East African Embassy Bombings

Encyclopedia of Terrorism. Editor: Harvey W Kushner. Volume 1, Sage Reference, 2003.

The synchronized attacks on American embassies in Kenya and Tanzania killed 224 people, including 12 Americans stationed at the Kenya embassy, and wounded more than 4,500 innocent bystanders. The six-and-a-half-month trial that resulted from the investigation’s first arrests marked the first time the United States prosecuted terrorists for crimes committed off American soil. Prior to the September 11, 2001, attacks on the World Trade Center in New York City and the Pentagon near Washington, D.C., the embassy bombings trial revealed the fullest picture in a public forum of Al Qaeda, the militant Muslim organization founded by Saudi exile Osama bin Laden, and its global conspiracy to kill Americans and destroy U.S. property.

The Attacks

The coordinated embassy bombings targeted the most visible symbols of American presence in the capital cities of Nairobi, Kenya, and Dar es Salaam, Tanzania. On August 7, 1998, around 10:30 A.M., a covered pickup truck loaded with TNT and aluminum nitrate exploded near the rear entrance of the U.S. embassy in downtown Nairobi. It ripped off the back of the three-story embassy and caused tremendous structural damage to the building, which had been constructed in the 1970s to withstand an earthquake. The ruined embassy remained standing, but the seven-story office building next door, Ufundi House, collapsed into a pile of concrete rubble. One survivor would be buried for two days.

Around 10 minutes later, about 400 miles to the southeast, a refrigeration truck, packed with TNT along with oxygen and acetylene gas canisters, detonated near the front gate of the U.S. embassy in Dar es Salaam. The explosion killed five security guards and six other Tanzanians working inside the charred building. Debris was thrown as far as 600 yards from the bomb crater.

Claims of responsibility for the bombings, written in Arabic, arrived on the fax machines of news media outlets in Doha, Qatar; Dubai, United Arab Emirates; and Paris, France. They stated that the bombings were intended to force the “evacuation of all American forces, including civilians, from the land of the Muslims in general, and the Arabian Peninsula in particular.” Investigators would later learn that the Islamic extremists behind the blasts deliberately chose to strike in the morning when many observant Muslims would be en route to Friday prayers at a mosque and therefore out of harm’s way.

The embassy attacks came on the eighth anniversary of U.S. president George H. W. Bush’s announcement of the deployment of American troops to defend Saudi Arabia, just five days after Iraqi president Saddam Hussein’s Army had invaded neighboring Kuwait in August 1990.

Within a week of the attacks, the FBI, working with Kenyan police, had arrested two suspected Nairobi embassy bombers, both with bin Laden connections. Only two months earlier, the U.S. attorney for the southern district of New York, Mary Jo White, had obtained a sealed terrorism conspiracy indictment against bin Laden, who had plainly declared war on the United States in a pair of fatwas, or religious decrees, that asked followers to target American military personnel and civilians.

The four men prosecuted included the pair of Kenya embassy bombers quickly arrested in August 1998—Mohamed Rashed al-‘Owhali, a Saudi, and Mohamed Sadeek Odeh, a Jordanian of Palestinian heritage—plus one Tanzania embassy bomber, Khalfan Khamis Mohamed, from Tanzania, arrested 10 months later in Cape Town, South Africa. When the bombings occurred, the last defendant, Lebanese-born Wadih el-Hage, was living in the United States, where he was a naturalized citizen. El-Hage had the longest association with bin Laden and had come under surveillance overseas. But nearly a year before the bombings, el-Hage repeatedly lied before the New York grand jury investigating Al Qaeda and protected the conspiracy.

All four defendants were shown to have ties to bin Laden. Al-‘Owhali and K. K. Mohamed trained in his military camps inside Afghanistan in the 1990s, learning how to use guns and explosives and absorbing bin Laden’s brand of extreme Islamic ideology. Al-‘Owhali fought alongside the Taliban and asked for a mission in a personal audience with bin Laden, but K. K. Mohamed never met the leader or heard him speak.

