Hunt for Africa’s top terrorist after Kampala blasts

The Times of London
Nairobi, Kenya

He is Africa’s most wanted terrorist, a man who has for 12 years evaded US special forces, Israeli spies and cruise missile attacks. Now the search for Fazul Abdullah Mohammed, al-Qaeda’s East Africa chief, has taken on new urgency after the double bombing in Uganda that brought carnage to the streets of Kampala.

Yesterday police arrested a man near the Kenyan-Somali border in connection with the explosions. The coordinated attacks, which killed at least 76 people and are thought to have involved at least one suicide bomber, underlined the links between al-Qaeda’s global terrorist network and al-Shabaab, Somalia’s Islamist insurgents.

Personifying that link is Fazul, a top commander of al-Shabaab. The 37-year-old from the Comoros islands, who is suspected of involvement in Sunday’s attack, is already wanted for bombing the US Embassy in Kenya in 1998 and an Israeli-owned hotel in Mombasa in 2002. The FBI lists Fazul as one of its most wanted terrorists and has offered a $5 million (£3.3 million) reward for information leading to his capture.

“Highly intelligent and thoroughly trained, [Mohammed] is one of the most dangerous international terrorists alive today,” a profile compiled by the Combating Terrorism Centre, at the West Point military academy in New York State, said.

Synchronised multiple attacks of the kind that shook Kampala are Fazul’s speciality. He took over as al-Qaeda’s most senior operative after the assassination of Saleh Ali Saleh Nabhan by US Navy Seals in September.

Fazul is a survivor. Numerous US-planned assassination attempts have failed and he has slipped through the hands of Kenyan detectives repeatedly, most recently in August 2008 when he evaded a dragnet in the resort town of Malindi in which his diary was seized. His ability to evade capture has added to his fearsome reputation. “Fazul is the most veteran of the veterans of East Africa’s al-Qaeda wing,” Rashid Abdi, an analyst at the International Crisis Group in Nairobi, said.

Analysts attribute the sophistication of al-Shabaab attacks to foreign trainers such as Fazul.

Before 2006, roadside bombs and improvised explosive devices with remote-controlled triggers were unknown. Suicide attacks were also almost unheard of in Africa until al-Shabaab began employing the tactic. Since 2006 almost two dozen suicide bombings have been carried out.

Fazul is an unlikely terrorist. He was the youngest of six children born to middle-class parents. His upbringing was not radical: his mother and sisters did not wear the veil; he played football and practised Michael Jackson dance moves. In 1990 Fazul accepted a religious scholarship in Pakistan. In Karachi he switched from medicine to Islamic studies before dropping out of university to join the Mujahidin in Afghanistan.

In the early 1990s Fazul lived in Khartoum, where Osama bin Laden was based, and made frequent trips to Kenya and Somalia. US Intelligence put him in Mogadishu as early as 1993, linking him to the Black Hawk incident in which 18 US Rangers were killed in gun battles on the city’s streets.

Fazul’s first major attack was the August 1998 bombing of the US Embassy in Nairobi. He rented a villa in an upmarket suburb where the explosives were manufactured and drove the vehicle that led the bombers to the embassy. The success of the attack won Fazul kudos within al-Qaeda and he played a key role in the organisation’s money laundering by establishing a trade in blood diamonds.

By 2002 he was back in Kenya. He taught at a madrassa and married a local girl. Beneath this cover he planned a suicide attack on the Israeli-owned Paradise Hotel in Mombasa. Soon after he fled to Somalia.

Since then Islamist militants have sheltered Fazul in exchange for the military expertise and al-Qaeda links that he provides.