NAIROBI — Wednesday marks the 15th anniversary of the attacks on the American embassies in Nairobi, Kenya and Dar es Salaam, Tanzania that killed more than 224 people and wounded thousands more. The terror threat in East Africa has changed since then.
Fifteen years ago, a suicide bomber drove a truck packed with explosives up to the gates of the U.S. embassy in downtown Nairobi.
When the guard at the entrance would not let the driver into the basement garage, the bomber set off the explosives outside, killing more than 200 people, most of them Kenyan. A similar attack was launched at the same time on the U.S. embassy in Tanzania.
Joash Okindo was the guard at the gate, whose argument with the driver, and refusal to let him pass, probably saved a lot of lives. His legs were broken in the attack, but, as he stands here today at a memorial service for the victims, he knows it could have been worse.
“I’m still alive. The only problem is that I was injured. Struggling. In life you have to struggle,” he said.
In the blink of an eye, the al-Qaida terrorist group made known its presence in East Africa, and brought the group’s leader Osama Bin Laden to the attention of the U.S. government.
Since then, Bin Laden has been killed, as has the alleged mastermind of the attack, Fazul Mohammed. Four other men were convicted in the United States and sentenced to life in prison.
Meanwhile, Kenya’s security forces have struggled to contain an evolving terrorist threat in the region.
Much of the focus has been on Somalia's al-Qaida-linked al-Shabab militants, who use Kenya to seek out new recruits and financing.
Al-Shabab has been blamed for cross-border kidnappings and other attacks in Kenya, which prompted the military to enter Somalia two years ago to confront the group head on.
At the embassy memorial ceremony, Nairobi County Speaker Alex Ole Magelo said Kenyans should unite in support of the government’s anti-terrorism operations.
“We individually and collectively, we must support the government. I know the government is doing all in its power to curb terrorism. But as you can see, terrorism in this country took a turn for the worst when we had the homegrown terrorists,” he said.
Last year, Kenyan lawmakers passed the country’s first-ever anti-terrorism law, which gives security forces the right to arrest terrorism suspects, to seize property and intercept communications.
But rights groups said police have been committing serious abuses under the guise of anti-terrorism, with raids and arrests targeting Somali refugee communities and Muslim communities on the coast.
And nearly every week, the newspapers report on another so-called terrorism suspect gunned down by police.
Rahma Gulam Abbas is the acting director of the Kenyan Muslim human rights group Muhuri.
“We have documented people living in fear," said Abbas. "Once you are a suspect of terror, you just know that the end result is you are killed. There is no due process that is taken.”
Abbas said Kenya’s anti-terrorism law was not so different from the sweeping legislation passed in the United States after 9/11.
The United States has also been on high alert this week after intercepting a message from al-Qaida indicating plans for an attack.
The State Department has closed 19 embassies in the Middle East and Africa, including Rwanda and Burundi. However, neither Kenya nor Tanzania were on the list.