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Washington Journal: U.S. Investigations On Embassy Bombings Progress

  • Julie Moffett

Washington, 28 September 1998 (RFE/RL) -- Nearly two months after the bombings of the U.S. embassies in Tanzania and Kenya, U.S. officials are making slow but steady progress in tracking down and charging those believed to be responsible for the acts.

The bombings which took place nearly simultaneously in Tanzania and Kenya occurred on August 7 and killed more than 260 people -- including 12 Americans -- and injured over 5,000 others.

In a complaint filed by American federal prosecutors in August, the U.S. government claimed that suspected terrorist leader Osama bin Laden and his organization al Qaida directed the twin attacks on the embassies in Nairobi and in Tanzania as part of an anti-American terrorism campaign. The complaint adds that al Qaida seeks to change U.S. foreign policy by killing U.S. civilians and military personnel worldwide. Bin Laden, however, denies any involvement in the embassy bombings. To investigate the bombings, the U.S. Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) sent over 300 personnel, consisting of bomb technicians, laboratory personnel investigators, evidence response teams and others to East Africa to work with Kenyan and Tanzanian authorities to solve the crimes. According to the FBI, more than 550 interviews have so far been conducted worldwide, and 13 other countries are involved in assisting the U.S. in the investigation.

But the U.S. response to the bombings did not stop at just investigating the crime scenes. On August 20, the U.S. struck back with force, firing missiles at suspected al Qaida terrorist training camps in Afghanistan, and destroying a pharmaceutical plant in Sudan that was believed to be producing chemical weapons.

The U.S. action against the pharmaceutical plant, however, turned out to be controversial. The American newspaper The New York Times wrote an article citing senior unnamed American officials as saying that the intelligence used to determine that the factory was making chemical and biological weapons may have been circumstantial and faulty. However, most U.S. officials have publicly stood by the decision, saying soil samples collected near the plant, in addition to informant information, made a strong case that the plant was connected to bin Laden's operation.

So, the FBI forged ahead. By the end of August, the FBI -- in cooperation with Kenyan and Tanzanian authorities, and the U.S. Departments of Justice and State and other U.S. agencies -- arrested and charged two men with participating in the bombings.

Mohamed Rashed Daoud Al-'Owhali and Mohameed Sadeek Odeh have both been charged by the FBI with 12 counts of murder, conspiracy, and the use of weapons of mass destruction. According to the FBI, both men admitted to helping bin Laden and being members of his group, al Qaida. Both men were flown to the U.S. from Nairobi and are currently being held without bond in New York until their trials.

Then on September 17, the U.S. State Department offered a $2 million reward for information leading to the arrest or capture of another suspect in the bombing, Haroun Fazil. Fazil is believed by the FBI to be native of Comoros, a group of islands located in southern Africa, and a member of the al Qaida's Kenya's branch.

According to U.S. authorities, Fazil is alleged to have helped plan the attack and rented a villa in Nairobi where the bomb was built. Court papers say that Fazil is being charged with murder, conspiracy and using a weapon of mass destruction in the August 7 bombings.

The reward for Fazil comes amid a flurry of seemingly coordinated international activity against bin Laden and his organization.

On September 16, German police arrested Mamduh Mahmud Salim, alleged to be a top lieutenant in bin Laden's organization. Salim entered Germany with a Sudanese passport and is believed to handle bin Laden's financial affairs and arms purchases. He is currently being held in Germany awaiting extradition proceedings to the U.S. He denies any involvement in bin Laden's organization.

The same night back in the U.S., federal prosecutors arrested Wadih el Hage, an American citizen and a Texas tire store manager who once served as bin Laden's personal secretary.

Court papers reveal that prosecutors have charged el Hage with eight counts of perjury for lying to a grand jury about members of bin Laden's organization. The papers also say that el Hage and Fazil lived and worked together in Nairobi in 1997, and that investigators are studying documents retrieved in Nairobi after the bombings that reportedly have el Hage's name and code name on them, along with other al Qaida's members. El Hage, who is being held without bond in New York, denies any involvement in the bombings, saying he is no longer interested in politics.

Great Britain also took related action in mid-September, arresting seven unidentified men from the Middle East in London on unspecified terrorist charges. According to the Washington Post, an unidentified American official is quoted as saying some of the men are believed to have links to bin Laden.

The same week, U.S. officials announced that 18 people were detained in Uganda after an alleged plot to attack U.S. interests in that country. It is still unknown whether any of the detainees have connections to bin Laden.

The U.S.'s determination to find those responsible for the bombings reaches all the way to the top. U.S. President Bill Clinton made terrorism the focal part of his address to the opening of the 53rd sessions of the United Nations General Assembly last week.

Said Clinton: "It is a grave misconception to see terrorism as only, or even mostly, as an American problem. Indeed, it is a clear and present danger to tolerant and open societies and innocent people everywhere."

Clinton also asked the U.S. Congress for $1.8 billion in emergency funds to rebuild the embassies destroyed by the bombs and increase security at U.S. facilities around the world.

A spokeswoman (unnamed) for the FBI, told RFE/RL Thursday that the investigation into the embassy bombings is "still ongoing," and that the FBI considers solving the cases a top national priority.