KILLING OF ‘THE COMORIAN’ AT MOGADISHU CHECKPOINT PROVIDES DETAILS ABOUT WIDENING SOMALI INSURGENCY IN AFRICA
The alleged mastermind behind the coordinated August 7, 1998 East Africa embassy bombings called Fazul Abdullah Mohammed (a.k.a. Harun; Haroon), sometimes referred to as ‘The Comorian’ in counterterrorism circles, was gunned down along with an accomplice at a Mogadishu checkpoint on the night of June 7-8 by Transitional Federal Government (TFG) authorities. Mohammed operated as a virtual specter in eastern and southern Africa for well over a decade since the precision attacks that wreaked havoc on the American diplomatic installations in Nairobi and Dar es Salaam, killing a combined total of at least 223. Mohammed is also believed to have been the “mastermind” behind a suicide attack on the Israeli-owned Paradise Hotel in the resort city of Mombasa on Kenya’s Swahili coast on July 28, 2002 which killed 13.  After the 2002 attack, Mohammed reportedly worked his way out of Kenyan custody twice.
Mohammed was born in the early 1970s in Moroni, the capital of the tiny Union of Comoros archipelago situated in the Mozambique Channel midway between Madagascar and Mozambique in the Indian Ocean. Mohammed was one of the War on Terror’s most elusive figures, evading being killed or captured for years despite a $5,000,000 bounty on his head.  An unnamed American official familiar with the incident described Mohammed’s downfall as that of being “in the wrong place at the wrong time — for him, that is” (Reuters, June 11, 2011). At the time of his killing, he was reportedly carrying $40,000, medical supplies, laptops, and spare mobile phones while traveling under the alias “Daniel Robinson” (AFP, June 12, 2011).
Details emerging since the event may tell a different tale. Mohammed’s companion in death, a Kenyan national called Musa Hussein Abdi (a.k.a. Musa Dhere; Abdullahi Musa) was a frequent visitor to Somalia’s battlefields according to Kenyan police. Abdi had lost his right leg fighting in Mogadishu in 2006 and was fitted with a telltale prosthetic limb which helped make his corpse more identifiable (Suna Times, June 17, 2011). When not involved in activities inside Somalia, Kenyan authorities charge that Abdi was involved in the recruitment of fellow Kenyan citizens to fight for al-Shabaab and was sheltered at the home of Omar Awadh Omar (a.k.a. Abu Sahal) while in Nairobi. Omar is currently being held in the high-security Luzira prison in Uganda on charges of orchestrating the twin bombings that rocked Kampala on July 11, 2010, which killed a combined 79 as they tried to enjoy viewing the 2010 FIFA World Cup. Omar was believed to be Mohammed’s immediate deputy in East African al-Qaeda (EAAQ) as well as a logistician and fundraiser for al-Shabaab. At the time of his capture in a Kampala hotel on September 15, 2010, Kenyan and Ugandan authorities believe that Omar was in the process on planning a similar twin bombing in his native Kenya (New Vision [Kampala], September 23, 2010).
The al-Shabaab movement has transformed in recent years from a strictly internal insurgency struggled to wrest Mogadishu from the eternally incompetent but internationally supported TFG administration following the demise of the Islamic Courts Union and the Ethiopian military occupation to one that seeks to strike blows against regional African actors who have dared interfere in Somali affairs. Previously al-Shabaab has made threats against Ethiopia, Uganda and Burundi for their respective military involvement in Somalia. Kenya has now been added to that undesirable list. In the words of al-Shabaab spokesman Shaykh Ali Mahmud Rage: “Kenya has constantly disturbed us, and now it should face the consequences of allowing Ethiopian troops to attack us from Mandera town…We have never openly fought Kenya but now we shall not tolerate them any more. Kenya has been training soldiers to attack us” (Reuters, February 27, 2011). A TFG source told an opposition Kenyan daily that Mohammed – holding a bogus South African passport – had not been killed seemingly at random, as was initially reported in the global media, but was in fact a victim of a TFG intelligence initiative. The TFG source claimed there was quarreling within Mohammed’s EAAQ-al-Shabaab network over the allotment of monies that the TFG exploited to take down East Africa’s most wanted man. “We used the same money they [EAAQ] were wrangling over and made our way to Fazul [Abdullah Mohammed]. That fateful day he was lured to the TFG forces by his own driver who took a wrong turn to deliver Fazul [Abdullah Mohammed] to our forces where he was gunned down” (The People [Nairobi], June 13, 2011). Following the death of Fazul Abdullah Mohammed, it is not immediately clear who will succeed him. Mohammed claimed to derive his power from the late Osama bin Laden and pledged that he would personally widen the al-Shabaab fight beyond Somalia’s porous borders. With the killing and capturing of such key EAAQ operatives, it remains to be seen if Somalia’s internal Islamist chaos will continue to threaten fellow sub-Saharan states as Mohammed once promised.
