Terrorists Bomb U.S. Embassies in East Africa Summary

  • Last updated on November 10, 2022

The simultaneous bombings of U.S. embassies in Nairobi, Kenya, and Dar es Salaam, Tanzania, illustrated the breadth of the growing al-Qaeda terrorist network. Thousands of Africans were injured or killed in these ambitious attacks.

Summary of Event

On February 23, 1998, united leaders from the terrorist group al-Qaeda and other radical Islamist groups met and issued a fatwa (religious ruling) to all Muslims that essentially declared war on the United States, Israel, and their allies. According to this declaration, published by the London-based newspaper Al-Quds al-Arabi, good Muslims were to kill Americans and to plunder American businesses worldwide. These disparate terrorist groups established a list of complaints, focused their ire on the United States, and declared an Islamic call to arms. Terrorist acts Al-Qaeda[Al Qaeda];U.S. embassy bombings [kw]Terrorists Bomb U.S. Embassies in East Africa (Aug. 7, 1998) [kw]Bomb U.S. Embassies in East Africa, Terrorists (Aug. 7, 1998) [kw]U.S. Embassies in East Africa, Terrorists Bomb (Aug. 7, 1998) [kw]Embassies in East Africa, Terrorists Bomb U.S. (Aug. 7, 1998) [kw]East Africa, Terrorists Bomb U.S. Embassies in (Aug. 7, 1998) [kw]Africa, Terrorists Bomb U.S. Embassies in East (Aug. 7, 1998) Terrorist acts Al-Qaeda[Al Qaeda];U.S. embassy bombings [g]Africa;Aug. 7, 1998: Terrorists Bomb U.S. Embassies in East Africa[10110] [g]Tanzania;Aug. 7, 1998: Terrorists Bomb U.S. Embassies in East Africa[10110] [g]Kenya;Aug. 7, 1998: Terrorists Bomb U.S. Embassies in East Africa[10110] [c]Terrorism, atrocities, and war crimes;Aug. 7, 1998: Terrorists Bomb U.S. Embassies in East Africa[10110] Atef, Mohammed Odeh, Mohammed Saddiq Msalem, Fahid Mohammed Ally Owhali, Mohamed Rashed Daoud al- Swedan, Sheikh Ahmed Salim Bushnell, Prudence Clinton, Bill [p]Clinton, Bill;U.S. embassy bombings Albright, Madeleine

This fatwa motivated radical Islamists around the world to concentrate their efforts on the United States. The fatwa also served as religious justification for violent attacks, outlining religious dictums that rationalized violence and a list of grievances against the United States. The fatwa marks the point at which planning for the East African embassy bombings began.

Al-Qaeda established a Kenyan cell in the early 1990’s. Al-Qaeda militants Mohammed Saddiq Odeh and Mohammed Atef surveyed their targets and plotted their attacks for five months prior to the event. The U.S. embassy was located near the intersection of two busy streets in Nairobi, and the terrorists decided to use this location to their advantage. Conspiring with them, Sheikh Ahmed Salim Swedan and Fahid Mohammed Ally Msalem had purchased a truck. Other al-Qaeda members supplied them with weapons and explosives.

On August 7, 1998, the first bomb detonated outside the U.S. embassy in Nairobi at about 10:30 a.m. local time. The bomb had been loaded onto a yellow truck, which was driven to the back of the embassy near the garage ramp, but the bombers were stalled by an exiting vehicle. One of the bombers, Mohamed Rashed Daoud al-Owhali, left the truck and attacked the guards with a grenade as the second terrorist fired a rifle at them. After this brief skirmish, the second bomber detonated the truck bomb as al-Owhali fled. The nearby Cooperative Bank and the U.S. embassy were badly damaged; a third building, the Ufundi House—a seven-story secretarial college—was destroyed. Dozens of people were buried in the wreckage. Traffic was deadlocked in downtown Nairobi as crowds of people rushed from the blast site. Wounded Kenyans flooded Kenyatta National Hospital. The attack killed twelve Americans, more than two hundred Kenyans, and injured about four thousands others.

The Dar es Salaam, Tanzania, bombing occurred roughly ten minutes later. The bombers arrived in a water delivery truck loaded with explosives, which they detonated after embassy security guards stopped the vehicle for inspection. The explosion killed the security guards and the driver and damaged the embassy. However, unlike the embassy in Nairobi, the U.S. embassy in Dar es Salaam was outside the city center, so the bombing wounded far fewer people: Twelve were killed and at least eighty-five were injured.

