1998 United States embassy bombings

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United States embassy bombings
An aerial photograph of the bombed U.S. Embassy in Nairobi.
Location Nairobi, Kenya and Dar es Salaam, Tanzania
Target(s) Two United States embassies
Date 7 August 1998

10:45am (UTC+3)

Attack Type car bombings
Fatalities 257
Injuries ~4000
Perpetrator(s) Wadih el-Hage, Osama bin Laden, and others; al-Qaeda

In the 1998 U.S. Embassy bombings (August 7, 1998), 257 people were killed and over 4,000 wounded in simultaneous [1] car bomb explosions at the United States embassies in the East African capital cities of Dar es Salaam, Tanzania and Nairobi, Kenya. The attacks, linked to local members of the al Qaeda terrorist network headed by Osama bin Laden, brought bin Laden and al Qaeda to international attention for the first time, and resulted in the U.S. Federal Bureau of Investigation placing bin Laden on its Ten Most Wanted list. [2]

Along with the 1993 World Trade Center bombing, the 1996 Khobar Towers bombing in Saudi Arabia, and the 2000 attack on the USS Cole in Yemen, the Embassy Bombing is one of the major anti-American terrorist attacks that preceded the September 11, 2001 attacks. The United States responded to the attacks by freezing financial assets of related parties and by initiating military action in Afghanistan.

Al Qaeda’s list of grievances against the West included American participation in the first Gulf War, military operations in Somalia, and military involvement in Yemen. However, the United States presence in Saudi Arabia - a state that is home to a number of the holiest sites in Islam - was perhaps the focal point of Al Qaeda’s anger. Permanent U.S. military installations in the region represented a lack of Saudi Arabian control over its territory and were thought to threaten the Muslim sacred cities of Mecca and Medina. Osama bin Laden believed that “the Americans were infidels and their garrisons propped up a corrupt, insufficiently Islamic Saudi elite.” As U.S. economic and political interests continued to create a greater presence in the Middle East, Al Qaeda began targeting U.S. interests abroad.


[edit] Security conditions and warnings

There were many conditions in both Kenya and Tanzania that made the two countries choice targets for al Qaeda attacks. These include: anarchic rule by corrupt local law enforcement, porous borders with lax security that allowed unregulated movement of people and supplies, active local terrorist organizations other than al Qaeda, political violence endemic to the region, a large contingent of Americans in an embassy vulnerable to attack, and the destabilizing influence of neighboring countries embroiled in wars and conflicts (Somalia, Rwanda and Uganda). Kenya and Tanzania also both had a highly marginalized cultural and religious landscape dating from colonial rule, and highlighted by the tensions between the local Christian and Muslim populations.

From a security standpoint, both embassies were extremely vulnerable to attack. The embassy in Kenya was the hardest to secure because of its proximity to a nearby busy intersection and its lack of a recommended 100 foot standoff zone from the street. The embassy had one radio frequency that was constantly clogged with other radio traffic. Neither The Marine Security Guards (MSG) nor the local security were trained to detect and deter vehicular bombs or terrorist acts. Additionally, the delta barriers and security gates were not working at the time of the attack. While it too did not have a 100 foot standoff nor a working delta barrier, the United States embassy in Tanzania was far more prepared than the one in Kenya. The Regional Security Officer (RSO) in Dar es Salaam, John DiCarlo instituted vehicle screening outside of the embassy to ensure that no one who might have explosives could enter. The RSO and the MSGs were trained in identifying and preventing attacks from parcel bombs, and participated in react drills, and fire drills in the event of an emergency situation. Because of these protections, the attack itself did not go according to al Qaeda’s plan.

Soon after her arrival as ambassador to Kenya in 1996, Prudence Bushnell began raising alarms about the embassy's lack of security. She sent repeated cables warning the State Department that the embassy needed to be re-evaluated and take measures to ensure it was adequately protected. Unfortunately her pleas fell on deaf ears. According to one State Department official, Bushnell was seen as a "...nuisance who was overly obsessed with security." To placate the ambassador, the State Department did send a security team to inspect the embassy and they determined that it met their standards for a "medium threat". Concurrently, the State Department had determined that Africa was a low risk in its terrorism assessment. In addition to Bushnell's warnings, General Anthony Zinni visited the embassy in early 1998 and warned the State Department that there were significant security flaws and that the embassy would be an easy and tempting target for terrorism. Ultimately the State Department determined that security upgrades were both unwarranted and fiscally unnecessary.

[edit] Attacks and casualties

Image:Kenya bombing 1.jpg
Aftermath at the Nairobi embassy.

