MOMBASA, Kenya -- For one night, police had one of the FBI's most wanted Al Qaeda terrorists behind bars.
Fazul Abdullah Mohammed was picked up in connection with an armed robbery in this steamy Indian Ocean port. It should have been a coup for Kenya's police. They had a man with a $25 million bounty on his head who was indicted for planning the 1998 US Embassy bombings in East Africa.
The problem was they didn't know his true identity, though the most-wanted poster showing Fazul had been collecting dust on the grimy walls of Kenyan police stations for years.
A day after his detention July 12, 2002, Fazul escaped, outwitting seven police officers armed with AK-47s and 9mm pistols. The head of Al Qaeda's East African terror cell evaded capture then, and at least one other time a year later, according to an Associated Press investigation.
Just months after his brush with jail, Fazul masterminded Al Qaeda attacks in Kenya on Nov. 28, 2002, police and intelligence officials allege.
In one, attackers rammed an SUV full of explosives into an Israeli-owned hotel on Kenya's coast, killing 15 people. Separately, two surface-to-air missiles narrowly missed an Israeli-owned airliner packed with Israeli tourists as it took off from Mombasa.
The FBI considers Fazul among the top must-capture Al Qaeda operatives. In May the Justice Department listed him as one of seven suspects that ''present a clear and present danger to America."
The investigation of Fazul provides insight into how he and Al Qaeda have operated in East Africa, a region where borders are porous and police are corrupt, poorly trained, and ill-equipped.
Interviews with dozens of religious leaders, family, friends, and neighbors of suspects uncovered deep Al Qaeda roots in the region.
Reporters also spoke to Western and Kenyan officials and reviewed transcripts of FBI interviews, copies of Kenyan police reports -- exclusively obtained by AP -- and court testimony at the 2001 New York trial of four embassy bombers as well as the Kenyan trial of suspects allegedly involved in the 2002 Paradise Hotel attack.
Fazul rose through Al Qaeda's ranks and is considered the leader of a cell that has been in and out of Kenya since the early 1990s, when Al Qaeda leader Osama bin Laden was in neighboring Sudan.
The cell's presence and the ability of its members to settle in the region and evade capture has caused the United States to consider East Africa a key battleground in its war against terrorism.
''Al Qaeda spent its first six years in East Africa, so they know the area, and they can operate easily," said Ted Dagne, an Africa specialist at the Congressional Research Service.
When Fazul was detained in 2002, police regarded him as a ''normal robbery suspect," one of the officers who handled the case said.
Police picked him up at a shop in Mombasa for using a stolen credit card to purchase jewelry.
In March, six people identified the man as Fazul after being shown FBI photos. A Kenyan prosecutor and a Western intelligence official confirmed police believe it was Fazul.
Fazul escaped when seven officers took him to what they believed was his apartment in search of stolen goods. Instead, they came across three women and a mentally handicapped man who shouted at the officers.
Amid the confusion, Fazul, who was not handcuffed, fled out the door and disappeared into a maze of narrow streets, said a policeman involved, speaking on the condition of anonymity.
''The man was well trained, I tell you. . . . He dashed to the door like a monkey, then, like a flash, he slides down the stair rail like lightning," the policeman said. ''We searched and searched."
Police discovered the man they had detained when they traced the former owner of the SUV used in the hotel attack. They were told the vehicle had been sold to a group of men, including one called Warsame, the alias Fazul gave police when he was detained, the officer said.
Fazul, who is in his early 30s and a native of the Comoros islands, wasn't the only Al Qaeda suspect who slipped through authorities' clutches.
A Kenyan named Saleh Ali Saleh Nabhan, who posed as Fazul's taxi driver when Fazul used the stolen credit card, disappeared after being released on bail following his arrest with Fazul.
Nabhan, 24, a resident of Mombasa, was later identified as an Al Qaeda member and one of two men who allegedly fired missiles at the Israeli airliner, according to a police statement.
Fazul was in charge of the ''whole operation," the statement said, quoting Omar Said Omar, who was arrested in Mombasa Aug. 1.
Omar, 32, is one of four Kenyans charged with 15 counts of murder for the 2002 attacks on the hotel and plane.
His statement details how the attacks were carried out, names those involved, and charts their escape to neighboring Somalia.
Fazul and the other men spent months planning the attacks, meeting in mosques and houses and communicating via e-mail and mobile phone, Omar told police, saying his task was to organize escape to Somalia. That war-ravaged Muslim nation shares land and sea borders with Kenya and has had no effective government since 1991.
Omar was recruited into Al Qaeda in Somalia after setting up a lobster business in the southern port of Kismayo in 1999 with three other men, including Issa Osman Issa, another Fazul associate.
Omar said he received weapons training in a house in Mogadishu where he and other members of the cell lived. The group's aim was to ''fight all Americans, British, Israelites, and Australians," Issa told Omar, according to the police report.
On Nov. 20, 2002, a week before the hotel and plane attacks, Issa gave $255 to Omar and sent him to the island of Lamu, where he rented a safe house and organized an escape boat.
Issa and Nabhan -- the two accused of firing missiles -- and a man identified only as Abdulmalik arrived in Lamu the day after the attacks. On Dec. 1, they all left for Somalia, Omar told police.
Fazul stayed behind and then left in 2003 for Ethiopia, days after marrying a Kenyan.
When Omar returned to Kenya in May 2003, he was assigned to find new targets. ''I was also told to look for cruise ships at the Kilindini Harbor," in Mombasa, he told police.
At the same time, Nabhan, 24, had moved to Malindi, north of Mombasa.
There, he sent a coded e-mail to a Kenyan named Salmin Mohammed Khamis, who was picked up by police on June 17, 2003, in Mombasa.
The men drafted a plan to destroy the new US Embassy in Nairobi with a truck bomb and a plane loaded with explosives, according to a statement Khamis gave police.
Last July, Fazul returned to Mombasa and moved in with a young Kenyan named Faisal Ali Nassor, Omar's statement said.
Police again got close.
On Aug. 1, 2003, the day Omar was arrested, police tried to detain Nassor. He detonated a grenade, killing himself and a policeman, Kenyan officials said.
Amid the confusion, another suspect escaped. Police believe it was Fazul -- the most wanted terrorist had slipped through their fingers again.