US Embassies Bombed | The Canadian Encyclopedia


US Embassies Bombed

The search for survivors in Nairobi was long and gruelling. It went on for 24 hours a day, lit at night by lights from a film studio truck and using heavy equipment donated by local construction companies. Officially, it ended on Aug.

This article was originally published in Maclean's Magazine on August 24, 1998

US Embassies Bombed

The search for survivors in Nairobi was long and gruelling. It went on for 24 hours a day, lit at night by lights from a film studio truck and using heavy equipment donated by local construction companies. Officially, it ended on Aug. 13, six days after massive bombs exploded within minutes of each other outside the American embassies in the Kenyan capital and in Dar es Salaam, Tanzania, 750 km to the south. By then, rescue workers in both cities had recovered 257 bodies, including those of 12 Americans, and local hospitals were still treating the most serious cases among the estimated 5,500 people injured by the blasts.

But as the search concluded, dozens of FBI and CIA investigators who had flown in from stations around the world, were just beginning to scour the sites for evidence that might lead to the arrests of individuals who planned and carried out the bombings. It was an effort that could take years and still prove futile, experts warned. Meanwhile, informed intelligence sources in Washington had concluded that the attacks were the work of a highly organized group with substantial financial backing. "Months of planning went into this operation," a senior U.S. intelligence source told Maclean's. "It was a sophisticated job."

By late last week, FBI agents in Nairobi, operating out of temporary offices in the Canadian High Commission, and Kenyan police had questioned five people, while Tanzanian authorities had arrested 14 foreigners - six Iraqis, six Sudanese, a Somali and a Turk. But no charges had been laid in either country. In fact, investigators were still trying to determine the type of explosive used - a key fact that might provide clues to the nature of the terrorist organization behind the attacks. They also believed they had found fragments of the vehicle used in the Nairobi bombing. But U.S. intelligence experts said the number 1 suspect was Osama bin Laden, a renegade Saudi-born multimillionaire living in the mountains of Afghanistan. He is believed to have been involved in four bombing attacks on American facilities, at home and abroad, since 1992. "The indications are that he is responsible for both of the embassy bombings," Vincent Cannistraro, the former head of CIA counterterrorism and now a security consultant, told Maclean's.

In the wake of the attacks, U.S. Secretary of State Madeleine Albright offered a $2 million (U.S.) reward - the equivalent of $3 million Canadian - for information leading to the conviction of "the cowards that committed this act." President Bill Clinton declared that "no matter what it takes, we must find those responsible for these acts and see that justice is done." Yet, previous investigations of anti-American terrorism abroad have led to few convictions. Since the 1983 bombing of the U.S. Embassy in Beirut, just over 300 Americans have been killed in attacks on diplomatic or military facilities in the Middle East and Africa. But in the biggest outrages, including Beirut and the 1996 blast that killed 19 U.S. soldiers in Dhahran, Saudi Arabia, no one has even been arrested.

The East African bombings, which occurred around 10:30 a.m. local time, were clearly co-ordinated. The Nairobi explosion ripped into the back of the five-storey American Embassy and damaged almost every room. It completely destroyed an adjacent seven-storey building that housed offices and a secretarial school, and blew out every window in the 22-storey Co-operative Bank of Kenya tower, a second neighboring structure. Damage to the three-storey embassy in Dar es Salaam was less extensive, although 22 cars parked outside were destroyed.

The Tanzanian blast caused fewer casualties - 10 dead and 70 injured - because the embassy was built of reinforced concrete and is located in the spacious and uncrowded diplomatic quarter of the city. Investigators believe that a vehicle was used to deliver the bomb, but by late last week they had been unable to find remnants of a car or truck linked to the attack. The blast created a crater, three metres across, near the gate to the embassy compound, and destroyed a water truck that had just arrived to make a delivery. But the investigation was being hampered by a lack of witnesses.

