ClandesTime 116 – An Alternative History of Al Qaeda: The Embassy Bombings
On August 7th 1998 two almost identical truck bombs exploded outside the US embassies in Nairobi, Kenya and Dar es Salaam, Tanzania. In this episode we look at the embassy bombings, their genesis and consequences. From the role of triple agent Ali Mohamed to the absurd circumstances of the explosion in Nairobi, this story reflects much of what we saw with the 1993 World Trade Center bombing.
However, let’s start with some differences. While the WTC93 truck bombing was rather crude, the embassy bombings were more sophisticated. This is indicative of Al Qaeda becoming a more sophisticated organisation in the late 1990s and that the embassies were easier targets. While the WTC93 bomb killed only 6 people, the bomb in Nairobi killed over 200 and wounded thousands. The two bombs were almost identical – composed of about 900kg of TNT – and were detonated in near-simultaneous suicide bombings. That’s a much more difficult and complex attack than in 1993.
Al Qaeda’s East African setup was almost entirely the creation of two men – Ali Mohamed and Wadih El Hage. El Hage was apparently an early member of Al Qaeda, and according to prosecutors he actually bought the gun Nosair used to kill Meir Kahane. When Ali Mohamed pleaded guilty in October 2000 his allocution explained:
In the early 1990s, I assisted al Qaeda in creating a presence in Nairobi, Kenya, and worked with several others on this project. Abu Ubaidah was in charge of al Qaeda in Nairobi until he drowned. Khalid al Fawwaz set up al Qaeda’s office in Nairobi. A car business was set up to create income. Wadih el Hage created a charity organization that would help provide al Qaeda members with identity documents. I personally helped el Hage by making labels in his home in Nairobi. I personally met Abu Ubaidah and Abu Hafs at Wadih’s house in Nairobi.
We used various code names to conceal our identities. I used the name “Jeff”; el Hage used the name “Norman”; Ihab used the name “Nawawi.”
So Jeff, Norman and Nawawi set up the cell, organised a charity to act as a front organisation and founded a business to provide revenue, all in the early 1990s. Bin Laden then had Ali a.k.a. Jeff carry out surveillance on various targets in the region, suggesting that as early as 1993 there was some kind of plan being developed for the embassy bombings.
I bring this up because the exact origins and genesis of the embassy bombings is somewhat multifarious and subject to argument. After Ali was interviewed by the FBI in the run-up to the US vs Rahman trial in 1995 he was told to stay away from the East African cell to avoid drawing attention to them. At around the same time Wadih El Hage’s wife apparently persuaded him to quit Al Qaeda, though prosecutors dispute this. A year before the bombings the FBI, CIA and local police raided El Hage’s home in Nairobi, and found a letter on a computer talking about an Al Qaeda cell in the city. The FBI apparently interviewed El Hage and told him that he and his wife were not safe in the country, and that he should go back to America, where his wife was from. They did this in September 1997, and though El Hage was then promptly arrested, nothing was done to bust up the cell in Nairobi.
Lawrence Wright says that the bombings were motivated by the US military involvement in Somalia, which chimes with what Ali Mohamed explained was the main purpose of Al Qaeda – to drive the US out of the Middle East. A few months earlier, in February 1998, Bin Laden had issued a fatwa effectively declaring war on the US, which he repeated in an interview with journalist John Miller just weeks before the attack.
Other sources argue that the bombings were primarily an Egyptian Islamic Jihad operation, carried out as revenge because two months earlier four EIJ members had been arrested in Albania and rendered to Egypt and tortured, all with US connivance and supervision. For the numerologists, August 7th 1998 was the 8th anniversary of the arrival of US troops in Saudi Arabia. For the crackpot numerologists, the bomb in Tanzania was built in house 213 in the Illala district of Dar es Salaam, while in Nairobi the bomb kiled exactly 213 people, so obviously this was a false flag operation by the Jewish Marxists who are trying to get rid of white people by turning our children into gay communists. That’s why they blew up 200 black people.
Intelligence Failures and the Embassy Bombings
In particular the embassy in Nairobi was considered to be quite a soft target, as far as embassies go. A study had been done several months before that had concluded it was quite vulnerable to car bombs or truck bombs. Ambassador Prudence Bushnell wrote several letters asking for the security to be upgraded – for example for the external fences to be replaced by walls. Nothing was done.
