Fazul Abdullah Mohammed, the main target of the U.S. military action Monday in Somalia, is master of disguises who speaks several languages and likes to wear baseball caps.
One of the FBI’s most wanted, he has a $5 million price on his head for allegedly planning the 1998 attacks on the U.S. Embassies in Nairobi and Dar es Salaam, Tanzania, which killed 225 people.
He is also suspected of planning the car bombing of a beach resort in Kenya and the near simultaneous attempt to shoot down an Israeli airliner in 2002. Ten Kenyans and three Israelis were killed in the blast at the hotel, 12 miles north of Mombassa. The missiles missed the airliner.
Fazul, 32, joined al-Qaida in Afghanistan and trained there with Osama bin Laden, according to the transcript of an FBI interrogation of a known associate. He came to Kenya in the mid-1990s, married a local woman, became a citizen and started teaching at a religious school near Lamu, just 60 miles south of Ras Kamboni, Somalia, where one of the airstrikes took place Monday.
Largely isolated, the coast north of Lamu is predominantly Muslim and many residents are of Arab descent. Boats from Lamu often visit Somalia and the Persian Gulf, making the Kenya-Somalia border area ideal for him to escape.
A slight, youthful man born in Comoros, he is a master of disguises, able to appear African, South Asian or Arab. He speaks French, Arabic, Swahili and English and the FBI says he likes to dress casually and wear baseball caps.
Kenyan and U.S. authorities believe Fazul has been hiding in Somalia since the 2002 hotel attack. In 2003, the CIA was offering rewards to Somali warlords in return for capturing al-Qaida suspects. At least two were captured, but Fazul managed to evade them with the help of Somali Islamic extremists.
In June 2003, the U.S. Embassy shut down for a week and nonessential personnel were flown out of the country when Kenyan police captured an al-Qaida suspect who said the Fazul’s East Africa cell was about to strike again by flying a bomb-laden aircraft into the embassy.
Fazul was briefly captured by Kenyan police for credit card fraud, but the officers did not recognize him as a terrorist suspect. He escaped the next day.
Islamic Courts link
In Somalia, he was protected by members of Al-Ittihad al-Islami, an organization listed by the United States as a terrorist group linked to al-Qaida. The leader of Al-Ittihad, Sheik Hassan Dahir Aweys, later became the key organizer of the Council of Islamic Courts in January 2006.
The Islamic courts drove the CIA-backed warlords from Mogadishu in June, and by August controlled most of southern Somalia.
Within weeks, U.S. Assistant Secretary of State for African Affairs Jendayi Frazer said she had information that the Islamic courts were sheltering Fazul and two other terror suspects: Kenyan Saleh Ali Saleh Nabhan and Abu Taha al-Sudani, a Sudanese.
Aweys and other Islamic leaders have repeatedly denied having ties to international terrorists, but as the months passed, Frazer said Fazul and the others were becoming key players in the Islamic court movement.
Ethiopia intervened on Dec. 24, and over 10 days drove the Islamic leaders, and the alleged terrorist suspects, into the rugged, forested southern corner of Somalia. The U.S. Navy sent three ships to patrol the coast to make sure they didn’t try to escape by sea, while the Kenyan military deployed troops to their northern border.
There were wildly varying reports of casualties in Monday’s two airstrikes on the coast and near the Kenyan border, and it could take weeks, if ever, to determine if Fazul was killed or escaped again.