Remembering the 1998 Embassy Bombings

August 3, 2018


The Knighted Special Agents of DSS

It was another beautiful day in Nairobi. It is almost always a beautiful day in Nairobi, but on Friday August 7, 1998, that beauty was marred by a terrorist attack on the U.S. Embassy Nairobi that left more than 200 dead and another 5,000 injured.

(Originally released in August 11, 2017)

By Cassandra Cooke, DSS Security Engineering Officer 

It was another beautiful day in Nairobi. It is almost always a beautiful day in Nairobi, but on Friday August 7, 1998, that beauty was marred by a terrorist attack on the U.S. Embassy Nairobi that left more than 200 dead and another 5,000 injured.

Date: 06/08/1778 Description: Historical Nautical Chart of Delaware Bay - State Dept Image
The U.S. Embassy (left) is pictured with blasted ruins next to it in downtown Nairobi, Kenya, August 8, 1998, one day after terrorist bombs exploded at the U.S. embassies in Kenya and Dar es Salaam, Tanzania. (AP/Wide World Photos)

In 1998, the U.S. Embassy in Nairobi, Kenya sat on one of the busiest and most important street corners in the city, constantly filled with parades, demonstrations, protests and the perpetual cacophony of the notorious Nairobi traffic. Despite a high crime rate, life was pleasant due to the shops, activities, wonderful weather, and some of the best tourism opportunities in Africa.

U.S. Embassy Nairobi supported a number of other embassies and consulates in the East Africa region. On August 7, I had just returned to Nairobi from a trip to Dar es Salaam where I had repaired various items and helped with drill planning for an emergency notification system. I was putting the finishing touches on a report while the rest of the Engineering Services Center (ESC) staff drove off to view new storage facilities at the warehouse compound on the other end of town.

I had just hit “save” when I heard gunshots. Although Kenya is a popular destination for big game hunting, private gun ownership is restricted there, and I immediately knew something was wrong. Then I heard the sound of an explosion. I leapt up and raced down the hallway to the Regional Security Office. That instinctive response saved my life, as I had just rounded the corner of the hallway when the main explosion hit. Hundreds of pounds of steel and concrete now occupied the space where I had been sitting seconds before. An enormous pressure wave blew down the hall, almost enough to knock me off my feet. The sound was so great that it seemed soundless. A fierce wind of grit and debris filled the air. I stopped and dropped. All the power went out and there was an overwhelming smell of cordite and dust, soon followed by asphyxiating black smoke. It grew impossible to breathe until a draft wafted through the blown out windows.

I knew that I had to get out of there.

I was soon joined by a couple of others and we held hands as we groped in the dark for the nearest stairwell door. By the dim light in the stairwell, we found the stairs, which had turned into a slide of rubble. We stumbled and slid down them.

Later news accounts and investigations reconstructed the events of that day. The simultaneous bombings in Nairobi and Dar es Salaam had been meticulously planned. After the 1983 bombings of the Marines barracks and U.S. Embassy Beirut, the Secretary of State commissioned a report on how the bombings occurred and what could be done to prevent them in the future. The Inman Report called for significant redesign of embassy buildings to include a number of security measures such as setbacks and blast resistance, and created the Diplomatic Security Service. Since the associated costs were huge, the Department ranked threats and countermeasures, and prioritized locations to implement the improvements. Terrorists have funding constraints too, and their interest turned from the newly fortified compounds to less well-protected locations. Unfortunately, the U.S. Embassy in Nairobi was one of the latter.

The embassy shared a parking lot with several other buildings, including the Cooperative Bank and Ufundi House. Additionally, the U.S. Embassy had an underground garage that included a delivery dock. The parking situation was a constant worry to all as it was a huge vulnerability. U.S. Embassy Nairobi’s garage entrance was protected by a manual drop arm, secured with a padlock and local guards controlled the security feature. Due to worries about the vulnerability, the city authorized the bank to install a second drop arm at the gate entrance of the shared parking lot. On the morning of August 7, workers were there preparing to install the new drop arm.

This was the scene when the attackers drove their pickup truck into the parking lot. The driver and passengers insisted that they had a special delivery for the embassy loading dock. Indeed they did: hundreds of pounds of explosives. When the guards refused to allow them in, as they were trained to do since the truck was not authorized to enter, the attackers began shooting and threw a grenade. The drop arm remained locked with its padlock as the guards dove and ran for cover. The frustrated terrorists then triggered the bomb in the rear parking lot instead of beneath the embassy as planned.

