MOGADISHU, Somalia, March 11 (UPI) -- The reported takeover of Somalia's al-Shebab Islamists by al-Qaida veteran Fazul Abdullah Mohammed, alleged mastermind of the 1988 U.S. embassy bombings in East Africa, could rally the divided jihadists as they brace for a U.S.-backed government offensive.
According to counter-terrorism operatives in Kenya, Somalia's northern neighbor that sides with the beleaguered TFG in Mogadishu, officials believe Fazul took command of the jihadist forces following the assassination of Saleh Ali Saleh Nabhan by U.S. SEALs on Sept. 14.
Nabhan's convoy was attacked by U.S. Navy helicopters south of Mogadishu near Baraawe in a raid codenamed Operation Celestial Balance in which he was the main target.
The Kenya-born Nabhan, a close associate of Fazul for many years, was wanted for involvement in the Aug. 7, 1998, embassy bombings in Nairobi and Dar es-Salaam, Tanzania, in which 241 people were killed.
U.S. authorities also wanted him for twin attacks in the Kenyan port city of Mombasa on Nov. 28, 2002 -- the suicide bombing of the Israeli-owned Paradise Hotel and a near-simultaneous two-missile attack on an Israeli airliner that had just taken off from the city's airport. The bombing killed 15 people; the missiles missed the Boeing 757 taking Israeli vacationers home.
Fazul was born in the Comoros Islands in the Indian Ocean off the coast of Mozambique in 1972. He trained as a computer expert and speaks five languages, including English, French and Arabic.
While pursuing Islamic studies in Pakistan, he was recruited by al-Qaida in 1991 and was sent to Somalia to help train Islamist militiamen. He has been closely linked to them since.
He took over leadership of al-Qaida's East Africa cell following the embassy bombings and was heavily involved in the African "blood diamonds" trade to fund al-Qaida.
Fazul, 37, is a master of disguise and is known to use at least 20 aliases. He was arrested by Kenyan police in July 2002 for credit card fraud but he escaped within 24 hours. The Kenyans say they did not recognize him. He escaped a major Kenyan dragnet in August 2008.
He has survived at least two assassination attempts by the Americans.
Kenyan officials say Fazul and Nabhan plotted to attack the new U.S. Embassy in Nairobi in 2004. The plan was to drive a truck bomb into the building and crash a chartered aircraft into it at the same time. The plot was aborted after communications from Nabhan were intercepted.
Fazul was indicted by the Southern District Court of New York in September 1998 for the bombing of the Nairobi embassy. He has been on the FBI's most-wanted list since 2001 and has a $25 million bounty on his head.
According to the Kenyan sources, Fazul returned to Somalia several weeks ago from Tanzania to take command of al-Shebab.
Kenyan officials, along with diplomatic sources in the region, say the al-Shebab leadership has been split by differences between key figures for some time. The group has also been feuding with another Islamist militia, Hezb al-Islami.
These fractures have weakened the Islamists and that is seen as one of the reasons the TFG, backed by the Americans, is preparing to mount its biggest operation against the jihadists, who hold much of Mogadishu, the capital, and southern and central Somalia.
The TGF, which barely controls a few blocks of the capital around the presidential palace and the airport, desperately needs a victory to bolster its fragile legitimacy and to restore a measure of stability in a land that has been plagued by clan warfare since the fall of the dictator Siad Barre in 1991.
If the reports that Fazul has taken command of al-Shebab are correct, the TGF and its American backers may find their mission has been made immensely more difficult.
But the mere fact that an al-Qaida leader of Fazul's experience and skill is operating again in Somalia is bad news for the Americans. They are concerned that al-Qaida's core leadership hiding out in Pakistan wants to merge al-Shebab with the Yemen-based al-Qaida in the Arabian Peninsula to open a new front in terror war.