On the morning of Aug. 7, 1998, two powerful explosions ripped apart the U.S. embassy in Nairobi, sending debris and glass shrapnel across the central business district and beyond.
In the end, some 200 Kenyans lay dead and another 4,000 people injured as a result of the attack. At the same time, another attack at the U.S. embassy in Dar es Salaam in neighboring Tanzania killed 11.
Osama bin Laden’s al-Qaida network claimed responsibility for the twin attacks — three years before the attacks on the World Trade Center in New York and the Pentagon in Washington — forcing American officials to embark on a 13-year quest to capture the Saudi-born billionaire-turned-terrorist that culminated in U.S. Navy SEALs killing him in Abbottabad, Pakistan, in 2011.
As Kenyans marked 25 years since the attack, there were expressions of joy from those who escaped, abandonment by some survivors who feel the United States turned its back on them and disappointment by opposition leaders who joined the victims at the Memorial Park built at the former site of the embassy. It has since moved to a more swanky and secure fortress in a leafy Nairobi suburb housing diplomatic missions and United Nations offices.
The big question many are still asking now is how terrorists were allowed to pull off the attacks without security and intelligence personnel having a whiff of it. Writing in the Weekly Review newspaper, journalist John Kamau offers an answer: Unbeknownst to many Kenyans, the terrorists had operated in the country for five years, run businesses, registered companies, operated a nongovernmental organization and befriended those they could.
Bin Laden and al-Qaida opposed the United States for several reasons. They regarded the U.S. as an “infidel” because it was not governed in a manner consistent with the group’s extremist interpretation of Islam. They also viewed the United States as providing support for Muslim-majority nations of Saudi Arabia and Egypt.
Mohammed Odeh, one of the masterminds of the embassy attack, had arrived in Mombasa in August 1994 and married a local woman. Nobody took note of this Palestinian from Jordan. For three years, Odeh was known as a fish merchant traveling from Kenyan ports and masquerading as a poor man. In 1997, he lived in a mud-walled hut in Witu, north of Mombasa and at times also worked as a carpenter. “He had scant knowledge of carpentry,” said neighbors later.
“The other members of this terror cell included Mustafa Ahmed, another al-Qaida operative, who traveled to Tanzania and registered another company there called Taba Investment Limited,” said Kamau. The company served as a branch of bin Laden’s Taba Investment, initially registered in Sudan, where it had a near-monopoly on exporting goods such as gum, sunflower seeds and sesame. There was an American jihadist, Wadh El Haji, a University of Louisiana graduate who overtly operated as a gemstone dealer. The Lebanese-American, who traveled with a U.S. passport, was bin Laden’s primary contact in East Africa.
There was also another person known as Fazul Mohammed. He was involved in the 1993 downing of two U.S. Black Hawk helicopters in Mogadishu that forced American troops out of Somalia.
At the event marking the bombing in Nairobi, survivors shared harrowing tales of loved ones lost, lives shattered and betrayal by both the American and Kenyan governments, whom they accused of having left them to their own devices.
Others shared their lucky escape stories from that day.
Five years ago, this journalist shared with Religion Unplugged how being late to cover a meeting between the U.S. ambassador to Kenya, Prudence Bushnell, and Kenya Trade Minister Joseph Kamotho, in the latter’s office, might have saved his life. Bushnell and Kamotho, who has since died, escaped with injuries as the Cooperative Bank building, one of Nairobi’s landmarks that housed the minister, was leveled by the bomb.
Many foreigners and visitors to Kenya complain that locals are notorious for their poor timekeeping habits (they jokingly say there is a difference between an “official” meeting time and what they refer to as “Kenyan time.”
In her book “Terrorism, Betrayal and Resilience,” written 20 years after the attack, Bushnell gives a hard-hitting account of what she calls a lackluster approach by Washington and blames the U.S. for poor decisions made that led to the attack.
A legal lobby, Kituo Cha Sheria, has been pursuing the case on behalf of the bomb survivors. John Mwariri, a lawyer representing the victims, said the U.S. government had extended the reach of the compensation to non-American victims through the Foreign Sovereign Immunity Act but that the Kenyan victims were not included.
“The victims have moved from one office to another and have never accessed any remedy,” he said. “This is unlike the American, Iran or Sudan citizens who were compensated. We view that as discrimination because these events took place in one transaction.”
Produced in association with Religion Unplugged
Edited by Judy J. Rotich and Newsdesk Manager