How tracking the bomber's hotel jolted my career forever

The aftermath of the August 7, 1998, bomb blast in Nairobi. [File, Standard]

In the days after the blast, I visited the site with dozens of my colleagues every day and we told stories of death, tears and shattered hearts as local and international rescuers shifted through the rubble pulling out charred corpses and blood-soaked survivors.

It was a scene from hell. I had never seen such a horrific tragedy. A few days later, I dropped out of the rescue coverage team and shifted my attention to ongoing international investigations and manhunt for the bombers. This was the speciality I loved the most in my journalism career.  

Kenya’s Criminal Investigations Department (CID) – as the Directorate of Criminal Investigations (DCI) was then known) - and America’s Federal Bureau of Investigations (FBI) spearheaded the investigations.

That is how I landed on the world-exclusive story that marked a major turning point in my journalism career and in my life.

My day of basking in international glory was on August 18, 1998, when a senior CID officer attached to the joint Kenyan and American team of investigators telephoned me at Nation Centre to inform me that they were going to raid Hilltop Hotel in downtown town, near Kirinyaga Road.

This is where the bombers spent their last night and assembled the deadly arsenal on the morning of the attack. They ferried their deadly cargo on the back of a pickup truck parked overnight outside the nondescript three-storey guesthouse.

The guesthouse is tucked in a crime-prone zone and anyone going there at night risks being mugged. It offers cheap accommodation though the bombers – who put Kenya in the international spotlight for months to come – chose the hideout because they would not attract attention and the guesthouse did not keep a register of guests.

Guests were not vetted and payment was the only condition for admission.

I called a photographer, Peter Karuri, and we raced to the hotel on Kirinyaga Road, popularly known as Grogon Road. My police source had told me we shouldn’t be seen by the investigations team as we would arouse suspicion and risk being ejected.

Karuri and I took a hidden strategic position in an adjacent kiosk from where we captured every detail as the CID and FBI squad combed the hotel in a four-hour systematic operation.

Ufundi Co-op House caved inward after the blast, trapping scores of people under the massive rubble. [File, Standard]

I introduced myself to the lady owner of the kiosk and she kindly allowed us to camouflage our presence. When the operation was over and I went back to Nation Centre, my source called me and gave me the full extent of the police raid and how the bombers assembled the bomb.

On August 19, 1998, the Daily Nation hit the streets with my exclusive story titled, ‘FBI Swoops on Bombers’ Hotel’ splashed on the front page.

The story and photos caught other local and international media houses by surprise. No other media house had gotten wind of the raid.

That day, the Daily Nation newspapers sold out within hours as Kenyans eagerly followed every bit of news on the first and deadliest terrorist attack in Kenya.

On that day I returned to the guesthouse for a follow-up story. I found a huge crowd milling around it. Other local and international journalists were there too, to catch up with my exclusive masterpiece. Neighbours to the guesthouse were shocked that the bombers had slept in their neighbourhood.

Surprisingly, even staff at the guesthouse never knew they had hosted the bombers until the combined CID and FBI squad came knocking.

Unlike the previous day, when I never entered the hotel, I went in and spoke to the staff. They told me they did not know the guests and were shocked when the joint team of CID and FBI burst into the hotel the previous day and declared they wanted to do a search in the rooms.

“We remember them as ordinary guests,” said lodge supervisor Abdulrahaman Mohamed Said, whose father, Mohamed Said, owned the guesthouse.

The terrorists booked themselves into rooms 102 and 107, which gave them a clear view of anyone approaching the hotel. Abdulrahaman told me nobody took any special notice of the guests.

First responders at the blast site bravely attempt to rescue survivors. [File, Standard]

The CID and FBI combed the two rooms in search of evidence. It is believed the bombers assembled their 800-kilo TNT deadly device in the two rooms.

They transferred it to the pickup truck on the morning of the attack and completed the assembling there. The attack placed Kenya firmly on the map insofar as modern terrorism is concerned.

Frank Whalley, a Briton hired as training editor a few months earlier, prevailed upon my bosses to give me a permanent job. When I returned to the Nation Centre from the guesthouse, Job Githinji, the news editor, told me the management and the human resources department were urgently looking for me. The story earned me instant employment as a reporter without the mandatory written and oral interviews.

I also got a cash token of Sh5,000 for the exclusive story. Through the tragedy, God, in His own wisdom, used that single story to open the door for my successful journalism career and untold blessings to date. On August 20, 1998, Daily Nation ran a page one sidebar story boasting of its journalism prowess.

Then Managing Editor Tom Mshindi wrote me an appreciation letter that read: “I wish on behalf of the management to congratulate you for the initiative and enterprise that resulted in the excellent story on the front page. The international attention it has generated confirms the importance of the story. May it serve to motivate you and your colleagues to aim even higher. Congratulations again.” It was dated August 19, 1998.

The story opened doors for my successful career as a top crime reporter. Foreign media houses sought me for interviews regarding my stories. Others tasked me to write for them.

God, in His own wisdom, had answered my prayers through Kenya’s worst tragedy.

[Stephen Muiruri is a former editor (Crime and Security) at the Nation Media Group and a former editorial consultant of The DCI magazine]