For five years, the terrorists stayed with us, masquerading as businessmen, tourists, and charity workers. Behind the scenes, they plotted murder.
On the morning of August 7, 1998, two vehicles drove out of house number 43 in Nairobi’s New Runda Estate.
The lead pick-up was driven by Fazul Mohammed, also known as Harun, while the second, a Toyota Dyna, which was carrying a bomb, was driven by Jihad Mohammed Ali (aka Azzam), with Mohammed Rashid Daoud Al-Owhali in the passenger’s seat.
The day had come…
The Al-Qaeda group, then headed by Osama bin Laden, had established its operations in Kenya in 1993 when they registered a business in Nairobi under Asma Limited.
It was registered by Khalid Fawwaz, who later transferred it to Al-Qaeda military commander, Abu al Banshiri. They also registered another business known as Tanzanite King.
Using this cover, the group started laying strategy on how to retaliate against the US its participation in Operation Restore Hope in Somalia.
Asma Limited was supposed to carry out export-import business but the Al-Qaeda members were cash-strapped after hiring the Nairobi office, forcing them to sell the furniture and other fittings.
It was the entry of Mohammed Sadeek Odeh in 1994 that was to change the fate of the terror group in Kenya.
Odeh arrived in Mombasa and received the group’s military commanders and trainers, Muhamed Atef and Banshiri. They presented a six-foot, seven-tonne fibre-glass fishing boat to Odeh. It was to become the lifeline of the Kenyan cell.
Another arrival through Nairobi’s Jomo Kenyatta International Airport was an American jihadist known as Wadih El Haji, masquerading as a precious stones dealer.
'HELP AFRICA PEOPLE'
He opened a new business in Nairobi, Tanzanite King. El Haji, a Lebanese-American who travelled on a US passport, was to become Osama bin Laden’s main contact in East Africa.
Known as “The Manager” within the Kenyan cell, El Haji was a graduate of the University of Louisiana.
His entry was to facilitate the registration of another camouflage, a non-governmental organisation, Help Africa People, which was to be used as the official Al-Qaeda cover in Kenya.
His deputy was Fazul, a Comorian who would lead the bombing truck on the morning of August 7.
Help Africa People had been registered in Germany and it gave Fazul the best cover in Kenya. Unknown to many, Fazul had in 1993 been involved in the downing of two US Black Hawk helicopters in Mogadishu, forcing the US to pull its troops out of Somalia.
Fazul returned to the Comoros briefly and married a girl he had never met before, 17-year-old Halima, a madrasa student.
Three weeks later he entered Kenya as Harun Fazul together with his new wife and hired an apartment in Nairobi.
With the boat, Asma Limited, and the NGO in place, the group started arming itself with bomb-building components. They established code names for them — TNT and detonator cords were known as “tools”, hand grenades were “potatoes”, while fake travel documents were known as “goods”.
In 1994, Al-Qaeda sent another operative, Mustafa Ahmed, to open yet another company, the Nairobi branch of bin Laden’s Taba Investment Company, which was then operating in Tanzania.
Odeh and Mustafa established themselves as fish suppliers and conducted booming business with leading restaurants and hotels. Odeh was referred to as “Mohammed, the fisherman,” and he loved it.
Meanwhile, Fazul moved his wife to Khartoum, which allowed him to move between Nairobi, Khartoum ,and Mogadishu with ease using the miraa aircraft transportation network.
He was the least of suspects. He was working for an NGO and, unknown to the security forces, the cell had links to another NGO, Mercy International Relief Agency, run by Safar al Hawali, and the Nairobi branch of Haramayn Foundation.
With all these contacts, Fazul managed to ferry cash to members of the cells with ease. On the ground, his NGO’s mission was to deliver emergency humanitarian aid — food, medicine, clothing, and shelter — to people in need.
Odeh, a Palestinian from Jordan, was firmly settled in Mombasa in the fishing business, Fazul was in Nairobi as an NGO manager, while El Haji was a gemstone dealer with an office in Nairobi and also working with Mercy International.
Two Al-Qaeda commanders based in the region, Muhammed Atef and Abu al Banshiri, gave the group the necessary back-up.
In 1996, El Haji, the gemstone dealer and the fishing boat manager, Odeh, transported $7,000 received from bin Laden to Mombasa to kick-start the militarisation of the East African cells.
In Mombasa, Odeh, using the fishing boat as a cover, received the “tools” — TNT and detonators — obtained in Tanzania from the Mombasa-born Fahid Mohammed Ally Msalam, a senior figure in the cell.
