It was mid-morning on August 7, 1998, a massive truck bomb exploded outside the U.S. embassy in Nairobi, Kenya. Few Minutes later, another truck bomb exploded outside the U.S. embassy in Dar es Salaam, the capital of neighboring Tanzania.
Close to 250 people were killed and nearly 5,000 injured in the Al Qaeda-linked attack.
With two monster bombs loaded onto the back of trucks and a trail of carnage in East Africa, the world was introduced to Osama bin Laden three years before the September 11 attacks in New York would make him a household name.
After the dust had settled on the twin United States embassy bombings in Nairobi and Dar es Salaam, investigators from the three countries came up with 21 names of possible plotters of the attacks.
More than two decades later, almost all the masterminds of the bombings have either met equally violent deaths or are serving life sentences in jails across America.
Topmost on the list was Osama Bin Laden, a previously unknown heir from billionaire Saudi family who used the attacks to introduce himself and the influence he commanded to the world of global terrorism.
He became enemy number one. But getting to Osama would not be easy and he would spend the next 13 years plotting and planning terror attacks in major capitals in the world that eclipsed the Nairobi bombing.
But he wasn’t working alone.
Mohamed Atef was one of Osama’s two deputies. He had served in the Egyptian Air Force for two years, fought in Afghanistan against the Soviet Union and eventually in 1994 travelled to Mombasa where he met one of the masterminds of the Nairobi attack, Mohammed Odeh. It is, however, his actions in May 1998 that tied him directly to the bombings that would happen three months later.
At that time, Al Qaeda was struggling to justify attacks on American civilians from a warped religious standpoint. On May 7, 1998, Atef faxed in Laden a signed justification of their planned jihad by Afghan scholars who sanctioned their plans. From then on, it was full speed ahead. On November 4, 1998, an arrest warrant was issued against Atef. He was on the run until mid-November 2001 when he was killed in an airstrike on his home near Kabul, Afghanistan.
Were it not for a chance meeting at a roadblock, Fazul Abdullah Mohammed, another key planner for the bombings, would still be alive. Fazul was not only involved in the planning and execution of the Nairobi attack but was also the brains behind the Paradise Hotel attacks in Kikambala, Kilifi County, four years later. His exploits led him to become Al Qaeda’s top commander in East Africa and eventually Al Shabaab top military commander.
On June 7, 2011, Fazul and another Kenyan operative were stopped at a security checkpoint ran by the Somali military in Afgoye region. They had about Sh4 million. After initially obeying orders to stop, they opened fire at the military. In less than a minute, Fazul, who had escaped multiple ambushes, lay dead.
Muhsin Musa Matwalli Atwah was a feared bomb maker by his peers. His experience in explosives was unrivalled and he grew to become the most coveted talent within the Al Qaeda ranks. His role in the attacks was clear from the beginning: He built both bombs to perfection – inflicting the most destruction in Nairobi and Dar es Salaam.
Experts say that the two bombs used almost 15.4 metric tonnes of explosives. Because of this, he too was placed on a US most-wanted list. He was killed on April 12, 2006, following a raid in a remote village in Pakistan.
Ahmed Mohamed Hamed Ali had 13 known aliases. Although he had a background in agriculture, he is believed to have been part of the Al Qaeda since the early 1990s and was part of a team that attacked US forces in Somalia in 1993. After the attack, he moved to Kenya where, as a top Al Qaeda military commander, he was privy to the plans of the 1998 bombings. He fled Kenya to Karachi, Pakistan, on August 2, 1998, after making sure all involved in the plan were well prepared. In 2010, he was killed in a drone strike in Pakistan.
Others like Mohamed Odeh, Rashed Daoud, Khalfan Khamis Mohamed and Ahmed Khalfain Ghailani are serving life sentences.
Only three men on the list of 21 are still on the run. Among the three is Ayman Al Zawahiri who succeeded Osama Bin Laden following his dramatic killing on May 2, 2011. The other two are Saif Al Adel and Abdullah Ahmed Abdullah.