x Abu Dhabi, UAESaturday 22 July 2017

East Africa bombings marked al Qa'eda decade

The world first became fully aware of Osama bin Laden with the bombings of US embassies.

Prudence Bushnell, centre, the US ambassador at the time, survived the embassy bombing.
Prudence Bushnell, centre, the US ambassador at the time, survived the embassy bombing.

Blood from a fleeing bystander dripped on to her hair and down her back. The embassy she oversaw had been transformed instantly into a "burning hulk", its walls scarred with the pulverised remains of some of her colleagues. But it is the clatter of a teacup that Prudence Bushnell remembers most. Ms Bushnell, the US ambassador in Nairobi at the time of the East Africa bombings, was meeting with Kenya's trade minister and a group of officials on the 21st floor of a building next door to the embassy when the "crack" of a stun grenade sent them bounding to the window to see what was happening.

Seconds later, the truck bomb, consisting of a tonne of TNT, aluminium nitrate and aluminium powder packed into wooden crates and loaded in the bed of a battered brown Toyota Dyna, went off in the embassy's rear car park. The date - August 7 - marked the anniversary of the arrival of US troops in Saudi Arabia eight years earlier. The shock wave, which shattered windows 10 blocks away, blew Ms Bushnell on to the floor. When she came to, the building was shuddering and swaying, and the teacup danced in time. It signalled, she thought, her own death rattle.

"I thought the building was going to collapse and I was going to die," she said this week in a telephone interview with The National. "I was peaceful, perhaps because of all the endorphins racing through me. At the same time, every cell in my body was tense, waiting for the building to fall." But while the building quaked, it did not tumble. Ms Bushnell survived, stumbling her way down a stairwell that was clouded in smoke and filled with rubble and shreds of clothing, as well as both the wounded and the dead.

Her survival with only a cut lip was a defeat of sorts for those who carried out the nearly simultaneous attacks on the US embassies in Nairobi and Dar es Salaam, which killed 224 people, 12 of whom were US citizens, and wounded more than 5,000. Mohammed Rashed Daoud al Owhali, one of four participants in the bombing who was later tried for the attack and convicted in a US court, said that the embassy, located in the busy heart of downtown Nairobi, had been an "easy target".

The fact that a woman was in charge of the embassy made it an even more attractive bull's-eye, said Owhali, a Saudi citizen - the death of a female ambassador would draw even more publicity. "I would have been frosting on the cake," Ms Bushnell said by phone from northern Virginia. Ms Bushnell, 61, has retired from the US diplomatic corps and now works as a consultant. Yet during her nearly quarter-century representing the United States abroad, perhaps no other US diplomat was more intimately involved with the era's twin scourges of terrorism and genocide. The view was ugly, harrowing and often infuriating. Her anger, if anything, is sharper and more pungent since retiring as ambassador in 2005.

Months before the Nairobi embassy was bombed, she wrote Madeleine Albright, the US secretary of state, asking for Mrs Albright's personal help. She had been pressing for months to move the embassy to a more secure site because of mounting threats and a warning that she was the target of an assassination plot. Indeed, the US government had actually been tracking an Osama bin Laden cell operating in Kenya before the bombings, the 2001 trial would later disclose. Reconnaissance for the attack had been carried out at bin Laden's request by a 48-year-old Egyptian native and former US army sergeant, who delivered pictures, diagrams and a report to bin Laden in Khartoum, the man was reported to have later told the trial judge.

Most suggestive of all, perhaps, was an interview by bin Laden himself. Two days after telling a group of Pakistani reporters that the "terrorism we practice is of the commendable kind", the al Qa'eda leader spoke with a crew from a US broadcaster. Behind him on the wall, clearly visible on the tape, was a map of Africa. Yet like intelligence warnings to George W Bush, the US president, in the summer of 2001 that followers of bin Laden were preparing for an attack inside the United States, Mrs Albright and the state department did not heed Ms Bushnell's warnings or grant her request to relocate the embassy.

"I never implored. I never begged. Women who 'implore' or 'beg' don't become ambassadors. But I was straightforward and insistent," she said. Ms Bushnell had learnt her lesson four years earlier, she said, when as a senior state department official during the Rwandan genocide, she repeatedly informed her superiors of the scale of the killing under way and warned one of the genocide's architects by phone against continuing the slaughter. Both efforts were in vain.

Ms Bushnell acknowledges she was at times a "pain in the neck" over the issue of embassy security. Being so, however, did not succeed in altering Washington's view about the dark clouds gathering over East Africa, she said. "Bureaucratic interests trumped security interests. A plan to renovate embassies was already moving ahead, and no one wanted to upset it - the bureaucratic train had already left the station."

For all the horror that ensued shortly after 10.30 in the morning a decade ago in Nairobi, the East Africa embassy bombings were soon eclipsed. Its repercussions for the bereaved, the blinded and the maimed - especially in Kenya, where per capita income was then $295 a year - were quickly forgotten in Washington, Ms Bushnell said. Even Bill Clinton's retaliation for the bombings - 66 Cruise missile strikes against targets in Sudan and Afghanistan - were seen by many as deliberate diversions from his domestic woes.

"The bombings evaporated into history because nobody's around in Washington in August and because of the Monica Lewinsky scandal," said Ms Bushnell, referring to the White House intern with whom the president had what he called an "inappropriate relationship" for more than a year. For Ms Bushnell, however, the emotional toll continued. It was only after she retired in 2005 after serving as Washington's envoy in Guatemala that she obtained treatment for post-traumatic stress syndrome. While still ambassador, "I didn't have a nanosecond to be a victim," she said.

The bombings of both embassies underscored the vulnerability of US personnel and property. After an official investigation concluded that there had been a collective failure to protect the East Africa embassies, a new US embassy opened in Kenya in 2003 following nearly five years in temporary quarters. The new, public face of the US government is now located on the outskirts of Nairobi more than 30 metres from the nearest public road, as new regulations now require. Its blast design features are said to include two-metre-thick concrete walls.

Some institutions and practices did not change, however. The US government's difficulty in "connecting the dots" - a problem that Ms Bushnell had underscored - continued. Soon after the bombings, al Qa'eda began serious planning for a major attack inside the United States, according to US congressional testimony by top intelligence officials. Despite high-level warnings, that planning culminated a little more than three years later in the September 11 attacks in New York and outside Washington.

If bin Laden were ever captured, Ms Bushnell said she supports the idea of putting him on trial not in the US for the 9/11 attacks, but first in Kenya in the presence of the more than 150 people - most of them Africans - blinded by flying glass in the embassy attack. That would be more fitting, she said. "I was horrified by 9/11. I was just as horrified about President Bush declaring a 'war on terror'. That puts bin Laden in the cadre of warrior rather than what he is: a mass murderer."

@Email:cnelson@thenational.ae