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Al Shabaab grows East Africa wings as security chiefs warn of new threat

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Women in Mombasa, Kenya, demonstrate against recruitment of their sons.

Women in Mombasa, Kenya, demonstrate against recruitment of their sons. 

By CHARLES ONYANGO-OBBO

Posted  Sunday, June 19   2011 at  13:54
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The killing last week of Fazul Abdullah, the terror mastermind of the August 1998 twin bombings of the US embassies in Nairobi and Dar es Salaam, removed one of the biggest threats to East African security.

However, according to a senior Kenyan security official, Fazul’s demise may have come too late. This, the official said, is because Fazul, who was thought to be the key Al Qaeda leader in the region, East Africa region, had already worked with his Al Shabaab allies to transform the Somali militant group into a “pan-East African entity.”

Fazul, who held a Kenyan passport, was wanted not just for the 1998 embassy bombings that killed least 250 people, but was also named as the planner of the 2002 bombing of the Kikambala Hotel in Mombasa in November 2002 that killed 15 people, and an attempt at almost the same time to shoot down a passenger jet carrying Israeli tourists in the same area. He eluded capture despite a $5 million bounty on his head.

Fazul was killed by Somali government forces on June 8 at a roadblock near Mogadishu, along with a senior leader of Al Shabaab. The Shabaab functions largely as an Al Qaeda satellite.

The radical group first gave notice of how far its East African tentacles had reached, and how deadly it was, in July last year, when it set off two bombs at sports clubs in Kampala where football fans were watching the World Cup finals. Nearly 70 people were killed in the attacks. The Shabaab said the attacks were to punish Uganda for having troops in the African Union’s peacekeeping mission in Somalia (Amisom). The only other country with troops in Amisom is Burundi, but suspected Shabaab suicide bombers were intercepted at the Rwanda-Burundi border at the same time, and thus Bujumbura escaped the Kampala nightmare.

Though there have been disputes about how many of the people subsequently arrested in Uganda and Kenya were actually conspirators in the July Kampala attacks, there has been evidence that links some of them to the plot. The arrests however, surprised everybody in the region, where a stereotype of what a terrorist was that he was likely to be Somali, or from the Coastal region of Kenya, and most definitely Muslim.

However, the majority of the people arrested shortly after the bombings in Kampala were not Somali. In all, the public figure given by Uganda authorities for the number of suspects arrested was 32. Of these, 14 were Ugandans, 10 Kenyans, 6 Somali, one Rwandan, and one Pakistani.

In November 2010, 18 of the suspects were acquitted, but after they were freed, the Uganda police issued an arrest warrant for three new suspects — Muhammad Ali, Jaberi Mahmood Ali and Nyamadondo Hijal Sulaiman, a Tanzanian national.

The majority of the Kenyan suspects were not Coastals — they were from the Central, Western, and Nyanza Provinces of the country. And some were only recent Muslim converts, meaning they had probably been recruited into Al Shabaab when they were Christians, or traditional religious adherents.

Fazul and the Shabaab had shown a sharp understanding of the how East African prejudices work, and figured that the stereotype about what a terrorist in the region would look or behave like, meant security forces were not keeping an eye out for non-Somali and non-Coastal people.

New face of terror

The Doubting Thomases changed their position when in December last year bombs went off at the Nairobi terminus of the Kampala Coach bus service. At least three people were killed by the explosion next to the bus. Two suspects were arrested: Aboud Rogo Mohamed, a preacher in Mombasa, suspected of having links with the Tanzanian man who died after his luggage exploded at the Kampala Coach terminus.

In June 2005 Mohamed, together with three others, was acquitted of the Kikambala 2002 bombing.

The second person arrested was Abubakar Sharif Ahmed, a Muslim elder from Mombasa. He was also charged with being a member of Al Shabaab

The bombs were thought to be destined for Uganda, and had originated in Tanzania.

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