Their intention was to level the embassy, and they likely would have done so if not stymied by the Local Guard Force and locked drop arm. As it was, 213 people died immediately, 44 of whom were U.S. Embassy Nairobi staff, and over 5,000 were injured. Among them was Marine Security Guard (MSG) Sgt. Jesse Aliganga.

Some staffers heard the noise and ran to the windows to take a look; many of them died there when the walls and windows exploded inward. Top floor survivors said that Molly Hardy, a Department of State administrative worker, shepherded staff away from the windows and into the corridor. She died at her post along with one of her best friends, Air Force Sgt. Sherry Olds. The blast and debris killed people at their desks and in many of the corridors. Some were killed by crammed multi-drawer file cabinets that toppled over on them. Senior embassy personnel rode-out the blast in the secure conference room known as “The Box.” All survived.

In front of the embassy, the MSGs jumped out of their van to respond. Among them was Sgt. Daniel Briehl, who charged through blinding smoke only to fall 20 feet through the blown-out walls of the elevator shaft, breaking three ribs in the process. Severely injured, he climbed back up the walls of the shaft to help with the search and rescue efforts.

In shock, blackened by smoke and dust, and some covered in blood, we began moving to the rear parking lot, per our emergency action plan. The back of the building was gone, so we went out the front and around the building where blackened husks of cars and a bus were burning. The parking lot was enveloped in towering flames. People continued to trickle out of U.S. Embassy Nairobi with news that colleagues were severely injured and some were buried in rubble. All needed immediate assistance. U.S. Embassy Nairobi doctor Gretchen McCoy and her staff had set up a triage station and frantically provided first aid.

The condition of the building was unknown, but we knew it was in danger of collapsing. By this time, the ESC crew had returned to U.S. Embassy Nairobi accompanied by as many warehouse workers as could fit onto whatever vehicles could make it through the choked streets.

A number of us trooped back into the building and were met with devastation. At first, we only had our bare hands to sift through the rubble. The tools we needed were in the basement.

Remarkably, the basement was untouched. The lights were on, the power was on and the air conditioning was still running. Nothing seemed disturbed. We discovered the explosion caused a power surge that shorted out the electronic latch that controlled our heavy metal mesh day gate. We could see the tools we wanted, we just couldn’t reach them. Someone picked up a fire extinguisher and tried bashing the gate open. Someone else tried to “jimmy” the lock with a pocketknife. A bunch of us laid hands on it and tried tearing it out of the frame by brute force.

Meanwhile, an enormous wave of people poured through the ruptured perimeter from the street and into the embassy. Some were looters; others were heroes. Energetic and optimistic, Kenyans are used to looking out for each other and many of them helped evacuate bombing victims. The neighboring Ubuntu House had completely collapsed and many members of the public moved as much concrete and debris as they could with their bare hands and later, pieces of debris repurposed as pry bars and shovels.

Date: 08/11/1998 Location: Nairobi Description: Teams from Israel, the United States, and France work with Kenyan rescuers during the evening of August 11, 1998, to recover bodies trapped under a building which collapsed adjacent to the U.S. Embassy in Nairobi (left) in the bombing. (AP/Wide World Photos) © AP Image
Teams from Israel, the United States, and France work with Kenyan rescuers during the evening of August 11, 1998, to recover bodies trapped under a building which collapsed adjacent to the U.S. Embassy in Nairobi (left) in the bombing. (AP/Wide World Photos)

Staff at the British High Commission, which sat elevated above the city, immediately noticed the column of smoke climbing from the U.S. Embassy Nairobi location. They sped to investigate and began helping, and also organized support from the Kenyan and city governments.

ESC Officer-in-Charge Worley Reed led the search and rescue efforts for two days along with the ESC staff, other remaining employees and the med unit until professionals arrived to take over. Over the weekend, more U.S. government personnel and others, such as the Israelis, deployed to help. Fairfax County Fire and Rescue crews came to search through the rubble. U.S. military elements deployed from nearby regions. The FBI arrived to investigate. One of their first requests to the ESC was to “turn over your recordings.” They were boggled to find that we did not have any. Most U.S. Embassies did not record video at the time.

The terrorist attacks on the U.S. Embassies in Nairobi and Dar es Salaam led to several security improvements. The Department of State quickly deployed the first closed circuit television video cassette recorders, along with safes to protect them from blasts, to embassies and consulates. Other technical security equipment soon followed, such as an Imminent Danger Notification System (IDNS) and the first generation of explosives detectors. Then in 1999, Congress passed the Secure Embassy Construction and Counterterrorism Act (SECCA), which set measures that still protect us today, including the creation of a new Foreign Service specialty, our Security Technical Specialist colleagues.

