By Michelle Shephard
Thursday, July 12, 2012
NAIROBI—A cache of intelligence found on the body of Al Qaeda’s African leader, and inside the bullet-ridden Toyota truck he tried to ram through a Somali government checkpoint, provides a chilling look at the global aspirations of Somalia’s al Shabab.
Obtained exclusively by the Toronto Star, the meticulously prepared documents that detail plots for a kidnapping and attacks on the prestigious Eton College, Jewish neighbourhoods and the posh Ritz and Dorchester hotels in London, were uncovered last year when senior Al Qaeda leader Fazul Abdullah Mohammed, 38, was shot dead by Somali forces.
Fazul was indicted in the United States for the 1998 U.S. embassy bombings in Tanzania and Kenya that killed 224. He was a close ally of Osama bin Laden and considered the key link between Al Qaeda’s top leaders in Afghanistan and Pakistan and the Shabab, the terrorist group that has grown out of Somalia’s decades of chaos.
Born in the Comoros Islands off the coast of Mozambique, the elusive militant who spoke five languages had a $5-million reward on his head and travelled on a variety of forged documents. Before his death in June 2011, the FBI’s website stated that he “likes to wear baseball caps and tends to dress casually. He is very good with computers.”
Somalia’s Shabab, which has reigned in parts of the country through a terror campaign of suicide bombings and a restrictive interpretation of Islamic law, is now at its weakest since it formed in late 2006, thanks to the loss of senior advisers like Fazul, infighting among the leadership, and the military offensive by joint African forces, which has pushed the group into strongholds in Somalia’s southern port town of Kismayo and the Galgala Mountains in Puntland.
But according to various senior intelligence, security and law enforcement officials — all of whom spoke to the Star on the condition of anonymity — there is evidence the group continues to plot large-scale attacks outside Somalia, despite being bogged down in military battles.
Kenya has been bracing for such an attack since its forces entered Somalia in October, and some fear that one is imminent as a fight for Kismayo nears.
But as the Fazul documents show, the group’s ambitions go beyond the Horn of Africa. When found last year, they gave intelligence officials the clearest picture yet of some of these foreign goals, prompting the U.S. and the U.K. to increase security around sites that were named as targets. Intelligence officials fear that such plans did not die with the Al Qaeda leader.
News leaked last year that the Eton school, Ritz and Dorchester were on the list of intended targets found in the documents with Fazul, but no details were given at the time.
The documents are chilling, both in the level of terror they describe and in their tone. They were written with a business-case formality that analyzes the pros and cons of proposed attacks. It is not clear who authored the reports.
“Our objectives are to strike London with low-cost operations that would cause a heavy blow amongst the hierarchy and Jewish communities,” begins the document labelled “International Operations.”
“These attacks must be backed with a carefully planned media campaign to show why we chose our targets to refute hypocrites, clear doubts amongst Muslims and also inspire Muslim youth to copy.”
The next two pages show specific plans for the hotels, for Eton school on opening day and for London’s Stamford Hill and Golders Green neighbourhoods, which are populated with “tens of thousands of Jews crammed in a small area.”
“The plan is to hit the hotel when it’s fully booked to ensure maximum casualties . . . key players from all around the world stay in these hotels.
“We plan to book in advance,” the document continues, “and take plenty of petrol with the brother and then set the 1st, 2nd, 3rd floor on fire . . . while we block the stairs so no one can run down.
“The martyrdom seeker would then make his way to the exits and start killing any one fleeing the area.”
Other scenarios are laid out, including one where a fire alarm is pulled and as guests emerge, attackers would “shower them with petrol bombs and gunfire.”
Under “general summary of mission,” the report states that the attackers should be trained in Somalia for two months and that the operatives alone would know their mission.
“The brothers will be pushed through many battles to see how they react under pressure and they will be analyzed to see if they can keep their composure.”
Although time periods are specified, such as striking the Jewish community during Hanukkah, there is no mention of London’s Olympics — which starts this month and has security agencies worldwide on high alert.
There is also no indication in the documents obtained by the Star that these plans were anything but aspirational.
In addition to the London plots, the Burundian, Ethiopian and Ugandan embassies in Nairobi are also on the hit list — presumably in retaliation for their joining the joint operations to battle the Shabab in Somalia.
A separate document outlines another plot to kidnap Sudan’s deputy ambassador to Kenya in Nairobi and lists his phone number, licence plate, a route he travelled frequently and his preferred mosque, among other details. The plot is an attempt to press Sudan to release one of the group’s fighters, identified only as Abu Abdullah.
The “Plan B” kidnapping scenario involved taking the diplomat to a safe house in Garissa — the Kenyan town near Somalia’s border where masked militants attacked two churches last week, killing 17.
There are other references to Kenya in the documents written in English and Arabic, including an analysis copied from Wikipedia about the violence that followed the country’s last election. Websites selling military equipment, such as a Chinese-made night vision scope and compass binoculars, are also copied. An Arabic document talks about “time management” and includes tips on keeping a workplace organized.
More than 50 short video clips were also discovered. Most appear to be taken from the back of a car, perhaps by Fazul himself. One shows a training drill for a drive-by shooting. Another displays carloads of fighters flying the black Al Qaeda flag in a town that looks like Kismayo.
There are various clips of camels, cows, children and one 52-second segment of boys playing cricket that ends with a teenager slowly passing the camera on rollerblades.
Fazul was killed just six weeks after bin Laden, and U.S. officials called his death another major blow to Al Qaeda.
“It is a just end for a terrorist who brought so much death and pain to so many innocents in Nairobi and Dar es Salaam and elsewhere — Tanzanians, Kenyans, Somalis and our own embassy personnel,” U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton said at the time.
In addition to his role in the embassy attacks, Fazul was the suspected mastermind of the 2002 bombing of an Israeli-owned hotel in the Kenyan city of Mombasa that killed 15, and a failed attempt to shoot down an Israeli airliner at the same time.
Although Fazul, who had extensive experience in Afghanistan before moving to Somalia and Kenya, was Al Qaeda’s link to the Shabab, he was critical of the Somali group.
In his autobiography — a 1,156-page Arabic tome posted on a jihadi website in 2009 and recently analyzed by Nelly Lahoud of West Point’s Combating Terrorism Center — he warns that some regional groups are misrepresenting Al Qaeda.
He calls himself Al Qaeda’s “confidential secretary” and one of the “Sheikh’s men,” taking orders only from bin Laden, and criticizes the Shabab’s political immaturity and its attacks on civilians.
That is partly why Lahoud questions whether Fazul authored the document that included an attack on Eton.
“A school is unlike him,” she said. “In his manuscript, he claims in 1998 they could have blown up the Israeli embassy, they had enough material, and yet they decided against it because there was a school nearby.
“It would be interesting for me just to see whether he changed, because he stopped writing the manuscript in 2009, but it would have gone against what he said before.”
Fazul’s criticism of the Shabab is believed to have influenced bin Laden to deny a request from the Shabab’s Somali leaders to formally merge with Al Qaeda.
That is why many believe Fazul’s death was a set-up.
“He does not strike me as somebody who would drive into a checkpoint, just like that,” Lahoud said. “My sense is that he was too operationally savvy to make such a blunder.”
The theory among intelligence officials is that with bin Laden gone, Somali leaders wanted Fazul out of the picture, too, and gave him erroneous co-ordinates for a Shabab safe area on the day he was killed.
In January, six months after Fazul’s death, Al Qaeda’s new head Ayman al Zawahiri welcomed a merger with the Shabab.