My book “Terrorism, Betrayal, and Resilience: My Story of the 1998 US Embassy Bombings” was released on October 1st.
This is the story behind why I wrote this book.
Three years before al Qaeda bombed our homeland in 2001 and forever changed history, the jihadist group led by Osama bin Laden attacked the U.S. embassy in Nairobi, Kenya. For years I waited for others to write a full account of what happened in Nairobi in 1998, then I did it myself.
Around 10:30 a.m. on August 7, 1998 a pickup truck filled with a ton of TNT exploded in the small parking lot behind the American embassy on a busy downtown corner of Nairobi. The blast instantly killed 213 people and wounded up to 5,000 more. After a few days of attention, the media turned back to the White House sex scandal. For its part, after sending missiles into Sudan and Afghanistan, the White House turned to other issues.
Meanwhile, the American and Kenyan members of our large embassy community were struggling to reconstruct their organization, assist other Kenyan victims, and help one another to heal. Bomb victims had become their own first responders while office colleagues turned themselves into morgue search teams to find the missing, condolence counselors to comfort family members, and crisis organizers to manage chaos and hundreds of visitors. I learned that when people come together around meaningful goals in a culture of leadership, amazing things can be accomplished. I learned what resilience looked like and I wanted to share the story.
I also wanted to learn how a jihadist in a cave in Afghanistan could blow up our embassy in east Africa while under the scrutiny of US intelligence and law enforcement agencies. I thought the other survivors of those attacks, the family members of 213 people who died and the thousands of people whose lives were forever changed also deserved to understand what happened. While volumes have been written about 9/11, the story of August 7 was forgotten. Other than an Accountability Review Report that focused on narrow security issues at the embassy, not a single lessons-learned review from the attacks was conducted. The media moved on, Congress never held a hearing, the national security community never had an “after-action review” and the 9/11 Commission began its report after the 1998 attacks.
Extensive information about the perpetrators, some of whom now live at the federal prison in Florence, CO, came from trial records, investigations and media reports. The memoires of former Washington officials provided much of the account of the U.S. government response to the threats they posed. After an informant from al Qaeda walked into a US embassy in 1996, our intelligence and law enforcement communities were well aware of the damage bin Laden could inflict through his well trained and violent jihadist networks, which included two cells in Kenya.
The CIA and FBI both created a special unit to follow al Qaeda activities but each refused to share what it knew with others. For two years, they listened to al Qaeda phone conversations, worked with the National Security Council, plotted to kidnap bin Laden, and competed rather than cooperated with one another. During the same two years as ambassador in Nairobi, I repeatedly reminded the state department of our building’s vulnerabilities which violated its own security requirements. Had my Washington colleagues shared the information they had with one another, with me and concerned Kenyan officials, August 7 1998 and September 11, 2001 may have turned out differently.
Since then, the Global War on Terrorism which President Bush declared in 2001 has expanded in expense, casualties and numbers of new jihadist groups created. When I finished the book in 2017, President Trump became the fourth chief executive to confront the Islamist brand terrorism through military means with no success in sight. So what? The third and last part of the book presents the leadership lessons I learned, as well as others our government has yet to recognize: the value of peace and dialog, the importance of learning from failures, the impact of denigrating women leaders, and the successes that come with taking care of your people.