One of the vital lessons learned from the East Africa bombings is that those who wish us harm are always strategizing and adapting, which means that we must also evolve and improve our people, policies and systems to stay one step ahead.

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On the deadly morning of Aug. 7, 1998, Stanley Macharia, a retired Kenyan police official working for DSS as a Foreign Service national recalled,

(Originally released in August 8, 2017)

By Vince Crawley, DSS Public Affairs

On the deadly morning of Aug. 7, 1998, Stanley Macharia, a retired Kenyan police official working for DSS as a Foreign Service national recalled,
In this July 2015 photo, Stanley Macharia wears an ID badge lanyard identifying him as a survivor of the 1998 U.S. embassy bombing in Nairobi, Kenya.(U.S. Department of State photo)

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.

Date: 10/10/2017 Description: Image from Finding Solace - State Dept Image
At the site of the August 1998 U.S. embassy bombing, now a memorial garden in downtown Nairobi, Kenya, U.S. Embassy Regional Security Office staff meet with a U.S. Secret Service agent in July 2015, two days before a U.S. presidential visit for a wreath-laying ceremony. (U.S. Department of State)
Date: 10/10/2017 Description: Image from Finding Solace - State Dept Image
Diplomatic Security agents at the UN compound in Nairobi, Kenya, July 18, 2015, walk past a garden of remembrance planted after the 1998 U.S. embassy bombing by al-Qa'ida. The garden includes tea and coffee plants representing each individual killed in the attack. (U.S. Department of State photo)
Date: 10/10/2017 Description: Image from Finding Solace - State Dept Image
Diplomatic Security agents at the UN compound in Nairobi, Kenya, July 18, 2015, walk past a garden of remembrance planted after the 1998 U.S. embassy bombing by al-Qa'ida. The garden includes tea and coffee plants representing each individual killed in the attack. (U.S. Department of State photo)

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Mathew Kimokiy is a local security employee in the Regional Security Office at the U.S. Embassy in Nairobi. In 1998 he was a bank fraud investigator with the Criminal Investigation Department of Kenya's National Police Service and was at the scene of the embassy bombing shortly after the blast to assist his law enforcement colleagues

(Originally released in August 10, 2017)

By Vince Crawley, DSS Public Affairs

Mathew Kimokiy is a local security employee in the Regional Security Office at the U.S. Embassy in Nairobi. In 1998 he was a bank fraud investigator with the Criminal Investigation Department of Kenya’s National Police Service and was at the scene of the embassy bombing shortly after the blast to assist his law enforcement colleagues.

On August 7, 1998, he had stepped out for a morning tea break in the vicinity of the Kenyan parliament building and was heading back to his office. He was about 200 meters away from the site of the explosion.

“I took cover to assess what was happening,” Mathew recalled. “Injured people were running away from the blast and then being taken to the hospital; we got a sense that it was an attack.”

Mathew made his way to the nearby Kenyatta International Convention Centre, which included numerous government offices and served as an information hub. In an era before wide use of cell phones, email, or the Internet, radio and TV stations were critical for learning immediate information, and the Kenyatta Centre had televisions. Mathew and his colleagues were able to get information from media reports, as well as learn about the bombing in Tanzania.

Next, he went to the U.S. embassy compound nearby, where he joined other police efforts, aware of the possibility of a follow-on attack.

“It was a very confusing scene,” he said. Instead, he recalled “a trend of good Samaritans” trying to take charge and assist. The U.S. embassy set up its own security perimeter. Being a criminal investigator, Mathew began helping to gather information about the attack, and he noted that several of his National Police Service colleagues joined a task force at the embassy that was assisting with the FBI investigation.

Date: 08/17/1998 Location: Nairobi Description: An FBI agent examines evidence, August 17, 1998, at the site of the August 7 bomb blast at the U.S. Embassy in Nairobi. The blast killed more than 250 people and injured more than 5,500. (AP/Wide World Photos) © AP Image
An FBI agent examines evidence, August 17, 1998, at the site of the August 7 bomb blast at the U.S. Embassy in Nairobi. The blast killed more than 250 people and injured more than 5,500. (AP/Wide World Photos)

When Mathew was asked what he thinks people in DSS and the State Department should know about the embassy attack and about Nairobi today, he responded: “That Nairobi remains critical to crime and terrorism in view of the ongoing regional threats and especially along the close borders with Somalia, plus the related terrorist threats and attacks since 1998.”

