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Context of 'Shortly After August 21, 1997: US Discovers More Evidence about Al-Qaeda Kenya Cell, but Fails to Act'

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In 1995, the FBI is given the CIA’s files on bin Laden, and they discover that the CIA has been conducting a vigorous investigation on Wadih El-Hage, bin Laden’s personal secretary and a US citizen (see October 1995). The FBI had already started investigating El-Hage in 1991 (see March 1991), and in 1993 they found out he had bought weapons for one of the 1993 WTC bombers (see Summer 1993). Thanks to the CIA files, the FBI learns that in early 1992 El-Hage moved to Sudan and worked there as bin Laden’s personal secretary. [PBS Frontline, 4/1999; Miller, Stone, and Mitchell, 2002, pp. 148-149] Then, in 1994, he moved to Nairobi, Kenya, and officially started running a bogus charity there called “Help Africa People.” [PBS Frontline, 4/1999; CNN, 10/16/2001] In fact, El-Hage is running an al-Qaeda cell that will later carry out the 1998 African embassy bombings. He stays in close contact with top al-Qaeda leaders. [PBS Frontline, 4/1999] Apparently El-Hage is under US surveillance in Kenya, or at least people he is calling are under surveillance. For instance, a phone call between El-Hage in Kenya and Ali Mohamed in California is recorded in late 1994 (see Late 1994).and there are many calls recorded between El-Hage and bin Laden in Sudan. FBI agent Dan Coleman will analyze all this information about El-Hage and eventually supervise a raid on his Kenya house in 1997 (see August 21, 1997). [Wright, 2006, pp. 242-244]

Entity Tags: Osama bin Laden, Help Africa People, Dan Coleman, Central Intelligence Agency, Federal Bureau of Investigation, Wadih El-Hage

Timeline Tags: Complete 911 Timeline, 9/11 Timeline

A passenger ferry capsizes on Lake Victoria in East Africa and one of the more than 800 who drown is Abu Ubaidah al-Banshiri, al-Qaeda’s military commander (his job will be taken over by Mohammed Atef). Al-Qaeda operatives Wadih El-Hage and Fazul Abdullah Mohammed (a.k.a. Haroun Fazul) show up at the disaster scene to find out if al-Banshiri is still alive. There are many journalists covering the disaster and a Western investigator recognizes Fazul and El-Hage when they happen to appear in some of the widely broadcast footage. [Washington Post, 11/23/1998] El-Hage sends a computer file about the drowning to double agent Ali Mohamed in California. Mohamed’s computer hard drive will be copied by US intelligence in 1997 (see October 1997-September 10, 1998). The CIA already has much of El-Hage’s biography on file by this time. It appears this event, along with the defection of Jamal al-Fadl (see June 1996-April 1997), only strengthen knowledge of the Kenya cell gained earlier in the year (see April 1996). By August 1996, if not earlier, the phones of El-Hage and Fazul in Nairobi are bugged and closely monitored by the CIA and NSA. Apparently, not much is learned from these phone calls because the callers speak in code, but the CIA does learn about other al-Qaeda operatives from the numbers and locations that are being called. This information is shared with the FBI’s Joint Terrorism Task Force (JTTF), and the JTTF becomes “convinced that flipping El-Hage [is] the best way to get to bin Laden.” [Miller, Stone, and Mitchell, 2002, pp. 200]

Entity Tags: Fazul Abdullah Mohammed, Central Intelligence Agency, Ali Mohamed, Abu Ubaidah al-Banshiri, Joint Terrorism Task Force, Wadih El-Hage, National Security Agency

Timeline Tags: Complete 911 Timeline

Fazul Abdullah Mohammed.Fazul Abdullah Mohammed. [Source: FBI]FBI agent Dan Coleman and other US investigators discover a number of revealing items in the raid on Wadih El-Hage’s house in Nairobi, Kenya (see August 21, 1997). It is already known that El-Hage is a member of an al-Qaeda Kenya cell and bin Laden’s former personal secretary. Items found include:
bullet A letter is found on El-Hage’s confiscated personal computer written by Fazul Abdullah Mohammed (a.k.a. Haroun Fazul), another member of the al-Qaeda Kenya cell who is living with El-Hage at the time. The letter was written a week before the raid. It refers to the “East African cell,” alludes to the cell’s role in attacking US soldiers in Somalia in 1993 (see Late 1992-October 1993 and 1993), explains that a cache of incriminating files was recently moved from El-Hage’s house and hidden, and says the members of the cell are “convinced one hundred percent” that they’re being monitored by intelligence agencies. It also talks about other operatives in the town of Mombasa, Kenya, and talks about the imminent arrival of “engineers” to help the cell. [New York Times, 1/9/1999; PBS Frontline, 4/1999; Miller, Stone, and Mitchell, 2002, pp. 204-205]
bullet Another document found on the same computer reveals that El-Hage was sent to Kenya by bin Laden to initiate a “new policy” for the Kenya cell and “prepare 300 activists.” Other members of the cell were advised “of the need to move families to a secure region before the ‘activism.’” It notes that other operatives have carried out an operation in the capital of Ethiopia (presumably the attempted assassination of Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak (see Shortly After June 26, 1995)) and adds, “There are a lot of explosions in the other cities, and the brothers are taking up these operations.” [New York Times, 1/22/2000]
bullet A genuine-looking Kenyan travel stamp is found, which could be used to make documents appear authentic. [New York Times, 1/22/2000]
bullet Other files reveal that El-Hage and an associate are fabricating false passports for operatives in the Caucasus, as well as for fighters in Somalia. [New York Times, 1/22/2000]
bullet Further documents show that El-Hage bought guns for bin Laden in Eastern Europe and was making frequent trips to Tanzania (the Kenya al-Qaeda cell will bomb the US embassy in Tanzania in 1998 (see 10:35-10:39 a.m., August 7, 1998). [Wright, 2006, pp. 244]
bullet Additionally, El-Hage’s address book is found, which provides many more leads (see Shortly After August 21, 1997). Yet, despite all this, no arrests are made and no urgent alarms are sounded. The wiretaps on the Kenya cell are actually stopped by the end of the month. [MSNBC, 12/4/2000] Crucial data about Fazul Abdullah Mohammed is found as well. US intelligence does look for him for a while. But he simply leaves Kenya for a few months and then returns, moving to another house in Nairobi and where he starts work on building bombs in May 1998. [MSNBC, 12/4/2000; Los Angeles Times, 10/14/2001; US Congress, 10/21/2003] Author Lawrence Wright who interviews Coleman will paraphrase Coleman’s thoughts at the time: “Al-Qaeda was up to something, but it was unclear what that was. In any case, it was certainly a low-end operation, and the exposure of [El-Hage’s] house in Nairobi had no doubt put an end to it.” [Wright, 2006, pp. 244]

Entity Tags: Dan Coleman, Wadih El-Hage, Fazul Abdullah Mohammed

Timeline Tags: Complete 911 Timeline

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

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