Fazul's waterloo: How DNA from shaver gave the fugitive away

Fazul Abdullah Mohammed, left, orchestrated the 1998 US embassy attacks in Kenya and Tanzania. [File, Standard]

It was 11.15pm on June 7, 2011. Soldiers manning a checkpoint near Sarkuusta, southwest of Somalia’s capital, Mogadishu, suddenly flagged down a vehicle for a routine inspection.

The driver of the Toyota 4x4 obeyed the orders from the Somalia National Army. Captain Hassan Mohamed Abukar, in charge of the joint military and police squad, ordered the driver to switch on the light inside the car to reveal faces of the occupants.

The driver swiftly switched the light on and off. The security officers could barely see the men inside. It was dark and their faces were not visible.

Suddenly, one occupant opened fire from an AK-47 rifle. The bullets missed the target. Caught off guard, Capt Hassan and his squad ducked. However, they fought back viciously to stop the occupants from escaping.

In a breathtaking gun battle, the soldiers shot dead two men inside the car. A third opened the door and vanished into the darkness. To date, his identity remains unknown.

As the officers dragged the bullet-riddled bodies out of the vehicle and dumped them on the roadside, it never occurred to them that one of the dead men was a big name in the global terrorism network.

They were not even aware the man had a $5 million (Sh700 million at the current exchange rate) price tag on his head.

That man they had just shot dead was Fazul Abdullah Mohammed, a ruthless terrorist and commander of Al-Qaeda network in East Africa and one of the FBI’s most wanted terror fugitives.

His driver was Musa Hussein alias Musa Sambayo. Musa funded operations of Al-Shabaab, the Somali Islamist insurgent group, which is a transnational terrorist affiliate of Al-Qaeda.

Anti-terrorism investigators believe Musa acted as the conduit for cash from financiers of terrorism and dispersing it to agents to launch strikes in East Africa.

Omar Aziz Omar, a Somali national who relocated to Britain after acquiring citizenship, was identified as one of the foreign financiers of the East African bloodbath. To date, he remains at large.

Fazul had several times ferried money between different members of terror cells in Africa. At one time, he carried money from Abu Ubaidah al-Banshiri, who drowned in a ferry accident on Lake Victoria in 1996, while his terror gang was planning the 1998 US embassy attacks in Kenya and Tanzania, to several members of the Nairobi cell at various times.

In 1996, Fazul and Wadih el-Hage - Lebanese member of Al-Qaeda - transported $7,000 from Osama bin Laden to a contact in Mombasa. That money was used to fund terrorism in Kenya, Uganda and Tanzania.

Kenya’s Criminal Investigations Department (CID) - as the Directorate of Criminal Investigations (DCI), was known before promulgation of 2010 Constitution - and America’s Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI), had listed one of the men shot dead in Mogadishu as some of the most wanted international terrorists.  

This was after a US district court indicted Fazul over the August 7, 1998, US embassy bombings in Nairobi and Dar es Salaam. The Nairobi incident killed 219 people while 12 were slain in a near-simultaneous attack in Dar es Salaam.

The embassy attacks, executed in coordinated truck bombings, were set to happen at exactly 10.30am, but occurred nearly four minutes apart. The Nairobi bomb exploded at 10:35am.

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

Within hours of the bombings, FBI personnel were dispatched to Nairobi and Dar es Salaam.

They went to assist the Kenyan and Tanzanian CID in conducting crime scene forensic examinations, investigative interviews, searches and arrests.

Fazul went on the run after the twin US embassy bombings. He continued using Somalia, where he was a senior member of Al-Shabaab leadership responsible for foreign fighters and volunteers, as a haven to launch deadly attacks.

The FBI also accused Fazul of having organised the attacks on two Israeli targets in Mombasa on November 28, 2002: The bombing of an Israeli-owned hotel in Kikambala, which killed 15 people, and a near simultaneous attempt to shoot down a passenger plane on a flight to Israel at the nearby Moi International Airport.

