The killing in Somalia of a top al Qaeda militant deepens the group’s woes a month after Osama bin Laden’s death, but Fazul Mohammed’s recent role as a trainer of aspiring operatives may have left a menacing legacy.
Somali police said on Saturday that Mohammed, one of the world’s most wanted men and a master of attack planning, disguise, evasion and languages, had been killed in the Somali capital Mogadishu on Tuesday.
Washington says Mohammed, also known as Harun, is a key suspect in the 1998 embassy attacks on the US embassies in Nairobi and Dar es Salaam, which killed 240 people, Reuters reports.
The elusive Comoran, believed to be in his late 30s, also masterminded an attack on an Israeli-owned hotel in Kenya in November 2002 that killed 15 people, Western officials say.
But in recent years he is believed by some academics and security experts to have spent as much time training militants as directly plotting against the West, sharing his expertise with young Somalis and with Muslims who travelled to Somalia to gain paramilitary experience.
“He was probably ‘la creme de la creme’ of al Qaeda in operational terms,” Nelly Lahoud, an Associate Professor at the Combating Terrorism Center at the U.S. West Point military academy, told Reuters.
“His death is a loss for al Qaeda, but I think his more recent role as a trainer must have given it a great investment,” said Lahoud, who has studied Mohammed’s 2009 autobiography “War on Islam: The story of Fazul Harun”.
“He’s one of those success stories of al Qaeda. He felt he had a duty to teach everything he knew…He was the gift that kept on giving.”
The Somali government says hundreds of foreign fighters have joined the insurgency from countries including Afghanistan, Pakistan, the Gulf region and Western nations such as the United States and Britain. Some of the foreign jihadists have taken up leadership positions in militant groups including al Shabaab.
QAEDA’S SOMALI LINKS WILL ENDURE
In the past five years, Mohammed forged ties with the al Shabaab Somali armed group fighting to topple the Transitional Federal Government of Somalia, and he is said by Western security officials to have acted as one of the Somali rebels’ links to al Qaeda’s core leadership in south Asia.
Western security officials say they suspect Mohammed also coordinated with militants in al Qaeda’s Arabian Peninsula branch based in Yemen — the al Qaeda branch responsible for the network’s boldest attacks on Western targets in recent years.
Security specialists who have studied Mohammed says he emerges as highly pragmatic, cool-headed and calculating. His languages include Arabic, Comorian, Swahili and English.
Australian scholar Leah Farrell, a leading authority on al Qaeda, said Mohammed’s death would impact on al Qaeda’s “presence and external operations capacity in the region”.
“As a longstanding and senior al Qaeda member who had a lengthy presence in the region and had cultivated deep links, he will not be easily replaced.
“However, in terms of al Qaeda’s relationship with al Shabaab, this relationship is multi-faceted.
“There are other figures within al Shabaab who have links to al Qaeda-central and its Arabian Peninsula branch, and there are other al Qaeda emissaries present in the region. In this respect, communications and facilitation will continue.”
Some security experts suspect Mohammed’s training may have lent expertise to a 2010 bomb attack by al Shabaab on the Ugandan capital Kampala that killed 79 people while they were watching the soccer World Cup final.
The strike, the group’s first on foreign soil, was in revenge for Uganda’s contribution to the 6,300-strong African Union peacekeeping force in Somalia, AMISOM.
In another such attack in September 2009, al Shabaab insurgents struck the main AU military base in Mogadishu with twin suicide car bombs and killed 17 peacekeepers.
TRAINED BY AN AL QAEDA STAR
One of Fazul’s most evident skills is evasion: He escaped from Kenyan police custody at least once, and has remained at large for most of the past decade in Somalia, a gossipy society given to discussing the presence of foreigners in its midst.
According to his autobiography, Mohammed himself was trained by Saif al-Adel, an Egyptian veteran of the network who remains at large and is believed to be in the Afghanistan-Pakistan border area. Security experts say Adel is now in interim command of al Qaeda.
In the 1990s, Mohammed’s roles in al Qaeda core included Adel’s personal secretary and, according to his book, confidential secretary to the network’s central leadership, with access to many of its operational secrets.
According to his book, while he respected bin Laden greatly, he had little time for hero worship. In one passage, according to an essay by Lahoud in the West Point CTC Sentinel publication, Mohammed speculates on what reaction there would be in the event that bin Laden were to die.
“(The Zionists and Americans) should understand that the death of Osama bin Ladin does not mean that Islam and jihad come to an end. No, a thousand times no. Muslims superior to Osama bin Ladin died … all are heroes who departed (this transient world), but Islam is eternal.”