Operation SAO TOME: Part One

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BY: Saiid Gaafow. What connects Al-Shabaab, a Tanzanian terrorist financier, Turkey and a designated terrorism sponsor from a Middle Eastern state? The answer, albeit still very murky is the attempt to bring down the Somali airline, Daallo Airlines on 2 February 2016 in Somalia. What is now clear following months of investigations is that the original target was a Turkish airliner and not Daallo Airlines. The Turkish airliner was scheduled to fly out the same day but immediately cancelled, only citing hazardous weather conditions. New information has emerged pointing to a well-orchestrated conspiracy with its origins in Sao Tome, Angola, and final planning in Georgia. In this four part series, we cover how Al-Shabaab, elements within East Africa’s Islamic State, and Middle Eastern intelligence officers planned to end Turkeys presence in Somalia.

Based on sensitive interviews conducted by intelligence officials, and email threads of two suspects arrested in a Southern African country, two Al-Shabaab members, including a senior Tanzanian, had travelled in early 2015 to Sao Tome. Sources close to the investigation have named the Tanzanian as terror financier Khalid Faraj. Faraj, according to Somali intelligence is now part of Al-Shabaab’s contingent that had defected to the Islamic State this year. Officials who have been interviewed on the basis of anonymity claim the two; the senior Al-Shabaab commander and Khalid Faraj were in Sao Tome between February and April 2015.

Somali intelligence sources have also reported that Sao Tome has long been a secret hub of Al-Shabaab and Al-Qaida activity. Outside South Africa, Sao Tome has the largest Somali diaspora in Southern Africa. According to one western intelligence source interviewed for this story: “our knowledge of Al-Shabaab activity in Sao Tome was by chance. Al-Shabaab cells have apparently been using the [Sao Tome] country for terror financing and illegal communications.” The source went on to claim: “In our engagement with the Sao Tome intelligence we repeatedly warned them of an Al-Shabaab presence but they went silent on us.”

Sketchy but credible details of the meetings in Sao Tome strongly point to two Middle Eastern-looking individuals meeting the unnamed senior Al-Shabaab commander and Khalid Faraj. More interesting is, the Omali hotel in Sao Tome has confirmed that two individuals, a Somali and Tanzanian both checked into the hotel repeatedly between February and April 2015. Witness testimony also from Omali hotel staff claims two Middle Eastern-looking individuals had frequently visited the hotel to meet with the Somali and Tanzanian guests. Speaking to a Somali intelligence officer who interviewed the two suspects currently in custody he claimed: “we know who the Al-Shabaab individuals are and we have their names, photos and passport details. It is a matter of time before we track them down.”

Two names have been provided for the senior Al-Shabaab commander and Khalid Faraj. One name certainly had been a frequent traveller to Sao Tome and Georgia while reports claim the senior Al-Shabaab commander may have used forged documentation to travel into Sao Tome. Interviews of the suspects in custody have yet to provide concrete details of the Sao Tome meetings but information obtained indicated Sao Tome was used for initial discussions on the operation. It would also appear that based on the Sao Tome meetings, it was agreed that funds would be transferred from an Angolan company to a Georgian bank account. The Georgian bank account, according to intelligence sources is under the name of Khalid Faraj. Reports based on accessing Khalid Faraj’s bank account link several electronic transfers to a Somali electronics company that banks with a well-known money transfer company.

Telephone interviews with the well-known money transfer company’s CEO have so far failed to yield any corroborating information about Khalid Faraj’s transfers from his Georgian bank account. However, the money transfer company was able to confirm that the Somali electronics company had received large sums from foreign banks, including two large transfers from Georgia. Were these transfers the same from Khalid Faraj? Somali intelligence officials are adamant they are.

In the part two of Operation SAO TOME, we explore direct links between Abdullahi Borleh the suspected suicide bomber of the failed Daallo Airline attack, and a Georgian company based in India. We also reveal the peculiar profiles of the Turkish and Georgian suspects currently being held in a Southern African country.

Saiid Gaafow. gaafow@yandex.com

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