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The U.S. Embassy Bombings in
Kenya & Tanzania

Fall 1998
 
 
 
On August 7, 1998, two car bombs exploded at the American Embassies in Nairobi, Kenya, and Dar es Salaam, Tanzania, killing 224 people and wounding more than 5,000 others. Twelve Americans were killed in the Nairobi blast.

Unsubstantiated claims of responsibility for the bombings were received by several media outlets from an unknown group called the Islamic Army for the Liberation of the Holy Places. Its communiqué called for "the withdrawal of U.S. and western forces from Moslem countries in general and from the Arabian Peninsula in particular."

Osama bin Laden

Immediately, international terrorist Osama bin Laden became a suspect in the bombings. Born to a wealthy Saudi family in the construction business, Osama bin Laden, 41, is considered the world's leading terrorist financier. He has assembled a wide coalition of anti-American forces in numerous Arab and Muslim countries. In the 1980s, bin Laden is believed to have trained, financed and led Arab fighters in the war against Soviet troops in Afghanistan. In 1991, he went to the Sudan where it is believed he established at least three terrorist training camps. He was stripped of his Saudi citizenship in 1994, and was expelled from Sudan in 1996. He now lives in the remote mountains of Afghanistan.

Bin Laden has been preoccupied with forcing American troops to leave Saudi Arabia and other Muslim lands and has repeatedly vowed to strike at American targets. According to U.S. Government documents, bin Laden is the head of an international terrorist network called al Qaida ("the base"), founded in 1988 and known to be operating in 20 countries, including the United States. Al Qaida has reportedly funded extremist movements and trained and recruited Islamic extremists all over the world. Its chief objective, according to U.S. officials, is the killing of Americans, including civilians, anywhere in the world. Al Qaida is suspected of involvement in the 1995 assassination plot against Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak, of having attacked American soldiers in Yemen and Somalia, and of links to the World Trade Center bombing.

Bin Laden is believed to command a force of 3,000 militants who have fought over the years in Somalia, Eritrea, Chechnya, Afghanistan, Bosnia, Tajikistan and Yemen. Bin Laden claimed responsibility for an attempted December 1992 bombing of 100 U.S. servicemen in Yemen; the attack failed but two Australian tourists were killed. He has publicly said that his soldiers fought U.S. troops during Operation Restore Hope in 1993 in Somalia, where U.S. officials believe he supplied weapons that shot down American helicopters and where 18 U.S. soldiers were killed in hand-to-hand combat.

Bin Laden remains Washington's leading suspect in the June 1996 Dhahran, Saudi Arabia, bombing attack in which 19 U.S. servicemen were killed. In May 1996, four Saudis were beheaded for the November 1995 Riyadh bombing in which five Americans and two Indians were killed. The four had said in televised confessions that they were influenced by bin Laden and other Saudi dissidents.

Bin Laden has denied involvement in the two Saudi bombings but he has said that they were warnings to the U.S. to withdraw its forces from Saudi Arabia. According to a July 1998 report of the Emergency Response and Research Institute, a Chicago-based terrorism research institute, bin Laden reportedly told an Arabic newspaper,

"We had thought that the Riyadh and Khobar blasts were a sufficient signal to sensible U.S. decision-makers to avert a real battle between the Islamic nation and U.S. forces, but it seems that they did not understand the signal."

In February 1998, Osama bin Laden created the International Islamic Front for Holy War Against Jews and Crusaders. At the time, the umbrella group issued a religious edict calling for attacks against American military and civilian targets around the world:

"The ruling to kill the Americans and their allies, civilians and military, is an individual duty for every Muslim who can do it in any country in which it is possible to do it, in order to liberate Al Aksa Mosque and the Holy Mosque from their grip and in order for their armies to move out of all the lands of Islam, defeated and unable to threaten any Muslim. This is in accordance with the words of Almighty God, 'and fight the pagans all together as they fight you all together,' and 'fight them until there is no more tumult or oppression, and there prevail justice and faith in God'. . . ."

Other signatories to the February statement were Ayman al-Zawahri, leader of Egypt's Jihad group, Rifai Taha, head of Egypt's Gama'a al-Islamiya, Mir Hamza, secretary general of Pakistan's Ulema Society, Fadl al-Rahman Khalil, chief of Harkat-ul-Ansar in Pakistan, and Abdel Salam Mohammed, head of the Jihad Movement in Bangladesh.

In two other religious rulings and in numerous media interviews, bin Laden has called on Muslims to kill Americans and has threatened Americans all over the globe. In an ABC News interview in June 1998, bin Laden said,

"We believe that the biggest thieves in the world are Americans and the biggest terrorists on earth are the Americans. The only way for us to defend against these assaults is by using similar means. We do not differentiate between those dressed in military uniforms and civilians. They're all targets in this fatwah. You will leave when the bodies of American soldiers and civilians are sent in the wooden boxes and coffins. That is when you will leave."