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Although individuals responded immediately to both bombings, the Kenyan and Tanzanian governments proved less capable. Police forces in both countries blocked the sites as rescue workers and medical personnel helped victims. Israeli rescue workers and a complement of U.S. Marines arrived quickly to help in the efforts. South Africa, the United Kingdom, and Australia also responded with aid. The U.S. government evacuated its injured citizens, and Secretary of State Madeleine Albright accompanied the caskets of dead U.S. embassy workers to the United States for burial.

At first, citizens of Nairobi thought the bombing was related to an ongoing dispute between Kenyan teachers and the government of Kenya. The bombing in Tanzania and information from U.S. intelligence networks, however, pointed to international terrorist networks. Further, al-Qaeda claimed responsibility for the bombings.

The U.S. government responded to the attack both militarily and diplomatically. On August 20, the United States began the military campaign Operation Infinite Reach. Operation Infinite Reach Strategists in Washington, D.C., decided to strike two al-Qaeda strongholds. About ten warships and five submarines launched Tomahawk missiles at these targets in Sudan and Afghanistan from positions in the Red Sea and the Arabian Sea. The Sudanese target was the al-Shifa pharmaceutical compound outside the capital city Khartoum. Al-Shifa was linked to Osama Bin Laden’s al-Qaeda network and was thought to produce components of a chemical weapon, VX gas. The Afghan target was a site outside the town of Khost. U.S. intelligence reported that several active terrorist organizations, as well as Bin Laden, were expected to meet there. Al-Shifa and the terrorist training site at Khost were both destroyed, but Bin Laden remained at large. To continue pressure, U.S. president Bill Clinton authorized tribal groups in Afghanistan to step up their assaults on Islamic militants and also pressured African and Asian states to expel terrorists from their countries.

Significance

Thousands of people were injured in the bombings in Nairobi and Dar es Salaam. Following Operation Infinite Reach, many of Bin Laden’s soldiers left the Sudan and retreated to remote areas of Afghanistan. Al-Qaeda grew in strength and organization in Taliban-governed Afghanistan, where it assisted the government in opium production.

The United States initially received support from the international community after the bombings. However, it lost much of this support on account its treatment of the situation. First, local Kenyans and Tanzanians blamed the United States for poorly protecting the embassy and thus the surrounding neighborhood from terrorist attacks. Second, the local media protested racist actions and comments of the U.S. Marines and doctors, the Israeli response team, U.S. ambassador to Kenya Prudence Bushnell, and Secretary of State Albright. Later, the international community was outraged at President Clinton’s decision to bomb Afghanistan and Sudan. The al-Shifa pharmaceutical factory in Sudan, a supposed chemical weapons manufacturer, was destroyed in the bombings and could no longer produce medicine for Sudan. Further, the international community protested Clinton’s disregard for Afghan and Sudanese state sovereignty. Against this negative public image, the United States increased pressure on states thought to be harboring terrorists, most notably Pakistan and Afghanistan.

The attacks in Nairobi and Dar es Salaam contributed to al-Qaeda’s ascension to power in global terrorist groups. Al-Qaeda proved more successful here than in its 1993 bombing of the U.S. World Trade Center and demonstrated that it could coordinate nearly simultaneous bombings in different states. The bombings also brought about the first U.S. trial of al-Qaeda militants. The New York district court tried and convicted four men on the basis of their participation in the attacks and their membership in an international terrorist organization. These attacks alerted U.S. intelligence agencies to increasing international threats. Terrorist acts Al-Qaeda[Al Qaeda];U.S. embassy bombings

Further Reading
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">National Commission on Terrorist Attacks upon the United States. The 9/11 Commission: Final Report of the National Commission on Terrorist Attacks Upon the United States. Washington, D.C.: U.S. Government Printing Office, 2004. Investigates the events leading up to the September 11, 2001, attacks in the United States, but has a section dedicated to the Kenya and Tanzania bombings.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Perl, Raphael F. Terrorism: U.S. Response to Bombings in Kenya and Tanzania—A New Policy Direction? Washington, D.C.: Congressional Research Service Issue, 1998. Describes the bombing events and prescribes policy to prevent future attacks and to retaliate against the al-Qaeda network.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Subiri, Obwogo. The Bombs That Shook Nairobi and Dar: A Story of Pain and Betrayal. Nairobi, Kenya: Obwogo & Family, 1999. Describes events surrounding the bombings, with an emphasis on the Nairobi embassy. Relates stories from many of the victims and describes the turbulent political environment after the bombings.

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