Report of the Accountability Review Boards

Bombings of the US Embassies in
Nairobi, Kenya and Dar es Salaam, Tanzania
on August 7, 1998

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[* Note: Passages here and elsewhere in this document marked with an asterisk (*) indicate more details can be found in the classified version of the report.]


On August 7, 1998, at approximately 10:30 a.m. local time, terrorists driving in a truck detonated a large bomb in the rear parking area, near the ramp to the basement garage, of the American Embassy in Nairobi. A total of 213 people were killed, of whom 44 were American Embassy employees (12 Americans and 32 Foreign Service National employees). Ten Americans and eleven FSNs were seriously injured. An estimated 200 Kenyan civilians were killed and 4,000 were injured by the blast in the vicinity of the embassy.

Damage to the embassy was massive, especially internally. Although there was little structural damage to the five story reinforced concrete building, the explosion reduced much of the interior to rubble--destroying windows, window frames, internal office partitions and other fixtures on the rear side of the building. The secondary fragmentation from flying glass, internal concrete block walls, furniture, and fixtures caused most of the embassy casualties. The majority of the Kenyan casualties resulted from the collapse of the adjacent Ufundi Building, flying glass from the nearby Co-op Bank Building and other buildings located within a two to three block radius. Other casualties were pedestrians or motorists in the crowded streets next to the embassy.

The local-hire contract guards at the rear of the Embassy saw the truck pull into the uncontrolled exit lane of the rear parking lot just as they closed the fence gate and the drop bar after a mail van had exited the embassy's garage. (The drop bar paralleled a series of steel bollards which encircled the embassy outside the steel grill fence that surrounds the chancery.) The truck proceeded to the embassy's rear access control area but was blocked by an automobile coming out of the Co-op Bank's underground garage. The blocking auto was forced to back up allowing the truck to come up to the embassy drop bar.

When one of the two terrorist occupants of the truck demanded that the guards open the gates, they refused. One of the terrorists then began shooting at the chancery and the other tossed a flash grenade at one of the guards. The guards, who were unarmed, ran for cover and tried to raise the Marine Security Guard at the command post (Post #1) on a hand held radio and by a phone in the nearby guard booth. They were unsuccessful; the embassy's single radio frequency was occupied with other traffic; the telephone was busy. In the several seconds time lapse* between the gunshots/grenade explosion and the detonation of the truck bomb, many embassy employees went to the windows to observe what was happening. Those who did were either killed or seriously injured.

Neither the post's Emergency Action Plan, which followed State Department guidelines, nor any relevant drills had prepared employees for actions to take in the event of a vehicular bomb or firearms being discharged in the immediate vicinity of the embassy. Had the employees been trained to lie on the floor and seek cover when they heard the grenade blast, some lives could have been saved.

The embassy had only one radio frequency and no alert alarms for use by perimeter guards. The Board estimates that there was a certain time lapse* between the time the guards saw the truck enter the rear parking lot and the detonation of the bomb. The inability of the perimeter guards to alert those inside the chancery of what they anticipated might be an impending truck bomb explosion could have been remedied in a couple of ways. Had the Kenyan Government granted the embassy's long-standing request to have more than one radio frequency, the perimeter guards would have had a dedicated frequency to communicate with the MSG at Post #1 who, in turn, could have triggered the embassy's internal alarm system, giving personnel time to take cover. Second, either a radio electronic emergency alarm in the possession of the perimeter guards or an alarm button in the rear guard booth to activate the embassy's internal alarm system could have permitted the guards there to trigger the system directly, warning employees of the impending blast. In either scenario, a special alarm signal for "duck and cover" which does not exist on Nairobi's and any other US embassy's "Selectone" alarm system would have to be programmed since it has never been prescribed by the Department of State.*

The Embassy building was constructed under the supervision of the Foreign Buildings Operations in the early 1980's before the Inman standards were produced. It was located at the intersection of two of the busiest streets in Nairobi, near two mass transit centers. It lacked sufficient setback from the streets and from adjacent buildings. To help extend its limited setback, the Embassy was surrounded by a 2.6 meter high steel picket vertical bar fence. An outer perimeter was established beyond the fence with a line of steel bollards, ranging 5 meters to 18 meters in distance from the outer walls of the chancery. The window frames were not anchored into the core structure, but the windows were covered by 4mm Mylar protective film.