The Nairobi explosion was much more deadly because the U.S. Embassy is situated in the city's bustling downtown core. Twelve Americans and 235 Kenyans died, while thousands of injured people packed Nairobi's seven hospitals. The blast showered debris over a 10-block area and damaged buildings 150 m away. But the neighboring Ufundi House bore the brunt of the attack. It was reduced to a pile of rubble more than 10 m high. While the donated cranes removed slabs of concrete, search-and-rescue workers from Israel, Kenya, France and the United States probed the ruins for victims. They found three survivors, and worked desperately to rescue a woman named Rose Wanjiku, who was heard tapping on rubble on Monday, three days after the explosion. But she died before they could reach her. All told, the teams pulled 95 bodies from the remains of the building.

Several witnesses observed the arrival of the apparent Nairobi bombers, describing a pickup truck carrying three men. The driver first stopped at a security post in front of the embassy and was told to go to the rear of the building. Investigators assume that the driver intended to enter the underground parking garage but found his route blocked by a vehicle that was leaving. At that point, unarmed security guards approached the pickup, and a man jumped out of the back and hurled a grenade. The guards ran and, a few seconds later, the explosion occurred.

British army engineer and explosives expert Capt. Rhyl Jones, who reached the scene shortly after the attack, estimated that the bombs in the two capitals each contained between 400 and 500 lb. of explosive. Investigators were searching for traces of a Czech-manufactured substance known as Semtex, which is far more powerful than TNT. The presence of Semtex would support the theory that the attacks were the work of a sophisticated terrorist organization because the Czechs sold thousands of tons of the explosive to Middle Eastern and African governments, as well as some terrorist organizations, during the 1980s.

Intelligence experts suspect that former Saudi citizen bin Laden was involved because he is one of the few terrorists with the resources and experience to carry out such attacks. He was born into a wealthy and influential Saudi family that made billions of dollars from arranging construction contracts with the country's royal family. At a young age, he became deeply religious, and as a teenager in the early 1980s he fought with Islamic volunteers in Afghanistan against Soviet forces. In 1991, he moved to Sudan, where he established terrorist camps and launched a campaign to remove all American presence from the Middle East. Three years later, the Saudi government revoked his citizenship. But by then, he had already received his inheritance, estimated at $450 million.

Since 1994, when he was expelled from Sudan under pressure from the Saudis, bin Laden has lived in luxuriously appointed tents in Afghanistan with his family and chief advisers. American intelligence agents believe he maintains a private army of 3,000 extremist followers who have fought for Islamic causes in Afghanistan, Albania and elsewhere. He is also suspected of planning terrorist attacks such as the 1993 bombing of the World Trade Center in New York City and the 1996 attack in Saudi Arabia. Recently, he issued a call for Muslims to kill Americans, and in an interview in late May with ABC News correspondent John Miller, he called Americans "thieves" and "terrorists."

According to intelligence experts, the East African bombings required enormous resources and planning, and perhaps even assistance from a rogue government. While Iran's moderate President Mohamed Khatami has warmed towards Washington, they noted, the country's intelligence service is still controlled by hardliners. But whoever was behind the bombings, it was clear that the United States faces a formidable enemy, one that thrives on anonymity and could easily strike again.

Unusual Suspect

While U.S. investigators were far from fingering anyone, they believed the bombings required resources matching those of Osama bin Laden, a dissident Saudi millionaire who backs Islamic extremists from a base in Afghanistan.

Intelligence sources believe bin Laden was involved in these terror attacks:

A 1992 hotel bombing in Aden, Yemen, which killed two Austrians and narrowly missed 100 U.S. soldiers.

The 1993 World Trade Center blast in New York City in which six died and more than 1,000 were injured.

A 1995 explosion in Riyadh, Saudi Arabia, which killed five Americans.

The 1996 Khobar Towers bombing in Dhahran, Saudi Arabia, in which 19 U.S. soldiers died.

Maclean's August 24, 1998