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Context of 'May 1998: US Intelligence Resumes Monitoring Al-Qaeda Cell in Kenya'

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Fazul Abdullah Mohammed.Fazul Abdullah Mohammed. [Source: Daily Nation]Shortly after the US raid on Wadih El-Hage’s house in Nairobi, Kenya (see August 21, 1997), US investigators discover a letter in the house that mentions a cache of incriminating files had been moved from the house and hidden elsewhere. Investigators suspect the files could contain evidence of a coming attack by El-Hage’s Nairobi cell. A law enforcement official later says US investigators begin a “somewhat frantic, concerted effort” to locate the missing files. “The concern was high enough about something being out there to go right away.” A search for the files is conducted at another location in Kenya in September 1997, but the files are not found. [New York Times, 1/9/1999] But despite this search, and even though other documents found in the raid refer to other unknown members of the cell and the imminent arrival of more operatives (see Shortly After August 21, 1997), the wiretaps on five phone numbers connected to El-Hage are discontinued in October 1997, one month after El-Hage moved to the US (see September 24, 1997). Fazul Abdullah Mohammed (a.k.a. Haroun Fazul), who had been living with El-Hage and using the same phones as him, takes over running the cell. US intelligence will resume monitoring the phones in May 1998 and continue to monitor them through August 1998 (see May 1998), when the cell will successfully attack US embassies in Kenya and Tanzania (see 10:35-10:39 a.m., August 7, 1998). It will be stated in the 2002 book The Cell, “The hardest thing to understand in retrospect is why US law enforcement did nothing else to disrupt the activities of the Nairobi cell” after the raid on El-Hage’s house. [New York Times, 1/13/2001; Miller, Stone, and Mitchell, 2002, pp. 203-205] The files will be found only after the African embassy bombings, when the offices of the charity Mercy International are searched on August 20, 1998. They will contain incriminating information, including numerous phone calls from bin Laden to Nairobi. [United States of America v. Usama Bin Laden, et al, 3/20/2001] It is not clear why the charity was not searched before the attacks, since two of the five phones monitored since 1996 were to Mercy’s Kenya offices (see Late 1996-August 20, 1998).

Entity Tags: Fazul Abdullah Mohammed, Mercy International, US intelligence, Wadih El-Hage

Timeline Tags: Complete 911 Timeline

US intelligence resumes monitoring the al-Qaeda cell in Kenya, and continues to listen in all the way through the US embassy attacks that the cell implements in August 1998 (see 10:35-10:39 a.m., August 7, 1998). US intelligence had begun wiretapping five phones used by the cell by late 1996, including the phones of cell leader Wadih El-Hage and two phones belonging to Mercy International, a charity believed to have been used as a front by the Kenya cell. The monitoring stopped in October 1997, though it is not clear why. The New York Times will report that “after a break, [monitoring] began again in May 1998, just months before the bombing and precisely during the time the government now asserts the attack was being planned.” It is not known what caused the monitoring to resume nor has it been explained how the cell was able to succeed in the embassy attacks while being monitored. [New York Times, 1/13/2001]

Entity Tags: Mercy International, Al-Qaeda, Wadih El-Hage

Timeline Tags: Complete 911 Timeline

In an early 2001 UPI article, it will be reported that “Final approval for the [August 7, 1998 African embassy bombings (see 10:35-10:39 a.m., August 7, 1998)] was given August 4 or 5 with [Mohammed Saddiq] Odeh and [Mustafa] Fadhil coordinating details over the phone. They had met in Kenya in April to discuss operational details, US government sources said.” Both Odeh and Fadhil are in Kenya at the time, and they fly out of the country together on August 6. [United Press International, 1/2/2001] Odeh had been living and working in Mombasa, Kenya, with two other al-Qaeda operatives, and US intelligence monitored calls in early 1997 to cell members in Mombasa (see August 1997). They monitored a call to Odeh in which another cell member complained that Odeh was using the wrong phone number to discuss al-Qaeda business (see February 7-21, 1997), so it seems probable that Odeh’s phone was monitored after that time. Phone tapping of the cell was cut off in late 1997, but resumed in May 1998 (see May 1998).

