Target of Somalia air strike was one of the FBI's most wanted

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The Independent Online

The target of US air strikes in Somalia is one of the FBI's most wanted terrorists and the suspected mastermind of two major terrorist attacks in East Africa.

Fazul Abdullah Mohammed, a slight, youthful man born in Comoros, has a US$5 million price on his head for allegedly planning the 1998 attacks on the US 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, 20 kilometers north of Mombasa. The missiles missed the airliner.

Fazul, 32, joined al-Qa'ida 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 100 kilometers (62 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 an ideal escape route.

A master of disguises, Fazul can 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 US authorities believe Fazul has been hiding in Somalia since the 2002 hotel attack. In 2003, the US Central Intelligence Agency was offering rewards to Somali warlords in return for capturing al-Qa'ida suspects. At least two were captured, but Fazul managed to evade arrest with the help of Somali Islamic extremists.

In June 2003, the US Embassy shut down for a week and nonessential personnel were flown out of the country when Kenyan police captured an al-Qa'ida suspect who said Fazul's East Africa cell was about to strike again by flying a bomb-laden aircraft into the embassy.

Fazul was captured by Kenyan police in 2002 for credit card fraud, but the officers did not recognize him as a terrorist suspect. He escaped after just a day in custody.

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-Qa'ida. The leader of Al-Ittihad, Sheik Hassan Dahir Aweys, later became the key organizer of an Islamic movement with aspirations to run the country in January 2006.

The Islamic movement drove CIA-backed warlords from Mogadishu in June, and by August controlled most of southern Somalia.

Within weeks, US Assistant Secretary of State for African Affairs Jendayi Frazer said she had information that the Islamic movement was 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 movement.

Ethiopia intervened on 24 December, and in just 10 days drove the Islamic leaders, and the alleged terrorist suspects, into the rugged, forested southern corner of Somalia. The US 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.

Casualty reports from Monday's two US air strikes on the coast and near the Kenyan border varied wildly. It could take weeks, if ever, to determine if Fazul was killed or escaped again.