Before August 7, Nairobi was designated as a "medium" threat post in the political violence and terrorism category, and the embassy was in compliance with that threat level's physical security standards and procedures as prescribed by the Department -- except for the lack of a 100ft. setback/standoff zone. However, the bombing revealed that the Department's system for determining terrorism threat levels, which in turn determine physical security standards and procedures, was seriously flawed. Additional criteria are now being applied to achieve a more realistic threat profile. The Boards will comment further on these criteria, and make recommendations on increased standards and the funding to achieve them.*

There were no intelligence reports immediately before the bombing to have warned the embassy of the August 7 blast. However, a number of earlier intelligence reports cited alleged threats against several US diplomatic and other targets including the US Embassy in Nairobi. While all of these reports were disseminated to the intelligence community and to appropriate posts abroad, they were largely discounted because of doubts about the sources. Other reporting was imprecise, changing and non-specific as to dates, diminishing its usefulness. Additionally, actions taken by intelligence and law enforcement authorities to confront suspect terrorist groups in Nairobi, including the Al-Haramayn non-governmental organization and the Usama Bin Laden (UBL) organization, were believed to have dissipated the threats.*

The embassy responded to these reported threats by increasing the number of roving guards around the perimeter of the chancery, closer monitoring of the visa line, and additional vehicular and perimeter searches. The Regional Security Officer (RSO) advised personnel on security precautions and the importance of reporting incidents of surveillance. She and the Marine Security Guards (MSGs) conducted numerous emergency react drills (with only MSG participation), and the RSO asked the Kenyan Government to enhance security around the embassy, especially to engage in counter-surveillance activities, and met with the Kenyan police to discuss their bomb react scenarios. The embassy also requested and received a team from Washington to further familiarize the MSGs and the local guards about explosive devices, and the Emergency Action Committee met frequently to review security procedures and upgrades.

The Ambassador cabled Washington on December 24, 1997, reviewing the threats and the response to them by the embassy and the Kenyan government. She pointed to certain reports about terrorist threats aimed at the mission, as well as threats of crime and political violence, and emphasized the embassy's extreme vulnerability due to lack of standoff. She asked for Washington's support for a new chancery.

The Department responded to the Ambassador's cable in January, 1998, saying that after a review of the threat, the post's current security rating for political violence and terrorism of "medium" was appropriate, and that no new office building was contemplated by FBO. The Department offered to send a security assessment team to assist the Embassy in identifying areas where security could be upgraded, and they found ways to reduce the number of embassy personnel, through re-assignments to Pretoria.

The security assessment team arrived in March (after the Department refused an offer by the military's US Central Command, CENTCOM, to conduct a joint security assessment of the post) and made a review of the embassy's needs. No report was ever filed by the team. Subsequent cables from the embassy and an interview with one of the team's engineers showed that the Department was prepared to support all the post's requests for upgrades, even beyond the normal standards required for a medium threat post. The embassy senior management, the RSO, and the visiting team did not particularly focus on upgrades in the rear of the embassy or possible vehicle bomb attacks, but instead concentrated on ways to reduce the danger from crime and political violence. They approved a fence for the parking lot in front of the Embassy, as well as roll down doors for the chancery's front entrance and the rear basement garage door. (The latter door, broken for several months, had been replaced by a temporary two panel swing door which remained open during the day.) These improvements were in process and had not been completed by the time of the August 7 bombing. As it turned out, they would have made no difference in mitigating the blast, given its size. Nor would they have deterred the terrorists from getting as close to the chancery as they did.

In March 1998, the Department of State issued a world-wide alert drawing attention to an Usama bin Laden threat against American military and civilians. However, this alert was not accompanied by any special warning or analysis that embassies in East Africa might be targeted by Bin Laden's group.

