Andrews Atta-Asamoah & Roba Sharamo, Senior Researcher & Head of Programme, African Conflict Prevention Programme, ISS Nairobi Office
Since the death of Osama bin Laden on 2 May this year, Al Qaeda has lost two more important operatives – Ilyas Kashmiri in Pakistan and Fazul Abdullah Mohammed, who was killed on 7 June in Somalia. The killing of these three men have all been in circumstances that many believe are a just end for extremists who have, over the years, left bitter memories in the minds of many innocent people across the world.
Fazul, who was killed by Somali government forces, is known to have masterminded the 1998 bombings of the United States embassies in Kenya and Tanzania and was the head of the Al Qaeda cell in East Africa. He is also believed to have been behind the Paradise Hotel attacks in Mombasa and an attempted missile strike on an Israeli charter flight in 2002. Since the 1998 bombing, he has been on the run and has been using Somalia as a haven where he is also a senior member of the Al Shabaab leadership responsible for foreign fighters and volunteers. In 2008, he escaped narrowly from capture from a home in Malindi in Kenya just minutes before anti-terrorism police officers crashed through his door. At the time, he is reported to have sneaked into Kenya from his base in Somalia to receive medical care for a kidney condition.
Fazul operated under different identities and had about ten fake names and forged international passports. His fluency in several regional languages was critical to him. He is believed to have disguised himself as either being African, Arab or Asian. Even as head of foreign fighters and volunteers in Al Shabaab, it appears not all of them knew his identity. Trainees in Lower Juba knew him as ‘Abu-Abdirahman the Canadian’. At the time of his death in Somalia he is reported to have been travelling under the identity of ‘Daniel Robinson’ with a fake South African passport. Transitional Federal Government (TFG) forces killed him after he lost his way and landed in a government-controlled security checkpoint. At the checkpoint, Mohammed Dhere a Kenyan extremist and Fazul’s driver, introduced his passenger who was then working on a laptop with an AK-47 on his laps as “ni wazee”, a Swahili phrase meaning “it’s the elders”. Upon realising they had ended up at the wrong checkpoint, Dhere tried to remove his pistol but the government forces opened fire leading to the death of East Africa’s, most notorious extremist.
Fazul’s death is obviously a big blow to the leadership of both Al Qaeda and Al Shabaab and to the myths about their abilities. It also opens the Al Qaeda cell in the region up to internal leadership wrangles as a result of the vacuum. Moreover, unconfirmed reports indicate that there are renewed internal tensions between indigenous and foreign commanders of Al-Shabaab exacerbated by the group’s recent loss of strategic districts in Mogadishu. The killing of Fazul might deepen these fault-lines. The regional cell of Al Qaeda is particularly the most affected because Fazul’s extensive experiences and contacts in the region have been lost and will take years to nurture. With the naming of Ayman al-Zawahiri as Al Qaeda’s new leader, it appears a replacement will certainly be named for the East African cell in the not too distant future. The group’s operations in the region will thus, no doubt, be slowed down, albeit temporarily. It is also going to have a huge impact on the relationship between Al Qaeda and its regional affiliates. This is principally because Fazul was instrumental in the network that existed between the international elements of Al Shabaab, in particular, and their networks outside the country.
Apart from the impact on the Al Shabaab’s network with outside elements of Al Qaeda, the Somali group will be impacted greatly because Fazul was a medium through which the Al Shabaab received some of its resources and operational direction, as well as moral support. Following his demise, these benefits to Al Shabaab will be hampered, at least for some time.
Importantly, the circumstances under which he made a wrong turn and ended up at the TFG-controlled checkpoint is still not clear. Leaving his base in Lower Juba and heading towards a frontline in Mogadishu with several mobile phones, medicine and cash of about US$41,000 may imply either that he was going to equip the frontline operatives with logistics or that Al Shabaab may be planning a major offensive requiring his tactical leadership and operational input.
It is, however, instructive that he was killed by government forces rather than forces of the African Union Mission in Somalia (AMISOM). First, the shots at Fazul and his driver were clean enough to indicate that the training of the TFG forces by regional and international partners are making some impact. This is clearly an indication of the impact that well-trained TFG forces are capable of making and Somali soldiers’ honest declaration of the cash found on him is quite reassuring of force’s integrity and discipline. Secondly, any retaliatory attacks by Al Shabaab in response to Fazul’s death will largely be directed within Somalia rather than at the troop contributing countries of AMISOM. A renewal of offences in Somalia against the TFG forces by Al Shabaab is therefore likely. A regional retaliation is also likely by Al Qaeda, aimed at registering its presence and activity in the region, particularly by whoever replaces Fazul. This will require the beefing up of regional and international security operations and intelligence gathering in the aftermath of Fazul’s death.
The ease with which Fazul was killed vis-à-vis his ability to thrive and swiftly operate in East Africa over the years, point to the fact that he has been able to operate in the region more as a result of the abysmal nature of the region’s vulnerabilities than his extreme prowess and swiftness at his game. It also points to the comfortable nature by which his calibre of people operates in Al Shabaab-controlled areas in South and Central Somalia. It thus raises a lot of crucial questions about regional security and effectiveness of law enforcement and counter-terrorism operations, especially regarding citizen participation and contribution to law enforcement in the region. Despite been wanted in official circles, Fazul’s identity is not one ordinary East Africans knew. As such, the ordinary people of the region were not brought on board attempts to track him down. The same applies to numerous people on various wanted lists of criminals in the region and beyond.
The fight against crime and extremism appears to be elitist and has become the preserve of only law enforcement and counter-terrorism agencies. Such disconnect makes it easy for dangerous elements of his calibre to thrive among innocent and unnoticing members of the society. There might be the need for the media houses in particular to give regular highlights aimed at familiarising citizens with images of people on wanted lists to enable the public to be on the look out for their arrests. Most importantly, the move towards community policing in the region is one that requires a great deal of commitment from governments and private sector as well, if law enforcement is to be enhanced in the region. The emergence of Fazul, his operations and eventual demise is a stark reminder that the battle for the hearts and minds of people rages unabated. In East Africa particularly, where Al Shabaab is persistently recruiting young people, a more robust response to radicalisation is the only way forward.