The day Israeli commandos raided Nairobi

Abdullah Ocalan

Eleven years ago, Kurdish fugitive Abdullah Ocalan was tracked down to Kenya and captured by Mossad in a spy drama worthy of Hollywood. 

Photo credit: File | Nation Media Group

The six travellers arriving at Nairobi's Jomo Kenyatta International Airport looked like any other tourists on safari. They were casually dressed and carried huge jungle green backpacks.

Nothing betrayed the fact that this party of five men and a woman were Mossad agents whose mission in the country would thrust Kenya into the international spotlight, expose its close ties to Israeli security services and cause a diplomatic row that saw then Foreign Affairs minister Bonaya Godana order all Kenyan embassies closed for a day.

The Israelis came to town 11 years ago this month because of the presence in Nairobi of Abdullah “Apo” Ocalan, at the time one of the world’s most wanted men.

Ocalan was a terrorist to some and a liberator in the eyes of others. He led the Kurdistan Workers Party (PKK), which was engaged in a long struggle to secure an independent state for the Kurdish people — an oppressed minority spread across a number of countries including Turkey, Iraq and Syria.

Ocalan’s group was particularly active in Turkey, the country of his birth. Turkey blamed him for the murder of between 29,000 and 37,000 people in a 15-year campaign of violence.

A baby killer

“Wherever he goes in the world, we will pursue him,” Turkish President Suleyman Demirel had vowed. “Those who befriend him are the partners of a baby killer.”

Unfortunately, in the same fashion that Kenya found itself stuck with controversial cleric Abdullah el Faisal recently and, if US reports are to be believed, with Rwandan genocidaire Felicien Kabuga, Ocalan turned up in Nairobi after being rejected everywhere he sought asylum in Europe.

The circumstances under which he gained entry into the country remain a mystery, but suspicion falls on corrupt immigration officials. He was cleared for entry at Jomo Kenyatta International Airport despite being a wanted man in many countries around the world.

The fact he carried a rifle with him and was accompanied by armed bodyguards did not prove an obstacle to the Greek embassy officials who facilitated his entry into the country. Greecehas long had difficult relations with Turkey and has been accused of supporting the PKK.

They were reluctant to give the fugitive asylum in Greece but settled on Kenya as a hiding place where they would keep the Kurdish leader while trying to help him get asylum elsewhere. Ocalan timed his arrival in Nairobi in January 1999 poorly.

The US Embassy had been bombed only a few months earlier and, according to a New York Times report, there were more than 100 US investigators in the country. The Americans were the first to realise Ocalan was in town, just as they did recently when Sheikh Faisal turned up in Mombasa.

Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) operatives tracked Ocalan to the Greek ambassador’s residence in Nairobi’s upmarket Muthaiga estate. The Americans did nothing. But there was also another team tracking Ocalan’s every move.

Secret service

The Mossad, Israel’s national intelligence agency, was brought into the search for Ocalan in November 1998. The story of how they tracked Ocalan down in Nairobi is detailed in journalist Gordon Thomas’ history of the Israeli secret service, Gideon’s Spies.

According to the book, Israel was drawn into the saga following a phone call that Turkey’s Prime Minister Bulent Ecevit made to his Israeli counterpart Benjamin Netanyahu, asking for help in tracking Ocalan.

Turkey, one of the few democracies in the Near East, is a key ally of Israel, and Mr Netanyahu quickly agreed to help them capture Ocalan as long as the Turkish secret services would agree to claim all credit for his arrest and keep the Mossad role secret. The then head of the Mossad Efraim Halevy was briefed by Mr Netanyahu and assigned a team of six agents for the operation.

The effort was given the codename ‘‘Watchful’’ presumably because, unlike the Mossad team which is suspected to have murdered a Hamas leader in Dubai last month, the brief for this group was merely to track Ocalan but do nothing until they were instructed otherwise.

The search began in Rome. Six agents, including two technicians (yahalomin as they are known in Mossad circles) and a bat leveyha (female agent) set up a surveillance centre near Ocalan’s apartment not far from the Vatican. The female agent’s brief was to attempt to make contact with the fugitive. But Ocalan abruptly left Italy.

Denied asylum

The team followed him frantically to Spain, Morocco, Tunisia, Syria and Portugal where Ocalan kept turning up and leaving as fast as he had arrived after being denied asylum. A breakthrough came when a Dutch official told the Mossad chief in Amsterdam that Ocalan had taken a KLM flight to Nairobi.

On February 5, 1999, the ‘‘Watchful’’ team arrived at JKIA. They were in friendly territory. The Mossad and Kenya’s National Security Intelligence Service (NSIS) and its forerunner, the Special Branch, have always had a special relationship.