Ambassador Bushnell, in letters to the Secretary in April 1998, and to Under Secretary Cohen a month later, restated her concern regarding the vulnerability of the embassy, repeating the need to have a new chancery that would meet Inman standards. Ms. Cohen responded in June stating that, because of Nairobi's designation as a medium security threat post for political violence and terrorism and the general soundness of the building, its replacement ranked relatively low among the chancery replacement priorities. She drew attention to FBO's plan to extend the chancery's useful life and improve its security to include $4.1 million for the replacement of the windows.

Sporadic efforts by the embassy to gain control over the back parking lot--and thus to expand the setback--met with limited success. Though efforts were made several years earlier to obtain embassy control of all parking spaces in that area from the Co-op Bank, this proved unsuccessful. The embassy in late 1997 increased the number of roving guards in the rear area to ensure that unauthorized persons would not park in those slots leased to the embassy. In May 1998 the Bank wrote a letter to the embassy inviting it to share the cost of installing a fence along side the parking lot and a lift bar barrier at the exit to Haile Selassie Avenue (through which the terrorist vehicle entered on August 7). The letter was never formally answered. Interviews by the Board of embassy personnel revealed that the embassy did not consider this its responsibility, since the fence and the barrier were not on embassy property and were being installed in any case. Also, the embassy had experienced difficulty obtaining permission from the Kenyan government for building a fence around the front parking lot. There was a concern that the Bank had not received permission from the government for the construction in the back, and if US funds had been used, the government might condemn the move, bring a lawsuit, and generate adverse publicity against the embassy.

The Co-op Bank's fence had been completed by August 1998, but the lift bar intended for the exit was lying on the ground ready for installation at the time of the bombing. While it is uncertain whether the embassy's participation in the Co-op Bank's project might have expedited the installation of the lift bar barrier, its presence could have provided an additional hurdle the terrorists would have had to overcome to enter the embassy's rear parking lot area. However, even if the barrier had discouraged the terrorists from entering the rear lot, they still could have proceeded up Haile Selassie Avenue for approximately 50 feet to detonate the bomb at a point even closer to the chancery than the back gate barrier, thereby causing as much if not more damage to the embassy.

That the embassy did not seek more actively to gain control of the back lot reflected the prevailing view in the embassy and in Washington at that time that the crime threat was far more serious than the terrorist threat. This conclusion was based in part on the judgment of intelligence officials in Washington and in Nairobi that the potential terrorist threats had dissipated by the latter part of 1997 and that no new threat had been uncovered specifically aimed at the embassy. Terrorism was seen as a serious but non-specific potential threat, whereas crime, including muggings and murder in the immediate vicinity of the embassy, was a daily reality that posed a continual threat to every member of the embassy family.

The embassy's local guard program,* under contract with the United International Investigative Service (UIIS) since 1997, is one of the largest in the world. Many of the guards serving around the chancery's perimeter had worked for UIIS's predecessors. Training levels called for in the UIIS contract fell well short of the specifications, both in quality and frequency. Of particular note was the absence of training and procedures on vehicular bombs. While the guards were trained on search and identification of parcel bombs (IEDs) concealed on vehicles, they were not given any direction on threat, search, recognition and reaction to suspect vehicle bombs. No procedures or guidelines were established that would cause guards to raise an alarm if a strange truck pulled into the parking lot and/or up to the gate of the embassy.

Another anomaly was that guards at embassy residences possessed radio electronic duress or panic alarms to activate in times of emergency while those at the chancery did not. Nor did the local guards participate in embassy emergency drills or have much interchange with the MSG detachment. In spite of these deficiencies, however, the guards in the rear parking lot on August 7 performed valiantly and their courageous refusal to permit the terrorists access to the embassy's garage prevented an even greater disaster.

After the bombing, all embassy personnel from the Ambassador on down responded quickly and heroically to care for those injured, account for and properly handle those who died, and coordinate the myriad details of reestablishing operations while dealing with the crisis.

