What you need to know:
- The assignment was to trace the Comoros origins of the lead plotter in the August 1998 Nairobi terrorist bombing, Fazul Abdullah Mohamed.
- The intelligence service wanted Fazul’s story done by a journalist and published in the media as part of an awareness campaign that terrorists live among us.
In the course of their work, journalists make friends with a wide circle of contacts, not least in the world of espionage.
After all, the job of journalists and spies is to gather information — only that spies keep theirs secret while the media shouts about it from rooftops.
When I was in active journalism, I struck a friendship with a gentleman from the intelligence service whom I will identify only as BC.
I was not an “informer” to him. Our relationship was peer to peer.
We met to compare notes, but he was like a sponge, absorbing everything and releasing too little unless squeezed.
However, on at least two occasions, he gave me information that made headlines.
The dossier was passed to me in a typical secretive operation. In the first instance, he asked me to meet him inside a clothes shop in the city centre.
It was the cold season and he told me he was shopping for vests.
As we went round, he whispered to me what the dossier was about. He also bought two pairs of vests for both of us.
At the counter, he slipped an envelope inside the plastic bag with my vests and hurriedly left.
In the second instance, he called me on a Saturday evening. I was at a noisy bar in Nairobi West but offered to meet him at a place of his choice.
“No, I will come where you are,” he volunteered. “Is that the place next to where fried fish is sold?”
In about half an hour, he rang me from the fish place.
He had bought some fish for me and put the envelope with the dossier inside the plastic bag that had the fish.
When I got home, I wondered whether to first open the envelope or feast on the mouth-watering “Migingo” delicacy.
Early on April 2006, BC requested me to meet him. I wasn’t in full-time employment at the time.
“Now that you’re your own boss, can you spare some few days for me to send you on an assignment outside the country?” he asked.
“No problem. But don’t send me to Darfur or Baghdad,” I replied.
“You know I am now in self-employment and not insured to be in a war zone.”
“I am not sending you to a combat zone. The job is in the Comoros islands,” he replied.
“You can carry your beach shorts and swimming gear, if you want.”
The assignment was to trace the Comoros origins of the lead plotter in the August 1998 Nairobi terrorist bombing, Fazul Abdullah Mohamed, then still at large.
He would be killed in Somalia years later.
While there, I was to gather information about his early life, family background and get to know when and possibly who radicalised and recruited him into international terrorism.
The intelligence service wanted Fazul’s story done by a journalist and published in the media as part of an awareness campaign that terrorists live among us, that your next-door neighbour, the sneaky character booked opposite your hotel room, or the shifty-eyed fellow buying pipes and chemicals down River Road could actually be plotting the next attack.
I asked BC if I was to get any help from his people on the ground.
“Not at all,” he replied. “We don’t want any mix-up that can bring trouble to you or to our agents.
"You will do your job completely independent of us. All we’re doing is to pay your expenses.”
“Suppose I get into trouble, what are the contingencies?” I asked.
“Well, you go about it the same way you do your other assignments as a journalist. However, if the worst comes to the worst, we will use diplomatic channels to bring you back home.”
“That means flying me back home either in vertical or horizontal form?” I interjected.
“Most likely you will get back here seating vertically and breathing,” he assured me.
My first task was to get a media house that would publish what was obviously going to be a big story.
I went to see my former boss and friend, then-Daily Nation managing editor Joseph Odindo.
The first question he popped once I told him of my mission was: “Will you be safe? I have no problem allowing you to go in our name but your safety is first.”
I had worked with him on delicate assignments before so I didn’t have much of a problem convincing him I was equal to the task.
“Fine, you can go. Ring me should you get stuck.”
Next was to get a visa. The Comoros has no embassy in Nairobi but a consulate under its mission in Dar es Salaam.
My “spy” work began right at the offices of the consulate in Lavington.
I lied that I was going to do a backgrounder on presidential elections scheduled to take place in the islands in a month’s time.
While there I would also “recruit” a local from whom I extracted vital information about the country.
He would also give me a contact to chaperon me around.
This is how it happened. Waiting for my visa to be processed, I noted a young man who I guessed must be from the islands enter the office and request to see a member of the staff.
He was still talking with whoever he’d gone to see when I got my visa.
To keep myself busy as I waited for him to come out.
I opened the bonnet of my car and pretended to be checking on some problem. He came out before I soiled my hands too much with engine oil.
I hurriedly got into the car and caught up with him at the gate. “Mind a lift if heading to town?”
He was pleased as Punch. We quickly made friends and had lunch where he gave me information about his country. More importantly, he gave me a useful contact.
The following day, I was airborne to the islands via Dar es Salaam. We landed at Hahaya Airport in Moroni shortly after midday.
From the airport, I rang the contact I had been given.
He asked me to take a taxi to the University of Comoros, where he worked.
He turned out to be very helpful, not least because he had lived in Kenya and spoke fluent English and Kiswahili. The Comoros is a French-speaking country.
There would be no mention of Fazul until an opportune moment came.
I was there to “do” a background story on the elections.
My host introduced me to a political science professor, who gave me so much information I risked dozing off and betraying my lack of interest.
I don’t know what made him think Kenyan readers would be interested in knowing so much about some island they could hardly place on a map.
It was Maulid season in the Muslim calendar and my host invited me to accompany him to prayers at the national stadium.
He gave me a kanzu and a skullcap. Just as well, my pastor, Dr David Oginde, was too many miles away to see me in my new attire.
Since I couldn’t say the incantations in Arabic, I did the motions but whispered a silent prayer in Kikuyu.
After all, we all pray the same God, but in different names and rites.
My prayer to have a successful mission in the Comoros received a quick answer.
The following day, on our way to my hotel after a busy day talking to chief campaigners of the presidential candidates, we passed by a madrassa (Muslim school) called El-Falah.
“That was my primary school,” my friend told me with a sense of nostalgia.
“Your friend in Kenya who gave you my contacts was in the same school. So was the terrorist in the Nairobi bomb blast Fazul Mohamed.”
How lucky I was! Just when I was agonising about how to broach the subject of Fazul, my friend did it on his own!
On quick thinking I asked: “When was Fazul in the Comoros? I have always thought he was born and brought up in Mombasa!”
Faulting my friend on something he knew all too well made him sing like a canary.
“No, you are wrong,” he said. “Fazul was born here. If you want, tomorrow I can show you where his family used to live and where his only sister now lives.
"I can also introduce you to a tailor at the market across the road who sat next to him in school, and a freelance photographer who was his friend.”
The following day, I got to know much of what I wanted about the notorious terrorist.
His early days in the Comoros, getting radicalised and a flight to Afghanistan, where he landed in the hands of Osama bin Laden.
Though I had gone prepared to be in the Comoros for a week, if that is what it took for the job to be done, I was airborne back home on the fourth day.
The Nation ran my story in a two-day series, while I wrote a longer report for my friend in the intelligence service.
I had successfully played a spy and a scribe at the same time.
More importantly, in a small way, I felt I had avenged for my two friends who perished in the 1998 terrorist bombing.