Phantom of the Forever War: Fazul Abdullah Muhammad and the Terrorist Imaginary
In 1998 al Qaeda operative Fazul Abdullah Muhammad became an apparition. In the years that followed, intelligence and media sources claimed that he was born in 1973, 1974, and 1975 and that he is Kenyan and Egyptian.1 He was presumed dead in Kandahar and later in southern Somalia.2 He has been described as a charismatic genius, a computer whiz, a master of concealment, and a stylish master terrorist capable of launching attacks anywhere in the world. He is said to have studied in Saudi Arabia and Sudan, opened an Islamist school in Kenya, attempted to assassinate Egyptian president Hosni Mubarak, and hijacked an Ethiopian Airlines flight.3 Such a dossier suggests that Fazul is an archetypal master terrorist: a nearly superhuman operative with the skills necessary to execute a global campaign of terror (see fig. 1). Yet this is a myth.
Like most myths, it contains elements of truth. Fazul did coordinate the 1998 bombing of the U.S. Embassy in Nairobi — the event that prompted George Tenet, director of the Central Intelligence Agency, to declare war on al Qaeda — and the 2002 attacks on Israeli tourists near Mombasa.4 These bombings killed hundreds and injured thousands. Fazul’s role in the attacks led reporters to refer to him as the “most wanted man in Africa.”5 But quite unlike Ayman al Zawahiri or Abu Masab al Zarqawi, Fazul has been profoundly mute. Thus his story remains flexible, and he has become an object of intense speculation. U.S. government spokespeople, the news media, and counterterrorism experts ascribe to Fazul a variety of skills, resources, and influence beyond his means. Much like Osama bin Laden, Fazul has been transformed into a nearly superhuman figure. In part as a result of his mythic stature, Fazul has been a public rationale for U.S. counterterrorism aid to African governments and even for direct U.S. military intervention in Somalia.
Misrepresentations of Fazul are not, however, simply the invention of counterterrorism agencies. On the contrary, the rhetorical making of Fazul into a master terrorist has largely been the product of a common psychology of fear and a popular imagination saturated with the layered syntax of the entertainment industry’s imagery. Reflections on Fazul have fit him into the entertainment industry’s familiar profile of the diabolical über-terrorist. The awesome abilities and resources ascribed to him recall those of terrorists we know from the James Bond and Die Hard films and, more recently, from the television series 24. Fazul is often portrayed as what many in the West, particularly in the United States, have come to fear most: a cash-flush and tech-savvy master terrorist with the ability to strike anywhere. Nonetheless, he is a man with little education and few resources or technical skills. This essay is a reflection on how Fazul came to be mythologized. It aims to show how his legend mirrors broader genealogies of information that shape contemporary perceptions of terrorism.
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- Greg Campbell, Blood Diamonds: Tracing the Deadly Path of the World’s Most Precious Stones (Boulder, Colo.: Westview, 2004), 186; “Egyptian Terror-Master Fazul Commanded Mombasa Attacks: Debkafile Special Intelligence, Counter-terror Sources — Part I,” Debkafile, November 30, 2002, www.debka.com/article.php?aid=211.
- Global Witness, For a Few Dollars More: How al Qaeda Moved into the Diamond Trade (London: Global Witness, 2003), 57; Andy Soltis, “Qaeda Clobbered: U.S. Somalia Raid Kills Embassy Fiend,” New York Post, January 11, 2007.
- Gamal Nkrumah, “Much Ado about Mohamed: Should Kenya Be Isolated because of a Single Alleged Terrorist Sighting?” Al-Ahram Weekly Online, May 22 – 28, 2003, weekly.ahram.org .eg/2003/639/in1.htm; “The Comoro Islands: An Unusual Haunt for al-Qaeda,” Economist, July 12, 2007; Harmony Project, Al-Qaida’s (Mis)adventures in the Horn of Africa (West Point, N.Y.: U.S. Military Academy, Combating Terrorism Center, 2007), 100; Daniel McGrory and Jonathan Clayton, “Seaside Manhunt for the Stylish Master Terrorist,” Times (London), May 16, 2003.
- George Tenet with Bill Harlow, At the Center of the Storm: My Years at the CIA (New York: HarperCollins, 2007), 118 – 19.
- “How Terrorist Attack Was Planned and Executed,” East African Standard, November 27, 2004.