One of the men targeted by the U.S. military in Somalia is an al Qaeda operative who has been a fugitive from U.S. justice for eight years.
Fazul Abdullah Mohammed, known as Haroun Fazil to his fellow terrorists, had a key role in the twin truck bombings of two U.S. embassies in Kenya and Tanzania on Aug. 7, 1998, that killed 224 people and injured thousands. He has also trained Islamic militants in Somalia and allegedly organized more recent attacks on Israelis tourists in Kenya.
"He's an extraordinarily dangerous individual," said Dan Coleman, a retired FBI agent who spent years hunting al Qaeda. "He's the real deal."
According to testimony and evidence introduced during the 2001 federal trial for the embassy bombings in New York, Mohammed was the ground leader of the Kenya terrorist operation. He rented the walled villa where the conspirators assembled the Nairobi truck bomb — and on the day of the attacks, he drove a white pickup as lead vehicle ahead of the explosives-laden truck toward the embassy.
"He hung around to watch the explosion," said Coleman, currently a senior consultant for Harbinger Technologies. While rescuers dug through the rubble for bodies and survivors, Mohammed fled to his native Comoros, a group of islands, or archipelago, off eastern Africa.
Mohammed, thought to be 34, has lived in Pakistan, Sudan and Kenya, where he also holds citizenship following his marriage to a Kenyan woman. He speaks some Arabic, French, Swahili, English and Comoran, and is known to have at least 17 aliases.
As a teenager, after a brief stint in Pakistan to pursue an education, Mohammed reputedly took up arms with the mujahideen, or Islamic "holy warriors," in Afghanistan in the waning days of the anti-Soviet resistance. In 1991 and 1992, he trained at paramilitary camps run by al Qaeda, becoming an explosives expert and skilled at altering passports and travel documents.
In the early 1990s, Mohammed and other operatives were dispatched by al Qaeda leader Osama bin Laden to Somalia to train tribes opposed to U.N. and U.S. presence there.
"He [bin Laden] said that the snake is America, and we have to stop them. We have to cut the head and stop them, what they doing now in Horn of Africa," al Qaeda defector Jamal Al Fadl told the jury during the embassy bombings trial.
During an infamous October 1993 clash in Mogadishu, 17 U.S. Army Rangers died after their Black Hawk helicopters were shot down with shoulder-fired missiles like the Stingers mujahideen had learned to use in Afghanistan.
By the mid-'90s, bin Laden had ordered surveillance of American installations in East Africa, including the U.S. embassy in Kenya, where the U.S. intervention in Somalia had been coordinated.
One of Mohammed's compatriots was Mohamed Sadeek Odeh, an al Qaeda soldier who also spent time in Somalia and who became a key planner of the Kenya bombing. At Odeh's wedding in 1994, Mohammed met Wadih el Hage, a Lebanese-born American and former bin Laden aide who facilitated the east Africa cell.
Skilled with computers and a good typist, Mohammed wrote reports about the cell for bin Laden. "The security position of the cell is at 100 percent danger," he wrote in an Aug. 1997 report later found in el Hage's seized laptop computer. "Which leave us no choice but to think and work hard to foil the enemy's plans who is working day and night to catch one of us or to gather more information about any of us." Within weeks, el Hage's residence was raided, and he retreated to the United States.
In the summer of 1998, after escaping Kenya for Comoros, Mohammed flew to Dubai, and then made his way back to Afghanistan. Just missing him by days in Comoros, FBI agents found his boots laced with explosive residue and his briefcase containing passports for the Kenya bomb truck driver, who killed himself in the attack, and the Kenya bomb passenger who survived, Mohamed al-'Owhali, who was later captured.
Federal prosecutors indicted Mohammed for the murder of 213 people, including 12 Americans, killed in Nairobi blast. Another 11 were killed in the Dar es Salaam, Tanzania, bombing.
Mohammed was never caught before el Hage, Odeh, al-'Owhali and another man stood trial for the embassy bombings. In 2001, a jury convicted all four defendants; they're now serving life sentences.
Mohammed was still a presence in the trial — seen at one point on
Mohammed had gone to the scene because al Qaeda feared its then-military leader, Abu Ubaidah al-Banshiri, was among 1,000 people who had drowned in the accident. He did. One of the accident's survivors, who happened to be Abu Ubaidah's brother-in-law, described seeing Mohammed there. Together they looked for Abu Ubaidah's body — but never found it.
If he were captured and put on trial, Mohammed would face the death penalty. The United States, which has Mohammed's DNA and fingerprints from belongings seized in Kenya and Comoros, offered a $5 million reward for information leading to his arrest.
Mohammed is also suspected by Kenyan officials of organizing the Nov. 26, 2002, truck bombing of the Israeli-owned Paradise Hotel, in coastal Mombasa, which killed 15 people, and of coordinating the same-day launch of two shoulder-fired missiles at an Israeli airliner taking off from Mombasa, Kenya. The missiles missed.
In June, Assistant U.S. Secretary of State for African Affairs, Jendayi Frazer, called on Islamist militia leaders in Somalia to turn over Mohammed and two other al Qaeda operatives believed to be hunkered down in Somalia — Kenyan Saleh Ali Saleh Nabhan, who allegedly engaged in the Mombasa plots, and Sudanese Abu Taha al-Sudani, who was described by Al Fadl in court as a explosives trainer who led al Qaeda incursions in Somalia in the early 1990s. Neither Nabhan nor al-Sudani is under indictment in the United States.
By Phil Hirschkorn