Entity Tags: Mohammed Saddiq Odeh, Mustafa Fadhil

Timeline Tags: Complete 911 Timeline

Usama al-Kini, a.k.a. Fahid Muhammad Ally Msalam.Usama al-Kini, a.k.a. Fahid Muhammad Ally Msalam. [Source: FBI]Most of the al-Qaeda operatives involved in the African embassy bombings (see 10:35-10:39 a.m., August 7, 1998) leave the country the night before the bombings. Abdullah Ahmed Abdullah and Ahmed Khalfan Ghailani fly from Nairobi to Karachi, Pakistan, on one flight. Usama al-Kini (a.k.a. Fahid Muhammad Ally Msalam), Mohammed Saddiq Odeh, and five unnamed bombers fly from Nairobi to Karachi with a stopover in Dubai on another flight. Some use false passports, but others, such as Abdullah, travel in their real name. Two others, Sheikh Ahmed Salim Swedan and Mustafa Fadhil, flew to Pakistan on August 2. Odeh is arrested at 5:30 a.m., Kenya time, while going through customs in Karachi, but the others on his flight are not (see 5:30 a.m., August 7, 1998). Two suicide bombers are killed in the bombings. The only operatives who remain in East Africa after the bombings are Fazul Abdullah Mohammed (a.k.a. Haroun Fazul), who volunteered to clean up the evidence in Kenya, and Khalfan Khamis Mohamed, who volunteered to do the same in Tanzania, plus Mohamed al-Owhali, one of the suicide bombers in Kenya who unexpectedly ran away at the last minute and survived with only minor injuries. [United Press International, 1/2/2001; United States of America v. Usama Bin Laden, et al., Day 38, 5/2/2001] Given the extent to which US intelligence was monitoring the members of the Kenyan cell (see April 1996 and May 1998), and even reportedly had multiple informants in the cell (see Before August 7, 1998), it is unclear how the US missed the departure of nearly every suspect from Kenya.

Entity Tags: Sheikh Ahmed Salim Swedan, Usama al-Kini, Mustafa Fadhil, Mohamed al-Owhali, Abdullah Ahmed Abdullah, Mohammed Saddiq Odeh, Ahmed Khalfan Ghailani, Khalfan Khamis Mohamed, Fazul Abdullah Mohammed

Timeline Tags: Complete 911 Timeline

At approximately 5:30 in the morning, Kenya time, Mohammed Saddiq Odeh is arrested at the airport in Karachi, Pakistan. Odeh is one of the bombers in the embassy bombings which take place four hours later in Kenya and Tanzania (see 10:35-10:39 a.m., August 7, 1998). [United States of America v. Usama Bin Laden, et al., Day 38, 5/2/2001]
Odeh Stopped Because of Alert Inspector or CIA? - He had flown out of Nairobi, Kenya, the night before, with his plane stopping in Dubai on the way to Pakistan (see August 6-7, 1998). According to some accounts, an inspector notices that Odeh’s passport picture has a beard, while Odeh does not have a beard and looks different. Furthermore, Odeh is unable to look the inspector in the eyes. But according to UPI, he is stopped because he had been identified by the CIA. In any case, over the next hours, he is handed over to intelligence officers and makes a full confession. He admits that he is a member of al-Qaeda, led by bin Laden, and that he is the head of the al-Qaeda cell in Kenya. He even gives the address of the villa where the bomb was built and the names of the other bombers. [Bergen, 2001, pp. 116; United Press International, 1/2/2001; Associated Press, 4/3/2001; Miller, Stone, and Mitchell, 2002, pp. 213]
False or Mistaken Account by CIA Officer - CIA officer Gary Berntsen heads the CIA’s emergency deployment team to Tanzania in the immediate wake of the bombings. He will improbably claim in a 2005 book that the US at first primarily suspects Hezbollah. According to him, it is only on August 15 when a CIA officer in Karachi happens to notice an article saying that an Arab traveling on a false passport was arrested in Karachi near the time of the bombings. This is discovered to be Odeh, who is transferred to US custody. Only then does al-Qaeda’s involvement become clear. Perhaps to support this timeline, Berntsen also falsely claims that another bomber, Mohamed al-Owhali, is arrested on August 15 when in fact he is arrested three days earlier. [United States of America v. Usama Bin Laden, et al., Day 38, 5/2/2001; Berntsen and Pezzullo, 2005]
Odeh's Confession and Other Al-Qaeda Evidence Kept Secret for Days - Publicly, the US does not link any evidence from the bombing to al-Qaeda until August 17, when Odeh’s confession is finally mentioned in front page news stories. Even then, the story is based on accounts from Pakistani officials and US officials say they cannot confirm it. [Washington Post, 8/17/1998] In fact, there is a wealth of information immediately tying al-Qaeda to the bombings that is kept secret, including wiretaps of many of the bombers (see April 1996 and May 1998), informants in the cell (see Before August 7, 1998), and even a statement of responsibility that was intercepted hours before the bombings had occurred (see August 5-7, 1998).