He also recommended that people maintain awareness “of the Diplomatic Security leadership tenets to manage programs, lead, and protect mission personnel and contractors, facilities, and information through continued joint proactive policing initiatives by all stakeholders, to include the DS team, mission employees, local law enforcement agencies and the local community.”


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.

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At 21 years old, Jesse Nathanael Aliganga was committed to the Marines-a commitment cut short by terrorists.

(Originally released in August 7, 2017)

By Barbara Gleason, DSS Public Affairs

Date: 07/13/2015 Description: Sgt. Jesse Nathanael Aliganga, Marine Security Guard, died on August 7, 1998, in Nairobi, Kenya. He was killed in a terrorist bombing of U.S. Embassy Nairobi. © U.S. Government image

At 21 years old, Jesse Nathanael Aliganga was committed to the Marines—a commitment cut short by terrorists.

Sgt. Aliganga, a Marine Security Guard at the U.S. Embassy in Nairobi, Kenya, had a promising future ahead of him as a U.S. Marine. But on Friday, August 7, 1998, he was killed by a massive car-bomb explosion at the embassy that occurred almost simultaneously with the bombing of the U.S. Embassy in Dar es Salaam, Tanzania. Five Diplomatic Security Service-contracted local guards— Ramadhani Mahundi, Abbas William Mwilla, Bakari, Nyumbu, Elia Elisha Paul, and Mtendeje Rajabu—were also killed in the Dar es Salaam bombing.

In total, the two East Africa bombings killed more than 200 people and wounded 4,000.

Nathan, as he was called by friends and family, joined the Marines in January 1995. He was sent to Nairobi in February 1998 after he completed Marine Security Guard School in Quantico, Virginia. Trained as a communications specialist, he had previously held posts in Okinawa, Japan, and Camp Pendleton, California.

“He was so proud to be a Marine—something he was bound and determined to do,” recalled his mother, Clara Aliganga, who received her son’s Purple Heart Medal during a memorial service at Quantico, Virginia, in August 1998. “They told me how wonderful my son was and that he was a good Marine. I know he was.”

His sister, Leah Colston, recalled that Nathan came back from basic training slim and tough. “He was not big in stature, but he had a big heart,” she recalled.

Born in Oakland, California, and raised in Pensacola, Florida, Sgt. Aliganga was remembered by family members as being energetic and ambitious. He liked to draw, read Greek mythology, collect comic books, and played saxophone in his high school band.

Yet, his memory will continue to live in the hearts and minds of those who knew him—and those who didn’t—as described, for example, in an article about Marine Security Guard training in the Washington Post, published several months after the East Africa bombings. When country assignments were given out during one of the first classes of the Marine Security Guard school after Sgt. Aliganga’s death, the students broke out in cheers when eight of the students’ names were called —and the instructor simply said, “Nairobi.” The Washington Post article noted that the Marine Security Guards who were heading to Nairobi considered the assignment a badge of honor.

In the article, one of the instructors who had trained Sgt. Aliganga recalled him as being “a real good Marine,” Gunnery Sgt. Jeff Hoke was reported as saying, “This guy had a lot of heart. He impressed a lot of the instructors here.”

Aside from his family, Sergeant Aliganga’s love was the Marines, and his memory lives on through online and physical memorials in his honor throughout the world—and on a simple bronze plaque at the Marine Security Guard School at Quantico. All who go through the rigorous training see and remember one of their own—and the sacrifice he made for his country.

Date: 08/12/2016 Location: Quantico, Virginia Description: A family friend makes a pencil rubbing of Sgt. Jesse Aliganga's name on the Marine Security Guard memorial wall, August 12, 2016, Quantico, Virginia. Sgt. Aliganga, a Marine Security Guard at the U.S. Embassy in Nairobi, died in the August 7, 1998, terrorist bombing of the Embassy in Kenya. (U.S. Department of State photo) - State Dept Image
A family friend makes a pencil rubbing of Sgt. Jesse Aliganga's name on the Marine Security Guard memorial wall, August 12, 2016, Quantico, Virginia. Sgt. Aliganga, a Marine Security Guard at the U.S. Embassy in Nairobi, died in the August 7, 1998, terrorist bombing of the Embassy in Kenya. (U.S. Department of State photo)