What you need to know:
- Al-Qaeda had established its operations in Kenya sometime in 1993 when it registered a business in Nairobi under the name Asma Ltd.
- Records show Asma Ltd was registered by Khalid Fawwaz, who later transferred it to al-Qaeda military commander Abu al Banshiri.
Nobody would have thought the five traders were terrorists. But from 1993 to the time they detonated a bomb outside the US embassy in Nairobi, they masked themselves as tourists, and fish, khat and goat traders.
At times, they involved themselves in relief work. But on the morning of August 7, 1998, nobody took notice as two light-coloured vehicles drove out of House Number 43 in New Runda estate. Destination? The US embassy building at the junction of Moi and Haile Sellasie avenues.
At the head of the convoy was a pick-up truck driven by Fazul Mohammed, also known as Harun, while the second, a Toyota Dyna truck, which had the bomb, was driven by Jihad Mohammed Ali, better known as Azzam. On the passenger seat was a man known as Mohammed Rashid Al-Owhali.
How the plot was hatched without raising eyebrows would baffle investigators. Al-Qaeda had established its operations in Kenya sometime in 1993 when it registered a business in Nairobi under the name Asma Ltd.
Records show Asma Ltd was registered by Khalid Fawwaz, who later transferred it to al-Qaeda military commander Abu al Banshiri.
But since Banshiri was on the radar screen of the intelligence, they used a fake identity, Galal Fouad Elmeligy Abdeldaim. The group further registered another entity known as Tanzanite King, ostensibly dealing in precious stones and which would operate between Kenya and Tanzania.
Under the cover of Tanzanite King and Asma Ltd, a plot on how to retaliate for the United States’ participation in the 1993 Operation Restore Hope in Somalia and the battle for Mogadishu began to hatch. Initially, the Nairobi cell did not seem to have capital, although they were to run an export-import business that was to guarantee them a regular income. It is now known that, after they hired an office in Nairobi, they were later almost auctioned due to rent arrears and had to sell the furniture. Worried that the Nairobi cell might collapse, al Qaeda sent Mohammed Sadeek Odeh in 1994 to rescue the operation.
Had Odeh not arrived in Kenya, it is believed that the Embassy bombing would not have taken place. It was in the coastal town of Mombasa that Odeh decided to set up his base. Unknown to many, he was linked to two al-Qaeda military commanders: Muhamed Atef, a new arrival, and Banshiri – the man who took over Asma Ltd.
Atef was well-known in al-Qaeda circles and his principal assignment was to train fighters. In order to hide the aim of the group, he gave Odeh a six-foot, seven-tonne fibre-glass fishing boat, which was to become the lifeline of the Kenyan cell.
This boat was well-known on the Kenyan coast as a supplier of fish to both Mombasa and Nairobi.
The next stage was the arrival at the Jomo Kenyatta International Airport of an American jihadist known as Wadih El Haji, who was masquerading as a precious stones dealer. Haji was to operate the Tanzanite King business and openly dealt in the gemstones. What was not known was that El Haji was Osama bin Laden’s main contact in East Africa.
A Lebanese-American who travelled on a US passport, El Haji had graduated from the University of Louisiana and had impressed al-Qaeda operatives after he managed to secretly purchase a military surplus jet for bin Laden from Davis-Monthan Air Force Base in Tucson, where he (El Haji) lived.
El Haji had money and networks too. He managed to register a non-governmental organisation, Help Africa People, which was to be used as the official al-Qaeda cover in Kenya. His deputy was a Comoran named Fazul, the man who was driving ahead of the bomb truck on the morning of August 7.
Although Fazul had briefly returned to Comoros and married a girl he had never met before, 17-year-old Halima, he settled in Kenya with his new wife, hired an apartment in Nairobi and an office for his two entities: Asma Limited and Help Africa People.
Odeh and Mustafa established themselves as fish suppliers and conducted booming business with leading restaurants and hotels. He was known as “Mohammed the fisherman”. He loved it. In 1994, al-Qaeda sent Mustafa Ahmed to open the Nairobi branch of bin Laden’s Taba Investment Company, which was then operating in Tanzania.
At the Wilson Airport, Fazul was well-known and would use the miraa aircraft to fly to Mogadishu and back. He was, by then, the least of suspects since he would carry with him relief stuff.
He was also linked to the Nairobi South-B based Mercy International Relief Agency run by Safar al Hawali and the Nairobi branch of Haramayn Foundation.
It was through these networks that Fazul managed to ferry cash to members of the cells in the region with ease. On the ground, his NGO’s mission was to deliver emergency humanitarian aid – food, medicine, clothing and shelter.
As Fazul built his network, his friend and accomplice, Odeh, a Palestinian from Jordan, was firmly settled in Mombasa in the fishing business. El Haji was an accomplished a gemstones dealer with an office in Nairobi and also working with Mercy International.
In 1996, El Haji and Odeh transported $7,000 (Sh700,000) received from al-Qaeda to kick-start the militarisation of the East African cells.
The “tools”, codename for TNT and detonators, were obtained from Tanzania and transported to Kenya using Odeh’s fishing boat.
Born in Saudi Arabia, Odeh had studied engineering at the Far Eastern University in Philipines, where he was active in Islamic activities and listening to video lectures of Abdullah Azzam, the man who coined the term al-Qaeda (‘The Base’) and the spiritual mentor of bin Laden.
Odeh quit university in his final year and went to Afghanistan to join the mujahideen. He underwent military training before being sent to Somalia by bin Laden to help Mohammed Farah Aideed, who was waging war against the US marines.