Odeh, an admitted Al Qaeda soldier, engaged in operations for Al Qaeda as early as 1993 in Somalia, where bin Laden opposed the U.S. troop presence bolstering the U.N. mission to restore order to the civil war-torn nation. Odeh told the FBI that Al Qaeda aspired to “kick out the United States by military force,” because it considered the presence “colonization” of the predominantly Muslim nation of 8 million. Odeh said he trained Somali tribes to defend themselves. The government charged that Somalis trained by Al Qaeda helped shoot down U.S. Army Black Hawk helicopters and kill 18 American servicemen in an October 1993 battle in the capital of Mogadishu.

El-Hage was acquainted with bin Laden from a Peshawar, Pakistan, refugee hospital during the anti-Soviet jihad in Afghanistan and later served as bin Laden’s personal aide when Al Qaeda was based in Sudan in the early 1990s. El-Hage admitted conducting business transactions for bin Laden even after moving with his family to Kenya, where prosecutors said he became a facilitator of the East African cell and may have financed it with his own business ventures, such as trading in tanzanite and diamonds. Investigators wiretapped el-Hage’s Kenya home, recoding dozens of phone calls among Al Qaeda conspirators, including some received from a bin Laden-owned satellite phone. El-Hage left Kenya after investigators raided his home.

The Trial

The trial began with jury selection in January 2001. A multiracial jury of seven women and five men decided the case. The government called more than 90 witnesses and presented around 1,200 exhibits— photos, documents, bombing debris—in a two-month presentation. The defense case lasted only two weeks; none of the defendants testified.

One of the prosecution’s burdens was to place the embassy bombings in context of recent history and Islamic extremism. Prosecutors defined the alleged Al Qaeda terror conspiracy as a decade-long plot that evolved out of Afghanistan’s war with the former Soviet Union, whose military first occupied the country in 1979. Bin Laden and some of his followers had been among thousands of Arabs who had ventured to Afghanistan to purge the Muslim nation of communist rule. These mujahideen, or holy warriors, were once considered “freedom fighters” in a Cold War battle supported by covert American aid, CIA trainers, and shipments of arms such as antiaircraft Stinger missiles. Additionally, bin Laden had donated resources from his family’s multi-billion-dollar construction business to build roads and defensive tunnels and to finance refugee aid. After the Soviet withdrawal in 1989, the mujahideen stayed in touch through Maktab al-Khidamat (the Services Office), based in the border city of Peshawar, Pakistan, and contemplated the next jihad. This was the genesis of Al Qaeda.

“When the Russians decide to leave Afghanistan, bin Laden, he decide to make his own group,” testified Jamal al-Fadl, a former Al Qaeda insider who became a top government informant and the trial’s first witness. Al-Fadl, a Sudanese man who became the third rank-and-file member to swear a bayat, or loyalty oath, to bin Laden, defected after embezzling money from Al Qaeda. He showed up at the U.S. embassy in Eritrea in the summer of 1996, warning of Islamic militants who were training to attack.

“Maybe they try to do something inside the United States and they try to fight the United States Army outside, and also they try to make a bomb against some embassy outside,” al-Fadl had explained, according to his testimony. Due to his paramilitary activities in Afghanistan, bin Laden was already on counterterrorism investigators’ radar, and he was listed as an unindicted coconspirator in a foiled plot to bomb New York City landmarks inspired by the blind Egyptian cleric Sheik Omar Abdel Rahman, whose followers were among the bombers of the World Trade Center in 1993.

Al-Fadl and another Al Qaeda defector in the U.S. government’s witness protection program, L’Houssaine Kherchtou, a Moroccan, offered an insider’s account of the conspiracy behind the embassy bombings and the structure of Al Qaeda. When the group was headquartered in Khartoum, Sudan, for five years starting in 1991, its business interests spanned road and bridge construction, trucking, currency exchange, a leather tannery, and exporting farm products such as sesame seeds and peanuts. Prosecutors claimed these companies were fronts to provide income for the terrorist enterprise.

After returning to Afghanistan in 1996, bin Laden and his top associates communicated with their East African cell and other operatives worldwide with a laptop-sized satellite phone. The most frequent voice on the other end was an alleged founder of the East African cell, Khaled al-Fawwaz, a Saudi dissident later based in London, who disseminated the bin Laden’s fatwas. British police arrested al-Fawwaz and two other alleged London cell operatives in 1998 and held them in custody for more than three years as they fought extradition to the United States and prosecution under the embassy bombings indictment.

