Africa's 'most wanted' man
He is in his early 30s but looks much younger with a “smooth, boyish face” and a height of a little more than one-and-a-half metres. He is softâ€‘spoken, wellâ€‘mannered, and often dresses in jeans and track shoes, Nike being his brand of choice.
He “loves” English football, and is especially fond of the Arsenal team.
He enjoys “messing around” on computers. He has hated the United States with a “passion bordering on insanity” ever since spending time with al-Qaeda leader Osama bin Laden in Sudan.
Local and foreign intelligence in East Africa appear to know plenty about Fazul Abdullah Mohammed, who they have branded al-Qaeda’s “kingpin” in the region.
But still he eludes capture, even with a $25-million bounty on his head.
Mohammed, says the US State Department, and another Bin Laden lieutenant, Abu Mussab al-Zarqawi, masterminded the 1998 bombings of the US embassies in Nairobi and Dar es Salaam which killed close to 250 people.
“He is moving with ease between Mogadishu and Nairobi ... But we are receiving the information that he has been here long after he has left, which prevents us from acting preemptively. It is extremely frustrating,” a member of an anti-terror unit in Kenya told the Mail & Guardian.
According to various intelligence reports, Mohammed was born in the Comoros to a “relatively wealthy family”, schooled in Saudi Arabia, trained with the Taliban in Afghanistan before joining Bin Laden in Sudan in the early 1990s. He was posted to Liberia where he allegedly channelled money from illicit diamond sales to al-Qaeda.
Facilitating his movement around East Africa is his fluency in Swahili, the regional dialect. He carries a variety of false passports, and is described as a “master of disguise”.
Following the embassy bombings, say Kenyan intelligence sources, Mohammed “slept” on the remote island of Siyu, part of the Lamu archipelago on Kenya’s north coast. He taught at an Islamic school and became known for his generosity.
“He always seemed to have money, and was always willing to give to somebody in need,” recalls Mustaf Hassanali, a Siyu resident.
Mohammed coached a football team he brazenly named “al-Qaeda”. He married a local woman. But his mission, say the Kenyans, involved far more than immersing himself in village life. It was on Siyu, they believe, that Mohammed planned the 2002 car-bomb attack on the Israeli-owned Paradise Hotel near Mombasa. At the same time, he allegedly participated in the botched attempt to shoot down an Israeli jet with missiles. Following the incidents, Mohammed “disappeared”.
It is now general consensus among East Africa’s intelligence community that Mohammed escaped by speedboat to Mogadishu, Somalia’s chaotic capital.
“The young people here are disaffected; they see no future, so they join the radicals and soon they are screaming ‘death to America and Britain’,” explained Somali businessman Abubakr Khalifa. “You should have seen this place when the news broke about the London bombings. It was crazy with celebrations.”
A foreign intelligence agent in Nairobi said: “Somalia represents the single most serious terrorism threat to Africa.”
A number of foreign envoys in Nairobi have claimed that Kenya isn’t committed to fighting terrorism — a charge denied by the government.
Israeli ambassador Emanuel Seri remains furious that a Kenyan court freed four men accused of perpetrating the attack on the Paradise Hotel.
The fight against terrorism in Kenya is complicated by the US’s insistence that the country signs a bilateral agreement aimed at protecting US soldiers from being tried for crimes they may commit while participating in the “war on terror”. Kenya has refused to sign, with the US response being a withdrawal of about $8-million in aid.
In East Africa, it’s a race against time to capture Mohammed before he strikes again. But, so far, he’s built a significant lead. And intelligence agencies are becoming desperate.
Africa’s porous borders and “weak governments”, according to US counter-terrorism officials, make it a safe haven for insurgents. On Wednesday, security chiefs from 15 African countries joined intelligence authorities from the US, Britain, Saudi Arabia and Yemen met in Sudan to devise strategies to counter terrorism on the continent. Top of their priority list will be the search for Africa’s “most wanted” man.