Entity Tags: Mohammed Saddiq Odeh, Mohamed al-Owhali, Central Intelligence Agency, Gary Berntsen, Al-Qaeda

Timeline Tags: Complete 911 Timeline

Bombings of the Nairobi, Kenya, US embassy (left), and the Dar es Salaam, Tanzania, US embassy (right).Bombings of the Nairobi, Kenya, US embassy (left), and the Dar es Salaam, Tanzania, US embassy (right). [Source: Associated Press] (click image to enlarge)Two US embassies in Africa are bombed within minutes of each other. At 10:35, local time, a suicide car bomb attack in Nairobi, Kenya, kills 213 people, including 12 US nationals, and injures more than 4,500. Mohamed al-Owhali and someone known only as Azzam are the suicide bombers, but al-Owhali runs away at the last minute and survives. Four minutes later, a suicide car bomb attack in Dar es Salaam, Tanzania, kills 11 and injures 85. The attacks are blamed on al-Qaeda. Hamden Khalif Allah Awad is the suicide bomber there. [PBS Frontline, 2001; United States of America v. Usama Bin Laden, et al., Day 38, 5/2/2001] The Tanzania death toll is low because, remarkably, the attack takes place on a national holiday so the US embassy there is closed. [Miller, Stone, and Mitchell, 2002, pp. 195] The attack shows al-Qaeda has a capability for simultaneous attacks. The Tanzania bombing appears to have been a late addition, as one of the arrested bombers allegedly told US agents that it was added to the plot only about 10 days in advance. [United State of America v. Usama bin Laden, et al., Day 14, 3/7/2001] A third attack against the US embassy in Uganda does not take place due to a last minute delay (see August 7, 1998). [Associated Press, 9/25/1998] August 7, 1998, is the eighth anniversary of the arrival of US troops in Saudi Arabia, and some speculate that is the reason for the date of the bombings. [Gunaratna, 2003, pp. 46] In the 2002 book The Cell, reporters John Miller, Michael Stone, and Chris Miller will write, “What has become clear with time is that facets of the East Africa plot had been known beforehand to the FBI, the CIA, the State Department, and to Israeli and Kenyan intelligence services.… [N]o one can seriously argue that the horrors of August 7, 1998, couldn’t have been prevented.” They will also comment, “Inexplicable as the intelligence failure was, more baffling still was that al-Qaeda correctly presumed that a major attack could be carried out by a cell that US agents had already uncovered.” [Miller, Stone, and Mitchell, 2002, pp. 195, 206] After 9/11, it will come to light that three of the alleged hijackers, Khalid Almihdhar, Nawaf Alhazmi, and Salem Alhazmi, had some involvement in the bombings (see October 4, 2001, Late 1999, and 1993-1999) and that the US intelligence community was aware of this involvement by late 1999 (see December 15-31, 1999), if not before.

Entity Tags: Hamden Khalif Allah Awad, Mohamed al-Owhali, Salem Alhazmi, Khalid Almihdhar, Azzam, Al-Qaeda, Nawaf Alhazmi

Timeline Tags: Complete 911 Timeline

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