In Washington the Task Force formed in the State Department's operations center established immediate contact with embassy personnel who had transferred operations to the USAID building across Nairobi from the bombed out chancery. The Task Force began to ascertain the extent of the damage and the casualties, and mobilized resources to dispatch to Nairobi. A FEST departed within about six hours of its alert time. Its aircraft broke down in Rota, Spain, causing a 15-hour delay before a backup plane could arrive and be loaded. Though the FEST arrived in Nairobi nearly 40 hours after the blast, its contingent brought welcomed relief to the embassy, helping the Ambassador and her staff with restoring embassy functions, assisting with communications, and helping with the rescue and other emergency relief efforts.

On August 9, another US Air Force plane with additional support personnel from Washington broke down in Sicily and was delayed by about 8 hours before the group could proceed to Kenya. And, when the US Air Force's Nightingale medevac aircraft arrived in Nairobi from Germany on August 8, its load capacity prevented it from bringing needed medical supplies already palletized and positioned in Germany. The Board heard differing views from embassy medical personnel and from the US Air Force concerning reasons why the medevac aircraft did not return immediately to Germany with some of the most seriously wounded Americans. There was a misunderstanding about crew rest requirements and the need for pre-flight stabilization of patients by Air Force medical personnel before departure. Kenyan medical professionals at the Nairobi Hospital where the wounded Americans were receiving care claimed that US Air Force medical personnel were insensitive. The first military medical evacuation did not take place until 40 hours after the bombing. A second medical evacuation 70 hours after the bombing went much more smoothly.

A unit of US Marines (FAST Marines) was dispatched to Nairobi from Bahrain to help provide security for the embassy. Their aircraft experienced delays as well. And the FBI sent some 200 agents to the scene to find and detain the perpetrators of the bombing. These groups performed well in important aspects of the crisis.

With the large influx of people from Washington and elsewhere into Nairobi, there were the inevitable coordinating problems with some personnel having to be reminded at times that the Ambassador was ultimately in charge. Logistical facilities were overloaded. The FEST, which normally deals with evolving terrorist crises like hostage taking, realized that its regular personnel package was not quite appropriate for the situation faced in Nairobi. In Washington, shift changes in personnel on the Task Force bought confusion and unnecessary repetition of requests to the field. Because of the massive damage to embassy operations and the high number of embassy casualties, operations were at times chaotic. Given the extensive damage to embassy operations and the large number of casualties, the Task Force had to call on offices seldom used in normal evacuations and other emergencies.

Some of the logistical and coordination problems with the US Air Force, for example, could have been alleviated if clear instructions had been provided and better liaison established in advance through designated points of contact. The Department of State's Bureau of African Affairs has completed an after action report from which valuable lessons learned should be instructive for the future. Better crisis management training and contingency planning seem imperative if the Department of State is to handle mass casualties and destruction emergencies in a more expeditious and professional manner. The Department should also explore the cost effectiveness of chartering commercial aircraft in times of emergency to provide more reliable airlift.

Media attention following the bombing was intense and, since Nairobi is a regional hub for the international media, the journalists' appetite was immediate and immense. The Embassy's public affairs (USIS) officers were, by their own admission, overwhelmed. They concentrated on answering the queries of the international press and let the local press languish. By the second day after the explosion, the local media turned ugly, focusing their anger on the Embassy in particular and the US in general. The local press reported that the Americans were concerned only with their own people, ignoring the plight and suffering of the many Kenyans who were killed or injured. Had additional public affairs personnel been dispatched to Nairobi immediately following the bombing, this media problem might have been better anticipated and ameliorated. Also, the Department insisted on clearing in advance whether the Ambassador could appear at press conferences and what she could say during those conferences. These limits on the Ambassador's discretion to speak publicly unnecessarily limited her ability to counter the firestorm of criticism in the local media.


