The recentattacks in Mombasa, Kenya, bears the hallmark of al-Qaida. First, al-Qaida isthe only group with both the desire and ability to strike Israeli targetsoverseas.
Second, al-Qaida has a history of attempting to destroy Israeli targets. Itmounted surveillance of Israeli diplomatic missions in Manila and Singapore inSeptember and October last year. Mohammed Mansour Jabarah, a Canadian al-Qaidamember, told his US interrogators while in detention that Khalid SheikhMohammed, head of the network’s military committee, had authorised thetargets.
Third, al-Qaida has extensive infrastructure in the Horn of Africa. After Osamabin Laden relocated its headquarters to Sudan in December 1991, al-Qaida builta vast network in east Africa that was harnessed to mount several operations,including training Al-Ittihad al-Islami, a Somali Islamist group, to attack UStroops in Somalia in 1993, killing 18, the attempted assassination of Egyptianleader Hosni Mubarak in Ethiopia in 1995 and the attacks on the US embassies inKenya and Tanzania in 1998, which killed 224.
Fourth, al-Qaida formed an umbrella organisation, the World Islamic Front forJews and Crusaders, in 1998 with the specific intention of building support tostrike Jewish and Israeli targets. In March 2002, an al-Qaida Tunisian suicidebomber struck the oldest Jewish synagogue in Djerba, Tunisia, killing 21,including 14 German tourists.
Fifth, the modus operandi of al-Qaida is whenever possible to conductcoordinated and simultaneous attacks. Multiple attacks require long rangeplanning and preparation, skills which al-Qaida singularly possessed.
What about the threat? Al-Qaida’s attempt yesterday to fire two missiles at anIsraeli passenger airliner has significantly escalated the threat to civilaviation worldwide. While most military aircraft possess anti-missile systems,commercial planes have no such protection.
Al-Qaida has a history of training its members to use SAMs. Since the US,allied and coalition troops intervened in Afghanistan, two recoveries suggestthat al-Qaida trained both its members and its associate members to use surfaceto air missiles.
CNN’s Nic Robertson recovered an al-Qaida training video where an al-Qaidatrainer is demonstrating how to use a handheld SAM. A label marked «AbuHafs Exclusive» was stuck on the video. Abu Hafs is another name forMohammed Atef, the military commander of al-Qaida, who was killed in a USPredator attack in Afghanistan in November 2001.
After the US bombing of Afghanistan, al-Qaida transported an unknown number ofSAMs into the Arabian peninsula and to the Horn of Africa. Since the campaignin Afghanistan began in October 2001, al-Qaida members remain concentrated infive geographical zones: the 1,520-mile Afghanistan-Pakistan border; south-eastAsia, especially Indonesia; the Horn of Africa; Yemen, where only 35% is undergovernment control; and the Caucasus, mostly the Pankisi gorge in Georgia andChechnya.
Al-Qaida has maintained a robust network in the Horn of Africa even after thebombing of the US embassies. The network in Kenya, Tanzania, Somalia, Ethiopiaand Eritrea was particularly strong. Al-Qaida’s military commander, Abu UbaidahBanshiri, drowned in Lake Victoria in Kenya.
The al-Qaida member Mohammed Sadiq Odeh, alias Abu Yasser, alias Mohammed thefisherman, was permanently based in Mombasa to facilitate the movement ofal-Qaida goods and operatives. In addition to infiltrating Arabs and othernationals into Kenya, al-Qaida recruited local Kenyan members. In Mombasa,al-Qaida opened several businesses, including a fish business run by Odeh, whowas one of the two bombers of the US embassy in Kenya.
Al-Qaida owned at least one motorboat that transported cargo, clothes, fish andother commodities.
Khalfan Khamis Mohammed, one of the two al-Qaida members who participated inthe bombing of the US embassy in Tanzania, visited Mombasa three times. Mombasahas remained both a base and a transit point for nearly a decade.
The attack in Mombasa demonstrates that despite the losses al-Qaida hassuffered in Afghanistan, its cells overseas have moved from strength tostrength.
Al-Qaida has widened the theatre of conflict to include not only US but alsoGerman, French, Australian and Israeli targets. Al-Qaida’s leader announced onal-Jazeera on November 13 its intention to strike British, Canadian and Italiantargets for their participation in the anti-terrorist campaign inAfghanistan.
The attack in Saudi Arabia in May and the Mombasa attack suggest that al-Qaidahas access to a SAM consignment. As a group with a shipping capability, it isnot beyond them to transport SAMs beyond the Middle East and Africa into thewest.
During the interrogation of Mohammed Sadiq Odeh, the Tanzania bomber, the FBIasked if he had any knowledge of how explosives could be smuggled into Kenya.Odeh, who used to ship lobsters for al-Qaida, said: «A good way would beto put explosives in boxes of lobsters.»
That is a sign of how difficult it will be to combat the threat of a missilestrike against a civilian plane – a threat far greater than the conventionalterrorist method: hijacking. Yesterday’s missiles missed. But as a learningorganisation, al-Qaida is likely to succeed next time.
This article was published under IDSSCommentaries in November 2002