Fazul is believed to have played a key role in the July 11, 2010, suicide bombings against crowds watching the 2010 Fifa World Cup Final matches on TV at two locations in the Ugandan capital Kampala. Some 76 people were killed.

After the successful execution of these attacks, Fazul was elevated to head Al-Qaeda in East Africa. In turn, FBI immediately placed a $5 million (Sh700 million) bounty on Fazul’s head.

From his hideout, the fugitive continued carrying out a string of other lethal strikes. Several times, the US agents fired cruise missiles from submarines in the Indian Ocean.

They thought they had killed Fazul in his Somalia hideout, only for him to reappear in Kenya, Somalia and other countries. The killing of Fazul on June 7, 2011, was not purely accidental.

Although the Somalia Army men did not instantly know the identity of the men they had shot dead, members of the elite US Anti-Terrorism Task Force 88 had been on the ground in Somalia and other parts of East Africa tracking down Fazul.

A few years before, on January 11, 2007, Kenyan police captured Fazul’s wife and three children, along with other operatives and their family members while attempting to flee Somalia. Fazul was part of the group. Fazul and three other men set off alone after the group stopped for the night in a forest in Kiunga on the Kenyan border.

The rest of the party was arrested in the morning. Fazul’s wife was found with his laptop and more than $5,000 in cash.

According to Kenyan detectives, who managed to bypass the password protection on the laptop, the computer contained vital information on terrorism training and intelligence collection, including spying.

Dr Mungai says after the 1998 embassy bombing, Kenyan and foreign investigators zeroed in on Fazul, who was regarded as the force behind terror in East Africa.

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

After Fazul’s wife and children were captured, forensic experts from the Government Chemist were called in to extract DNA samples. It is those samples they used to match with those taken from Fazul’s remains in Mogadishu. “The investigators involved us in the hunt for Fazul. We took DNA samples from his wife and his alleged biological children. Profiles were generated and electronically stored in Genemapper Version 1.0 software,” he discloses.

On August 2, 2008, Fazul again escaped narrowly from capture from a home in Malindi, just minutes before anti-terrorism police officers crashed through his door.

At the time, he was reported to have sneaked into Kenya from his base in Somalia to receive treatment for a kidney condition.  

The ATPU detectives had received intelligence information that Fazul had been spotted in one of the cyber cafes in Malindi.

They proceeded to the cybercafé but did not find him. Instead, they spotted another man fleeing  on a bicycle. They gave chase and arrested him near the Star Hospital. The man was known as Ibrahim Manfudh Ashur.

The officers searched Ibrahim and found a flash disc in one of his pockets. His father, Mahfudh Ashur Hemed, was arrested when he showed up at Malindi Police Station later in the day to inquire why his son had been arrested.

After locking up the man and his son, a contingent of 50 police officers proceeded to Hemed’s home, where they learnt Fazul was being hosted. But Fazul had escaped minutes earlier using a speedboat through the Indian Ocean.

The police searched the home and found two stolen passports. They also picked up an electric shaver which would prove handy upon the shooting of the men at Sarkuusta checkpoint.

Dr John Mungai says ATPU detectives contacted the Government Chemist and tasked them to extract DNA from an electric shaver and passports seized from Hemed’s home. The forensic evidence backed up the ATPU case in court and helped nail Hemed and his son.

“We extracted DNA samples from the shaver and a stolen passport. The DNA profiles generated from the shaver were compared to those we already had from Fazul’s children and their mother,” he says.

The DNA profiles generated from the shaver and references placed the fugitive in the house in Malindi on August 2, 2008.

After the shoot-out in Somalia, and before the bodies of the two men were whisked away, US agents backed up by Somalia authorities took blood samples for DNA analysis.

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

A few days later, Somalia’s National Security Agency announced to the world that they had “confirmed by DNA tests carried out with our partners that it definitely was Fazul Abdullah Mohammed”.

The Standard – for the first time - can authoritatively disclose that it was Kenya’s Government Chemist that actually cracked the puzzle of identifying Fazul Abdullah Mohammed and Musa Hussein.

