MOGADISHU (AFP) – Al-Qaeda’s presumed head in east Africa, Fazul Abdullah Muhammad, wanted for blowing up the US embassies in Kenya and Tanzania, died in a shootout in the Somali capital, officials said Saturday.
US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton reacted immediately, calling it a “significant blow to Al-Qaeda, its extremist allies and its operations in East Africa.”
“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,” she said in Tanzania’s commercial capital Dar es Salaam during an African tour.
The 38-year-old is thought to have planned the massive truck bombings in Nairobi and Dar es Salaam that killed 224 people in 1998 and had a $5 million bounty on his head, making him Africa’s most wanted man.
“We have confirmed by DNA tests carried out with our partners that it definitely was Fazul Abdullah,” an official at Somali’s National Security Agency told AFP.
A commander of Somalia’s rebel Al-Shebab movement said earlier this week that Fazul was among two men killed near Mogadishu.
“He is not dead as thousands like him are still in the fight against the enemy of Allah,” the commander added.
A senior official from US President Barack Obama’s administration said Fazul’s death “removes one of the terrorist group’s most experienced operational planners in East Africa and has almost certainly set back operations.”
The official credited the “good work” of Somalia’s Transitional Federal Government forces in killing Fazul. His death was also confirmed by Kenya’s top police officer Matthew Iteere.
TFG officials said the men were killed at a roadblock on Tuesday night after taking a wrong turn.
“Our forces fired on two men who refused to stop at a roadblock. They tried to defend themselves when they were surrounded by our men,” said TFG military commander Abdikarim Yusuf.
The two men were driving in a pickup truck full of medicine, laptops and mobile phones.
They appeared to have taken a wrong turn while trying to reach a Shebab position and ended up in an area under TFG control.
A Somali source close to the investigation said the man identified as Fazul was in possession of a South African passport in the name of Daniel Robinson which gave his date of birth as 1971.
The passport, issued April 13, 2009, indicated that its bearer left South Africa for Tanzania on March 19 and was granted a visa there. The Tanzanian visa was the only one in the passport.
The man was also in possession of $40,000 in cash, the same Somali source said. He appeared to have come from Lower Juba in southern Somalia where he was heading a group of foreign fighters under the name of “Abu-Abdirahman the Canadian.”
The second man killed was known Kenyan extremist Mohammed Dere, a Nairobi-based security source told AFP, adding that the Kenyan intelligence services were checking the DNA of the two men.
Contrary to normal practice when such incidents occur, the bodies of the two men were picked up by the Somali intelligence services and given to US officials for identification.
Photos taken shortly after the incident show a bloodied corpse lying on its back, with the face turned up and a pickup truck with an armoured windscreen peppered with bullet holes.
The face bears a resemblance to the “Wanted” photos put out by the US Federal Bureau of Investigation.
Fluent is several languages and using a variety of pseudonyms, Fazul was a master in disguise and moved freely round the whole region, while still keeping a low profile.
He had been fighting for several years in the ranks of the Shebab and was in charge of foreign fighters and volunteers.
Fazul joined Al-Qaeda in 1991 and was believed to be behind the August 1998 embassy bombings, the worst attack by Al-Qaeda until the September 2001 attacks on the United States.
Starting in 2002, he was put in charge of the group’s operations throughout east Africa. That same year, he planned anti-Israeli attacks in Mombasa that killed 15 people.
He survived a US raid in January 2007 that left dozens of people dead at Ras Kamboni in southern Somalia.
Officials in Fazul’s native Comoros expressed “relief” at the news.
“Today I am somewhat relieved even if one must not rejoice over a death,” Interior Minister Ahamada Abdallah told AFP in Moroni, the Indian Ocean archipelago’s capital.
“Fazul’s involvement in the Nairobi and Dar es Salaam bombings did a lot of damage to our country’s reputation.”