The fishing boat business allowed Odeh to frequent the coast of Tanzania from Somalia, selling other people’s catches.
Odeh was well trained. Born in Saudi Arabia, he had studied engineering at the Far Eastern University in the Philipines, where he was active in Islamic activities and listened to video lectures of Abdullah Azzam, the man who coined the term Al-Qaeda (meaning “The Base”) and the spiritual mentor of bin Laden.
Odeh quit university in his final year, went to Afghanistan to join Mujahideen, and underwent military training before he was sent to Somalia by bin Laden to help clan leader, Mohammed Farah Aideed, who was waging war against the US marines.
But this acquisition of bomb-making material was slowed down in May 1996 when Abu al Banshiri died while aboard MV Bukoba, the Tanzanian ferry that sunk 56 kilometres off Mwanza, killing more than 1,000 people.
With the death of Banshiri, Fazul became the principal contact for the Kenyan mission and moved to Nairobi, where he lived with El Haji’s family and served as his assistant at the NGO.
Meanwhile in Afghanistan, another man, Rashid Daoud Al-Owhali, had just completed training in explosives, hijacking and kidnaping, assassination, and intelligence techniques.
He was to be sent to Nairobi for the final mission.
With everything set, Osama bin Laden proclaimed a jihad on August 23, 1996, asking Muslims to take up arms against US establishments anywhere in the world.
Fazul got scared and sent an alert, saying the East African cell was “100 per cent endangered”, and complaining that he had heard the news from CNN.
That December 21, 1996, El Haji, the fake gemstone dealer, sent a coded letter to Baku, Azerbaijan, confirming that he had shipped three false passports to persons in Azerbaijan. One was for Al-Owhali to enable him to travel to Kenya to drive the vehicle carrying the bomb.
He then left Nairobi for Pakistan to meet the Al-Qaeda team. That February, 1997, El Haji met with bin Laden and briefed him on the East African cells.
TRIP TO SOMALIA
In March 1997, bin Laden ordered Odeh, the Mombasa-based “fish trader”, to travel to Somalia and assess “the Islamic struggle” in the country and report back.
Odeh stayed there for seven months and returned to Kenya, settling in the tiny village of Witu near the Somalia border, where he set up a small furniture business with his brother-in-law while waiting for the final orders.
Meanwhile, in September 1997, an Al-Qaeda defector, Jamal Ahmed, walked into the Nairobi US embassy to report that seven men working for a local NGO had connections with bin Laden.
The CIA thought the intelligence was of little value and only asked the Kenyan Government to deport the group.
A night raid was carried out but the assembled documents did not give leads to any impending attack. Nothing was done.
That November, another man, an Egyptian named Mustafa Ahmed, sought an appointment with the US embassy in Nairobi and informed the officials there that a group of terrorists based in Kenya were planning to car-bomb the embassy.
After questioning the man, the CIA concluded that he was lying but asked ambassador Prudence Bushnell to seek additional security.
She wrote to Washington but her request was disregarded.
During this period, the CIA raided El Haji’s home, seeking to seize digital and paper data.
But Fazul, who was staying with El Haji, had managed to cart away most of the files and those seized were on the NGO’s activities — distribution of mosquito nets, water tanks, and drugs.
Fazul left for Sudan, hoping to watch the developing situation. There was another raid at the Haramayn Foundation with zero success and luckily for the terrorists, nobody followed up and the investigations were dropped, allowing Fazul to return.
His top priority was to buy a vehicle to deliver the bombs and rent safe houses to build them. Time was running out. With the help of a Mr Sikander Juma, he rented Runda House number 43, a secure villa with a high wall, in May, 1998, just three months to the D-Day.
The property owner, Tamarra Ratemo, was told that Fazul wanted to settle his family and guests. Unknown to the landlord, this was to be the bomb factory and Fazul’s family lived with Sikander Juma and at times in El Haji’s house elsewhere in Nairobi.
Eleven months before the bombings, El Haji had quietly moved from Nairobi to Arlington, Texas, leaving the operations in the hands of Abdullah Ahmed Abdullah alias Saleh, also known as Abu Mariam.
The Runda house was perfect. It had four bedrooms, three baths, and a garage suited for bomb-building.
Fazul, aka Harun, moved in with his wife and two children and purchased a beige-coloured Toyota Dyna truck and, using another smaller pick-up, he started moving the bomb-building materials to Runda, some concealed in boxes of lobsters.
At the Runda garage, Fazul supervised the construction of two massive, one-tonne devises made of about 500 cylinders of TNT, fertiliser, and aluminium powder.
Abdel Rahman was taken to Runda to do the electrical work after KK Mohammed had completed the assembly work.