Working with detectives from the Anti-Terror Police Unit (ATPU) and the defunct Criminal Intelligence Unit (CIU), forensic experts from the Government Chemist kept track of Fazul’s movements and other associates whenever they sneaked in and out of Kenya. They kept updating their database with his DNA profile.

The CIU gave birth to the Criminal Research and Intelligence Bureau (CRIB), DCI’s spy agency formed by former DCI chief George Kinoti.

“The samples taken from the men, after they were gunned down in Mogadishu, were brought to our Central Chemical Testing Laboratory in Nairobi,” reveals Dr John Mungai, former deputy director in charge of forensic investigations at the Government Chemist.

“We successfully matched the samples with others we had stored in our database, from the shaver and others and positively identified one of the dead men as Fazul Abdullah Mohammed. We established the other man was Musa Hussein.”

The successful DNA matching brought to a closure an international manhunt of a terrorist who had caused much pain, bloodshed, deaths and maimed thousands.  

It’s that DNA profile which solved the riddle of Fazul, one of Africa’s most wanted Al-Qaeda operatives widely believed to have been the mastermind of deadly bombings in East Africa between 1998 and 2011.

Fazul’s death was obviously a big blow to the leadership of both Al-Qaeda and Al-Shabaab. And it was a huge victory for terror victims. Today, the Al-Qaeda and Al-Shabaab have lost their key pillars and the fighting spirit.

“Fazul was the mastermind of the major suicide bombings that rocked Nairobi, Dar es Salaam, Mombasa and Kampala before he was killed in Somalia in 2011,” says top DCI detective, who sought anonymity.

“His killing was a major victory against terrorism. Although other bombings have occurred afterwards, they are of a lower scale compared to the attacks Fazul plotted and executed. Our intelligence networks have remained active, tracking down the remaining pockets of militants.”

The DCI detective describes Fazul as one of Al-Qaeda’s most elusive operatives and a master of disguise.

In his bloody missions, he had successfully passed off as a Kenyan, a Somali, a Sudanese, a Moroccan, a Yemeni and a South Asian.

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

He had a command of at least five languages. Highly intelligent and thoroughly trained, there was no doubt that he was one of the most dangerous international terrorists remaining after the fall of Osama bin Laden.

“He had dozens of fake identities and travelled on forged international passports. At one time, he was reported to have done facial surgery to conceal his appearance,” the detective recalls.

Even as the head of foreign fighters and volunteers in Al-Shabaab, it appeared not all of his subjects knew his real identity. 

Born in the Comoros Islands, off the coast of Mozambique, Fazul also carried a Kenyan passport and was said to have trained with bin Laden in Afghanistan and Sudan. Just like in his real life, Fazul’s exact date of birth remained a mystery. His estimated dates of birth were August 25, 1972, February 25, 1974 or December 25, 1974. He was also a computer whiz kid.

Fazul was educated in Saudi Arabia before travelling to Afghanistan in the early 1990s. It’s there that he was recruited into bin Laden’s terror network.

He travelled to Mogadishu in 1993 to back up terror attacks. He narrowly escaped death in an American air strike in Somalia in 2007.

After the soldiers gunned down Fazul and Musa, they recovered from their vehicle; $40,000, medicine, telephones, a modified AK-47 rifle, laptops and a fake South African passport in the name of Daniel Robinson.

Then US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, who was on a visit to Tanzania as news of Fazul’s killing broke, described it as a “significant blow to Al-Qaeda, its extremist allies, and its operations in East Africa”.

She said: “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.”

Fazul was killed just six weeks after bin Laden was felled by bullets fired by US Special Forces raid in Pakistan. Weeks after bin Laden was killed, Ilyas Kashmiri, another senior terrorist with ties to Al-Qaeda, was eliminated in a US-led operation.

[Stephen Muiruri is a former editor (crime and security) at Nation Media Group and a former editorial consultant of The DCI magazine]