In my last article I said that the story of Amir Meshal deserved its own article, and I thought I might do that here. But as Burns once wrote, “The best-laid schemes o’ mice an ‘men, / Gang aft agley.” Meshal’s ordeal in Africa will matter here, but in some senses it will serve as the backdrop of a much different facet of the jihad story, one fairly well known but surprising in its relationship. With respect to Meshal, it may simply be a series of unfortunate coincidences, but if it isn’t then it may say a great deal about him and the danger he potentially represents. To be clear, much of the detail surrounding his experience there is drawn from the court filing in the Higgenbotham case, so it represents Meshal’s point of view. What the government contends with respect to Meshal’s activities can’t be probed directly.
An American Picked Up in Kenya
When he left for Cairo in the summer of 2005, Amir Meshal was a community college dropout who had unsuccessfully tried to join the Army. His ancestral home was an opportunity for a fresh start. According to a 2015 report, Meshal’s mother, Fifi, asked her brother, Dr. Magdy Osman, if Amir could come stay with him in Cairo and “reacquaint” himself with their religion. Fifi, and one of Amir’s brothers went together with Amir, but later returned to the United States. He spent over a year there working for some of the time in sales for a translation company.
On November 27, 2006, Meshal landed in the Mogadishu of the Council of Islamic Courts after hopping a Jubba Airways flight from Dubai. He had told his family he wanted to get work in Dubai. He had told Uncle Magdy he intended to find a Somali wife. He later told the US District Court for the District of Columbia that he went to Somalia to fulfill “an increasing desire to develop his knowledge about and interest in Islam.” For whatever reason, he went, but it would turn out to be very bad timing for such a trip.
On December 24, 2006, just short of a month after Meshal’s arrival, Ethiopian forces launched a massive coordinated assault on Islamists inside Somalia creating more anarchy than usual for a country that has been racked by conflict since the early 1990s. Part of that assault consisted of Ethiopian air forces bombing the airport in Mogadishu, making it impossible for anyone to leave the city by air. Meshal joined a truck convoy heading to Kismayo, a trip that lasted approximately five days. On January 3, 2007, he went by boat from Kismayo to Ras Kamboni, on the border with Kenya. That same day Kenya closed the border with Somalia, to control the flow of people fleeing the violence and to restrict the ability of terrorists to enter their territory.
Meshal spent the next three weeks in the forest in the border regions of Somalia and Kenya. He and four other men were captured by Kenyan soldiers on January 24, 2007, as they stumbled out of the forest into a village. This same story had been repeating itself for days with other foreign men emerging from the woods on the Kenyan side of the border, and some of their stories will intertwine with Meshal’s. Meshal and the men he was with were transported the same day to Kiunga, and then taken the following day to Nairobi by way of Mombasa. Here he was held at the Ruai Police Station until US officials began “interrogating” him on February 3, 2007, at the Salonikas Villas on Muthungari Road about a 44 minute drive on the other side of Nairobi. This being a tiresome commute, he was moved 7 minutes away from the Villas to the Kileleshwa Police Station. Here he shared a cell with 20 Kenyans and a British man, Mohamed Ezzouek. Ezzouek and some fellow Brits had been picked up along the Somali-Kenyan border on January 20.
The US officials, agents Chris Higgenbotham, Steve Hersem, and “Tim”, were very clear about what they wanted to know from Meshal. They immediately asked him about his friend, “Beantown,” a nickname for the New England-born Daniel Joseph Maldonado, another American picked up along the Somali-Kenyan border on January 21. Maldonado and Ezzouek had in fact been held in the same prison together until January 29, when FBI came and took Maldonado away. And like a real-life Little Bill Daggett, Meshal says Hersem told him that his and Maldonado’s stories better match or he wouldn’t be going home.
Their stories didn’t match. In any event, he was treated as though they didn’t match. We frankly have no idea what Maldonado said about Meshal, if anything.
To his unpleasant surprise, Meshal was placed on a flight back to Somalia on February 9, 2007, while Maldonado, who had admitted to knowingly training with and participating in the activities of a designated foreign terrorist organization, was the same day placed on a plane back to the United States. Meshal shared his flight to Baidoa with 12 other detainees (4 Brits, 1 Frenchman, 2 Tunisians, 2 Syrians, and 3 Kenyans). There they were offloaded and taken to a prison they termed “the cave.” On February 12, the four Brits were separated from the group and placed in British custody, at which point they were flown home. The other men would be given over to the Ethiopians, and Meshal would not make it home until May.
Beantown and Abu Mansoor
Like Meshal, Daniel Maldonado arrived in Somalia in November 2006 after having spent time in Egypt since November 2005. Maldonado, of Puerto Rican heritage, was a bright, opinionated young man from Pelham, New Hampshire who converted to Islam in 2000 while living in Methuen, Massachusetts. He grew increasingly rigid in his views, and his opinionated nature asserted itself in the practice of his new faith. His wife, Tamekia Cunningham, also converted to Islam. Their son was renamed from Anthony to Mohammed and their toddler daughter was covered with a hijab.
