Embassy Attacks In Africa Permanently Changed U.S. Diplomacy

Fifteen years ago, al-Qaida militants bombed U.S. embassies in Kenya and Tanzania. The anniversary comes days after the U.S. government shut down diplomatic missions in various nations as part of a heightened security alert. The missions in Nairobi and Dar es Salaam remain open but a fire at Kenya's international airport heightened concerns over renewed attacks.

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In Nairobi, Kenya, today a massive, pre-dawn fire forced the shutdown of the city's main international airport. The fire engulfed the facility, stranding thousands of passengers and closing the gateway to one of sub-Saharan Africa's most vital trading regions.

The blaze comes at a time of heightened security. Nearly two dozen U.S. embassies and consulates are closed this week, after the intercepted terrorist chatter that Dina was talking about suggested an imminent attack.

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Kenyans were also on edge today for another reason. It's the 15th anniversary of the bombings of U.S. embassies in Kenya and Tanzania. As NPR's Gregory Warner reports from Nairobi, those attacks permanently changed the face of U.S. diplomacy.

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GREGORY WARNER, BYLINE: The fire began at 5 in the morning, and ripped through the arrivals hall and immigration area of Jomo Kenyatta International Airport. No serious injuries were reported. Airport spokesman Michael Kamau, speaking earlier today, refused to speculate on the cause of the blaze, saying that experts still could not get inside to examine the scene.

MICHAEL KAMAU: As I'm saying, the focus - first of all - is to contain the fire.

WARNER: It was not until early afternoon that firefighters - who came late, with inadequate equipment - could contain the fire. All international arrivals and departures out of the airport are suspended.

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WARNER: WARNER: A different scene was playing out in a memorial park in downtown Nairobi, at the site of the former U.S. embassy. There, musicians, officials and survivors marked the 15th anniversary of the bombings that killed more than 200 people.

But even here, the airport fire was on people's minds as the embodiment of their worst fear - a second, possibly foiled act of terrorism.

JANE AVUKWI: We're just hoping that it's not the same thing. We're hoping that it's not a terrorism act.

WARNER: Jane Avukwi(ph) is a survivor of the bombing on Aug. 7th, 1998, a blast so powerful that if affected not only the embassy but neighboring buildings, like the bank where she was working.

AVUKWI: Most of my colleagues, because we were sitting next to windows - so most of colleagues were thrown out. But I was thrown inside, and so I found myself piled up with desks and windows on top of my back.

WARNER: She still works at the bank, but not at any branch in town. She's scared of crowds, and she jumps at loud noises.

AVUKWI: Because that fear that was instilled in me did not get out, so I was taken out of town. I work out of town.

WARNER: The same event that sent Jane into the suburbs had a similar impact on U.S. embassies. After those twin blasts at U.S. embassies in Kenya and Tanzania, a new protocol was introduced in the State Department. Embassies had to be secure outposts on large plots of land, such that could only be found outside the center of cities.

Jane Loeffler is an embassy historian.

JANE LOEFFLER: These buildings, once they went into the suburban or ex-urban areas outside of cities, had limited access - they very often couldn't be reached by public transportation of any kind; and all sorts of semi-intimidating or intentionally intimidating security.

WARNER: These new embassies were isolated compounds, she says, and had to influence how U.S. diplomacy was conducted. More recently, the State Department has tried to correct the trend that followed those 1998 blasts. The new approach is to make embassies more welcoming; still secure, but less isolated.

LOEFFLER: They're moving back now, towards realizing that there's more to being a diplomatic facility than being a bunker.

WARNER: This week, the Obama administration took the extraordinary step of temporarily closing 19 embassies, five of them in east Africa, raising again the specter of terrorism here; which brings us back to that airport fire this morning. While it's still too early to speculate, even if the fire was not an accident - as people here fear - it still may not have been terrorism.

Local newspapers have raised the possibility that a dispute over duty free shops could have incited some individuals to arson. It's still possible that this airport inferno may turn out not to be an act of global terrorism, but a more narrowly motivated act of vengeance.

Gregory Warner, NPR News, Nairobi.

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