Tracking Terror Through Africa

Tracking Terror Through Africa

On August 7, 1998, Al-Qaeda suicide bombers attacked the U.S. embassies in Nairobi, Kenya, and Dar es Salaam, Tanzania, killing at least 258 people and injuring more than 5,000 others. President Clinton's response-lobbing a few (mis-directed) cruise missiles at suspected Al-Qaeda installations in Afghanistan and Sudan-was clearly viewed by Osama bin Laden as a mere slap on the wrist. What the attacks had shown was that a few suicide bombers using everyday means of transport as a delivery mechanism could achieve complete surprise and inflict thousands of casualties on two or more targets at once by carefully coordinated action. With this, Al-Qaeda had found the weapon for which it had been searching-and which it was to use again with even greater effect on September 11, 2001.

On August 25, 1998, just 18 days later, a pipe bomb exploded in the Cape Town Planet Hollywood, killing one and wounding 27. The local police concluded that-because the target had sounded American and because a pipe bomb had been used-this was probably the work of PAGAD (People Against Gangsterism And Drugs), an Islamic fundamentalist vigilante movement based in Cape Town's Coloured community, which includes half a million Muslims. This was simply because PAGAD was in the habit of using pipe bombs. No suspect was ever apprehended, despite the fact that the African National Congress (ANC) Minister for Safety and Security, Sydney Mufamadi, had announced that an arrest was expected at any moment. Later Mufamadi changed tack, seeming almost to blame the United States for the bomb, suggesting that it was a predictable reprisal for the cruise missile attack on Sudan.

The FBI, acting together with U.S. military units stationed in Kenya, was more successful, quickly arresting three suspects for the embassy bombings: Mohamed Saddeck Odeh, Rashed Daoud Al-Ouhali and Wali al-Hage. The latter, caught in an unnamed African country in September 1998, had earlier served as personal secretary to Bin Laden. All three were flown to the United States and held there, where they confessed that the kingpin of the operation, Haroun Fazil, had rented a villa outside Nairobi from May to August 1998, where the bomb had been constructed. Fazil, though only 26, had been trained in Afghanistan; was a computer and explosives expert; spoke Swahili, English, French and Arabic; and was suspected of also having masterminded the Dar es Salaam bombing. On August 7, he had guided the white explosives-laden lorry and was driven by his operatives to the U.S. embassy. Straight after the bombing, he had taken a flight to his native Comoros Islands.

The FBI swarmed all over East Africa in the wake of the bombings. Guided by information they had doubtless extracted from the three embassy bombing suspects, they searched a Nairobi hotel and found a record of a phone call made from one of its rooms to the Comoros. On August 20, they asked the help of the Comoros government in tracing the call. Fazil, clearly tipped off, fled to Dubai just as the FBI arrived in the Comoros-where they found incriminating CDS in his family home. His relatives were grilled and admitted that Fazil had told them he had done "military service" in the Sudan. A check of airline records showed that in 1997 Fazil had repeatedly paid cash for air tickets to Khartoum, Karachi and Nairobi. Now, having gotten to Dubai just ahead of the FBI, he vanished.

This event drew attention to the existence of a Muslim network running down the east coast of Africa, from the Persian Gulf to Cape Town. It raised the possibility that there were sufficient Al-Qaeda sympathizers within the Muslim community to strike at will. South Africa itself has many attractions for Muslim terrorists: Durban, after all, is home to Africa's richest Muslim community (there I found without difficulty a street vendor selling Bin Laden t-shirts), and the town's International Islamic Center was built thanks mainly to a personal donation by Bin Laden. Indeed, it is often forgotten that the whole row over Salman Rushdie's The Satanic Verses, and the resulting fatwa against him, originated in Durban. As important, large sums of money can move easily through the Durban Indian community to Mauritius, Nairobi or Cape Town-and, indeed, to its overseas branches in London, Toronto and Sydney. South Africa is, in any case, one of the world capitals of money laundering. One way or another, within that network one can find enough Al-Qaeda sympathizers, enough money and enough ways of making sure the two remain connected to make this region a major front in the terrorist war.

This in turn leads one to consider the situation of Zimbabwe which, under Robert Mugabe's terror, has deteriorated rapidly from being one of Africa's most developed states to a failed state of near-Somalian proportions. Prior to that, one would hardly have considered it as a possible base for Islamic terrorists-the country's Muslim population is both small and moderate: when the Bulawayo synagogue was restored in 2003 after it had burnt down in an accidental fire, the imam of the local mosque participated in the synagogue's re-dedication ceremony as a gesture of goodwill towards Zimbabwe's exiguous Jewish community. At the same time, during the innumerable trips I have made to Zimbabwe in the last few years, the subject of Islamic terrorism has begun to crop up.