He and his family moved to Houston in August 2005 working for a computer company IslamicNetwork.com. The site’s owner quickly realized he couldn’t afford to pay Maldonado a living wage in Houston as the site did not generate any real revenue. Hence, he assisted the family’s move to Cairo, where it would be cheaper to live and he could continue to do some work for the site. This move was also a function of Maldonado’s desire to live somewhere where Islam was more openly and prominently practiced.
Life in Cairo turned out to be harder than Maldonado anticipated. He didn’t speak Arabic. The $270/month his employer paid him didn’t cover expenses, and internet connectivity was spotty at best.
Yet, his work as an administrator of an online forum within IslamicNetwork would change his life forever, when he met another young, struggling American living in Alexandria named Omar Hammami. Hammami and his Somali-origin wife, Sadiya, came to Egypt in June 2005, making a poorly planned hijra with another family who eventually reversed course. The two met in person and began spending more time together venturing into strange neighborhoods and attending underground mosques. They eventually began making plans to take themselves and their families to Somalia to live under the authority of the Islamic Courts. Hammami awoke his visiting mother on the morning of November 6, 2006, kissed her and told her he was going to Dubai for a work opportunity. He called several days later to say he was in Somalia. Sometime later in the month, Maldonado and his family arrived in country.
Hammami would go on to have a colorful career, becoming the jihadi rap star Abu Mansoor al-Amriki. His life would ultimately be ended by his own side in a purge and consolidation within al-Shabaab. Maldonado would lose his wife likely to malaria in the trek to the Kenyan border. The children were fortunately reunited and brought home together, as their father faced conviction and sentencing for his interaction with jihadists in Somalia.
Of the many interesting things in their stories, a couple aspects stand out. Firstly, Maldonado’s confession includes an interesting tidbit: “MALDONADO stated that while residing with the young mujahadin in Mogadishu, he became aware that al Qaeda members were residing and training in the same compound. A Yemeni who personally knew bin Laden, and MALDONADO, participated in nightly gatherings during which stories of bin Laden were told by the Yemeni.” This Yemeni may be a tantalizing reference to Saleh Nabhan and demonstrate Maldonado’s possible familiarity with boys from London before their stories overlap in Kenya.
Secondly, the overlap in times, locations, and travel patterns between Meshal, Maldonado, Hammami, and the London group is quite interesting. The three arrived in Egypt within a few months of one another, and all made their way to Somalia via Dubai in the exact same month. Maldonado and Meshal stumble out of the jungle in Kenya within days of one another, and it is not in dispute that they knew one another from their flight from Kismayo. Is it possible that they knew one another from Egypt? Did they maybe meet one another in one of those odd neighborhoods or underground mosques? If not, did they meet in the training camps run by jihadists? Did they encounter the young London men in those very camps?
The particulars of how the London Boys arrived in Somalia are not the stuff of public knowledge. I did find that Ezzouek had apparently left for Mogadishu in September of 2006, but that is about it. It is interestingly a point in fact where his story diverges from that of his mother. He claimed to have flown from the UK to Dubai and on to Somalia with the full knowledge of his family. His mother, on the other hand, claimed at the time that he had gone to Egypt to study in a Quranic school. So what of the young men from London?
The London Boys
Besides the already mentioned Ezzouek, Reza Afsharzadegan (also referred to as Fesal Afshar Zabequn and ‘Adam’), Hamza Chentouf, and Shahajan Janjua (also referred to as Shah Jehan Janjua) were rescued by the Foreign Office consul out of Nairobi. They were placed on a charter back to Kenya and then flown to Brize Norton in Oxfordshire. In the nine hours allotted to them before a charge/arrest must be made, Scotland Yard was unable to piece together enough information and released all four.
Apart from the initial reports on their capture and release and a May report by Cageprisoners in 2007, little emerged about their story for years. What did was mostly concerned with the subject of secret detention, threats, torture, and rendition. The implication was always that had not Janjua bribed a guard to allow him to place a call to his family, nobody would have had a clue to their whereabouts and the government could have done anything to them.
Their story is referenced in 2013 as a sort of pattern in the case of Michael Adebolajo, one of the perpetrators of the gruesome street killing of Fusilier Lee Rigby, who was arrested by Kenyan authorities as he was attempting to make his way to Somalia with a small group of young men by speedboat. He likewise accused his captors of threats, torture, denial of access to a lawyer, and incessant attempts by the British security services to enlist his help in the fight against terrorism.
A 2011 article in the Daily Mail finally got at the issue of why they were there, or at least what the government feared regarding their presence. Ezzouek always maintained that he simply wanted to live in a state governed under Sharia law. Janjua claimed to have gone to attend a friend’s wedding and gotten trapped by the Ethiopian invasion. Afsharzadegan claimed to have gone to Somalia out of a sense of “adventure” and to teach computing skills to impoverished youth. I have not seen any particular reason given by Chentouf, but in general, his claim is like the others—he went for purely innocent reasons. This story suggested otherwise, stating that they were all trained in a camp run by the famed al Qaeda agent Harun Fazul and were being prepped for attacks against their home country. One would imagine that such an explosive story would generate some follow-up, but in this case, one would be wrong.
