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African Embassy Bombings: Total Devastation

August 7, 1998 at 12:00 AM EST
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ELIZABETH FARNSWORTH: And now three more views on all this from Jack McGeorge, a former Secret Service security and ammunitions expert and now president of a security consulting firm; Larry Johnson, a former counter terrorism specialist at the State Department and now a security consultant; and Salih Booker, a senior fellow and director of the Africa Studies program at the Council on Foreign Relations. He was at the embassy in Nairobi last month.

Larry Johnson, can you draw any preliminary conclusions from what you’ve heard-the reports that you’ve read, the report that we just heard from Nairobi, and from the assistant secretary’s report?

LARRY JOHNSON, Security Analyst: Let me put it this way. I was running around, saying, I’m going to kill somebody, and that somebody shows up dead a few days or a month later. The police would be at my doorstep asking me, where were you, and what were you doing? In this case we have one individual. This is not a reflexive to say in this individual, but twice this year Osama Bin Ladin has issued a fatwah, calling upon Islamics around the world to target and kill American citizens. But, fortunately, the vast majority of Islamic citizens do not respond to that kind of call and find it abhorrent. But Mr. Bin Ladin, unfortunately, was in Sudan. He used it as a terrorist base of operations. Sudan, as you may know, is adjacent to Kenya, and Sudan gave Osama support and continues to support some other terrorist groups such as Hezbollah, Hamas, Abu Nidal, so the list of possible suspects starts there. Now, ultimately, who was responsible will be determined by the evidence that’s collected on the ground, not by speculation at the outset.

ELIZABETH FARNSWORTH: Do you think it’s too early to speculate about this sort of thing?

JACK McGEORGE, Security Analyst: Absolutely. I totally agree with Larry at this stage we know a very large bomb went off in both places. A lot of people died. The who did it-that will depend on the evidence that emerges, claims that are made, and such. I certainly believe that, as Larry pointed out, certain individuals have made threats like this, Bin Ladin is certainly an example of one, and he’s certainly someone to look at, but by no means should we conclude at this stage that’s who did it.

ELIZABETH FARNSWORTH: Mr. McGeorge, what can you conclude about the explosive from what you’ve heard?

JACK McGEORGE: It was really big. I don’t want to trivialize that, but at this stage only now-

ELIZABETH FARNSWORTH: Excuse me for interrupting but what about what Clive Mutiso said, that it was also very sophisticated?

JACK McGEORGE: I see no evidence of that. Most car bombs are not very sophisticated; they’re just big.

ELIZABETH FARNSWORTH: You think it was a car bomb?

JACK McGEORGE: I think it was a car bomb, because you have to get that much explosive. The explosive was-looking at the video-was not inside the building. It was outside the building. And you have to get that much explosive there by some means. A car is the logical means. It may turn out to be otherwise, but I’d be very surprised if it does. I suspect very strongly it’s a car bomb. I would agree with his estimate, the 500 kilogram range. That will depend a bit on what we find out it actually is. Whether it’s plastic explosive or not, that-believe me, there is no evidence from what we see that would support that conclusion at this time. I don’t see anything that would support that. What we could say is there was a lot of explosive, possibly more in the bomb in Kenya than it was in Tanzania. But that is not clear. There also had been a third car. I noticed that that has been referenced several times today, and as looking at the nature of the damage to our embassy in Kenya, it would not shock me that we may find that that’s the case.

ELIZABETH FARNSWORTH: Do you have any conclusions from looking at the reports and seeing the pictures of the bombings?

LARRY JOHNSON: To my knowledge, in the last 30 years of covering international terrorist incidents, there are only two groups which have demonstrated a capability to pull off two simultaneous explosions like this. One is Hezbollah, and the other one is the IRA. I really don’t see the IRA being involved. Hezbollah is another group you have to look at. But this was a sophisticated operation. This wasn’t cobbled together in the last few days, and the amount of explosives, as Jack rightly notes, was probably more in a truck of some sort, or a delivery vehicle, as opposed to say a small compact sedan. So you’re looking at someone who planned this operation and did it deliberately and pulled it off within a four-minute time period, suggests a sophistication that it’s someone who’s experienced and organized.

ELIZABETH FARNSWORTH: Salih Booker, you know these embassies. Describe the security around them, beginning with Nairobi.

SALIH BOOKER, Council on Foreign Relations: In terms of the physical security of the buildings themselves, they’re fairly well fortified. Dr. Rice mentioned they’re not state of the art. The one in Nairobi has been constructed, however, since the ’79 hostage takings in Iran, which led to the fortification of a number of American embassies around the world, the raising of standards, of construction as far as security is concerned. As you can see, the building in Nairobi, itself, remains intact. It was largely the glass that was blown out everywhere, whereas, the buildings surrounding the American embassy, some of them were demolished altogether. In the case of Tanzania, it was an older embassy, security was improved on the perimeter, but the parking area is, as I understand, on that perimeter and, thus, a car bomb could get close enough to cause extensive damage.

ELIZABETH FARNSWORTH: And the Nairobi embassy is right downtown, a very busy intersection, right?

SALIH BOOKER: That’s right. It’s downtown at the corner of two major streets, and it’s surrounded in close proximity by other commercial buildings, and it is busy pedestrian traffic, as well, in that area.

ELIZABETH FARNSWORTH: Mr. Booker, are there domestic political reasons, first in Kenya, that might explain this, that you wouldn’t have to look outside of Kenya?

