guest columnBy Mwenda Njoka
Nairobi — Nothing has tested the capacity of intelligence agencies worldwide than organised terrorism. The most prominent of the terror groups is Osama bin Laden's al-Qaeda network.
What makes the group different from other enemies of peace is that it is borderless and stateless. The world intelligence community has had to deal with a universal organisation with fanatical support across the globe.
Tackling terrorism such as that perpetrated by al-Qaeda needs a new approach that should tackle factors such as intention, support networks, financial transfer systems and unconventional training.
US President George W. Bush has tried to address this by signing the Patriot Act. The law, which has drawn criticism from civil liberty activists, enhanced the power to conduct electronic surveillance, eased restrictions on search warrants and strengthened mechanisms of tracing suspect funds across the world.
An example is the closure of Somalia money-transfer institution Al Barrakat.
Nothing illustrates the complex and tedious nature of intelligence gathering better than the challenges posed by terrorism. Today's terrorists operate in sophisticated, often well-funded and impenetrable networks. As the 1998 Nairobi US embassy bombing showed, they attack after years of careful planning.
As it emerged later during the trial in New York of the suspects, the planning of the Nairobi raid attack started almost five years before. It began in 1993 when the mastermind, Wadi el-Hage, moved to Kenya from the Sudan and set up an NGO and businesses as his cover.
Between 1993 and 1994, members of the Egyptian Islamic Jihad working closely with el Hage came to Kenya and carried out discrete but elaborate target studies. The probable targets, apart from the US mission, were key western interests in Kenya.
Around the same time, a group of Mujaheedin war veterans who had been co-opted into al-Qaeda during the Afghanistan war, were sneaking into Sudan, Kenya and Tanzania in preparation for a major operation.
Having established enough cover via the NGO and businesses, el Hage and his colleagues started training cell members around 1996. The following year, the trainees bought the explosive TNT as they continued their course and target surveillance.
By November, the Kenyan intelligence had enough suspicion about el Hage operations, but there was nothing concrete enough to warrant his being charged in court. Detailed surveillance and monitoring had not linked him with any planned attacks.
But, the intelligence had enough suspicion to push for his arrest and deportation. And this was done in late 1997. Apparently, though, this did not deal a lethal blow to the terrorism "sleeper" cells already established.
After a brief lull, during which they went underground, the cell members were back in operation, and by May 1998, they had rented a house in the posh Runda estate in Nairobi to spruce up the attack plan. The leafy and quiet suburb was ideal for their covert operations.
The following month - June - a bomb expert arrived from Afghanistan and continued to train the cell members on handling explosives and mines.
The choice of the US embassy as a target was made in July after senior al-Qaeda figures - Abu Ubeida, Abdallah Saleh and Abu Hafs Al Masri - slipped into Kenya. The next task was assembling the bomb, and this was done in the Runda house.
The bomb parts were in inconspicuous wooden crates packed in the rear compartment of a pick-up truck and covered with old tyres.
On August 4, the US mission was surveyed again and for the last time before the raid three days later. The bomb expert then connected the weapon to the detonation device.
The next two days were spent putting the final touches on the attack. The terrorist group logistics team held it last meeting in a downtown hotel and left the country a day before the raid.
Barely a year after the bombing - which killed more than 200 people and injured about 5,000 others -another group started planning another raid. This time around the targets were the Israeli-owned Paradise Hotel of Kikambala, Kilifi, and a passenger jet belonging to Israeli airliner Arkia.
The planning began in 1999 when world attention was on the US embassy bombing, and no-one, not even the intelligence, thought terrorists would be so daring as to come back so soon.
As Kenya's National Security Intelligence Service and America's CIA tried to put the pieces together, terrorists were back in business planning a fresh attack in early 1999. Surprisingly, among the key architects of the new attack were people who slipped out of the country immediately after planning and executing the August 7, 1998, attack. But this time around, the recruitment and training took place in Somalia, where the fugitives had surreptitiously settled.
Then they started sneaking back into Kenya and, one by one, they moved into a Mombasa suburb where they were assimilated by the local community. By late 2000, as the Kenyan, Israeli and US intelligence agencies found out later, the mastermind of the Paradise Hotel bombing, Fazul Abdullah Mohamed - who was also wanted by security forces over the US embassy bombing - received $80,000 (about Sh6 million) from al-Qaeda for operations in Kenya.
And in April 2002, Somalia-based cell members planned and coordinated the preparations with their counterparts in Kenya.
In August, core operatives started holding clandestine meetings in a Mombasa mosque to plan the attack. The following month, those in charge of logistics rented a house in Mombasa's Tudor estate, which the group was to use for planning meetings.
Intelligence reports later said that on November 22, the logistics man visited Lamu in search of a speed-boat to be used for a quick escape after the attack. With the vessel found, the following day it was time to move the arsenal into the Tudor house.
The logistician left for a last trip to Lamu on November 26 to ensure the boat was in good shape. And with an escape route assured, it was time to get to the final stage. Guests at Paradise had no idea what was in store for them as they had their breakfast and made plans for the sunny day that November 28, 2002, promised.
At the reception, some tourists were checking in, looking forward to a wonderful holiday in one of the best beach hotels in Kenya.
Meanwhile, in the Tudor house, 15km from Kikambala, a group of terrorists was doing something that would disrupt the serene atmosphere of Paradise and end the lives of many guests. That morning, a Mitsubishi Pajeropulled up at the entrance when the guards stopped it, insisting on perusing the occupants' papers. But, in no mood for the delay or argument, they smashed the gate and drove full speed towards the reception.
The vehicle exploded into fire and killed more than a dozen guests and employees and damaged the hotel itself. And as this was happening, a second group of terrorists was at Moi International Airport, Mombasa, shooting missiles at an Israeli commercial jet. Fortunately though, they missed the target.
A day after the two attacks, the al-Qaeda cell members found their way onto Lamu island from where they departed for Somalia aboard the boat.
Although intelligence agencies the world over cooperate and share information, rivalry between even the friendliest is a common feature, which often frustrates their efforts and minimises their combined efficiency.
Intelligence sources say that had there been enough cooperation between the Kenyan and other agencies, the US embassy and Paradise Hotel attacks might not have happened. NSIS must have learnt a lesson from the two attacks within about four years.
It is hoped that new spy chief Michael Gichangi will pick from where his predecessor, Brig Wilson Boinett, left and ensure the spy agency lives up to its motto, Apti Parati Fideles (Capable, Available and Reliable) and, by so doing, safeguard the republic of Kenya against threats emanating from within and without.
Mwenda Njoka is a journalist and media consultant.