Car bombs in vehicles adjacent to the embassies were detonated simultaneously at 10:45 am local time (3:45 am Washington time). In Nairobi, where the embassy was located in a busy downtown area, 224 people were killed, including 12 Americans, and an estimated 4000 injured, mostly Kenyan civilians; in Dar es Salaam, the embassy was further from the city center, and the attack killed at least 11 and wounded 85. Although the attacks may have been intended to kill employees of the United States government most of the victims were African civilians.

Upon news of the attacks, the State Department’s Office of American Services and Crisis Management issued a travel advisory for all United States citizens abroad. American installations around the world immediately heightened security as a response to the embassy bombings. Airports, embassies, and domestic federal installations and facilities were on full alert for terrorist activity.

Al Qaeda claimed responsibility for both incidents.

[edit] Finances and costs of the bombings

The entire cost of al Qaeda’s terrorist operations in the embassy bombings has been determined inconclusively to have been between $10,000 and $50,000. Much of the funding was delivered to the perpetrators using Dihab Shill's Nairobi office.[3] The attacks were disproportionately inexpensive in relation to the devastation and destruction they caused. The financial path from al Qaeda’s operation rarely leads directly to bin Laden and while bin Laden was the ultimate source of al Qaeda’s funding, it is difficult to trace the operations' finances directly to him.

In February 1998, bin Laden charged every Muslim to both kill Americans and “plunder their money.” Although an exact figure for the total amount of devastation caused by the attacks is not available, it is possible, based on what information is available, to make an estimate. Taking into consideration the devastation, costs of repair, and the U.S. response, the costs resulting from the embassy bombings put American expenditures in the range of $1.921 billion.

[edit] Pre-bombing intelligence

While there was never an indication of when or how the U.S. embassies in Nairobi, Kenya and Dar-es-Salaam, Tanzania would be attacked, there was mounting intelligence to suggest that the embassies were not adequately secure and potentially targets of terrorist plots. Consequently, while certain threats were identified and intelligence had been collected and disseminated in some cases, they were often discounted before reaching high-level officials and determined to be unfounded. Among the warnings prior to the attacks:

In the summer of 1997, CIA identified Wadih el-Hage as a key figure in al Qaeda’s leadership in Kenya. In August, 1997, the Kenyan police, CIA, and FBI raided el-Hage’s house in Nairobi, downloaded files from his computer, and confiscated a number of written correspondences. He was extensively questioned three times by the FBI, but the documents from his home were not translated because of the unavailability of Arab-speaking staff and the low priority given their contents.

Also the summer of 1997, an informant was turned over to the CIA who claimed that the Nairobi branch of the Islamic charity Al Haramain Foundation was plotting to blow up the American embassy in Kenya. The threat was taken seriously enough for the CIA to send a counterterrorism team to Kenya for further investigation. The team found no evidence of a bomb plot, however they did not interview the nine detained Arab suspects. The agency concluded that the informant was not credible. The CIA stated that there was never any evidence linking Al Haramain to the embassy bombings, though there was evidence to connect the foundation to bin Laden.

In the fall of 1997, an Egyptian named Mustafa Mahmoud Said Ahmed walked into the Nairobi embassy and told CIA officers that he knew about a group that was planning to detonate a truck bomb inside the diplomats’ underground parking garage. The CIA stated that it received word from a foreign intelligence service that Ahmed was a fabricator of information and that his warning should be treated with skepticism. Ahmed was arrested in Tanzania after the bombing and was believed to be a key figure in the Dar-es-Salaam attack. In particular, investigative Accountability Review Board stated that the intelligence received regarding Ahmed’s warning of a vehicular bomb attack was carefully vetted and was discredited by early 1998.

[edit] Aftermath and international response

Image:Kenya bombing 2.jpg
Wreckage from the Nairobi bombing.

In Afghanistan, the Taliban declared on November 20, 1998 that there was no evidence of bin Laden's involvement, and that "bin Laden is a man without sin". [4]

The Diplomatic Security Service saw its budget and manpower dramatically increased after these bombings, and security at all U.S. embassies was strengthened and improved. This after more than several years of drastic cutbacks in personnel and money allotted to DS by the U.S. State Department.

[edit] Operation Infinite Reach

The U.S. response was twofold: militarily and economically. To retaliate on an economic level, President Clinton signed Executive Order 13099 on August 20, 1998 that prohibited transactions with terrorists who threatened to disrupt the Middle East peace process. 13099 further alleged that bin Laden and the Islamic Army Organization were the perpetrators of the attacks on the embassies in Kenya and Tanzania. The executive order attempted to freeze assets owned by bin Laden and al Qaeda and stipulated that U.S. citizens and firms could not do business with them. President Clinton ordered Operation Infinite Reach, a series of cruise missile strikes on terrorist targets in Sudan and Afghanistan on August 20, 1998, announcing the planned strike in a primetime address on American television. The choice of targets, the secrecy of the Administration’s deliberation, and the decision to pursue a military response in general all incited criticism and complaint.