As required by statute, the Board makes these findings:

1. The bomb that exploded in the rear parking lot of the US Embassy in Nairobi on August 7, 1998 was detonated by terrorists who intended to cause loss of lives and destruction of property. Thus, according to P.L. 99-399 the incident was security related.

2. No recent tactical intelligence information existed to alert the embassy to the August 7 bombing. Intelligence received in 1997 about plans for vehicle bomb attacks or assassinations was carefully vetted, but by early 1998 these alleged threats had been discredited or found moot. In retrospect, the Department and the intelligence community relied too heavily on warning intelligence to measure the threat of terrorism and failed to take other factors into account in determining and confirming in 1998 that the threat of terrorism was only medium. Also, the embassy was heavily preoccupied with the critical crime level.

3. In the fall of 1997, the embassy's management, upon receiving intelligence information regarding a potential terrorist bomb, took additional steps to upgrade security at the post. The Ambassador alerted Washington to the embassy's extreme vulnerability and called for and received assistance in 1998 from the Department of State for a few physical security upgrades beyond those required for a "medium" threat post for political violence and terrorism. In her messages to Washington, the Ambassador also requested that the chancery be relocated. Officials throughout the Department of State rejected this, citing lack of funds and the designation of Nairobi, as a medium threat post, as an unlikely terrorist target.

4. Security systems and procedures at the embassy were implemented well within, and even beyond, the medium threat level established by the Department of State, although the building had virtually no setback, having been built before the standard was established and therefore was exempted.

5. Local security guards performed as they had been instructed and refused the terrorists access to the embassy perimeter.

6. But a number of security shortcomings existed. The most critical was that no attention was paid to vehicle bomb attacks in the Department's EAP guidance or the embassy's security procedures and systems. The security guards were not trained for such a contingency. They did not have alarm mechanisms to give warning of such an attack. There was no internal embassy alarm signal to warn of a car bomb attack. And embassy personnel were not informed about what to do in case of a car bomb warning.

7. The embassy did not have a radio frequency dedicated to security communications, which would have enhanced security, because the Kenyan government had consistently rejected this request.

8. More rigorous efforts by the embassy could possibly have been made to secure more control over the rear parking lot. But legal impediments and public relations concerns served as constraints. It is uncertain whether additional control would have deterred the terrorists or lessened the damage from the blast, given the lack of setback at other points around the chancery.

9. In the aftermath of the bombing, the FEST, the medical teams, US Air Force crews and aircraft, and others from Washington provided invaluable support to the embassy. But logistical problems caused delays in the arrival of people and resources. And the massive influx of personnel from numerous US agencies into Kenya brought problems of coordination and logistical overload in Nairobi. Heavy media criticism in Nairobi could have been alleviated by more public affairs officers on the scene and by giving the Ambassador more flexibility in dealing with the press. The Department's Task Force performed valiantly under extremely difficult circumstances, but there were problems of discontinuity of leadership and organization. The Department's ability to handle emergencies involving mass casualties and heavy damage to embassy operations needs to be improved through crisis management training and better contingency planning.

10. The Board finds no employee of the US government or member of the uniformed services, as defined by Section 303(a)(1)(B) of the Act, breached his or her duty.

11. The Board finds a possible breach of responsibility in the contractor's administration of the contract for the training of the embassy guards. But even if this training had been carried out, it would not have affected what happened in the bombings.

12. In the review of systems and procedures required by the law, the Board finds that systemic and institutional failures in Washington were responsible for: a) a flawed process for assessing threat levels worldwide which underestimated the threat of terrorism in Nairobi, notwithstanding the Ambassador's repeated pleas, b) a chronic major lack of funds for building new, safer embassies, to replace buildings like the Nairobi chancery, which, even had there been no terrorist threat, was in a dangerous location and extremely vulnerable to crime and mob violence, and c) failing to prepare for vehicle bombs by providing guidance in Emergency Action Plans to deal with such attacks, and the warning alarm signals and systems to alert personnel to imminent bomb attacks.

13. The Board wishes to commend the embassy personnel for their professionalism and courage in their performance both during and after the disaster.

[End of Document]

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