SALIH BOOKER: I don’t think so. There are certainly domestic political debates and political struggles going on in Kenya. And there are domestic forces that might be critical of U.S. policy toward Kenya, but there’s no history of any of those critics having a violent attitude toward the U.S., its institutions. The same is even more true in Tanzania, which a much stronger tradition of peace and friendship with the United States and less controversy in the relations. I think at this point it’s fairly safe to say that it’s unlikely that the authors of these crimes were Kenyans or Tanzanians, and what’s worrisome here is this may be a case of weak states being strong candidates of international terrorists seeking access to American targets.

ELIZABETH FARNSWORTH: Are these two countries particularly easy to get into? I mean, tourism is a big business for each of them. Is it fairly easy to enter the countries?

SALIH BOOKER: Well, Kenya is a bit of an international hub for East Africa, the Middle East, and the Indian Ocean. It’s part of Mambasa, and the international airport in Mambasa, as well, has a great deal of international traffic coming in and out to all parts of the world. It has porous borders with countries themselves are facing degrees of conflict, including Sudan, Somalia, Ethiopia. And, of course, the border between Kenya and Tanzania is fairly porous as well–and national park areas, et cetera. So I think that’s-when I saw weak states, part of what I mean is the limits to a government’s resources to commit to airport security, port security, border security, those types of efforts that do need strengthening.

ELIZABETH FARNSWORTH: Mr. McGeorge, why do you think these countries were chosen?

JACK McGEORGE: Because they’re easy to get into, in comparison to other places, our embassies were readily accessible; they were not fortresses. The explosives are certainly available on the continent. They may have been brought in, but it certainly wouldn’t have had to have been brought in. I-

ELIZABETH FARNSWORTH: You mean, they could have been manufactured there.

JACK McGEORGE: Not necessarily manufactured, but Africa is full of explosives. There is no-

ELIZABETH FARNSWORTH: So they were brought in?

JACK McGEORGE: At some point possibly, though they could have been manufactured. The Egyptians manufacture explosives; various countries do. I think it’s important to note that this bombing was not put together in the last two or three days, I don’t think. Something of this sophistication, that is, the operation, not the bomb, probably took a couple of months to do. Whatever the trigger event was, whether it was this Albanian-the deportation of these people-if that was the trigger event, then this bombing-the plan preceded that.

ELIZABETH FARNSWORTH: Mr. Johnson, do you have anything to add about why Dar es Salaam and Nairobi?

LARRY JOHNSON: It’s the path of least resistance. Human nature with all international terrorist attacks, 99 percent of them, they go for the accessible target. And, unfortunately, these embassies were not upgraded with the Diplomatic Security Act in 1985, where you moved standoff, because, frankly, if there had been more distance from the street to these buildings, you would not have had the death toll, you would not have had the destruction. But what happened is people said it’s a low threat area, so we’re not going to spend a lot of money to build a new facility, because we’re not at risk. And what we’ve discovered is you can go from low threat to high threat in the instant that it takes for a bomb to go off.

ELIZABETH FARNSWORTH: Mr. Booker, any similar acts of terrorism that might give us any clues here in Kenya or in Tanzania?

SALIH BOOKER: Well, none in recent years and certainly none aimed directly at American targets. Kenya experienced a bombing of the Norfolk Hotel years ago related, again, to the Middle East conflict. But there’s no history in these countries of not only terrorist attacks against U.S. targets but any serious political attacks on U.S. policies or institutions in those countries.

ELIZABETH FARNSWORTH: Now, Mr. McGeorge, what happens next? What will investigators be looking for specifically?

JACK McGEORGE: The focus is going to be on who did it. At this stage obviously you’re taking care of casualties now, but investigators who did it. And we’re going to do that several different ways. One will exploit all intelligence sources to see who might be-who perpetrated this. Secondly, they’re going to look through every little scrap of rubble around there. It is extremely difficult to make bomb parts disappear. You may rip them apart, but they’re still there. The FBI, ATF, and such are very clever at putting them back together again, and that’s what they’ll be doing now. From that, a signature will emerge as to how the bomb was built.

ELIZABETH FARNSWORTH: Because people build bombs the same way over and over again?

JACK McGEORGE: Yes, they do. They find a way that works. It’s really important for the bad guy for the bomb to go off. If they have a way that works reliably; they tend to stick to it. That creates a signature, and what they’re going to be looking for is evidence of that signature to help lead us to possible suspects.

ELIZABETH FARNSWORTH: Anything to add?

LARRY JOHNSON: What I would add to that is there’s a parallel policy track that needs to be followed. Dhahran remains unsolved.

ELIZABETH FARNSWORTH: The Saudi Arabian bomb.

LARRY JOHNSON: The Saudi Arabian bomb. There’s intelligence information that points a finger in the direction of Dhahran and the Saudi government has not been cooperative. That needs to be pursued, because as long as Dhahran remains unsolved, it leaves people with this impression that you can bomb the United States and they don’t retaliate; they let it go.

ELIZABETH FARNSWORTH: Mr. Booker, this is really devastating for Kenya and Tanzania, isn’t it? I mean, their citizens are dead, gives them a dangerous image, and major countries that rely on tourism to a great extent. This is a terrible thing for both of them, isn’t it?

SALIH BOOKER: Very much so. And I think it demonstrates the need for international cooperation to combat international terrorism. And Africa, being such an enormous continent with vulnerable states, vulnerable in the sense of being resource poor and having other national priorities before devoting resources to issues of combating international terrorism represents a weak link in the international cooperation chain, and I think U.S. Policy planners are going to have to reconsider their commitment of resources to working more with African governments to address this kind of problem. Certainly this attack, while aimed at American targets, was also, indeed, very anti-African. Whoever planned this was well aware that the vast majority of casualties would be African civilians working in or near American installations.

ELIZABETH FARNSWORTH: Well, thank you all very much for being with us.