Within days of Operation Infinite Reach, Western engineers who had visited or been associated with the plant, as well as Sudanese officials, doctors, lawyers and plant employees insisted that Al Shifa was a working pharmaceutical plant and not a terrorist operational site. Days prior to the attack on the Al Shifa facility, an intelligence official claimed that there was no evidence of commercial products being sold out of the facility. The Clinton administration believed the plant to be suspicious because it was heavily guarded, it was not believed to be producing commercial products and medications, believed to be directly financed by bin Laden, and had ties to Iraq’s chemical weapons programs.

Evidence soon came to light that there was no connection between the plant and the Sudan Military Industrial Complex (SMIC). The United States also tried, unsuccessfully, to establish a direct link between the plant owner, Salah Idris, and the SMIC after the Al Shifa bombing. Since there was seemingly no connection between the SMIC and Al Shifa management, the alleged direct financial connection between bin Laden and the plant did not exist. U.S. intelligence reports also based their accusations on a soil sample taken from the plant grounds in December of 1997 and later tested in the United States. U.S. testing facilities claimed that this soil sample contained amounts of O-ethyl methylphosphonothioic acid, or EMPTA, a dual-use chemical that can be used to make VX nerve gas. Since the United States withdrew its embassy personnel and intelligence officers from Sudan in 1996, the CIA had to rely on questionable intelligence sources regarding the sample.

The attacks on al Qaeda training camps in Afghanistan occurred in the Khost province, sixty miles south of Kabul. These facilities were a sprawling set of camps designed to train al Qaeda operatives. Considering its objectives, the attack in Afghanistan was successful in that it destroyed key physical targets. However, the operation did not accomplish the destruction of bin Laden and his operatives and did not lead to any significant changes in the al Qaeda network and leadership.

[edit] Capture, prosecution, deaths of perpetrators

The criminal investigation ended with three hundred counts against the defendants. These counts included the utilization of weapons of mass destruction (WMD) against American targets, conspiracy to kill officers and employees of the U.S. government, conspiracy to murder U.S. nationals, and conspiracy to destroy U.S. buildings by the use of explosives. Defendants included:

  • Wadih El-Hage, the leader of the East African al Qaeda cell who arranged for the facilitation and delivery of false travel documents.
  • Mohammed Odeh, a technical advisor to al Qaeda operatives responsible for carrying out the bombings.
  • Mohamed Al-Owhali, an expert in explosives, hijacking and bombings who asked bin Laden for an assignment to execute jihad and personally threw stun grenades in an effort to force the embassy guard to allow him entry into the parking garage.
  • Khalfan Khamis Mohammed, who purchased the white Suzuki used to transport the components of the bomb, rented the house in Tanzania which operated as a bomb factory, helped put the bomb together, and loaded the bomb into the truck.

In a federal trial in New York City that ended in June 2001, Mohamed Rashed Daoud Al-Owhali, Mohammed Odeh, Wadih el Hage, and Khalfan Khamis Mohamed were convicted of perpetrating the Nairobi bombing and were sentenced to life imprisonment without the possibility of parole.

Two Egyptian citizens, Ibrahim Hussein Abdel Hadi Eidarous and Adel Mohanned Abdul Almagid Bary, whose fingerprints were allegedly found on the letters claiming responsibility for the bombings, were arrested in London in 1999 by Scotland Yard at the request of the U.S. They were extradited and jailed.

Other alleged conspirators in custody include Khalid al-Fawwaz, a Saudi dissident who had been living in London since 1994. Al-Fawwaz was accused by the U.S. of helping Osama bin Laden to coordinate the attacks, and was ordered to be extradited. He denied the charges and remains in custody in London pending an appeal.[5],[6].

Anas Al-Liby was thought to have been captured in Afghanistan in 2002 during the U.S. invasion of Afghanistan but it was later proven to be false; Ahmed Khalfan Ghailani is believed to have been captured in Pakistan in 2004, and Abd al-Rahim al-Nashiri, whose brother was one of the suicide bombers, and who helped another of the bombers to get a Yemeni passport, is currently in the custody of the U.S. at an undisclosed location.

Mohammed Atef, indicted on November 4, 1998 for his role in orchestrating the attacks, was later reported killed by U.S. bombs during the 2001 invasion of Afghanistan.

Saif al-Adel is reportedly in the custody of the Iranian government.

[edit] Still at large

Group photo of Ayman Al Zawahiri, Usama Bin Laden & Abu Hafs. Prosecution trial exhibit from the trial of Zacarias Moussaoui

[edit] External links

fi:Lähetystöpommi-iskut Itä-Afrikassa 1998 zh:1998年美国大使馆爆炸案

1998 United States embassy bombings

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