On the deadly morning of Aug. 7, 1998, Stanley Macharia, a retired Kenyan police official working for DSS as a Foreign Service national recalled, “I’m one of the people who would have died.”
That was the morning al-Qa’ida truck bombers, striking minutes apart, destroyed the U.S. Embassies in Nairobi, Kenya, and Dar es Salaam, Tanzania. The attacks killed hundreds, wounded thousands, transformed the State Department’s Diplomatic Security Service (DSS), and deeply altered the security mindset of all U.S. diplomats serving overseas.
After retiring as an assistant commissioner for the National Police Service of Kenya, he signed on with the U.S. embassy in 1997 where he served for a decade. “I felt very safe at the American embassy,” Macharia recalled.
“The criminals were killing senior police officers,” he said. “I do remember one time my life was threatened. Being police spokesman, people see you on TV and think you are spewing out the government policy.”
During an interview nearly two decades later, he recalled the Friday morning in August 1998 where he’d been on the job for a year.
About 15 or 20 minutes before the blast, Macharia said, he walked from his office – on the same corridor as the U.S. Marine Security Guards – up to the second floor to the Financial Management Center. He was turning in some travel-related paperwork and expected to wait while the documents were processed. But the clerk told him not to sit and wait, assuring him he would bring them down to Macharia’s office once the papers were processed.
Macharia wanted to sit and wait. Considering it was Friday, he thought the young clerk might put off the project until Monday.
“Sir,” he recalled the clerk telling him, “please go back to your office. I’ll do the papers and bring them for your signature.”
Reluctantly, Macharia obliged.
“I went back to my office,” he said. “A few minutes later, my papers and that boy [the clerk] were no more.”
Only three people from the Financial Management Center survived the explosion. Within minutes, 11 more people were killed as al-Qa’ida exploded a second truck bomb approximately 450 miles away in Dar es Salaam.
“How I survived makes me believe God works wonders,” Macharia said. Waiting back in his office he heard a muffled explosion – sounding perhaps like gunshots. Other witnesses said it sounded like noises at a construction project. It actually was a small stun grenade thrown by one of the occupants of the truck bearing 2,000 pounds of explosives. When an embassy guard wouldn’t let the truck into the building’s parking garage and instead radioed for help, one of the attackers threw a stun grenade and soon after, the truck exploded. The Nairobi blast killed more than 200 people and wounded more than 4,000.
Lured by the sound of the stun grenade, Macharia said he left his office and initially turned toward a gate that would have led directly to the blast site.
“Then I have this funny feeling … like, all is not well. Instead of going outside, something tells me to turn back. And I keep asking myself why. But I started running.”
He was heading the opposite direction as the bomb went off. The blast knocked him to the ground. All he could see was black smoke, then yellow flames.
He came to his feet. He had been about 150 meters from the bomb. He went out into the street and saw people he knew, covered in blood.
Ambassador Bushnell was in a small group of people, attending a meeting in a neighboring high rise. She had been injured on the lip and had blood running down her face and onto her clothes.
Macharia saw that an embassy vehicle was nearby.
“Madam, get in here,” he recalled telling the ambassador, gesturing to the vehicle. “Madam, this is not a place for you to be. I’ll take you to safety.” He recalled that she responded, “Only take me to a place where I can wash my blouse. I need to be back with my people.”
Macharia took the ambassador to a nearby hotel to clean up. Then he took the ambassador back to the bomb site where an operations center had been hastily set up in an undamaged USAID office.
Macharia left U.S. government service a decade ago, but he continues to be impressed with Ambassador Bushnell’s composure in the aftermath of the bombing.
“Me, I was shaking,” he recalled. “But this lady, she was so composed. She was amazing.”
NOTE: The U.S. embassy bombings in Nairobi and Dar es Salaam led to a 25 percent increase in DSS staffing. The U.S. Congress approved $1.4 billion to build more secure embassies.
In the immediate aftermath, DSS sent 41 special agents, four security engineering officers, and 41 Navy Seabees to the two embassies to assist local staff and begin investigating the attacks. DSS also increased security at other posts that could be targeted by al-Qa’ida.
The East Africa bombings affected attitudes throughout the State Department, with a heightened sense of security awareness. DSS regional security officers were granted increased authority and responsibility, for the first time reporting directly to ambassadors or chiefs of mission. The change elevated RSOs to being security advisors for embassy leadership.