After the August 1998 embassy bombings, bin Laden and his International Islamic Front renewed their threats against American citizens. On August 19, the Front said the embassy bombings were to avenge "the injustice meted out by the American government to all Muslim nations" and "The coming days will, God willing, see that America meets a black fate similar to what happened to the Soviet Union. There will be more attacks. More and more Islamic groups will appear that will all fight against American interests."

In late August, American officials revealed that a Federal Grand Jury in New York had handed up a sealed indictment against Osama bin Laden for terrorist acts against the United States several weeks before the African embassy bombings. The indictment would provide the basis for bin Laden's capture and removal to the United States to stand trial.

U.S. Missile Strikes and Their Aftermath

On August 20, the United States launched missile attacks on paramilitary training camps in eastern Afghanistan run by Osama bin Laden and on a pharmaceutical plant in Sudan that U.S. officials suspected of involvement in the manufacture of chemical weapons. The Afghanistan missile attack was timed to coincide with a conference of radical leaders bin Laden had scheduled. Since 1993, Sudan has been on Washington's list of states sponsoring terrorism.

On August 22, President Clinton froze U.S. assets owned by Osama bin Laden, two of his senior lieutenants and their Islamic Army organization and prohibited all financial transactions between U.S. companies and bin Laden.

Following the missile strikes, anti-American demonstrations erupted throughout the Islamic world. In front of the American Embassy in Pakistan, Islamic militants claiming to be graduates of a camp run by an Islamic group called Jamaat-I-Islami in Khost, Afghanistan, burned an effigy of President Clinton and called for the destruction of the United States. The Jamaat-I-Islami camp was one of three camps in Afghanistan that U.S. officials say is linked to bin Laden and used to train terrorists. Some of the militants reportedly said they were given religious and "basic combat" training at the camp and said they were taught how to assemble and fire weapons.

A Kashmiri militant group, Harkat-ul-Mujahideen, whose training camp was destroyed by U.S. missiles, threatened retaliation in a statement faxed to the Reuters news agency:

"The Americans and Jews should now prepare for their destruction. . . America has challenged the honor of the entire Moslem world. The self-respecting Moslems of the world, particularly the Mujahideen of Islam, have announced they will wage a holy war against America. And they will teach the Americans and their puppets, the Israeli Jews, a lesson they will remember forever."

Formerly known as Harkat-ul-Ansar, the group has been labeled by the U.S. as a foreign terrorist organization, making it illegal to provide them with funds and denying their members or representatives U.S. visas.

Worldwide, about a dozen American embassies were temporarily shut down or reduced their normal activities because of reported threats and security vulnerabilities. Following the August 1998 embassy bombings, American officials received tips on plans to bomb the American Consulate in Hamburg, Germany. Security at the Consulate was increased and the threat was never fulfilled.

Bin Laden's Links With Egyptian
Islamic Jihad

In a telephone message relayed by his ally, Ayman al-Zawahiri, the fugitive leader of Egypt's Jihad organization, Osama bin Laden warned: "The war has just started and the Americans should wait for an answer. Tell the Americans that we aren't afraid of bombardment, threats and acts of aggression. We suffered and survived Soviet bombings for 10 years in Afghanistan and we are ready for more sacrifices."

Following the bombings in East Africa, American officials uncovered evidence of plans to bomb the U.S. Embassy in Tirana, Albania. The plot appeared to be related to the June and July 1998 arrests in Albania and extradition to Egypt of four Egyptians in connection with the 1997 Luxor massacre (in which 58 foreign tourists and four Egyptians were gunned down by Islamic extremists), the 1993 attempted assassination of Egyptian Prime Minister Atef Sedki and the 1990 assassination of Rifaat el-Mahgoub, the Speaker of the Egyptian parliament. One of the four was Ahmed Ibrahim al-Naggar, the alleged propaganda chief of Jihad, who was sentenced to death by an Egyptian military court in October 1997 for plotting to kill government officials and was convicted of sending money to Egypt to revive the Jihad organization.

Following the extradition and several days before the U.S. Embassy bombings, the Jihad organization warned:

"We inform the Americans. . . of preparations for a response which we hope they read with care, because we will write it, with God's help, in a language they will understand."

Ties between the Egyptian Jihad and Osama bin Laden are believed to be close. Jihad leader Ayman al-Zawahiri, a signatory to bin Laden's February fatwa is believed to be residing near bin Laden in Afghanistan.

