In the Country Where the War on Terror Began, bin Laden’s Death offers Cold Comfort

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On the corner of Moi and Haile Selassie Avenues in downtown Nairobi, a small, grassy garden favored by office workers on a lunch break, where a takeaway stand sells quarter chickens for 120 Kenyan shillings ($1.40), marks the start of the war on terror. It was here, at 10.30am on August 7, 1998, that Osama bin Laden first made good on his declaration earlier that year to launch a jihad against the United States. Two men drove a truck  to the back gates of the US embassy, which used to stand here. The vehicle was loaded with one ton of the explosive TNT. When security guards refused to let them pass, the pair pulled out weapons and started firing, then detonated their device, and a full half of the building collapsed. Simultaneously, a second team of bombers exploded another mass of TNT outside the US embassy in Dar es Salaam, the largest city in Kenyan’s southern neighbor, Tanzania. A total of 218 people died in Nairobi, most of them Kenyans, most of them passers-by. In Dar es Salaam, the death toll was, mercifully, limited to 12, though the total number of injured from the two attacks ran into the thousands.

Kenya has a Muslim population on its coast but that was not a factor in the attacks. Rather, bin Laden had set up a militant group in East Africa when he lived in Sudan earlier in the 1990s and the US embassies in Kenya and Tanzania were simply targets of opportunity. For Kenya, it was ever thus. In 1980, 15 people died when the Palestinian Liberation Organization attacked a Jewish-owned Nairobi hotel, the Norfolk. In 2002 a group of gunmen stormed an Israeli-owned hotel in Mombasa and killed 11 Kenyans and three Israelis; a simultaneous attempt to shoot down an Israeli airliner with anti-aircraft missiles failed. Today the rise of al Shabab, an al Qaeda-affiliated Islamist militant group over Kenya’s northern border in Somalia, means another attack on Kenya – mostly Christian, easily accessible and a key US ally in Africa – is likely just a question of time. Last year, al Shabab killed 76 people in Kampala, capital of Kenya’s western neighbor, Uganda, by detonating two devices in bars crowded with people watching the soccer World Cup final.

Which is why Osama Laden’s death was noted in Kenya, and brought some comfort, but little celebration. I visited the memorial park and small museum where the US embassy used to be the day after bin Laden’s death was announced. I had seen from the newspapers that a few survivors of the bombing had been the day before to pay their respects. Charles Muriuki, whose mother Mary died in the attack, told journalists he had come to tell his mother “not to worry. Everything has been taken care of, justice has prevailed.” Douglas Sidialo lost his sight in the bombing and, in testimony on display in the museum, says that for many years he was lost in anger and bitterness and an overwhelming need for revenge. “If I had met bin Laden, I would have skinned him alive,” he is quoted as saying. But Sidialo, who now runs an association for victims of the attack, told the BBC he had now learned to move on – and that he now thinks it would have been better still to capture bin Laden alive and put him on trial.

Kenya’s restrained reaction likely owes much to the fact that Kenyans, more than most other nations, know that terrorists may be killed or arrested or even retire, but terrorism never ends. Later the same day I visited a Western security official who, in an earlier posting, was part of the hunt for bin Laden in Afghanistan and Pakistan. The decision to bury the al Qaeda leader at sea in the event of his death was taken years ago ago, he told me. While a memorial for his victims was only right, a shrine to their killer was unacceptable. That seemed an appropriate opinion for a man who had dedicated a significant part of his life to finding and killing bin Laden. But now bin Laden was dead, the official – like many Kenyans – found little reason to cheer. “Do you think it will do any good? he asked.