1998: Missile Attacks on Afghanistan and Sudan Summary

  • Last updated on November 11, 2022

On August 7, 1998, two bombs exploded at the U.S. embassies in Kenya and Tanzania, killing more than 250 people and injuring more than 5,000. An Islamic terrorist group identified as the International Islamic Front for Jihad Against Jews and Crusaders indirectly claimed responsibility for the bombings and threatened additional terrorist attacks on American targets worldwide. This terrorist group was reportedly founded and financed by a renegade Saudi Arabian millionaire, Osama bin Laden, previously linked to other attacks by terrorist groups. U.S. intelligence and military officials, reviewing the available circumstantial evidence, concluded that bin Laden’s group was responsible for these two embassy bombings.

On August 7, 1998, two bombs exploded at the U.S. embassies in Kenya and Tanzania, killing more than 250 people and injuring more than 5,000. An Islamic terrorist group identified as the International Islamic Front for Jihad Against Jews and Crusaders indirectly claimed responsibility for the bombings and threatened additional terrorist attacks on American targets worldwide. This terrorist group was reportedly founded and financed by a renegade Saudi Arabian millionaire, Osama bin Laden, previously linked to other attacks by terrorist groups. U.S. intelligence and military officials, reviewing the available circumstantial evidence, concluded that bin Laden’s group was responsible for these two embassy bombings.

Intelligence reports also indicated that this group of terrorists was in the process of developing chemical weapons in the Sudan and concurrently training additional Islamic terrorists in Afghanistan. President Bill Clinton, on advice from Defense Secretary William Cohen and General Henry Hugh Shelton, the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, determined that an immediate surprise military response would appropriately punish the perpetrators. The president also concluded that such a military strike would delay, and possibly prevent, additional terrorist attacks by this group. Detailed military planning for the strikes commenced immediately and took about one week to complete.

Missile Strikes in Retaliation

To avoid losses, U.S. armed forces used only cruise missiles rather than manned aircraft to attack what had been identified as terrorist-related facilities in Afghanistan and the Sudan. Cruise missiles, fired from U.S. Navy ships in the Red Sea and the Arabian Sea, simultaneously struck the reported terrorist facilities. The missiles hit six individual targets in Afghanistan, most of which were located along the border with Pakistan. Specific targets were in Khost, south of Afghanistan’s capital city of Kabul, and Jalalabad, east of the capital. Collectively, these targets constituted a suspected terrorist training complex in which bin Laden’s group reportedly trained hundreds of other terrorists.

In the Sudan, the target of the U.S. missiles was the El Shifa Pharmaceutical Industries plant. This factory, located in Khartoum, Sudan’s capital, was alleged to be storing chemical weapons for later use by the terrorists. The precise number of casualties in Afghanistan and the Sudan as a direct result of the missile strikes was never established with certainty. No U.S. casualties occurred in any of the attacks.

Consequences

Following the missile strikes, U.S. spokespeople conceded that the strikes would not eliminate the problem of state-sponsored terrorism but said that they would clearly convey that there would be no safe haven for terrorists who chose to attack the United States or its embassies worldwide. Bin Laden and his closest associates were all reported to have survived the attacks unscathed. Damage to the facilities themselves was extensive, however, and military planners labeled both attacks as successful. Already under some international pressure for harboring bin Laden, a fugitive, the government of Afghanistan showed no sign of reconsidering its policy because of the U.S. strike. Instead, Afghan spokespeople interpreted the American missile strike not as an attack on bin Laden or terrorists but instead as an attack on the Afghan people.

The Sudanese government immediately condemned the attack on its nation and disavowed any knowledge of chemical weapons on Sudanese territory, claiming that the plant manufactured pharmaceuticals for civilian use. The Sudanese government also suggested that it might request an inspection by the United Nations (U.N.) Security Council to firmly disprove the allegations of chemical weapons at the destroyed plant. No U.N. inspection was subsequently conducted.

Aerial photograph of the Shifa pharmaceutical plant in Sudan that was used by the secretary of defense and chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff to brief reporters on the U.S. missile strike on the site. (U.S. Department of Defense)

American politicians, regardless of political affiliation, almost universally supported the need for the attacks, as well as the manner in which the missile strikes were conducted. China, Japan, Kenya, and several other countries chose neither to condemn nor to support the United States. U.N. secretary-general Kofi Annan, informed of the strikes by American diplomats only moments before they occurred, also maintained a cautious silence. Traditional U.S. allies were generally supportive of the military retaliation against state-sponsored terrorism. The strongest support was offered by Great Britain, but Israel, Germany, and Australia also spoke out in favor of the U.S. measures.

As a general rule, Muslim countries expressed the loudest outrage at the U.S. attacks. Muslim nations that most vehemently condemned the American actions included Iraq, Iran, Libya, and Pakistan. Muted protests came from other Muslim nations such as Turkey, Egypt, and Indonesia. Non-Muslim nations condemning the strikes included the Soviet Union and Cuba. Anti-American public demonstrations took place in many of these countries. U.S. flags were burned in protest in dozens of cities around the globe. Many critics of the unilateral American response, at home and abroad, charged that President Clinton had ordered the missile attacks only to draw attention away from the sex scandal in which he was personally becoming embroiled.

After the terrorist attacks on the Pentagon and the World Trade Center on September 11, 2001, suspicion again fell on bin Laden’s organization. With the backing of the world’s most powerful nations, the United States issued an ultimatum to Afghanistan’s Taliban regime to surrender bin Laden and his followers. After the Taliban refused to comply, the United States led a massive missile and bomber assault on Taliban targets. This assault, in conjunction with a ground-based attack from the regime’s Afghan opponents in the north, brought down the government in December of the same year. Many of bin Laden’s subordinates were killed in the attacks, but the whereabouts of bin Laden himself remained unknown as late as early 2005.

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