In the wake of the 2012 Benghazi attack and regional instability, US security forces will be on high alert.
Saturday, June 29, 2013
As President Barack Obama prepares to visit
East Africa, nearly 15 years after terrorists bombed two US embassies
here, security experts say that the region still faces threats from
Obama is scheduled on Monday to visit Dar
es Salaam, the commercial capital of Tanzania, which along with Nairobi
was the site of near-simultaneous embassy attacks in August 1998. The
attacks killed 224 people, mostly Kenyans, but also a dozen Americans.
Obama is likely to visit the memorial for the victims of the Tanzania
The threat of terrorism has increased since
the Osama bin Laden-masterminded attacks, said a top Kenyan security
official who added that intelligence capabilities have also increased
and that the situation “is under control.” Obama is not visiting Kenya.
The latest US State Department Country Report
on Terrorism for Tanzania said that the country has not experienced a
major terror attack since the embassy bombing, but that Tanzania’s
National Counterterrorism Center said the June 2012 arrest of an
al-Shabab associate shows that terror groups have elements inside
Kenya, though, faces more security concerns,
given its shared border with Somalia. Scott Gration, the immediate past
ambassador in Nairobi, worries that security at the Nairobi embassy has
been “complacent” and may not have had adequate priority in the recent
Gration, a retired US Air Force major general,
told The Associated Press this week that during one period of his
yearlong tenure as ambassador the American security staff saw its
personnel numbers cut in half because of things like personnel
changeovers known as gaps.
“When it cuts down to 50 percent, including
the head guy, that’s a little bit much and to me that indicates there
wasn’t the sense of urgency that there needs to be, or maybe we’ve
become a little bit complacent and arrogant, and that became an issue
for me,” said Gration, who still lives in Nairobi and runs a technology
and investment consultancy.
“You know what Kenya’s like. There are grenades going off, in Mombasa, in Wajir, even in Nairobi,” he said.
The period of the 50 percent reduction
occurred about four months prior to the attack on the US consulate in
Benghazi, Libya, he said, in which four Americans were killed, including
the ambassador, on September 11, 2012.
The Nairobi Embassy is ranked as a “critical” threat posting for terrorism and crime by the State Department.
“There are 179 countries (with embassies).
Take your gaps other places, but don’t take your gaps in a high threat
area. So it was surprising to me that we would take a reduced capability
in a place like Benghazi, Nairobi and other places, though I think that
this has been corrected by the investigations and by the media”
scrutiny, said Gration.
Hilary Renner, the State Department
spokeswoman for the Bureau of African Affairs, said she could not
comment on specific security operations, measures or personnel assigned
to the Nairobi Embassy.
“The safety and security of US personnel
serving abroad is one of the State Department’s highest priorities,” she
said by email. “We continually assess and evaluate the security of our
missions, and make appropriate adjustments, as needed.”
Gration also declined to say how many security
personnel work in Nairobi. But an official familiar with the security
arrangements said the embassy has only about five American security
personnel, meaning a reduction of 50 percent would have been two or
three people. The embassy also employs Kenya security personnel. The
official said he was not allowed to be quoted by name.
Though no major attacks against US interests
have occurred in East Africa since 1998, the region has its share of
terrorists, including al-Shabab militants in neighboring Somalia, a
group with ties to al-Qaida.
Also, Kenyan officials last year arrested two
Iranian agents said to be from Iran’s Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps
Quds Force, an elite and secretive unit, who were found with 15
kilograms (33 pounds) of the explosive RDX. Kenyan officials have said
the two may have been planning attacks on American, British or Israeli
The new US embassies in Kenya and Tanzania
were built far off the street, with multiple layers of physical
security, making a repeat of the truck bomb that tore through the
street-side Nairobi embassy in 1998 unlikely.
Renner said the US works closely with host
governments on security matters. And the US-Kenya security relationship —
in particular the relationship the FBI has with Kenya’s Anti-Terrorism
Police Unit — is seen as strong.
The threat of terrorism is high in East
Africa, as a result of decades of instability in Somalia, said a top
Kenyan police official. The official, though, said he doesn’t think
al-Shabab or al-Qaida can carry out large-scale attacks in Kenya, and
instead have resorted to small-scale attacks with grenades. The official
spoke on condition he wasn’t identified because he was not authorized
to share the information.
Kenyan police last September said they
disrupted a major terrorist attack after they found four suicide vests,
two improvised explosive devices, four AK-47 assault rifles and 12
grenades in Nairobi’s main ethnic Somali community, Eastleigh.
More than three dozen presumed terrorist
incidents were reported in Kenya in 2012, mostly grenade attacks, that
were generally attributed to al-Shabab, according to the latest US State
Department Country Report on Terrorism for Kenya. It said Kenya showed
persistent political will to secure its borders, apprehend terrorists
and cooperate in regional and international counterterror efforts.
The Benghazi attack has greatly increased the
focus on security on overseas embassies. The State Department’s
diplomatic security budget increased from about $200 million in 1998 to
$1.8 billion in 2008. But a recent Government Accountability Office
report found that there has been little long-range strategic planning
for embassy security.
Gration said he was in the Khobar Towers in
Saudi Arabia during the 1996 bombing that killed 19 Americans. He was
also in the Pentagon when it was attacked on September 11, 2001.
Despite the criticism of the US security
posture during a two-month period in Nairobi, he said: “I truly believe
the State Department is doing a great job. They’re working hard. There
was some small aspects of things that I disagreed with.”
Gration was a national security adviser to
Obama’s first presidential campaign and resigned his job as ambassador
in June 2012 ahead of a US government audit critical of his leadership.
Gration said that as he’s thought about
security over the years, he’s concluded that it’s impossible to protect
“So yes we’re still vulnerable when we’re
overseas or in America to an attack, and it can be well organized, or it
can be disorganized and they can still do a lot of damage,” Gration
said. “So it’s a false security to think we can ever be free of attacks
against our interests overseas or even in the homeland.”