Mugabe and Islamism

Mugabe's failed state has created a major opportunity for Islamic terrorism throughout southern Africa. Mugabe is already both violently at odds with all the West (and thus has little to lose by annoying it more) and quite desperate to get his hands on foreign exchange by any available means. Is it possible that, under these straitened circumstances, he had begun to sup with the devil? One advantage consequent upon the decay of Mugabe's state, I discovered as I started to delve into the matter, was that some members of Mugabe's secret police, the Central Intelligence Organization (CIO), were feeling sufficiently disaffected to talk frankly, though of course anonymously, about the subject. What I have discovered could transform the perception of the Mugabe regime from being merely a parochial racist tyranny to being a safe harbor for Islamist terrorists in a global struggle.

Mugabe's relationship with radical Islam goes back to 1978 when Libya's President Muammar Qaddafi provided arms and training for his ZANLA guerrillas in Mozambique and, after Zimbabwean independence, trained 700 policemen for the new government. Mugabe was, however, well aware that Libya's sponsorship of various terrorist groups made friendship with Qaddafi extremely unwise, and he kept relations formal and distant. This remained the case even after the Reagan Administration's 1986 air strikes against Libya. Qaddafi, whose adopted daughter was killed in the raid and who narrowly escaped with his own life, was badly shaken and arrived at the Non-Aligned Movement (NAM) summit in Harare a few months later thirsting for revenge. He tried to enlist Mugabe and the NAM in an anti-American crusade. Mugabe, hosting the summit, was carefully unreceptive, and Qaddafi stormed out in a huff.

Relations between the two men remained cool until 1999. I managed to find a CIO officer, a man I shall call John, who had followed the relationship from his desk in Harare. John was furious with the way Zimbabwe was being progressively mortgaged to the Libyans in order to pay for oil. He was motivated to speak by feelings of patriotism, he told me. And as there are not many such folk left in Zimbabwe, I lent a skeptical ear. But what he said made sense.

John argued that Mugabe's rupture of relations with the IMF and World Bank had left the country in a financial crisis, certainly, but what had really changed things, he said, was the appearance of the opposition Movement for Democratic Change (MDC)-the first substantial challenge to Mugabe's power. When the MDC easily defeated Mugabe in the February 2000 constitutional referendum, the writing was on the wall. Mugabe quickly approached Qaddafi to ask for help with oil supplies and foreign exchange. With his regime now increasingly under threat and isolated on the world stage, Mugabe needed help wherever he could find it. Qaddafi responded positively, and the relationship between the two leaders became increasingly warm and close. The Libyans demanded in return investment opportunities in Zimbabwe, and both their stock of assets and the number of their personnel there began to increase rapidly. Libyan MIGs and transport planes were stationed inside Zimbabwe. Qaddafi came to Harare to attend the OAU summit while Mugabe made repeated visits to Libya. And more generally, Mugabe became increasingly sensitive to the currents and wishes of the Muslim world, particularly since the Mahathir regime in Malaysia remained one of his few other friends.

Thanks to an introduction from John, I managed to make contact with a high-ranking CIO officer who had served much of his career in Islamic countries, including Libya. Since anyone writing for the Western press was by this time unwelcome in Zimbabwe, my own presence in Harare was a somewhat delicate matter, while the CIO officer in question-he told me his name was Walter but doubtless it wasn't-could hardly risk being seen talking to me. I had watched the Minister of Information, Jonathan Moyo, the Goebbels of the regime, denounce me on television and say more than once that I was not welcome in the country. As far as I could see, Moyo did not realize I was already there, but the point was clear enough. I had, moreover, been condemned in no uncertain terms in the state-owned Zimbabwe Herald and physically threatened by war vets, so that one way or another, my welcome seemed to be wearing out. Accordingly, we met via complex intermediation and at night. I drove to a friend's who then guided me through the Harare suburbs to a place where a second car was parked, which in turn then led me through a further zigzag course, which ended up with both of us driving by moonlight with our headlamps switched off so as to attract as little attention as possible. The car stopped ahead of me at a house, and the driver-to me a mere silhouette, with whom I exchanged not a word-gestured that I should go in there and then drove away. Inside the otherwise empty house I found Walter.

Essay Types: Essay