Prelude: How masterminds plotted 1998 attack under the police's nose

1998 Nairobi US Embassy bombing planners Wadih El Hage and Fazul Mohamed. [File, Standard]

A year before the 1998 Nairobi US Embassy bombing, CID (now DCI) detectives and FBI agents raided a house in Nairobi, where Wadih El Hage, an ex-secretary to Osama bin Laden, lived.

This was after intelligence reports showed the terror network was planning attacks in East Africa.

El Hage had left home hours before the raid, which was being undertaken under the pretext of searching for stolen goods. El Hage had attracted the attention of the FBI after intelligence showed he had worked for bin Laden, when he was hiding in Sudan.

At the home, the security men found El Hage's mother-in-law. However, she did not reveal much about her fugitive son-in-law.

But they found something very crucial – El Hage's computer. On the hard drive, the CID and FBI found a chilling letter, which they believed had been written by Fazul Mohamed, who was El Hage's houseguest. Fazul, who also had links with bin Laden, had been living with the El Hage family in Nairobi.

The secret letter clearly outlined the presence of a terror cell in Nairobi, operating under the instructions of "the Haj" or Osama bin Laden. Fazul was not at home when police knocked the door.

As Fazul and other associates plotted the Nairobi bombing, he moved his family to Khartoum, joining the contingent of Al-Qaeda families that had relocated there from South Asia with bin Laden.

For months, Fazul moved relatively frequently between Khartoum, Nairobi and Mogadishu, undertaking a variety of tasks related to the plot. Travel between these points was facilitated by the existence of an underground transportation network used in the movement of miraa, a plant chewed mostly by Somalis for its narcotic properties.

The US embassy bombings took nearly five years of preparations and planning. Fazul was centrally involved at every step along the way. After Ali Mohammad identified the Nairobi and Dar es Salaam embassies as suitable targets, Fazul rented an apartment in Nairobi in 1994.

Fazul lived there for much of the year. His other wife, Halima, joined him in May 1994. By then, Fazul was a relatively low-level Al-Qaeda operative.

As he mastered the rules of the underworld, he received directions from Wadih el-Hage and Abdullah Ahmed Abdullah. Prior to the embassy bombings, he was promoted to media and communications officer for the East African cell from the beginning of 1997. He communicated with Al-Qaeda high command via the London-based Khalid al-Fawwaz, a Saudi national.

Police salvage evidence after the August 7, 1998, terror attack. [File, Standard]

After the bombings, Khalid al-Fawwaz was indicted by the US, accused of helping plot the Nairobi and Dar es Salaam embassy attacks. He was extradited to the United States and arraigned in October 2012.

According to joint investigations by the CID and the FBI, at least 15 terrorists were involved in the initial planning of the US embassy attacks. Fazul topped the list.

The investigations established that planning for the embassy attacks started in early 1994 when bin Laden dispatched individuals associated with Al-Qaeda to Nairobi and Mombasa.

Wadih El Hage, a Lebanese member of Al-Qaeda and naturalised American citizen, was the first terrorist to arrive in Kenya. He was later joined by Fazul and Mohammed Saddiq Odeh aka Mohammed Sadiq Howaida.

Simultaneously, Abu Ubaidah Al-Banshiri, an Egyptian, sneaked into Tanzania to lay the groundwork for the Dar es Salam embassy bombing. Abu Ubaidah Al-Banshiri was both a landowner and a businessman in Mwanza, Tanzania.

However, Al-Banshiri died during the planning stages. He drowned in a ferry accident on Lake Victoria in May 1996. He was the head of Al-Qaeda's African presence and second in command, just below bin Laden. He was believed to be one of the two most influential military commanders of bin Laden.

As the gang planned the attacks, they camouflaged their evil mission and presence in Kenya by associating with Kenya-based Non-Governmental Organisations (NGOs). They masked themselves as being on a humanitarian relief and aid work mission.

El-Hage founded an NGO with the morbidly ironic name of Help Africa People. He created an impression it was founded in Germany but established it in Nairobi. Fazul and Odeh were listed as the staff.  Odeh carried an identity card of Help Africa People to show his wife and her family as an indication of his employment.

In addition to the NGO work, Fazul, Odeh and other bin Laden associates also set up other cover up businesses - commercial fishing and clothing companies. On the face value, these men were ordinary people. But they were in Kenya on a deadly mission.