Seeking Justice

Shortly after the embassy bombings, several suspects were apprehended and extradited to the United States. On the day of the bombings, Pakistani officials arrested Mohammed Saddiq Odeh, 34, as he arrived in Karachi on a flight from Nairobi. Arrested for attempting to enter Pakistan on a forged Yemeni passport and for trying to bribe officials to release him, Mr. Odeh willingly confessed to Pakistani authorities that he was involved in the bombings by providing technical, engineering and logistical support. He also reportedly claimed to be working for Osama bin Laden and said of him, "He is my leader, and I obey his orders." Odeh was flown back to Kenya, where he retracted his confession.

According to notes obtained by The Washington Post, upon questioning by Pakistani intelligence officials, Odeh reportedly gave details of a global paramilitary network aimed at U.S. interests abroad and orchestrated by Osama bin Laden that includes 4,000-5,000 militants from a number of countries and a large arsenal of surface-to-air missiles, mortars, rockets and tanks that are stored all over Afghanistan. Odeh claimed to be one of seven operatives in Nairobi sent by bin Laden. He also reportedly confessed to his involvement in other bin Laden-supported operations; U.S. prosecutors allege that prior to his moving to Kenya, Odeh trained Islamic militants to fight the U.N. humanitarian mission in Somalia. He has been charged in the U.S. with murder.

Also charged with murder is Mohamed Rashed Daoud Owhali (a.k.a. Khalid Salim Saleh Bin Rashed) who was apprehended in a Kenyan hospital while recovering from injuries from the Nairobi bombing. He reportedly told the FBI that he threw a grenade at a guard at the Nairobi Embassy while riding the bomb-laden truck that blew apart the Embassy. He also said the attack was "planned and carried out by members of al Qaida as part of al Qaida's overall terrorist mission."

In further indictments, Wahid el Hage, 38, an American-educated urban planner living in Texas and believed to be a leader in the Kenyan branch of the al Qaida terrorist organization, was indicted in September on multiple counts of lying to a Grand Jury about his relationship to members of the bin Laden organization and knowledge of their activities. According to the Federal complaint, el Hage, the first American citizen to be charged with being part of bin Laden's terrorist network, became bin Laden's personal secretary in Sudan in 1993 and in Kenya, one of el Hage's top aides, Haroun Fazil, wrote reports directly to bin Laden while living with him. Federal prosecutors have asserted that el Hage bought firearms for a defendant convicted in the 1993 World Trade Center bombing and also had links to El Sayyid Nosair, convicted on Federal charges in the death of Rabbi Meir Kahane and convicted in 1995 of conspiracy to blow up New York City landmarks.

In September, Federal prosecutors also issued a criminal complaint against Mamdouh Mahmud Salim, 40, a top bin Laden aide, who has been detained in Germany on terrorism charges of conspiracy to commit murder and use weapons of mass destruction. The complaint alleges that Salim helped finance, train and arm members of the terrorist network al Qaida, which he helped bin Laden, establish. He is suspected of conducting business on behalf of al Qaida in Sudan, Afghanistan, Malaysia and the Philippines, obtaining communications equipment and electronic items necessary for the detonation of explosives for the organization, and trying to obtain materials that could be used to develop nuclear weapons. Salim has also been linked with Iran and Sudan and is charged with meeting Iranian officials in Teheran and Khartoum to arrange for bin Laden militants to receive explosives training in Lebanon from Hezbollah.

In Tanzania, Egyptian Mustafa Mahmoud Said Ahmed and Tanzanian Rashid Saleh Hemed were each charged with 11 counts of murder in the Dar es Salaam blast. In Britain, authorities have arrested seven alleged bin Laden associates, including the suspected leader of the bin Laden organization in Britain, Khalid al Fawwaz, and Adel Abdul-Mageed Abdul-Bari, an Egyptian who was sentenced to death in absentia for conspiring to blow up a Cairo marketplace in 1995,

In the most serious threat to an American institution abroad since the East African Embassy bombings, the CIA foiled a plot to blow up the U.S. Embassy in Kampala and Ugandan police have arrested 20 suspects on suspicion of involvement in the plot. In the Philippines, security forces have arrested two men suspected of belonging to bin Laden's al Qaida network and of being involved in a plot to blow up the American Embassy in Manila. In early September, a handwritten note was found in the bathroom of a plane that arrived in Kuwait from Dubai that said: "The American Embassy in the Philippines will be bombed on September 4, 1998."

At this writing, a Federal warrant has been issued for Islamic extremist and explosives expert, Haroun Fazil, believed to have played a key role in constructing and transporting the Nairobi bomb and who eluded Federal authorities when they came to his home in the island nation of Comoros. The State Department is offering $2 million for information leading to his arrest.

 

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