In the spring of 1998, Prudence Bushnell, the US ambassador to Kenya, sent an emotional letter to Secretary of State Madeleine Albright begging for the Secretary’s personal help.
Ms. Bushnell, a career diplomat, had been fighting for months for a more secure embassy in the face of mounting terrorist threats and a warning that she was the target of the assassination plot. The State Department had repeatedly refused to grant her request, citing a lack of money. That kind of response, she wrote Ms. Albright, was “endangering the lives of embassy personnel”.
The CIA and FBI had been amassing increasing ominous and detailed clues about potential threats in Kenya. But the State Department bureaucracy still dismissed Ms. Bushnell’s pleas. She was even seen by some of them as a nuisance who was overly obsessed with security – according to one official.
Three months later, on Aug 7, the American Embassies in Tanzania and Kenya were simultaneously attacked with car bombs. Twelve American diplomats and more than 200 Africans were killed in Kenya.
A close examination of events in the year before the bombings, as reported by the New York Times (1/9/99) showed that:
The CIA told State Dept. officials that there was an active terrorist cell in Kenya connected to Osama bin Laden, the Saudi exile who is accused of masterminding the attack.
The CIA investigated at least 3 terrorist threats in Nairobi that year, and took one seriously enough to send a counterterrorism team. The agency concluded that the threat was unfounded, but some officials say the inquiry was botched.
Gen. Anthony C. Zinni, commander of the US Central Command had visited Nairobi and warned that the embassy there was an easy target for terrorists. Zinni’s offer to send his own specialists to review security in Nairobi was turned down by the State Dept. (The State Dept then conducted its own review, and decided that the embassy was secure against a “medium” threat, whatever that was).
The State Dept had adopted a strategy of improving the handful of embassies it believed were at greatest risk. Nairobi was not among them.
On the other hand, State Dept officials insisted that they were sympathetic to Ms. Bushnell’s concerns. They added that it was impossible to respond to each terrorist threat that they received.
Bushnell’s letter to Ms. Albright was an attempt to bypass the State Department.
The CIA had sent numerous reports detailing the activities of people linked to Osama Bin Laden in Kenya. Some of the reports referred to Osama in the first paragraph. Already the inquiry on the 1993 World Trade Center bombing had focused on Mr. Bin Laden and his associates.
In the summer of 1997, the CIA’s Nairobi based officers learned of another possible threat. An informant told them that the Nairobi branch of an Islamic charity, Al Haramain Foundation, was plotting attacks against Americans. The informant eventually warned that the group was plotting to blow up the American Embassy in Nairobi.
The Kenyans arrested nine Arabs connected to Al Haramain, and seized the group’s files. The CIA sent a team to Nairobi, which scoured the files, but could not find evidence of a bomb plot. Members of the team wanted to question Al Haramain members in jail, but the agency’s station chief blocked this request, insisting that he had pushed his Kenyan counterparts far enough.
Without any evidence against Al Haramain, the CIA concluded that the informant was not credible.
Evidence was eventually found linking the group to Mr. Bin Laden, though not linking them to the bombings.
A third warning surfaced in November 1997. Mustafa Mahmoud Said Ahmed, and Egyptian, walked into the embassy and told CIA officers he knew of a group that was planning to detonate a bomb-laden truck inside the diplomats underground parking garage.
The CIA cautioned in its reports that Mr. Ahmed might have fabricated his story..
Mr. Ahmed is now being held in jail in Tanzania in connection with the bombing of the embassy there.
With hindsight, we can marvel at the blindness of the State Department. But the US receives thousands of terrorist threats a year, so it is easy to lose sight of the few that should be taken seriously. Still, there was the lone voice of Ms. Bushnell, who did see clearly that the embassy was not safe and that the US had serious Islamic enemies in Nairobi. Why is it that some people – General Zinni and Prudence Bushnell – could see clearly – and others could not?