Mossad routinely shares intelligence information with Kenya as part of what the book calls an “understanding” between the two countries. Mossad is also allowed to operate a safe house in Nairobi and to work closely with the NSIS.

The Mossad team tracked down Ocalan to the Greek ambassador’s residence, presumably after sharing intelligence with the Americans.

Constant surveillance

They kept the house under constant surveillance before a call from Mossad head Halevy changed everything. He ordered the team to capture Ocalan as soon as possible. The team decided to infiltrate Ocalan’s security team by tracking down one of Ocalan’s bodyguards while he was having a drink near the Norfolk Hotel.

One of the agents approached him and spoke to him in fluent Kurdish to win his trust. The pair established a rapport and Ocalan’s bodyguard told the agent that Ocalan was increasingly uneasy because all his applications for asylum, including the most recent one to South Africa, had been rejected. The Mossad agents already knew this because they were intercepting all communication from the Greek embassy in Nairobi.

A few days later, the agent who had made friends with the Ocalan bodyguard was instructed to meet him and relay a message that his (Ocalan’s) life was in danger and he should leave the ambassador’s residence immediately. The pair of ‘‘Kurds’’ agreed that the best option was to smuggle Ocalan to the mountainous Kurdish region in the north of Iraq, where it would be difficult to capture Ocalan.

Phone calls

The Israeli made this suggestion because the intercepted phone calls at the embassy had indicated this as an option Ocalan was considering. When the deal was sealed to smuggle Ocalan out of the embassy, his days as a (relatively) free man were numbered.

On February 14, 1999, a Falcon-900 executive jet arrived at Wilson Airport. The pilot indicated he had come to pick up a group of businessmen in Nairobi. Later that afternoon, a team of NSIS operatives and Mossad agents went to the Greek ambassador’s house and surrounded it. They knew Ocalan had packed up to leave for northern Iraq.

But, according to a senior NSIS official with knowledge of the operation who spoke to the Sunday Nation on condition of anonymity, they did not wait for Ocalan to make his way out of the compound. They burst into the residence, arrested him and whisked him off to Wilson Airport.

There, Ocalan was blindfolded, his fingerprints taken and faxed to authorities in the Israeli capital Tel Aviv and Ankara, Turkey. The drama was only beginning. Kenyan authorities had agreed to cooperate on the capture of Ocalan apparently without understanding the diplomatic crisis his arrest would trigger.

Over 12 million Kurds, among whom Ocalan enjoys almost messianic status, were outraged. Kenyan embassies in Europe were quickly surrounded by protesting mobs. Two officials at the Kenyan Embassy in Paris were kidnapped and later released. Three protesters were shot dead in the chaos.

The situation was not helped when Ocalan, apparently unaware of Mossad’s role in his capture, placed the blame squarely on Kenyan authorities. With the crisis getting out of control, Dr Godana issued an order shutting down all Kenya’s 34 embassies abroad.

Then the questions began. How had Kenya allowed Ocalan into its territory? Had money changed hands between the agencies which helped to capture Ocalan and Kenyan authorities? A report by the French news agency AFP alleged Dr Godana, appreciating the possible consequences of Ocalan’s capture, had opposed the decision to authorise his capture but had been overruled by President Moi.

Greece was equally embarrassed. It was quick to distance itself from the arrest of Ocalan, saying it had no role in handing him over to his captors. Facing hostile questioning from Kenyan authorities, George Costoulas, the country’s ambassador at the time, retreated to the country’s embassy on the 13th floor of Nation Centre and did not leave for three days.

Kenya demanded that he be recalled to Greece. On Wednesday, February 16, a senior Greeke government official Pavlos Apostolidis arrived in the country to apologise. He said the country had referred Ocalan to Kenya because they thought the “situation in Kenya was better… In the final analysis our decision to send Ocalan to Kenya did as much harm to Greece as it would have done if he had been in Greece.”


As expected, the mood in Turkey was one of celebration. Prime Minister Costas Simitis, in keeping with his agreement with Mr Netanyahu, claimed credit for the capture and thanked the Turkish security forces. Turkish newspapers lavished praise on their security forces and published detailed accounts of what they thought had happened.

“When a Turkish officer grabbed his wrist and said ‘You’ve come to the end of the road, we are going to Turkey, Apo froze in horror,” reported the Sabah daily. Details of Mossad’s role would only emerge later. But Ocalan is unlikely to leave the remote Turkish island prison where he is serving his life sentence any time soon. 


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