Meanwhile, on August 1, 1998, Abu Mariam, the key Al-Qaeda commander in East Africa, issued an order to all Al-Qaeda personnel in Kenya to leave the country by August 6.
The attacks were scheduled for the next day. The US embassy at the junction of Moi and Haile Selassie avenues was vulnerable. The targeted basement parking was manned by an unarmed guard and a manually operated drop bar.
The Saturday before the attack, Odeh, the fisherman, met with Ally Msalam, who ordered him to “get out of here!”
In the final days, Odeh had become unreliable and broke. He did not even have money for an air ticket and his passport had expired.
A Yemeni passport was stolen for him and he was asked to go and see someone at the immigration office in Mombasa with his photo.
On August 2, the proposed bomber arrived at Nairobi’s Jomo Kenyatta International Airport and took a taxi to Ramada Hotel in Eastleigh, where he booked Room 24.
He called someone in Pakistan to confirm his arrival. That day, Fazul drove to Ramada and picked up his guest. He paid the bills even though the guest had not stayed overnight. They both left for Runda.
Meanwhile, Odeh was under pressure to leave the country. Ally Msalam on Monday, August 3, secured Odeh’s travel papers from immigration, secured an airline ticket, and asked him to meet the group at Nairobi’s Hilltop Hotel for final directions.
Another arrival in Nairobi that week from Afghanistan was Jihad Mohammed Ali “Azzam”, who was also now at the Runda villa.
Here, Abu Mariam gave the final instructions to Fazul, Azzam, and Al-Owhali. Azzam would drive the bomb vehicle following Fazul, who would show him the way to the American embassy while Al-Owhali would be the passenger.
Armed with a pistol, Al-Owhali was supposed to scare the guard to raise the drop bar to allow Azzam to drive as close to the building as possible — or to the underground parking. He was to also scare Kenyans from the scene by throwing grenades.
At the Hilltop Hotel, the final base for the terrorists, Odeh checked into Room 102b using the fake Yemeni passport. He held a final meeting with four other members — Ally Msalam, Fazul, and Huseein.
FINAL BASE FOR TERRORISTS
They were all to meet in Afghanistan in a week’s time. Odeh, who looked scared of travelling, was forced to shave his beard and given some cologne and cigarettes to make him look like a westernised traveller.
On August 4, Ally Msalam, Fazul, and the bombers went round the embassy building for final surveillance, and did so for the next two days.
They were later dropped at Runda and that night Ally Msalam flew out of Kenya. Odeh was the last to leave and generally unprepared. At 10pm on the night of August 6, he boarded a Pakistani International Airlines flight.
The next morning, Al-Owhali, dressed in black shoes, blue jeans, white short-sleeved shirt, and a blue cotton jacket, put four stun grenades on his belt and a 9mm Bereta pistol in his jacket pocket.
With Azzam, they boarded the Toyota Dyna — the bomb vehicle. Fazul noticed that Al-Owhali’s jacket was concealing the pistol and ordered him to remove it to enable him to reach the grenades faster.
As Azzam approached the drop bar, Al-Owhali alighted to go and scare the guard, but halfway, he realised that his pistol was in the jacket, which he had left in the truck.
He threw a grenade at the guard, who took off, leaving the drop bar down. Azzam drove parallel to the embassy as Al-Owhali pondered what to do. He pressed the button. A deafening blast rocked Nairobi.
Al-Owhali was not dead. He walked to a nearby clinic that was treating victims, but realised that he still had a stun grenade in his belt. Unnoticed, he put it in a trash bin.
He was then taken by an ambulance to MP Shah Hospital, where he registered as Khalid Salim and had his forehead cut stitched.
He was discharged but as he reached into his pocket, he realised that he still had three bullets and key to the padlock that had locked the back door of the bomb truck.
He returned to the hotel and tried to flush them down the toilet. He hid them inside a window ledge when that failed. He thought he could walk to Runda but he did not know the direction.
Since he was supposed to die in the bomb truck, he had not carried his passport (it was still in Runda) and money.
At the hotel, the booking clerk brought a Yemeni to help him. He got new clothes and threw the bloodied ones in the dustbin.
Meanwhile in Karachi, the news of the Nairobi bombing was on all channels.
Odeh managed to slip through immigration but an observant officer realised that the man in the passport had a beard, unlike Odeh who had been ordered to shave it off in Nairobi. Odeh tried to bribe the officer and he was asked: “Are you a terrorist running away from Nairobi?” He was arrested. Al-Owhali was also arrested in Nairobi and they started to spill the beans.