It’s not until the infamous ‘Jihadi John’ was unmasked as Mohammed Emwazi in the press in February 2015 that people looking into his background began unearthing a lot of material about quite a few young men in the Ladbroke Grove area, including the London Boys brought back from Somalia eight years earlier.
In a report about Emwazi’s network in March 2015, CNN references more than a dozen British court documents describing the authorities’ belief that Emwazi was part of a London recruitment network for terrorist groups in East Africa. The first document cited is a 2011 court document related to the case of ‘CE’, a 30-year-old British Iranian under a control order allegedly trained by al Qaeda terrorists in Somalia in 2006. ‘CE’ is easily identifiable as Reza Afsharzadegan. The article goes on to list out a handful of other names and two-letter identifiers involved in the network, some of no particular notoriety and others who achieved a degree of infamy.
Six were singled out as having “attended an al Qaeda training camp in Somalia in 2006 in which they may have been instructed in the use of explosives,”: ‘CE’ (Afsharzadegan), Bilal al-Berjawi, ‘BX’ (Ibrahim Magag), Mohammed Ezzouek, Mohammed Miah and Hamza Chentouf. The camp was run by Harun Fazul and another AQ operative by the name of Saleh Nabhan, a man born in Mombasa of Yemeni descent. Both men were accused by the US of playing key roles in the East Africa embassy bombings in 1998.
So of the six individuals specifically tied to the camp run by Fazul and Nabhan, three of them were brought back to the UK in 2007 and immediately released upon the population. Others in the group, including Emwazi, would try to get to Somalia and fail, and others would eventually succeed. Berjawi and his childhood friend, Mohamed Sakr, would make it and achieve high-level positions amongst the jihadists before being killed in rapid succession in drone strikes in 2012. Still others would never travel to combat zones but would engage in criminal and fraudulent activities to raise money, work to radicalize others, and otherwise engage in activism in support of their beliefs. As such, some of these young men are discoverable as minor characters or tangential figures in other plots and conspiracies. But those stories can be left for other articles.
I do feel compelled to briefly mention one of these side stories with which I will deal more fully in a subsequent article. One of the few activities discoverable from our London Boys once they returned to the UK was the participation by Reza Afsharzadegan in George Galloway’s increasingly infamous December 2009 Viva Palestina aid convoy to Gaza. I say increasingly infamous not because of its stated intentions, but because more and more participants are being discovered to have subsequently engaged in radical activities. One of Emwazi’s fellow “Beatles”, Alexanda Kotey, took part. Former Guantanamo Bay detainee and recent suicide bomber, Ronald Fiddler aka Jamal al-Harith, rode along, as well as fellow Mancunian Stephen Gray. Another “London Boy” Amin Addala participated. Munir Farooqi, a former Taliban fighter who tried to recruit undercover officers helped as well. Another two unnamed individuals are referenced in news stories. Admittedly this represents only a small percentage of the 500 people who took part, but the point is that over time some of those who did have moved along the spectrum to far more radical outlooks and activities.
One of the most obvious takeaways from this story are the interrelated questions of the rights of detainees, protection of society, and the tension between transparency and protection of investigations and intelligence. The public has been predominantly given the detainees’ side of the story, and the picture given of the Governments, their representatives, and their methods are not flattering. If these accounts are not true, it would be desirable for them to more forcefully defend themselves, lest the public become ever more susceptible to the idea that our modus operandi simply “creates” more terrorists.
Nevertheless, I’m cognizant of the fact that such a defense may inadvertently compromise intelligence the authorities have on networks even years after the event. In so many of these stories, including this one, the “gestation” period for some members of the network can go a decade or even more. Emwazi, for example, has been known to UK authorities at least as a low-level actor since the July 21, 2005, Tube plot. Our innate tendency to chase the breaking story blinds us to the fact that some of the old stories continue on and metamorphose out of the limelight, suddenly to re-erupt at times. People continue to network, so relationships forged in 2006 and earlier STILL MATTER. They often set the stage for that with which we are now dealing.
There are other interesting aspects of the story, including the persistence of individuals in their efforts to reach the battlefield and the creativity they display to make it happen. But I want to bring it back full circle to Amir Meshal to close out. Was he just an innocent abroad as he claims back then? If we don’t know by now, we probably never will. That being said, the questions I raised earlier about the congruities between his story and those of the other Americans, as well as those from London, certainly lend a degree of sympathy to the viewpoint of those investigators who didn’t buy his story then. His subsequent embroilment in the investigations of men leaving Minnesota to go fight with Islamic State only lends more weight to the notion that there is more to his story.
Who knows? Maybe Daniel Maldonado can tell us more. He went in to prison in July 2007 with a ten-year sentence and three more years of supervised release. If his time in detention beforehand was counted towards the sentence, he may already be out. I wonder what he could tell us.