clock menu more-arrow no yes mobile

Filed under:

In 1998, terrorists attacked two US embassies. No one blamed the secretary of state.

A delegate holds up a sign that reads “Hillary For Prison” on the third day of the Republican National Convention on July 20, 2016, at the Quicken Loans Arena in Cleveland, Ohio. 
Joe Raedle/Getty Images

Stop me if you’ve heard this one before:

Radical Islamic terrorists attack a US embassy in a known terrorist hotspot, killing several Americans. Military reinforcements in the immediate aftermath of the attack are slow to arrive on the scene.

A subsequent inquiry finds that security at the embassy before the attack was woefully inadequate, and that repeated requests from top embassy personnel for more resources and better security went unheeded by the State Department leadership in Washington. The seriousness of the terrorist threat was also downplayed in Washington, despite repeated warnings from intelligence officials and Embassy staff that the risk was real.

Benghazi, right?

Wrong. That’s a description of one of the two bombings of US embassies in East Africa that occurred in 1998, which together killed over 220 people, including 12 Americans, and injured over 4,000 others.

The reason you probably haven’t heard of those attacks, or at least don’t remember them very well, is that they didn’t erupt into a massive political scandal like the 2012 terrorist attack on the diplomatic compound in Benghazi has. There was no harrowing action movie made about them.

And despite the loss of American lives and the findings afterward about the State Department’s many failures, the 1998 East Africa bombings did not lead to vicious accusations that Madeleine Albright, who was secretary of state at the time of the attacks, left Americans to die and thus should be thrown in prison. Hillary Clinton, on the other hand, has faced all that and more over her handling of Benghazi.

That’s because, unlike Hillary Clinton, Madeleine Albright was not running for president in one of the most toxic eras of partisan politics this country has ever seen.

The 1998 attacks

On August 7, 1998, al-Qaeda struck the US embassies in Nairobi, Kenya, and Dar es Salaam, Tanzania, with massive 2,000-pound truck bombs in a near-simultaneous, coordinated attack. The carnage was catastrophic.

A rescue worker calls to colleagues as they stand on what remains of a building in front of the US embassy in Nairobi, Kenya, four days after the deadly bombing.

In an interview years later, US Ambassador Prudence Bushnell, who had been inside the Nairobi embassy when the bomb detonated, recalled the scene that day:

The two tons of energy that hit the three buildings surrounding the parking bounced off and over the bricks and mortar with devastating effect. Two hundred thirty people were killed instantaneously. Over 5,000 people were injured, most of them from the chest up and most of them from flying glass. Vehicles and their occupants waiting for the corner traffic light to change to green were incinerated, including all passengers on a city bus.

The seven story office building next to the embassy collapsed and the rear of our chancery blew off. While the rest of the exterior of our building held – it had been constructed to earthquake standards – the windows shattered, the ceilings fell, and most of the interior simply blew up.

The attacks were planned for years in advance — surveillance of potential targets began all the way back in 1993 — and persisted through a number of significant operational setbacks, including the death of the plot’s initial operational mastermind, Abu Ubaidah al-Banshiri, who drowned in a ferry accident on Lake Victoria.

The attacks also represented “a turning point in Al Qaeda’s history and in the history of terrorism,” writes the Brookings Institution’s Daniel Byman in his authoritative book on the terrorist organization.

It was al-Qaeda’s first major international terrorist attack and it launched the group — and its soon-to-be-infamous leader Osama bin Laden — onto the world stage. That the group was capable of pulling off spectacular, well-coordinated, mass-casualty attacks on not one but two US embassies nearly simultaneously showed just how formidable — and audacious — al-Qaeda had become in its war on America.

Why the attack in Nairobi was so much worse than in Dar es Salaam

The high death toll in the attacks was in part a result of al-Qaeda’s growing competency and boldness, but it also had a lot to do with the nature of the targets themselves.

The Nairobi building had been built back in the early 1980s, before new standards for embassy construction had been adopted in the wake of the 1983 bombing of the US embassy in Beirut.

The Nairobi embassy, which at the time was designated a “medium” threat post in the political violence and terrorism category, was located at the intersection of two of the busiest streets in Nairobi, near two mass transit centers. It also lacked sufficient space separating it from the streets and adjacent buildings.

This is important in two respects: Having the embassy building set back at least 100 feet from the street makes it harder for an explosives-laden vehicle to get close enough to the actual structure to do significant damage. And having more space between the embassy building and adjacent buildings makes it less likely that nearby buildings, filled with civilians, would be damaged in the event of an attack on the embassy.

Rescue workers gather in front of a building in downtown Nairobi devastated by the massive explosion that gutted the US embassy building to the left.
Malcolm Linton/Getty Images

By comparison, the attack on the embassy in Dar es Salaam caused far fewer casualties: 11 were killed (no Americans) and another were 85 injured. Although that embassy was only designated a “low” threat post, it happened to be housed in a walled compound that had previously been the Israeli embassy and as a result it was much more fortified.

The base of the perimeter wall was made of reinforced concrete and provided a 10-12 meter (33-40 foot) setback between the embassy and adjacent streets and properties. Hardened guard booths were located at each of the entryways to the compound. The building itself had few windows on the ground floor.

