Remembrance, Reflection, Resilience: Commemorating the 20th Anniversary of the East Africa Bombings.
On August 6, 2018, the United States Diplomacy Center at the State Department commemorated the 20th anniversary of the 1998 bombings of the United States embassies in Dar Es Salaam, Tanzania and Nairobi, Kenya. On the morning of August 7, 1998, two truck bombs were detonated simultaneously in front of the embassies in both Tanzania and Kenya. The attacks were linked to members of the Egyptian Islamic Jihad and was the first time that many Americans because familiar with al-Qaeda, Osama bin Laden, and Ayman al-Zawahiri, more than 3 years before the events of 9–11. 224 people were killed in the attacks, 213 in Nairobi, and another 11 in Dar es Salaam. An additional 4,000 people were wounded in Nairobi and 85 in Dar es Salaam. A total of 12 Americans were killed in the attacks, with the majority of those killed and injured being locally hired staff at the embassies or simply innocent bystanders nearby.
The first speaker of the event was Mrs. Susan Pompeo, wife of current Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, who expressed the support of herself and the Secretary for the day’s event. The following remarks were made by USAID Administer, and former Ambassador to Tanzania Mark Green, as well as Assistant Secretary of State for African Affairs Tibor Nagy. Both men drove home the message that the bombings did not break the relationship between the United States and these African nations. Instead, the resilience in the face of the terrorist attacks has strengthened the bond that our countries continue to share since that day in 1998.
The first panel of the afternoon was moderated by Ambassador Barbara Stephenson, President of the American Foreign Service Association. The panelists were Ambassador Prudence Bushnell, United States Ambassador to Kenya 1996–1999 and Ambassador John Lange, Deputy Chief of Mission, United States Embassy Dar es Salaam 1997–1999.
Ambassador Bushnell delivered powerful words about the lack of security preparedness at the embassy before the 1998 attack in Kenya and the continuing need to protect our foreign service staff overseas moving forward. Perhaps the strongest example comes from the press conference at the State Department the following day where she said, “I had spent two years before the bombing warning the Department of State of the vulnerability and was told that the richest nation in the world did not have the resources to fix an embassy that did not meet even meet our own security standards. Mr. Sullivan (current Deputy Secretary of State), please, we cannot waive the need for incoming foreign service officers for high-technology, or for the help services necessary after we are sent to dangerous places. This occurred three years before al-Qaeda bombed our homeland. We are, in fact, in a more dangerous place than we were. Our colleagues today face issues we didn’t have to. Please take today and this moment to pledge to alter the trend of providing inadequate resources to the people who work in peace, not only for the sake of those of us who are here today, but for the sake of our neighbors and communities in which we live overseas.”
Ambassador John Lange served as the Charge d’Affairs in Tanzania at the time of the 1998 bombing. Upon arrival the embassy did not have an Ambassador, and would not see another Ambassador until nine months after the bombing. Ambassador Lange was the highest ranking diplomat in Dar es Salaam at the time of the attack. The Ambassador spoke about being told upon arrival that Tanzania was considered a low threat post, despite local rioting in Dar es Salaam. The embassy had undertaken emergency practice procedures prior to the attack, from evacuation drills to the process of destroying sensitive documents if the need arose, but the concept of an attack or bombing of this magnitude was not on anyone’s radar at the time. When the Ambassador reflected on the day of the attack, he took a very somber tone in describing how the attack impacted him personally, “I no longer was a manager, I was a leader…. I knew I had to be the leader, I knew it wasn’t going to be the Mayor of Dar es Salaam or the President of Tanzania, it was me.” With the embassy unusable after the attack, and the secondary operations site in the USAID building next door also unusable, Ambassador Lange recalled holding senior staff meetings in his own home, and in fact in his own bedroom, after the attack. When asked about the sense of embassy community after the attacks, and what affect that had on operations, Ambassador Bushnell shared a story from when she first became Ambassador. Career Foreign Service Officer Don Leidel offered her a note and some advice, “Never forget, take care of your people, and the rest will take care of itself.” Ambassador Bushnell recalled how these words not only got her through the aftermath of the bombing, but would become her guiding principle for the rest of her service.
The second panel of the afternoon featured individuals who also shared stories of exactly where they were at the time of the embassy attacks. Panelists included George Mimba of the U.S. Embassy Nairobi, Mike Trott of USAID, and Tina Mbobilu and Dudley Sims, both of the U.S. Embassy Dar es Salaam. These panelists all shared their extremely poignant stories from that day, often through tears, choking up as they described what they saw and heard that day. For Mike Trott, it was only his tenth day in the country. George Mimba described throwing himself out of a window after the bombing in a desperate attempt to flee the building and the falling debris, only to pick himself back off the ground to go back inside to pull out other survivors, ignoring orders from the Marines outside. Twenty years later Mr. Mimba will never forget his experiences that live with him every day, “I concluded there is no safe place on this planet, that one can die at any time. It made me more spiritual than before, always prepared for anything. Talking about it with those who have gone through similar experiences also helped me start a new life. I always ask myself what I can do for others as long as I am still alive.” He continues to work at the Embassy in Nairobi.
The event ended with a brief Q&A portion that began with the current Ambassador to the United States from Tanzania, Wilson Masilingi, standing up to thank the panelists and audience for allowing him to be present for the event and apologizing for what had happened in his country so many years ago.
The entire event shows just how dangerous the mission of these foreign service personnel can be and how important the need is to protect our staff working oversees. There were moments of silence throughout the events and tears in the eyes of audience embers and panelists alike. In a time where the State Department budget is being slashed, every person who spoke reiterated this ongoing need to not neglect the number one priority of our embassies abroad, the safety and security of our foreign service corps and our locally engaged staff.
Artifacts from the 1998 embassy bombings are on view currently at the U.S. Diplomacy Center. The public may visit the exhibit Monday through Fridays during normal business hours. Visitors should present a government-issued ID and be prepared to go through security screening. For a list of all exhibitions at the U.S. Diplomacy Center you can find more information HERE.