Downtown Nairobi, Kenya, August 7, 1998: The American embassy sits on one of the busiest intersections in the heart of the capital. At 10:39am, terrorists detonate a truck bomb at the rear of the embassy. The massive blast rips through the concrete reinforced building, reducing the interior to rubble. Seconds later, an eight-storey office block next door collapses into a pile of rubble on top of its occupants. It is one of the bloodiest terrorist attacks in history, killing 213 people and injuring 4,000 more – almost all of them African civilians. Investigators discover the bombers are part of an Al Qaeda terrorist cell that is also responsible for the simultaneous explosion at the US embassy in Tanzania’s Dar es Salaam (meaning ‘House of Peace’ in Arabic). The tragedy puts Osama bin Laden at the top of the FBI’s most wanted list.
The 1998 United States embassy bombings were a series of attacks that occurred on August 7, 1998, in which hundreds of people were killed in simultaneous truck bomb explosions at the United States embassies in the East Africancapitals of Dar es Salaam, Tanzania, and Nairobi, Kenya. The date of the bombings marked the eighth anniversary of the arrival of American forces in Saudi Arabia. The attacks were linked to local members of the Egyptian Islamic Jihad, brought Osama bin Laden and Ayman al-Zawahiri to the attention of the American public for the first time, and resulted in the U.S. Federal Bureau of Investigation placing bin Laden on its Ten Most Wanted Fugitives list. The FBI also connected the attack to Azerbaijan as 60 calls via satellite phone were placed by Bin Laden to associates in Baku regarding the strike. Fazul Abdullah Mohammed would be credited for being the mastermind behind the bombings.
The bombings are widely believed to have been revenge for American involvement in the extradition, and alleged torture, of four members of Egyptian Islamic Jihad (EIJ) who had been arrested in Albania in the two months prior to the attacks. Between June and July, Ahmad Isma’il ‘Uthman Saleh, Ahmad Ibrahim al-Sayyid al-Naggar, Shawqi Salama Mustafa Atiya and Mohamed Hassan Tita were all renditioned from Albania to Egypt, with the cooperation of the United States; the four men were accused of participating in the assassination of Rifaat el-Mahgoub, as well as a later plot against the Khan el-Khalili market in Cairo. The following month, a communique was issued warning the United States that a “response” was being prepared to repay them for their interference.
According to journalist Lawrence Wright, the Nairobi operation was named after the Holy Kaaba in Mecca; the Dar es Salaam bombing was called Operation al-Aqsa in Jerusalem, but “neither had an obvious connection to the American embassies in Africa. Bin Laden initially said that the sites had been targeted because of the ‘invasion’ of Somalia; then he described an American plan to partition Sudan, which he said was hatched in the embassy in Nairobi. He also told his followers that the genocide in Rwanda had been planned inside the two American embassies.”
Wright concludes that bin Laden’s actual goal was “to lure the United States into Afghanistan, which had long been called ‘The Graveyard of Empires.’” According to a 1998 memo authored by Mohammed Atef and seized by the FBI, around the time of the attacks, al-Qaeda had both an interest in and specific knowledge of negotiations between the Taliban and the American-led gas pipeline consortium CentGas.
In May 1998, a villa in Nairobi was purchased by one of the bombers for the purpose of accommodating bomb building in the garage. Sheikh Ahmed Salim Swedan purchased a beige Toyota Dyna truck in Nairobi and a 1987 Nissan Atlas refrigeration truck in Dar es Salaam. Six metal bars were used to form a “cage” on the back of the Atlas to accommodate the bomb.
In June 1998, KK Mohamed rented House 213 in the Illala district of Dar es Salaam, about four miles (6 km) from the U.S. Embassy. A white Suzuki Samurai was used to haul bomb components hidden in rice sacks, from House 213.
In both Nairobi and Dar es Salaam, Mohammed Odeh supervised construction of two massive, 900kg destructive devices. The Nairobi bomb was made of 400 to 500 cylinders of TNT (about the size of soda cans), aluminum nitrate, aluminumpowder and detonating cord. The explosives were packed into some twenty specially designed wooden crates that were sealed and then placed in the bed of the trucks. Muhsin Musa Matwalli Atwah ran a wire from the bomb to a set of batteries in the back of the truck cab and then to a detonator switch beneath the dashboard. The Dar es Salaam bomb used a slightly different construction: the TNT was attached to fifteen oxygen tanks and gas canisters, and was surrounded with four bags of ammonium nitrate fertilizer and some sand bags to tamp and direct the blast.
On August 7, between 10:30 am and 10:40 am local time (3:30–3:40 am Washington time), suicide bombers in trucks laden with explosives parked outside the embassies in Dar es Salaam and Nairobi, and almost simultaneously detonated. In Nairobi, approximately 212 people were killed, and an estimated 4,000 wounded; in Dar es Salaam, the attack killed at least 11 and wounded 85. Seismological readings analyzed after the bombs indicated energy of between 3–17 tons of high explosive material. Although the attacks were directed at American facilities, the vast majority of casualties were local citizens; 12 Americans were killed, including two Central Intelligence Agency employees in the Nairobi embassy, Tom Shah and Molly Huckaby Hardy, and one Marine, Sergeant Jesse Aliganga, a Marine Security Guard at the Nairobi embassy.
While driver Azzam drove the Mitsubishi Canter quickly toward the Nairobi embassy along with Mohamed Rashed Daoud Al-Owhali, local security guard Benson Okuku Bwaku was warned to open the gate immediately – and fired upon when he refused to comply. Al-Owhali threw a stun grenade at embassy guards before exiting the vehicle and running off. Osama bin Laden later offered the explanation that it had been Al-Owhali’s intention to leap out and shoot the guards to clear a path for the truck, but that he had left his pistol in the truck and subsequently ran off. As Bwaku radioed to Marine Post One for backup, the truck detonated.
The explosion damaged the embassy building and flattened the neighbouring Ufundi Building where most victims were killed, mainly students and staff of a secretarial college housed here. The heat from the blast was channelled between the buildings towards Haile Selassie Avenue where a packed commuter bus was burned. Windows were shattered in a radius of nearly one kilometer. A large number of eye injuries occurred because people in buildings nearby who had heard the first explosion of the hand grenade and the shooting went to their office windows to have a look when the main blast occurred and shattered the windows.
Meanwhile, the Atlas truck in Dar es Salaam was being driven by Hamden Khalif Allah Awad, known as “Ahmed the German” due to his blonde hair, a former camp trainer who had arrived in the country only a few days earlier. The death toll was less than in Nairobi as the U.S. embassy was located outside the city center on Bagamoyo Road on a large plot with no immediate neighbours close to the gate where the explosion occurred.
Following the attacks, a group calling itself the “Liberation Army for Holy Sites” took credit for the bombings. American investigators believe the term was a cover used by Egyptian Islamic Jihad, who had actually perpetrated the bombing.