Ex-envoy blames US spies for Nairobi bomb blast

What you need to know:

  • 1998 attack on embassy could have been stopped were it not for arrogance and incompetence of CIA and other agencies

The diplomat who headed the US embassy in Nairobi when it was bombed 12 years ago has spoken about her country’s intelligence blunders, which made the attacks possible.

Ms Prudence Bushnell, in a commentary published on Monday by the Washington Post, revealed that a man walked into the US embassy to warn of an impending truck bombing in Nairobi, but one of the US intelligence agencies wrote him off as a “flake”.

Ms Bushnell served during the second term of President Bill Clinton.

Links to al Qaeda

She said a combination of incompetence and arrogance caused the US intelligence apparatus to ignore several advance warnings of the 1998 attack in which 200 people were killed and another 5,000 injured, the majority of them Kenyans.

The attacks on Nairobi and Dar es Salaam were soon forgotten and “nothing changed”, she charged, a disturbing conclusion at a time when al Shabaab, an extremist group with links to al Qaeda, has been stepping up operations in the region.

Last week, using plastic explosives wrapped in ball bearings, the group mounted two gruesome attacks in Kampala, Uganda, killing 76 people and injuring an equal number.

Only on Tuesday, a Somali militia, suspected to be al Shabaab, attacked a General Service Unit camp at the border town of Liboi, killing one officer.

However, Government spokesman Alfred Mutua said the officer was not dead, but in hospital with gunshot wounds.

There were reports, also denied by the Provincial Administration, that another officer had been abducted by the militia.

Bushnell reprimanded

Al Shabaab has claimed responsibility for the Kampala attack, an indication that it has moved beyond its previous domestic agenda of taking control of Somalia and imposing a Taliban-style religious rule to international conflict.

In her interview, Ms Bushnell said she was reprimanded by her superiors for raising concerns about the security of her embassy and staff.

Despite being reprimanded, she took her concerns directly to then US Secretary of State Madeleine Albright but her diligence did not bear fruit and the attack occurred.

Using the term “Planet Washington” to deride the narrow views of US decision-makers, Ms Bushnell argues that a series of false assumptions enabled the attack to be carried out.

The first mistaken premise, she writes, was that “Nairobi was a backwater, so why would anyone bother to blow it up?”

US spy chiefs knew at the time that the Kenyan capital housed “the well-known and long-established al Qa’ida East Africa military cell,” Ms Bushnell adds.

But the intelligence network proceeded from the assumption that “birds do not foul their nests...or whatever the metaphor,” she writes.

Ambassador Bushnell says she was criticised for “overloading the circuits” with repeated complaints about security.

The official response to her written pleas, the ambassador says, was that “there was no money and, anyway, the ‘experts’ in Washington said the Nairobi terrorist threat was only medium.”

Her bosses also dismissed a reference to the presence in Mombasa of “brothers and engineers” in a 1997 letter from an al Qaeda member that US intelligence agents had intercepted, Ms Bushnell reveals.

Preventive action was not taken, she says, because “the Nairobi cell had been ‘disrupted’ following a CIA-FBI Kenyan team raid that same year.”

“So that was that,” Ambassador Bushnell caustically observes. In addition, she notes, Osama bin Laden had been secretly indicted in the US prior to the simultaneous 1998 attacks in Nairobi and Dar es Salaam that killed 222 Africans and 12 Americans.

Those twin bombings were “soon forgotten” in Washington, she says.

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