Kenya reviews al-Qaeda's trail


Published: Sunday, December 1, 2002 at 6:01 a.m.
Last Modified: Saturday, November 30, 2002 at 11:27 p.m.
MOMBASA, Kenya - As investigators struggled to determine who was behind the attacks on Israeli targets here on Thursday, they are re-examining evidence that East Africa has served as both a useful base and a target for Osama bin Laden's terror network for nearly a decade.
"We are aware that Kenya has been bombed before by al-Qaeda and we don't want to rule them out," Julius Sunkuli, Kenya's internal security minister, said on Saturday. Sunkuli, with Israeli and American help, is coordinating the investigation of the bombing of an Israeli-owned hotel and the missile attack on an Israeli airliner. The hotel attack killed 10 Kenyans and three Israelis, along with three suicide bombers.
But while al-Qaeda remains a strong suspect in the case, the Kenyan police reported few leads. On Saturday, the police released two of the 12 people who had been held for questioning - an American woman and her Spanish husband who had hastily checked out of a nearby hotel after the bombing. Officials said the two were apparently leaving because they were frightened and were not suspected of any involvement.
The other 10 people still undergoing interrogation are six Pakistanis and four Somalis, none of whom have been confirmed to have connections to al-Qaeda, officials said. The men had been detained several days before the attacks, for illegally entering Mombasa's port on a small boat.
Kenyan investigators called on the public again on Saturday to report any suspicious behavior. But the record of recent years suggests the difficulties they may have in cracking the case.
American intelligence officials have said that suspects include al-Qaeda and Al Itihaad al Islamiya, a Somali terrorist group believed to have links to al-Qaeda. Evidence of al-Qaeda's operations in Africa emerged even before the 1998 bombings of the U.S. Embassies in Kenya and Tanzania. But rooting out the terrorist network has proven especially challenging for intelligence agencies around the world.
Most of the suspected al-Qaeda operatives arrested by the Kenyan police after the Sept. 11 attacks on the World Trade Center and Pentagon were later released. In one instance, the police announced the capture of a senior aide to bin Laden, only to say later that they had mistakenly taken in a man with a similar name.
"To my knowledge there were a number of arrests but nothing ever stuck," said a U.S. official who has monitored the Kenyan investigations of al-Qaeda.
American officials have had similar difficulties in tracking the organization in Africa, where porous borders and the easy availability of fraudulent passports make it easy for people to move around unnoticed and to bring weapons along for the ride.
"We have always been very concerned about the susceptibility that Africa offers to terrorist organizations," a senior U.S. official said on Saturday in a telephone interview from Washington. "These countries have huge borders, long coastlines and populations in some areas that could be hospitable to terrorists."
Difficulties have also been encountered in Tanzania and Uganda, where the local police rounded up scores of suspected al-Qaeda members after Sept. 11 but never established definitive ties to the terrorist organization.
Several months after the attacks in the United States, Uganda's president, Yoweri Museveni, said, "The Americans recently captured some documents" highlighting a possible Uganda link to al-Qaeda.
"They discovered that Uganda was targeted for 'liberation' " by bin Laden's network, Museveni said.
Despite the difficulty in tracking al-Qaeda operatives in Africa, it is known that bin Laden once lived in Sudan, which borders on Kenya. According to evidence from last year's trial in New York of four men charged with conspiracy in the bombing of the American Embassy in Nairobi, bin Laden sent some of his men to Kenya in 1993 to scout out bombing targets. These included not only the American Embassy but also unspecified Israeli interests.
Evidence introduced in the trial also indicates that al-Qaeda has operated in the Kenyan capital since at least 1993, and in Mombasa since 1994.
In Kenya, American investigators have said, al-Qaeda established safe houses for its members and others who were passing through. It used small businesses and relief organizations to subsidize and conceal its activities, and it made the country a jumping-off point for operations in other countries in the region.
For example, American officials said, a letter the authorities in Nairobi seized in 1997 that was written by a member of the Kenya cell warned that the Americans knew that bin Laden's operatives in Kenya had helped to train the fighters who attacked American troops in Somalia in 1993, an assault in which 18 American soldiers died.
"They know that since Kenya was the main gateway for those members, there must be a center in Kenya," the letter said. The letter was found at the home in Nairobi belonging to Wadih El-Hage, who American investigators said had served as bin Laden's personal secretary and then moved to Kenya in 1994 to help run the Kenya cell.
El-Hage and other senior aides to bin Laden took an active role in the Kenya base, American officials said. In 1993, for example, Khalid al-Fawwaz, who would later become a spokesman for bin Laden in Britain, started a business in Nairobi called Asma Limited.
In 1994, El-Hage established another business there, called Tanzanite King, and a relief organization, called Help Africa People.
These businesses and organizations, American officials said, allowed al-Qaeda to generate money for terrorism, and to cloak its activities behind seemingly legitimate fronts.
Eventually, Fawwaz transferred the Nairobi-based Asma Limited to the name of one of bin Laden's military commanders, Abu Ubaidah al-Banshiri, according to court documents.
In August 1994, Mohammed Saddiq Odeh, a Jordanian member of al-Qaeda who had been trained in the camps in Afghanistan, arrived in Mombasa, records from the embassy bombings trial indicate. Odeh later told the authorities after his arrest in late 1998 that he liked Kenya because it was a quiet country, and that he wanted to settle down in the Muslim area of Mombasa.
That same year, according to court records, another of bin Laden's military commanders, Muhammad Atef, who would later be killed in the bombing in Afghanistan, visited Odeh in Mombasa, and gave him a fiberglass boat to start a wholesale fishing business for al-Qaeda.
Under the arrangement, Odeh could take whatever money he needed to live, and would give the rest to al-Qaeda.
Some U.S. authorities expressed doubt before the embassy bombings that al-Qaeda would also use Kenya as a target because its members lived there. But as early as 1993 and 1994, bin Laden had sent a top aide, Ali M. Mohamed, on a reconnaissance mission to Nairobi, to scout out bombing targets, according to evidence presented at the bombings trial. These included the U.S. Embassy, as well as British, French and Israeli targets.
In 1997, according to court documents, El-Hage carried a message from bin Laden in Afghanistan back to Kenya, to activate the Kenyan cell. On Aug. 7, 1998, al-Qaeda operatives blew up the American Embassy in Nairobi, killing more than 200 people, including 12 Americans, and wounding thousands. El-Hage and Odeh were two of the four men convicted in 2001 in the embassy bombings conspiracy case. Both are serving life sentences in prison.
Despite two major attacks in the past four years with possible ties to al-Qaeda, many Kenyans still find it difficult to believe that terrorists may be operating in their midst.
"I don't think there is an al-Qaeda cell based here or that we have the kind of fanaticism that al-Qaeda relies on," said Nayib Ballala, a Muslim who served as mayor of Mombasa and is now a candidate for the city's parliamentary seat.
"These are people who have a mission and they came into Kenya - twice now - to carry out that mission."

Reader comments posted to this article may be published in our print edition. All rights reserved. This copyrighted material may not be re-published without permission. Links are encouraged.

Comments are currently unavailable on this article

▲ Return to Top