright student studying medicine in his native Comoros, Fazul came under the spell of radical preachers in his late teens and went off to Kandahar in Afghanistan to join Osama’s terror training schools.

He distinguished himself there as an excellent IT expert and his ability to speak numerous languages including English, French, some crude Kiswahili and Somali made him a valued recruit.

Raise money

After doing some work smuggling gold in Liberia to raise money for Al-Qaeda, he showed up in Somalia in the 1990s.

Among his earliest recruits was Sheikh Aboud Rogo, a native of the remote Siyu Island of Lamu, which would later emerge as a valued base for Fazul as he planned the attacks on Kikambala.

Fazul also brought in bags of money, invaluable expertise and networks with Al-Qaeda’s top leaders. His presence in Somalia and later the Coast was indispensable in explaining the rise of radical Salafism, which contributes to the violence rocking the region today.

Although it seems sometimes as though things are going from bad to worse on the security front, there is a crumb of comfort to be had for the victims in the fact that two of Al-Qaeda’s most important point-men in the region are dead as the nation prepares to mark the 10th anniversary of the Paradise Hotel attacks this Wednesday.

The planning for that attack truly began when, on a sunny June afternoon in the year 2000, a noisy speedboat docked just outside the narrow channel that leads up to the quiet island of Siyu near Lamu town.

There were about five passengers on board and one of them would soon be one of the best loved members of that village of about 1,500 people.

Abdul Karim, as he said he was called, was introduced to villagers by Sheikh Rogo as an Islamic preacher who had felt the urge to spread the word of God to the village.

A slight, quiet guy with a disarming manner, Karim was generous to a fault. He helped renovate the local mosque, taught passionately at the madrassa and married a local girl, 16-year-old Amina Kubwa.

The only odd thing, villagers would recall later, was that the young man had several mobile phones on which he would go to a spot with good network coverage and make lengthy calls.

All was revealed two years later, in November 2002, when a group of policemen and FBI agents swarmed into the village seeking to interview anybody that knew anything about Abdul Karim.

The villagers would later learn that the young man they had hosted was a seasoned Islamic militant and the reason they were receiving so many unwelcome guests was due to his role as the mastermind of the Paradise Hotel bombing which left 16 dead and dozens injured.

Fazul, they discovered in horror, was a man with a $5 million bounty on his head and a profile on the FBI website listing 18 different names he had used at various times and offering three different dates of birth on the multiple passports he held.

The FBI website also described him as a master forger and expert in the art of disguise. He certainly disguised himself well during the years he spent in Siyu, mostly keeping to himself and socialising mainly on the football field.

His choice of Siyu Island as a base of his operations was a master stroke. There can be few places in Kenya that are more isolated or more neglected by the government than that slice of land in the Indian Ocean 45 minutes by speed boat from Somalia.

By the time Fazul arrived in the village in 2000, there was barely any sign of the Kenyan Government there. The area had no piped water, infrastructure was at a bare minimum and the Kenya Power and Lighting Company was entirely unknown.

Name of president

Even the Kenya Broadcasting Corporation signal did not quite reach the village. When the Sunday Nation visited the village in 2004, a straw poll of seven children around the village well revealed none of them could name the President.

It was to this village that a strange man with grand designs for a terrorist attack found a hearty welcome among people that had no idea what his plans were.

“You must admire Al-Qaeda for their wisdom in choosing that area,” said Mohammed Ali Baddu, a local NGO programme co-ordinator, two years after the attack. “Not a single project has been undertaken for the past 40 years. How can any of these people turn away a good Muslim who comes with petro-dollars in the village to share with them?”

Among the projects he initiated was the establishment of two football teams for the local youth. He supplied them with kit and plenty of balls and the names he chose for them revealed he had a mischievous sense of humour.

One team, for which he played as a goalkeeper, was named Al-Qaeda while the other, according to the youth in the village, was called Kandahar after the Afghan area in which he trained.

Fazul’s effort to win the hearts and minds of the locals was completed when he married into one of the village’s most prominent families, the Kubwa clan.

He preached regularly at the local mosque and taught in the village madrassa.

“Nobody would have suspected anything was amiss with the young man,” Ali Yusuf Ustadh, the preacher who presided over Fazul’s and Amina’s wedding at the Shanga na Uti mosque on the Island, said. “He was simply a very good preacher, very soft-spoken and mostly kept to himself.”

Beneath that quiet exterior was a fundamentalist hard at work on what would have been a spectacular terror attack if he had pulled it off successfully.

Together with his longtime collaborator Saleh Nabhan, Fazul co-ordinated the purchase of a green Mitsubishi Pajero KAA 8**N, which was to be used by the suicide bombers to attack the tourist resort.

In a process similar to the one he undertook in the 1998 embassy attack in which he also played a central role, Fazul rented a house in Mombasa’s Tudor estate surrounded by high walls where the bomb was to be fitted into the vehicle.

What is often overlooked is that Fazul also planned a simultaneous attack, which would have surpassed the 1998 embassy bombings in the scale of the destruction it would have caused and the catastrophic publicity it would have earned Kenya as a tourist destination.

On November 28, 2002, Fazul knew that an Israeli Arkia jetliner, Flight number 582, was scheduled to take off from the Mombasa International Airport with 264 Israeli tourists on board. Most of those tourists would have been among those that had left the Israeli-owned Paradise Hotel earlier in the day.

Israeli plane

The plan was for a suicide bomber, Fumo Mohammed Fumo, to attack the Israelis arriving at the hotel that morning while Fazul and Nabhan would bring down the Israeli plane using surface-to-air missiles.

According to Israeli media reports, the missiles were actually fired on target. What the militants did not know was that all Israeli passenger planes are fitted with technology that detects incoming missiles and helps to deflect them off the flight path.

Fazul’s bombers succeeded in killing 16 people at the Paradise Hotel. But if the plane attack had been completed effectively it would have represented the biggest mass murder of Jews since the Second World War.

That attack was the last major international terror plot in which Fazul was directly involved as a mastermind. Although he had been on the FBI’s list of most wanted fugitives since 2001, the focus on him became much more intense.

That drove him underground and his focus shifted from plotting mass murder to protecting his own life. He was variously alleged to have gone to the Comoros Islands and to Malagasy.

A few times he was declared dead only for the assertions to be disproved. He was also arrested at least once by Kenyan police in Mombasa although they later claimed he had escaped from custody.

The escalation of the hunt for Al- Qaeda leaders by President Barack Obama’s administration meant that the rope was coiling ever tighter around Fazul’s neck.

Earlier this year, an African Union report prepared by the African Union Mission in Somalia (Amisom) reported that Fazul was leading a cell of jihadists operating out of Somalia.

This was part of a pattern where many Al-Qaeda fighters have been fleeing Afghanistan and Pakistan to Somalia due to an escalation in attacks by American drones in the region.

The end of the road for Fazul came when he was stopped at a checkpoint by Somali forces on June 8, 2011. He was shot dead immediately in one of the most important victories in counter-terrorism efforts in the country.

Still, attacks linked to Al-Shabaab in the region continue. And because Al-Shabaab and Al-Qaeda no longer retain the capacity to carry out sophisticated attacks on Western targets, they are reduced to attacking people in poor neighbourhoods causing terrible agony to families such as those who lost their loved ones in Eastleigh.

For women like Kadza Masha, it is, therefore, only slightly comforting that Osama and Fazul are no more.