Ufundi Co-op House caved inward after the blast, trapping scores of people under the massive rubble. [File, Standard]

As months went by, the bombers started carrying out surveillance on their targets. Key men were moved to Nairobi and Dar es Salam in mid-1998.  

On May 1, 1998, with the help of a local named Sikander Juma, Fazul rented a large walled villa home at 43 Runda Estate, an upscale residential neighbourhood just outside Nairobi.

The house was fortified by a high stone wall, concealing what was going on to outsiders. The house had a garage that could accommodate a pickup truck. This home was the bomb factory where the device used to attack the Nairobi US Embassy was assembled.  

Although Fazul told the property owner, Tamarra Ratemo, that he needed the large house for his family and business guests, his family lived with Sikander Juma and at Wadih el-Hage’s home in Nairobi.

 The villa was to be used exclusively as the bomb factory for the Nairobi embassy bombing. In mid-1998, Fazul was one of the key players in the lead-up to the bombing.

On August 4, 1998, Mohammed Rashed Daoud Al-Owhali and Abdullah Ahmed Abdullah set off for a mission to spy on the Nairobi embassy, located at the junction of Moi and Haile Selassie avenues.

They rehearsed how the bomb-delivery truck would be placed. It was decided that it would be too risky to attempt to drive into the embassy’s basement. The two men agreed the truck would drive close to the rear of the building and the bomb detonated.

As the hours to attack drew closer, Abdul Rahman made the final connection between the bomb and the detonation device, which was located in the passenger compartment of the bomb-delivery truck. 

On the morning of August 7, 1998, two sets of the terror gangs left their hideouts. In two light-coloured vehicles, one gang left the Runda home and another from Hilltop Hotel in downtown Nairobi, near Kirinyaga Road.

They were destined for the Nairobi US embassy. Fazul was in control of the first vehicle, a pick-up truck. Jihad Mohammed was driving the second car, behind Fazul’s. Al-Owhali sat on the co-driver’s seat with Jihad.

Al-Owhali was armed with a pistol and a number of homemade stun grenades. The gang arrived at the embassy at 10.30am. Once in the embassy parking bay, Al-Owhali's was to "scare away" people in the vicinity of the compound. Al-Owhali was also to manually detonate the bomb, in the event that the device malfunctioned.

However, upon alighting from the bomb delivery vehicle, a tensed Al-Owhali forgot his pistol in the truck. He had stun grenades. Instead of returning to the bomb vehicle, Al-Owhali brandished a stun grenade before throwing it in the direction of a security guard.

First responders at the blast site bravely attempt to rescue survivors. [File, Standard]

Al-Owhali and Jihad had prepared for their martyrdom in what was to be a suicide bombing. Al-Owhali, however, fled the scene of the bombing when the attack diverged from the original plan.

To save the situation, Jihad Mohammed Ali manually detonated the bomb. The loud explosion killed him instantly.

Al-Owhali was subsequently arrested in a hospital in Nairobi and sent to the United States on August 27, 1998.

A month after Fazul rented the Runda home, Khalfan Khamis Mohammed signed a lease to rent a house in the Ilala District of Dar es Salaam. This house shared many characteristics with the one Fazul rented; it was outside the city, had high stonewalls and had a garage to fit a truck.

This is the house where the bomb used to destroy the US embassy in Dar es Salaam was assembled and concealed.

Working with the Tanzania CID, the FBI established five members of the Dar es Salaam cell. They were Fahad Mohammed Ally, Ahmed Khalfan Ghailani, Ahmed Salim Swedan, Khalfan Khamis Mohammed and Abdullah Ahmed Abdullah.

It was Ghailani, a Tanzanian, who purchased the bomb delivery vehicle, assisted by Ahmed Salim Swedan. Abdullah Ahmed Abdullah was directly involved in planning the Nairobi and Dar es Salaam bombings. Ghailani bought the 1987 Nissan Atlas truck that carried the Tanzania bomb. He also purchased the oxygen and acetylene tanks used in the detonation.

On the day the Dar es Salaam embassy was attacked, Hamden Khalif Allah Awad aka Ahmed the German was picked to drive the bomb delivery truck to the US embassy in Dar es Salaam. He was killed instantly after he detonated the bomb outside the embassy.

Minutes after the Dar es Salaam bombing, one of the bombers, Khalfan Khamis Mohamed, took photographs of the embassy's smoking ruins from a nearby Suzuki Samari.