In the clip we just listened to they quickly refer to a walk-in source who approached the embassy in late 1997, warning them of a truck bomb attack. While the programme doesn’t name him, he was an Egyptian Mustafa Mahmoud Said Ahmed. He warned the embassy in Nairobi, saying he was a member of a group planning to attack it with a truck bomb, and that he had taken surveillance photos and that the attack plan would use stun grenades to force their way in before detonating the bomb (this is actually what happened). This led to the CIA to write two reports to the State Department about what he had said. While the reports did cast some doubt on Ahmed because another friendly intelligence agency said he was a fabricator, security at the embassy was stepped up for several weeks.
The day after the bombings, Ahmed walked into the British embassy in Dar Es Salaam to reiterate that he was part of the group that carried out the attacks and that he had warned the Americans ahead of time. He was arrested for his part in the Tanzania bombing. During a court appearance he ‘blurted out’ that ‘I told them everything I knew,’ and that this was ‘not the first time’ he had cooperated with Western officials, and that he been doing so ‘since last year.’ He went on to claim that he had been an informant for Egyptian and American intelligence, so it’s probably Egypt who cast doubt on his authenticity in late 1997.
CIA officer Gary Bernsten later wrote in his book Jawbreaker that he interviewed Ahmed, and this led to significant information that helped the Americans arrest of the conspirators in Pakistan within days of the attacks. This apparently broke the case wide open, established that it was an Al Qaeda attack and helped lead to the arrest of others involved in the plot.
However, the US never requested that Ahmed be extradited to stand trial in the US, as they did with others. Instead, he was held awaiting trial in Tanzania for nearly two years. It appears that, as with Ali Mohamed, they did not want this guy testifying in open court. In March 2000 the Tanzanian authorities announced that they were dropping all charges against him, and nothing has been heard of Ahmed since.
While this was a more sophisticated operation, the execution of the embassy bombings was not ideal. In the case of the Nairobi attack there were meant to be two suicide bombers – Jihad Ali, known as ‘Azzam’ and Mohamed Al-Owhali. Ali was the driver and Al-Owhali was there to scare off the local security guards using a pistol and stun grenades, as predicted in Ahmed’s warning. However, when they got to the embassy Al-Owhali tried to intimidate the security guards into opening the gate, and leapt out of the truck to threaten them. However, he left the pistol inside the cab of the truck, and when he realised this he ran off. Azzam, realising he couldn’t get any closer to the building, set off the bomb, killing himself and over 200 others.
Al-Owhali went to the hospital to get treatment for the injuries he sustained while running away from the explosion. The Kenyan doctors were suspicious of his story, and turned him over to the American authorities. The FBI broke him quickly, after he lied to them and said he was wearing the same clothes as on the day of the bombing. When the interrogators proved he was lying by getting him to take off his belt, and showed him the label from the shop was still attached, he realised he was done. Al-Owhali gave up the entire plot, and even provided the FBI with a phone number for a house in Yemen, which was Al Qaeda’s communications hub. Keep this in mind for the next episode, where we will look at the run-up to 9/11.
The Embassy Bombings Trial and Jamal Al-Fadl
Al-Owhali and the others did not go on trial until February 2001, in the US vs Bin Laden et al. Bin Laden and others including Anas Al-Liby were indicted, prosecuted and convicted in their absence. The four who physically went on trial, including Al-Owhali and El Hage, were also found guilty.
However, in my opinion the purpose of the trial was not simply to convict those who had carried out the embassy bombings. It was also to establish that Al Qaeda existed, was a formal terrorist organisation headed by Bin Laden, and as such constituted a viable enemy for the forthcoming War on Terror. To prove these additional claims the Department of Justice turned to Jamal Al-Fadl.
Al Fadl was a Sudanese militant who was one of the founding members of Al Qaeda, having found his way into the Afghan jihad through the Al Kifah refugee centre in New York. He was with Bin Laden in the early-mid 1990s in Sudan, but spent time in Croatia in 1992 just as the war in Bosnia was kicking off. He also went to Vienna and had meetings with the Third World Relief Agency – a phoney charity partly funded by Bin Laden that funnelled millions, possibly hundreds of millions, of dollars into Bosnia in that period. He also set up a Viennese bank account, which Wadih El Hage also did at this time.
In june 1996, Al-Fadl gets into an argument with Bin Laden over the fact he has embezzled over $100,000 while working as Al Qaeda’s main financial officer. Apparently fearing for his life, he quits Al Qaeda and hands himself into the US embassy in Eritrea. He is interrogated for weeks by the CIA, who then hand him over to the FBI for more interviews and questions. This goes on for months, mostly by FBI agents Dan Coleman and Jack Cloonan. If those names ring a bell it’s because they were seconded to the CIA’s Bin Laden unit, and a couple of years later would also handle the defection of Ali Mohamed. The other man centrally involved in the debriefing of Al-Fadl was Patrick Fitzgerald, the prosecutor who ran most of the Al Qaeda trials and who told Ali Mohamed not to respond to a witness subpoena demanding he testify in the trial of the Blind Sheikh. Fitzgerald also led the prosecution in the US vs Bin Laden trial after the embassy bombings.
