The amiable Twitter personality GrizzlyJoe reminds us that this is the 20-year anniversary of the al-Qaeda attacks on the U.S. embassies in Dar es Salaam in Tanzania and Nairobi, Kenya. Near-simultaneous truck bombs detonated outside the embassies killed 224 people and injured thousands.
Back when I was in Turkey, I had the chance to chat with a U.S. Marine who was guarding the American embassy in Ankara. As part of his training, he reviewed the 1998 attacks on the embassies, what had gone wrong, what had gone right, and what embassy personnel could learn from it. He said he had seen security footage from one of the attacks, and he was worried that while he could run fast and find cover and do what he needed to do in an attack, he wasn’t sure if all of the civilian personnel in the embassy would be able to do the same. He was young, but the responsibility for others was already weighing on him. The Marine said they had detected suspicious behavior that they believed was terror groups probing the embassy’s security measures. This was 2005; two years earlier, a truck bomb had detonated outside the British consulate in Istanbul.
He wasn’t being paranoid; several attacks were attempted against the embassy in the following years.
From the viewpoint of today, the embassy attacks of 1998 look like a grievously ignored warning of the threat that al-Qaeda posed to Americans. The attacks received only a fraction of the attention and discussion that they deserved. They were far away, in countries that received little U.S. news coverage most of the time, and only twelve of those killed in the attacks were Americans.
The attacks also occurred in the middle of a long hot summer of the Clinton-Lewinsky scandal. The day before the embassy bombings, President Bill Clinton had invoked executive privilege in blocking certain White House staff from testifying before a grand jury. The day after, a judge approved an inquiry into whether independent counsel Ken Starr had leaked information to the media. Within ten days, Clinton would make his prime-time statement admitting the affair and that he had “misled” people.
Before 9/11, most of the national news media covered terrorism as one issue among many, easily lost in all the noise. As a Shorenstein Center review of the media in the years before 9/11 concluded, “By no means was the [the New York Times] ignoring the issue of [Osama] bin Laden or the terrorist threat. But one could argue that the newspaper never sent a strong signal of priority regarding terrorism through sustained page one attention.”
Twenty years later, we’ve got another controversial president, another special counsel, another media frenzy, and an opposition party envisioning impeachment in the near future. Hopefully, history is not repeating itself, and we’re not all paying attention to a partisan shouting match while another threat is building.