Thursday, October 25, 2012
By BENJAMIN WEISER
He was one of Al Qaeda’s most elusive operatives, a master of disguise who helped to orchestrate the deadly 1998 bombings of two American embassies in East Africa. He then stayed on the run for more than a dozen years until he was finally killed in 2011 in a late-night shootout at a security checkpoint in Somalia.
He was Fazul Abdullah Mohammed, Al Qaeda’s leader in East Africa and a field commander for The Shabab, a Somali terrorist group, officials have said. And now, it turns out, another of this man’s many secrets has been revealed: a 220-page single-spaced document described in court records as an autobiography.
“The main principle of our work in Kenya was to remain covert,” Mr. Mohammed wrote in one excerpt quoted in court papers. In another passage, he said, “I worked hard on the new Kenyan and Tanzanian brothers to raise their morale and to clarify the fundamentals of jihad in their minds.”
In yet another section, Mr. Mohammed told how he stayed alive, given his clandestine mission, by moving to a house whose location was not known to anyone, including to fellow operatives.
“Severance of all associations with previous places and colleagues is my successful way to survive in my line of work,” he wrote.
The full autobiography is apparently not public. But excerpts were filed Wednesday evening in federal court in Manhattan by lawyers for another Al Qaeda figure, Wadih El-Hage, a naturalized American citizen from Lebanon who had worked as a close aide to Osama bin Laden.
Mr. El-Hage, who was convicted in 2001 in Manhattan of terrorism conspiracy, was depicted by prosecutors as a dangerous operative, privy to Bin Laden’s secrets and adept at carrying his messages.
But many of the excerpts cited by his lawyers show Mr. Mohammed complaining, almost whining at times, about Mr. El-Hage, who was once his boss in Nairobi, where the East Africa Al Qaeda cell was based.
By Mr. Mohammed’s account, Mr. El-Hage appeared more interested in making money buying and selling precious stones, even at the risk of revealing the cell’s mission.
“I advised Wadih to stop the trading because it will expose our real activities,” Mr. Mohammed wrote. “But Wadih used to say that the brothers do not support us with our daily life expenses, and he needed to trade in order to make a living.”
Mr. El-Hage’s lawyers, Joshua L. Dratel and Sam A. Schmidt, make it clear that they want to use the writings by Mr. Mohammed, who also was known as Haroun, to show that Mr. El-Hage was not as culpable in the conspiracy as the government contended, and should be granted some leniency when he is resentenced. (Mr. El-Hage’s conviction was upheld on appeal but his life sentence was vacated.)
But prosecutors sharply disagree with these arguments, according to a letter to Judge Lewis A. Kaplan that is part of the filing. In the letter, two prosecutors, Sean S. Buckley and Aimee Hector, contend that “the Haroun autobiography thoroughly inculpates” Mr. El-Hage.
They cite passages in which Mr. Mohammed described Mr. El-Hage traveling to Sudan to meet with Bin Laden and his being “in charge of finance/administration” of the terrorist cell.
There is no suggestion in the filings that the memoir, which was translated from Arabic, is not genuine. Nor do the filings indicate when it was written or how it was recovered. It is also impossible to know from the excerpts whether Mr. Mohammed was writing truthfully.
But the document is an unusual find, said Karen J. Greenberg, director of the Center on National Security at Fordham University School of Law.
“Whether it’s an honest account or not,” she said, “it does not change the fact of how little of this kind of evidence we have, and it makes it immensely valuable because we are always guessing: who are these people?”