The chief of the twin operations was the Egyptian operative known both as Abu Mohammed al-Masri and as Saleh, though he also used a fraudulent Yemeni passport under the name Abdullah Ahmed Abdullah. The explosives expert was another Egyptian operative, Abu Abdul Rahman al-Muhajir (Muhsin Musa Matwakku Atwah), who would later become al-Qaeda’s chief bomb maker.
The suicide bombers were handpicked by bin Laden: two Saudis, Mohamed al-Owhali and “Jihad Ali,” for Nairobi; and an Egyptian, Hamdan Khalif Alal—known as “Ahmed the German” because of his blond hair—for Dar es Salaam. Owhali was known in al-Qaeda as Moath al-Balucci. Jihad Ali’s birth name was Jihad Mohammed Ali al-Harazi, and his al-Qaeda alias was Abu Obeydah al-Maki; during the Nairobi operation, he also went by the single name Azzam. The three men were informed of their mission, which they eagerly accepted, and they filmed martyrdom videos.
The leadership decided that the attacks would occur on Friday, August 7, 1998, at 10:30 am, the time of day when Muslims are meant to be in the mosque at prayer. Therefore, al-Qaeda’s theologians argued, anyone killed in the bombing could not be a real Muslim, as he wasn’t at prayer, and so his death would be an acceptable consequence.
In Afghanistan, a few days before the bombings, Saif al-Adel, by now al-Qaeda’s security chief, approached Salim Hamdan, who had acquired the alias Saqr al-Jadawi and had been elevated to the position of personal driver for bin Laden. “Saqr, I need you to fix that car from the sheikh’s convoy,” Saif al-Adel said, pointing to one of the cars.
“I’m sure it’s fine,” Hamdan replied.
“Make sure it’s tuned up. We’ll probably be on the move soon.”
The vehicles bin Laden used had tinted windows, and the bodyguards who rode with him carried Kalashnikov machine guns and rocket-propelled grenade (RPG) launchers. Hamdan himself always carried a Russian-manufactured Makarov handgun, although in the event of attack, his main role was to drive bin Laden to safety. They regularly rotated the cars—this was Hamdan’s responsibility—so that the convoy would not be easily identifiable, and they chose not to use Land Cruisers with mounted weapons, as the Taliban leaders did, since those vehicles attracted too much attention.
Bin Laden usually sat in the rear and listened to tape recordings of the Quran, religious lectures, or lectures on other Islamic topics. Other times, he just closed his eyes and relaxed. His repose was only disturbed if Zawahiri, Abu Hafs, Saif al-Adel, or another senior al-Qaeda leader was riding with him, in which case a range of topics might need to be discussed, even operations.
On the evening before the bombing, Abu Hafs called a meeting at the mosque in bin Laden’s Kandahar compound. He read a list of the names of people who would have to leave the compound immediately and head to Kabul and said that they would be transported by plane. In the meantime, bin Laden, Zawahiri, Saif al-Adel, and Sheikh Sa’eed al-Masri, an al-Qaeda shura council member who replaced Madani al-Tayyib on the financial committee, would go to another facility in Kandahar.
Bin Laden wanted to travel with as small an entourage as possible to avoid being noticed, so he didn’t take his ever-present security detail with him. Abu Jandal later remarked to me, “It was strange to see those guys leaving the compound driving their own trucks, with their families in the back.” Later, Saif al-Adel returned and told Abu Jandal to dig trenches around the compound, especially next to the guard posts, as “the Americans are going to bomb us soon.”
Abu Jandal knew the suicide bombers welclass="underline" he had once chastised Owhali for playing with a grenade with the safety pin out. Owhali and Abdul Aziz al-Janoubi—an alias for Ahmed Mohammed Haza al-Darbi, the brother-in-law of 9/11 hijacker Khalid al-Mihdhar (alias Sinan al-Maki)—had been fooling with the grenade, took out the pin, and didn’t know how to put it back in. Abu Jandal put the pin back in and made the two of them crawl around the base they were training at as punishment.
Owhali had also been stationed as a bodyguard outside the press conference bin Laden gave following his May 1998 meeting with ABC journalist John Miller. The press conference was conducted in the Jihadwol training camp in Khost, Afghanistan; also present were Saif al-Adel, Zawahiri, and Abu Ata’a al-Tunisi, head of military training before he was killed fighting with the Taliban against the Northern Alliance. Abu Ata’a al-Tunisi was the son-in-law of Adbullah Tabarak, who oversaw the team of bodyguards charged with protecting bin Laden.
Jihad Ali served as a bin Laden bodyguard and was the cousin of Abdul Rahim Hussein Muhammad Abda al-Nashiri; both were members of the Northern Group. Nashiri’s al-Qaeda alias was Mullah Bilal, and Jihad Ali—known for his jokes—nicknamed him “Bulbul,” Arabic for a kind of bird. When Jihad Ali was selected as the bomber, Nashiri and Khallad prepared him, and Nashiri phoned Jihad Ali’s mother—his aunt—to tell her that her son had been martyred.
The designated suicide bomber for Tanzania, Ahmed the German, was an explosives trainer whom other operatives had accused of liking “little boys.” This greatly upset him and he complained to Abu Jandal, who assured him that the accusations must be false.
The Nairobi bombing occurred at 10:35. A Toyota Dyna truck carrying the bomb exploded near the rear of the U.S. Embassy, killing 12 Americans and 201 others. It was morning rush hour, and cars, buses, and other vehicles were lined up in traffic outside the embassy, including a bus carrying schoolchildren. A multistory secretarial college was demolished, and the U.S. Embassy and a Cooperative Bank building were severely damaged.
Four minutes later, at 10:39, a white Suzuki Samurai truck blew up next to the U.S. Embassy in Dar es Salaam, killing eleven people. Hundreds were injured in the two attacks.
When the news of the bombing reached them in Afghanistan, Abu Jandal, Hamdan, and the rest of bin Laden’s entourage went to Kabul to be with him. They all kept a low profile: as Hamdan later said, “This was the first time that bin Laden was essentially going face-to-face with the Americans, and he was unsure of what the response would be.”
It was around 5:30 AM on August 7 when my beeper went off, snapping me out of sleep. I rolled over, grabbed the pager from my bedside table, and took a look at the message: it was from my supervisor, Tom Donlon, telling me to contact him at the office.
I jumped out of bed, picked up my house phone, and dialed the office. I heard Tom’s voice come on the line.
“Tommy, it’s Ali. I got your page. What’s going on?”
“The American embassies in Nairobi and Dar es Salaam were bombed this morning. It looks like suicide bombers drove trucks into the embassies and blew themselves up. There are a lot of casualties. Details are still coming in.” Tom spoke rapidly, barely pausing between sentences.
I silently gathered my thoughts. “Do we know who is responsible?”
“It’s unclear. I think it may be your guy,” Tom replied. “Hurry up and come straight to the office.”
I put on some clothes and ran out of my apartment. At the office, the mood was somber. I nodded to my colleagues but didn’t stop for hellos or small talk. Everyone else was similarly focused: eyes on the television set, watching incoming reporting, or reading reports about the attacks or standing in small knots of intense conversation.
I printed out all reports of the bombing that had reached our system, along with the two claims of responsibility for the attack that had been sent to media outlets, and started analyzing them. Every few minutes, new details kept coming in.