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Terrorist Suspect Disappears in East Africa - 2003-05-28


The latest U.S. government warnings suggest East Africa remains a hotbed of terrorist activity. But progress has been made in the war on terrorism, including what may be the critical detention of an al-Qaida suspect in the region two months ago. That suspect has effectively disappeared.

A Kenyan government spokesman said he is not sure how security authorities in his country obtained the information that enabled them to detain suspected al-Qaida operative Suleiman Abdalla.

"There is exchange of information between our agencies, the British and Americans, but I can not be forthright to tell you the information was given by America," said Douglas Kaunda of Kenya's Ministry of Internal Security.

But one thing spokesman Douglas Kaunda is sure of: he told VOA that following Abdalla's seizure last March in Mogadishu, the suspect was turned over to American officials in Nairobi. "He was handed over to the American authorities. Probably you can inquire from Washington exactly what they are doing with him at the moment," he said.

But therein lies the mystery. In Washington, no one seems to know what happened to the alleged al-Qaida fighter, or if they do, they are unwilling to discuss it.

A spokesman for the Federal Bureau of Investigation said he does not want to cast aspersions on the Kenyans. But, he said, Kenyan officials just did not get info on Abdalla, and nor was he was not seen by them or made available to them or turned over to them.

For their part, officials at the Justice Department are equally adamant, with a spokesman there telling VOA the best information his department has is that Abdalla is still in Africa and not in the United States.

Other officials go further, saying Abdalla is in custody, but not U.S. custody. They offer no elaboration.

Clearly, though, U.S. authorities do know something about the suspect. First of all, they said he is Tanzanian, not Yemeni as originally reported from Kenya.

They also said he is wanted in connection with the 1998 bombings of U.S. embassies in East Africa.

Because other terrorists linked to the attacks in Kenya and Tanzania were tried in the United States, Kenyan government spokesman Mr. Kaunda is insistent that Abdalla was heading to America. "The other suspects of a similar nature were tried in the United States. It was found prudent for this one [Abdalla] also to be charged there," he explained.

There are a number of theories on Abdalla's present whereabouts. For one, he could be in a secret foreign detention facility.

But Abdalla could also be cooperating with U.S. and other agents in East Africa, perhaps leading them to terrorist hideouts and weapons caches.

Curiously, after his capture, Kenyan officials are reported to have arrested four more people linked to al-Qaida.

They also announced a manhunt for a leading al-Qaida suspect from the 1998 embassy bombings who they said was recently spotted in the region, perhaps plotting another bloody attack. Like Abdalla, this suspect, Fazul Abdullah Mohammed, originally from the Comoros, is believed to have been operating out of Somalia.

One thing is clear: East Africa remains a place where, as U.S. officials put it, there is "high potential" for terrorist actions.

The U.S. military's Horn of Africa anti-terrorist task force operating out of Djibouti is working closely with regional governments, gathering and sharing intelligence.

A military spokesman acknowledges the intelligence effort involves sea, land, and air assets and has become "more focused" in recent weeks. The spokesman will not comment specifically on al-Qaida suspect Fazul Abdullah Mohammed now being hunted in the region, but says it is significant that he was spotted.

Reporter Katy Salmon in Nairobi contributed to this report

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