British police also discovered what became known as the “terror manual,” an 18-chapter, 180-page opus called “Military Studies in the Jihad Against the Tyrants.” The manual, found in the Manchester home of Anas al-Liby, a Libyan Al Qaeda operative who had fled the United Kingdom, had instructions on writing in code, poisoning people, and blending into Western society. The manual, along with seized computer files, witness testimony, and postarrest statements by al-‘Owhali, Odeh, and K. K. Mohamed, revealed the anatomy of Al Qaeda terror cells. The organization would divide an attack into compartmentalized phases—surveillance, logistics and planning, preparation, and execution—with the group behind each phase not necessarily knowing any of the others.

Al-‘Owhali told his FBI interrogator that Al Qaeda chose the Kenya embassy because it was an easy target that housed a variety of U.S. government and military personnel and a female ambassador whose death would generate more attention. Al-‘Owhali, who rode in the passenger seat of the Nairobi truck, was seen by an eyewitness throwing stun grenades at embassy security guards so the bomb truck driver could get closer to the building. Al-‘Owhali, expected to die in his mission, ran away from the building prior to the explosion. The driver blew himself up.

Odeh, trained in explosives, told his FBI interrogators that he felt the bombing had been a “blunder” because it had killed so many Kenyans—many in Ufundi house. Handwritten sketches bearing a striking resemblance to the embassy and roads leading to it were found by investigators in Odeh’s home in the rural Kenyan coastal city of Witu. Prosecutors called him a “technical adviser” to the bombing. He stayed at a Nairobi hotel blocks from the embassy along with other conspirators in the days before the attacks. Clothing in the travel bag he was carrying at the time of his arrest in the Karachi airport bore traces of TNT.

K. Mohamed rented the Dar es Salaam house where the Tanzania embassy bomb was assembled and bought the jeep the bombers used as a utility vehicle. On the morning of the attacks, he helped the suicide driver get on his route, but Mohamed exited the passenger seat to go back and clean up the bomb house.

After 12 days of deliberations, the jury found the four men guilty all 302 counts brought against them, starting with having joined bin Laden’s worldwide conspiracy to kill Americans. Though the U.S. sought the death penalty against the two trial defendants with the most direct roles in carrying out the embassy bombings—al-‘Owhali in Kenya and K. K. Mohamed in Tanzania—the jurors rejected a death sentence. Among their reasons, stated on the verdict form, were not wanting to make them martyrs, thus inspiring more terrorist acts, and viewing execution by lethal injection as causing less suffering than life behind bars.

Though three of the men—all but el-Hage—were convicted of mass murder, they were all arguably lower- to mid-level players in Al Qaeda in the late 1990s. Their convictions did nothing to dismantle the Al Qaeda base inside Afghanistan, given safe harbor by the Taliban. Indeed, the indictment underlying their prosecution named 18 additional Al Qaeda operatives, mostly fugitives at the time, including bin Laden; his top deputy, Ayman al-Zawahiri; his military commander, Muhammad Atef; and the ground coordinators of the embassy bombings.

When the four defendants were convicted, there were six other indicted men in U.S. or U.K. custody; one in particular stood out. Ali Abdelseoud Mohamed, a former Egyptian and U.S. Army officer and a bin Laden associate who once provided military and surveillance training to recruits, pleaded guilty to terrorism conspiracy charges in October 2000. Mohamed told the court that he conducted surveillance of the U.S. embassy in Kenya as early as 1993. “Bin Laden looked at the picture of the American embassy and pointed to where a truck could go as a suicide bomber,” Mohamed said, thus providing the first direct evidence against the terrorist leader.

The embassy bombings carried out by bin Laden’s followers forced the United States to reexamine embassy security abroad, just as the 1993 World Trade Center bombing and 1995 Oklahoma City federal building bombing forced the United States to fortify government buildings at home. But the bombings’ expressed purpose remained unfulfilled long after the trial was over: thousands of U.S. troops were still stationed on Saudi soil, and little that offended bin Laden about U.S. foreign policy, such as support for Israel or sanctions against Iraq, had changed. The embassy bombings trial in lower Manhattan allowed the U.S. to claim its first courtroom victory against Al Qaeda, but while the prosecution progressed throughout 2001, sleeper cells were inside the U.S. training for and planning the suicide hijackings that would occur on September 11, again targeting the World Trade Center, just a few blocks away from the courthouse.