Al-Fadl tells the FBI everything, from Al Qaeda’s financial dealings to their affiliations with the GIA in Algeria and Al Muhajiroun in the UK. He warns that US embassies are Al Qaeda targets, and that Wali Khan Amin Shah is a very important member of the group. However, this results in almost no action being taken, least of all to track down Shah’s associates including Khalid Sheikh Mohammed, the supposed mastermind of 9/11. It is possible that had Al-Fadl’s defection and information been handled differently then the 1998 embassy bombings and the 9/11 attacks might have been interdicted and prevented.
However, it seems that the CIA were deliberately restricting the information that was circulating about Bin Laden at this time. While Bin Laden was living in Sudan for several years he did so under the protection of Sudanese intelligence. Al-Fadl had frequent contact with a Sudanese intel official called Dr. Abdel Munim al Khabir, and in his allocution Ali Mohamed described coordinating with Sudanese intelligence while he trained Bin Laden’s bodyguards.
In the period of March to May 1996, the US government made several requests for Sudan’s voluminous intelligence files on Bin Laden and his associates. This turned into a request that they turn over the man himself. The Sudanese government complied, offering their files and even offering up Bin Laden. Strangely the US government declined both of these offers, despite having requested the files and the man in the first place. Exactly what happened is not clear, and the 9/11 Commission claimed to have found no evidence that the Sudanese ever offered Bin Laden directly to the US. Nonetheless, there is abundant evidence that Sudan did offer their intelligence files, not just in 1996 but again in 1997, 1998 and 2000. The US intelligence agencies eventually accepted them only weeks before 9/11.
Why the Embassy Bombings still matter
We could go into a lot more detail about the embassy bombings, the investigation, the trial, the backgrounds of these various characters but as we reach the climax of this series I don’t want us to get too bogged down in extraneous detail. The important things to take away from this story are:
1) Everyone in this story connects back to other people and places and operations we’ve already looked at in this series.
2) Al Qaeda were chock full of spies, informers and intelligence assets.
3) They had numerous warnings, both generic and specific, that the bombings were going to happen.
4) For some reason this doesn’t seem to enable the intelligence agencies to prevent terrorist attacks.
5) Despite this, none of the handlers of these various spies got into any trouble, let alone get fired and prosecuted for gross criminal negligence, let alone got investigated for collusion or conspiracy.
So we’re left with a load of unanswered questions and a familiar pattern. Did US intelligence wilfully allow the embassy bombings to happen? I don’t know, but they certainly had numerous opportunities to do something, and they did nothing every time.
In the next episode we are going to look at the CIA’s Bin Laden unit, Al Qaeda’s communications hub in Yemen, the Al Qaeda summit in Kuala Lumpur and the run-up to 9/11. We have now left behind the first phase of Al Qaeda, which covers roughly 1988-94 and we’re now into the second phase, from 1995-2001. Most of the people integrally involved in operations in the first phase are by now dead, or captured and in jail. The main link is Ali Mohamed, though he too would be called before a grand jury a month after the embassy bombings, and they knew he was lying to them so he was arrested. So this is very much a second generation of Al Qaeda operatives – the first were largely involved in Bosnia, WTC93 and things related to that. The second were responsible for the embassy bombings, the USS Cole bombing and, at least on paper, 9/11.
We’re going to somewhat skip over the Cole bombing because while some people think the problems with the FBI’s investigation into that is key to why they didn’t prevent 9/11, I think there’s a much more important story. For those who want to get into the USS Cole, John O’Neill and all of that I can recommend the psychodrama-documentary Who Killed John O’Neill?. But we will be touching on that and how it relates to our story, but I want to focus more on the CIA and the NSA rather than the FBI.
I am not sure when the next episode will be as I have a lot of other things pressing on my time with promoting my new book, so it might be a week or two before I get everything together for what will probably be a long, in depth episode. Trust me, it’ll be worth the wait. After that I want to round off this series by taking a look at what connects Ali Mohamed to the entertainment liaison offices, and as I’ve mentioned before, a roundtable review of the film Operation Terror. So there is more to come, both serious and not quite so serious, as we come to the end of this series for now.
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