QUESTIONS ARISE SURROUNDING THE ASSASSINATION OF ILYAS KASHMIRI
As images of a dead Muhammed Ilyas Kashmiri have yet to surface or be produced by either Pakistani government officials or any of the myriad militant organizations operating freely in the Federally Administered Tribal Areas (FATA), some in both Pakistan and Washington have expressed doubts over the veracity of the claim that Kashmiri was wiped out in a South Waziristan drone attack on June 3. Kashmiri has been a major militant leader heading both the ‘Brigade 313’ of Harakat-ul-Jihad al-Islami (HuJI) and al-Qaeda’s Lashkar-e-Zil (LeZ) ‘shadow army’ (for more on Kashmiri, see Militant Leadership Monitor, January 2010). At the time of his supposed assassination, he was in an area of South Waziristan controlled by Maulvi Nazir in the village of Ghwakhwa when the compound he was in was leveled by a missile launched from a CIA-operated unmanned aerial vehicle (The News International, June 5). As some American officials began to express doubts about whether Kashmiri had indeed been eliminated from the theater, Pakistani Interior Minister Rehman Malik told the media that there was a “98 percent chance he is dead” (Reuters, June 5). Pakistan’s Prime Minister Yousaf Raza Gilani asserted that American officials were on board with the Pakistani narrative that Kashmiri had been eliminated but when pressed neither the United States Department of State or Department of Defense was willing to publicly line up with PM Gilani’s statement (Economic Times [New Delhi], June 7). CIA-run drones continue to pummel the Wana area of South Waziristan in the weeks after Kashmiri’s alleged death, while Pakistani authorities have still not been able to confirm beyond a shadow of a doubt that Kashmiri has been removed from the militant scene in that agency (AFP, June 15).
It has been speculated that Kashmiri has been involved in a host of terror plots across the wider region including the bombing of a restaurant frequented by foreigners on February 13, 2010 in Pune, India that killed 17 (The Hindu, June 17). Kashmiri’s lifelong enmity toward India stems from his jihadi involvement in the Kashmir conflict and his hatred of the Indian state. His desire to attack India proper may have been part of a strategy to divert Pakistani military attention back toward the Indian border thereby depriving Pakistan of the troop numbers it would need to launch operations in North Waziristan and elsewhere in the FATA. Pakistan, constantly seesawing back and forth between American pressure to go to war against its own citizenry in the FATA and its military stance toward India, would be much more comfortable in its traditional mode of mobilizing against India to the east than facing Kashmiri’s militants in the west.
The most recent operation attributed to Kashmiri, a May 22 attack on the Pakistan Naval Station Mehran in Karachi – home of the Pakistan’s Navy’s air wing – led many, including Pakistani journalists and police, to believe that Kashmiri’s arm of al-Qaeda had tentacles inside the Pakistani military (Asia Times Online, May 27). Initial reactions in Pakistan were colored by two consecutive bombings on buses transporting Pakistani navy personnel in late April. Islamabad promulgated the notion that ethno-nationalist Balochi separatists were behind these attacks and that perhaps the attack on the Mehran base was a continuation of a spate of said attacks. A Pakistani counter-terrorism official described a Pashto-language phone intercept after the April 26 and 28 IED attacks which greatly lessened the idea that Balochi radicals were involved and pointed to either Pakistan-based al-Qaeda or the Tehrik-e-Taliban Pakistan (The Express Tribune [Karachi], May 24). After Syed Saleem Shahzad reported the depth of Kashmiri’s Brigade 313 penetration into the Pakistan Navy for Asia Times Online, he was subsequently abducted and killed while en route to a television interview in Islamabad. An anonymous Inter-Services Intelligence official stated that it may be in Kashmiri’s interest for the world to believe he is gone, as he is (or was) well aware of his being targeted by the United States government (Asia Times Online, June 8). The U.S. Department of State website links Kashmiri to a March 2, 2006 suicide bombing on the American consulate in Karachi which resulted in the death of a U.S. diplomat and three others.  HuJI purportedly released a photo said to be Kashmiri’s corpse but upon closer inspection, it was in fact an image of one of the killed Lashkar-e-Taiba attackers involved in the November 2008 Mumbai siege (Frontline [Chennai], June 15). If the ISI officer’s comment is accurate, that would make HuJI’s claim that Kashmiri has been killed part of a ruse aimed at helping him go even deeper underground as the drone war in the FATA grinds on.
1. Robert I. Rotberg, Battling Terrorism in the Horn of Africa, (Washington D.C.: Brookings Institution Press, 2005), p.184.
2. To view Fazul Abdullah Mohammed’s Rewards for Justice listing, see: http://www.fbi.gov/wanted/wanted_terrorists/fazul-abdullah-mohammed.
3. To view Muhammed Ilyas Kashmiri Rewards for Justice listing, see: http://www.state.gov/r/pa/prs/ps/2011/04/160071.htm.