The findings of the inquiry

All those details about the buildings themselves — and in particular the Nairobi embassy building — are really important to understanding what happened next, and why these attacks are so relevant to the Benghazi case today.

That’s because the findings of subsequent investigations by State Department’s Accountability Review Boards into the security failures that had enabled the attacks to happen were pretty damning.

They discovered that the US ambassador in Nairobi, Prudence Bushnell (whom we heard from earlier), had for years been warning the State Department leadership in Washington about the massive security deficiencies in the embassy’s physical structure and had pleaded over and over for them to send additional resources to help secure the facility.

Her requests were basically ignored.

In that 2005 interview, Bushnell explained:

I remember that in early 1998 a delegation of counter-terrorist types visited. I met with them in the secure conference room, and when they ended with the pro-forma, “Is there anything we can do for you"? I angrily declared they could answer the goddamn mail. The cursing was intentional because I wanted them to see how frustrated and annoyed I was.

I also continued to send cables about our vulnerability, which only became more apparent as we dealt with these threats. When I reviewed them before meeting with the Accountability Review Board after the bombing, I was astounded by their frequency.

General Tony Zinni, Head of Central Command, the military theater under which Kenya fell, understood force protection and agreed with me about the vulnerability of the embassy. With my enthusiastic concurrence he cabled Washington offering one of his own vulnerability assessment teams.

That got a reply -- not just “no,” but mind your own business.

She said that when she again raised the issue during a trip to Washington in December 1997, “I was told point blank by the [Bureau of African Affairs] Executive Office to stop sending cables because people were getting very irritated with me.”

Finally, in May 1998 — just three months before the bombing — Bushnell wrote a letter directly addressed to Secretary of State Madeleine Albright and asked the director general of the Foreign Service, who was visiting Nairobi at the time, to deliver it to her.

I penned a letter suggesting that, when next defending the State Department budget before Congress, she use our vulnerability as an example of why we needed more security funding. I also wrote to the Undersecretary for Management. I received a highly bureaucratic response from the Undersecretary’s office – sorry, greater needs elsewhere and no money – but none from the Secretary.

According to Bushnell, Secretary Albright later told her she’d never received the letter.

The final joint report of the two inquiry boards stated that they “did not find reasonable cause to believe that any employee of the United States Government or member of the uniformed services was culpable of dereliction of his or her duties in connection with the August 7 bombings.”

The inquiries “did find, however, an institutional failure of the Department of State and embassies under its direction to recognize threats posed by transnational terrorism and vehicle bombs worldwide. Policy-makers and operational officers were remiss in not preparing more comprehensive procedures to guard against massive truck bombs. This combined with lack of resources for building more secure facilities created the ingredients for a deadly disaster.”

The political fallout — or lack thereof

Even though the inquiries found that the State Department leadership in Washington had repeatedly ignored Ambassador Bushnell's requests for security upgrades, Madeleine Albright didn’t face a hysterical backlash anywhere close to what Hillary Clinton has faced over Benghazi.

US Secretary of State Madeleine Albright embraces a family member of one of the US Embassy bombing victims during a memorial on August 13, 1998, at Andrews Air Force Base, Maryland.

For instance, Donald Trump, in his acceptance speech Thursday night at the Republican National Convention, referred to Benghazi, claiming that under her watch, “our ambassador and his staff were left helpless to die at the hands of savage killers.”

And, just to be clear, the Accountability Review Board convened to investigate the security failings that enabled the Benghazi attacks to take place found almost the exact same thing that the boards did in the 1998 bombings when it came to culpability:

Overall, the number of Bureau of Diplomatic Security (DS) security staff in Benghazi on the day of the attack and in the months and weeks leading up to it was inadequate, despite repeated requests from Special Mission Benghazi and Embassy Tripoli for additional staffing. Board members found a pervasive realization among personnel who served in Benghazi that the Special Mission was not a high priority for Washington when it came to security-related requests, especially those relating to staffing...

However, the Board did not find reasonable cause to determine that any individual U.S. government employee breached his or her duty.

So why did Madeleine Albright face essentially zero blowback for the security failures and loss of American life that happened on her watch while Hillary Clinton is facing calls to be thrown in prison (or even, as one Donald Trump adviser suggested, to be executed for treason) for the security failures and loss of American life that happened on hers?

The simple answer is that Madeline Albright wasn't the political target that Hillary Clinton is.

And that's exactly the point: This kind of thing has happened before — and in terms of casualties, was actually far worse — yet nobody called for Albright to go to prison, because that’s a ridiculous, over-the-top partisan political reaction. It’s a wildly inappropriate response to a tragic event. The only reason for doing so is to score political points.

The deaths of the four Americans in Benghazi were tragic, no question. But they were no more tragic than the deaths of the 12 Americans, and the 200-plus others, who were killed in the 1998 bombings. Acting otherwise and turning their deaths into an obscene political spectacle is a disservice to all of their memories.

Sign up for the newsletter Today, Explained

Understand the world with a daily explainer plus the most compelling stories of the day.