The man who would become the USA’s terrorist nemesis first came to international public attention in August 1988, after Osama bin Laden funded an audacious double strike on US embassies in Kenya and Tanzania. The attackers were members of Egyptian Islamic Jihad, a militant group active in Africa since the 1970s. Its leader was Ayman al-Zawahiri, a cultured surgeon and close associate of bin Laden, who founded the Islamist al-Qaeda group around this time.
Two massive truck bombs were constructed and a date set to coincide with the seventh anniversary of US troops arriving in bin Laden’s homeland of Saudi Arabia. In Kenya, the truck gained entry to the Nairobi US Embassy compound in mid-morning and detonated almost immediately, damaging the main building and causing fearful loss of life – over 200 died and thousands were injured. At about the same time a refrigerated truck packed with high explosive exploded at the US Embassy in Dar es Salaam. It was as powerful as the Nairobi bomb, but casualty figures were much lighter. President Bill Clinton ordered retaliatory cruise missile strikes in Afghanistan and Sudan and a number of bombers were brought to book and jailed. Others were subsequently killed or captured, though some named culprits remain at large.
At the time, there were many theories regarding the motivation behind the bombings, including revenge for the CIA’s alleged torture of captured members of Egyptian Islamic Jihad. But it is now thought that the plan was hatched for two reasons – firstly to hurt and humiliate America for failing to protect its own, secondly to try and provoke the USA into invading Afghanistan. The latter was eventually achieved as bin Laden’s ambitious hope of provoking a long guerrilla war in ‘the graveyard of foreign armies’ duly came to pass.
When: August 7 1988
Where: Nairobi, Kenya and Dar es Salaam, Tanzania
Death toll: An estimated 223 were killed in both bombings (212 in Nairobi and 11 in Dar es Salaam).
You should know: Although the USA and its citizens were the prime target of these atrocities, only 12 of the dead were Americans (all in Nairobi). Ten Americans were seriously injured in Nairobi and two in Dar es Salaam. So most of the unfortunate victims were local people who just happened to be in the wrong place at the wrong time.