How US gifted Osama opportunity to chisel his name with innocent blood

Prudence Bushnell the then US Ambassador to Kenya being rescued from the blast. [Photo, Courtesy]

The metallic barrier harmlessly lay at the entrance. All around it, an insurmountable wall ringed the imposing bank and there was hope that once the barrier was installed, access to the area would be restricted.

Everything had gone according to plan. The project had been completed on time, but as it would emerge later, evil eyes were lurking in the dark, calculating when the merchants of death would strike.

At around 10.30am, on August 7, 1998, just before the Cooperative Bank chief executive officer Erastus Kihara Mureithi commissioned the erection of the barrier, the worst happened.

A series of explosions and gunfire pierced through the cacophony that is Nairobi’s downtown.

Above the din created by thunderous roar of the maddening traffic, the explosions triggered off miniature seismic tremors which sent a couple of buildings tumbling down.

Terrified world

The attendant plumes of smoke and dust billowed out, chocking and distorting Nairobi’s darkening skyline. Amidst the unfolding horror and senseless death, the world stood to attention and wordlessly watched the birth of Osama Bin Laden as a global terrorist.

And as the terrified world watched in numbed shock, the nondescript Saudi-born millionaire chiseled his name in the hearts of thousands of victims, whose blood he used to ink his signature calling card, terror.

By the time the Israeli-trained sniffer dog and rescuers sifted through the last of the debris after delicately manouvering through the mangled irons and concrete blocks, more than 200 people lay dead.

Decades later, investigations and studies indicate that the US unwittingly gifted Osama an opportunity to carry out the attack which catapulted him into the ranks of one the most wanted terrorists of his time.

There are arguments by security experts that had the Washington acted on intelligence reports about the impending attacks in Nairobi, things would have been different. The death toll from the bomb blast, which left an estimated 4,000 people injured, observers believe would have been minimised.

Months before the attack, Prudence Bushnell, the US ambassador to Kenya, had pleaded with her government to relocate the base from the junction of Haile Selassie and Moi Avenue.

In her correspondences to Washington on December 24, 1997 Bushnell had expressed fears about the location of the embassy:

“Here,” Bushnell said, “street preachers, homeless children, muggers, hacks and thousands of pedestrians came by our threshold every day.”

Further, concerned by the insecurity in the area where cases of mugging had been reported, the embassy had erected a 2.6-metre fence reinforced by an outer perimeter made of steel bollards.

Pieces of intelligence gathered by security agents at the time indicated there were threats against several US interests, including the chancery.

Some of these reports warned of the possibility of attacks by a new, little-known terrorist at the time -- Osama.

Bushnell, in her letter to Washington, had expressed her fears over the terrorist threats aimed at the mission and emphasised that the embassy was vulnerable.

She pleaded with her bosses to relocate the embassy, which she described as an ugly, brown, square box of the concrete located on one of the busiest street corners in Nairobi. This location was dangerous and made it extremely vulnerable to crime and mob violence.

Although Bushnell appeared determined to secure the embassy from terrorists, she was not very keen when her neighbour, the Co-operative Bank, approached her to build a wall to secure the place.

Mureithi has documented what happened then in his memoirs, When the Stars Shine Down the Aberdares.

“Something strange happened in 1997. When I reported for work in the morning, I started noticing strangers. I normally arrived very early and every time I arrived, there would be two or three young men around the building,” Mureithi, who has since retired, writes.

After encountering these strangers on a number of occasions and disturbed but unable to finger on what was the matter with the youth, he requested the police for additional security around the building.

“I also communicated my fears to the Consular General of the American Embassy, Prudence Bushnell. The US embassy was our immediate neighbour. That is why I invited the embassy to join us in securing the two compounds from idlers,” he wrote.

In his letter to the Consular General, in May 1998, Mureithi had requested that they pool resources and fence the two compounds.

A report prepared by US-based Accountability Review Boards, which audited the circumstances leading to the attack, concluded that the embassy had indeed received a letter from the bank.

Curiously, a year before the bomb, Bushnell warned that a Somalia-based humanitarian organisation, al-Haramain, was trying to smuggle arms through Kenya to Somalia.

When Bushnell learned that the arms the group was waiting for were allegedly on their way, she asked the Kenyan government to break up the organisation. She later explained that President Daniel Moi personally assured her they would comply and soon after, some of the members of al-Haramain were deported from Kenya.

Controlled access

Despite the embassy’s nonchalance attitude, Mureithi sought and got approval from City Hall to erect a perimeter fence around the bank.

“I started putting up a fence on the American Embassy side with the intention of creating one controlled access. Apparently, as I fenced the area some people with an evil eye were monitoring every development,” he writes in his memoirs.

It is evident some of the workers engaged by the contractor to fence the compound were spying for terrorists and these are the young men who spooked the CEO.

Last Tuesday (on January 15, 2019) when terrorists struck Riverside Drive and attacked Dusit Hotel, Mureithi relieved the 1998 horror: “On August 7, 1998, the very day I was to commission the two gates, the unthinkable happened. On that day, the two gates had been brought to the compound and were about to be installed.”

But before the gates were installed, the terrorists struck  at around 10:30am.

They stormed the embassy and attempted to drive to the rear but were blocked by a car which was coming from the Co-operative Bank’s underground garage.

The attackers demanded that the embassy gates be opened, but the unarmed guards refused, prompting the attackers to open fire.

The guards scampered for safety, as the terrorists hurled grenades after them. They also detonated the truck, they were driving in the rear parking area, near the ramp to the basement garage of the embassy.

“The truck was packed with explosives  and the ensuing blasts drew my attention and lured many people among them bank and embassy employees to the windows. By doing this, they played into the hands of the terrorists,” Mureithi says.

In their reports, the Americans rued their procrastination and confirmed the lift bar intended for the exit was also lying on the ground ready for installation at the time of the bombing. 

With benefit of hindsight, the US Accountability Review Board concluded that if their government had cooperated with Co-operative Bank, this could have expedited the installation of the lift bar barrier and provided an additional hurdle for the terrorists’ access to the embassy’s rear parking lot.

Human suffering

By the time the ear-shattering blasts finally subsided, a total of 213 people lay dead and a further 4,000 were injured. The human suffering had never been witnessed in the country’s history.

Ironically, at that precise moment the bomb was detonated, Bushnell was at the Co-operative Bank building. She and the then minister of Commerce, Joseph Kamotho were in a meeting on the 21st floor.

Bushnell later recalled how she was hurled off her feet like a toy and at one point feared that the entire building would collapse on her and kill her. Mureithi just like Kamotho was caught in the epicenter of the blast as well as his two sons, Earnest and Joseph.