After the acquisition of bomb-making material, the planned bombing was delayed after Abu al Banshiri, one of the main al-Qaeda commanders in the region, died while aboard MV Bukoba in May 1996. The sinking of the Tanzanian ferry 56 kilometres off Mwanza, not only killed more than 1,000 people but also destabilised the al-Qaeda cell in the region.
When the Kenyan NGO Mercy International Relief Agency flew aid to Mwanza, nobody noticed that the al-Qaeda operatives, El Haji and Fazul, were actually investigating the circumstances surrounding the drowning of Abu Ubaidah al Banshiri, to report back to bin Laden.
The final report was compiled by El Haji and given to one Ali Mohammed.
With the death of Banshiri, Fazul became the manager of the Kenyan mission and moved to Nairobi, where he lived with El Haji’s family, serving as his assistant at the NGO. Another entrant into the East Africa cell was Rashid Daoud al ‘Awhali, who had just completed a course in explosives, hijacking, kidnapping, assassination and intelligence techniques in Afghanistan.
El Haji bought a fake passport for Al-Owhali to enable him to fly to Nairobi and drive the vehicle that was carrying the bomb. Court records indicate that in February 1997, El Haji met with bin Laden and was briefed on the operations of the East African cells.
Meanwhile, in September 1997, an al-Qaeda defector, Jamal Ahmed, walked into the US embassy in Nairobi to report that seven men working for a local NGO had connections with bin Laden.
But surprisingly, the CIA thought the intelligence had little value and only asked the Kenyan government to deport the group. While a night raid was carried out, which was reported as burglary, the assembled documents did not give leads to any pending attack.
That November, another man, an Egyptian named Mustafa Ahmed, sought appointment with the US Embassy in Nairobi and informed them that terrorists based in Kenya were planning to car-bomb the embassy.
After questioning the man, the CIA concluded he was lying but asked Ambassador Prudence Bushnell to seek additional security. Bushnell wrote to Washington but her request was disregarded.
“Had my Washington colleagues shared the information they had with one another, with me and concerned Kenyan officials, August 7, 1998 and September 11, 2001 may have turned out differently,” she says in her book, Terrorism, Betrayal and Resilience: My Story of the 1998 US Embassy Bombings.
During this period, the CIA raided El Haji’s home seeking to seize digital and paper data. But by this time, Fazul, who was staying with El Haji, had managed to cart away most of the files and the remaining ones were only on the NGO’s activities; distribution of mosquito nets, water tanks and drugs. Fazul fled to Sudan and quietly returned to Nairobi to buy a vehicle to deliver the bomb and rent a safe house. He found a house in Runda – a secure villa with a large wall. It was May, 1998, three months to D-Day.
The property owner, Tamarra Ratemo, was told that Fazul wanted to settle his family and guests. Unknown to him, 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 quietly moved from Nairobi to Arlington, Texas, leaving the operations in the hands of 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 a smaller pick-up, started moving the bomb-building material to Runda, concealed in boxes of lobsters.
500 cylinders of TNT
In the garage, Fazul supervised the construction of two massive, one-tonne devices made of about 500 cylinders of TNT, fertiliser and aluminium powder. Abdel Rahman did the electrical work after KK Mohammed had finished the assembly. 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’s location was vulnerable; the basement parking was manned by an unarmed guard and a manually operated drop bar.
That Saturday, Odeh met with Ally Msalam, who ordered him to “get out of here!” In the final days, Odeh had become unreliable and broke. He didn’t 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 in Mombasa with his photo.
On August 2, the proposed bomber arrived at Nairobi’s JKIA 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, picked his guest and paid the bills even though the guest had not stayed overnight. They both left for Runda.
While in Runda, 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 embassy while al ‘Whali would be the passenger.
Armed with a pistol, Al-Owhali was supposed to scare the guard to raise the drop bar to allow Azzam drive as close to the building as possible – or to the underground parking. He was also to scare Kenyans from the scene by throwing grenades.
On August 4, Ally Msallam, Fazul and the bombers went round the embassy building for final surveillance. That night, Msallam flew out of Kenya. Odeh was the last to leave. At 10 pm on August 6, he boarded a Pakistani International Airlines flight.
The next morning, Al-Owhali, dressed in black shoes, blue jeans, a white short-sleeved shirt and a blue cotton jacket jammed four stun grenades into his belt and a 9mm Bereta pistol into his jacket pocket. With Azzam, they boarded the Toyota Dyna. Fazul then noticed that Al-Owhali jacket was concealing the grenades and ordered him to remove it to enable him get to them faster.
As Azzam approached the drop bar, Al-Owhali got off the vehicle to scare the guard but halfway there realised that his pistol was in the jacket inside the truck! He threw a grenade to the guard, who took off, leaving the drop bar down.
Azzam drove parallel to the embassy as Al-Owhali pondered his next move. He pressed the button. A defeaning roll rocked Nairobi.
Al-Owhali was not dead. Shocked by what had happened, he walked to a nearby clinic, which was treating victims but realised he still had the stun grenade in his belt. With nobody noticing, he put it in a trash bin. He was then taken by an ambulance and driven to MP Shah Hospital where he registered as Khalid Salim. Here, the doctors had his forehead cut stitched.
Meanwhile in Karachi, the news of the Nairobi bombing was on all channels. Odeh managed to slip through the immigration but a hawk-eyed officer realised the man on the passport had a beard, unlike Odeh, who had been ordered to shave in Nairobi. Odeh tried to bribe the officer and he was asked: “Are you a terrorist running away from Nairobi?” Odeh was shocked and started to justify himself.
As Al-Owhali tried to escape from Nairobi without papers, he was also arrested in Nairobi. He had apparently destroyed his passport – after all he was supposed to die! In later years, all these cell members would be arrested.