NAIROBI, Kenya -- Nine months before the attack on the American Embassy here, U.S. intelligence officials received a detailed warning that Islamic radicals were plotting to blow up the building, according to Kenyan and American officials.
The warning forecast the Aug. 7 bombing in several particulars, the officials said. It came from an Egyptian man who American officials now believe was involved in the simultaneous terrorist assaults on the U.S. embassies in Kenya and Tanzania.
The Egyptian, Mustafa Mahmoud Said Ahmed, is now in jail in Tanzania, charged by local prosecutors with bombing the embassy there.
Since the bombings, the State Department has maintained that it received no specific warnings about threats to its embassies in East Africa. But late yesterday, a spokesman acknowledged that the CIA had sent the State Department two reports about Ahmed that prompted the embassy in Kenya to step up security for several weeks.
When no attack materialized, the embassy's precautions returned to normal. No further steps were taken to improve the building's physical security, which did not meet the department's own minimum standards for security.
Until now, department officials have insisted that the embassies faced only a minimal threat from terrorists.
In the days after the bombings, the administration acknowledged that it had spurned requests from the American ambassador in Kenya, Prudence Bushnell, to move the entire embassy to a safer location. The State Department would not say whether her cables mentioned Ahmed's warning.
According to U.S. officials, Ahmed walked into the Nairobi embassy last November and told American intelligence officials that he knew of a group that was planning to detonate a bomb-laden truck inside the diplomats' underground parking garage.
In a separate interrogation by Kenyan intelligence officials, which was relayed to the Americans, Ahmed said he had taken surveillance photos of the embassy for the attack, which was to involve several vehicles and stun grenades, Kenyan officials said.
Analysts at the CIA were unable to link Ahmed to any terrorist group but they nonetheless sent two reports last November about his statements to various government agencies.
The reports, U.S. officials said, included several caveats. The CIA said that a foreign intelligence service that cooperates with the agency believed that Ahmed was a fabricator of information. In the reports, CIA analysts said that they could not rule out the possibility that Ahmed's threats were serious. But they said that the threats might also be a sophisticated ploy by terrorists to observe and then counter the defenses the embassy would take against a possible attack.
After Ahmed appeared at the embassy, U.S. officials alerted their Kenyan counterparts, who questioned the Egytian and then deported him. Soon after, Ahmed made his way to Tanzania where, U.S. officials now believe, he participated in the Aug. 7 bombing of the embassy that left 11 people dead.
The embassy attack in Kenya unfolded that same day much as Ahmed had said it would: A team of terrorists using two vehicles attempted to drive an explosives-packed truck into the parking garage. One of the attackers tossed stun grenades to frighten off the locally hired security guards. When an exiting car blocked their access to the garage, the attackers set off the bomb.
A Clinton administration official acknowledged that the embassy in Kenya had received a specific warning about an attack. "It is embarrassing," this official said, quickly adding: "It is tragic." Asked why the embassy took few steps to improve its security after the warning, he said: "That's the 64-million-dollar question."
Other officials defended the government's handling of the case, noting that U.S. intelligence is deluged with warnings about terrorist plots.
Tanzanian authorities have not allowed Ahmed to be interviewed, and it was unclear what motivated him to alert authorities about a plot in which he appears to have played a role. He told the Kenyans that in the past he had provided authorities with information about Islamic radicals because he wanted to see them arrested and rehabilitated rather than caught committing a crime for which they would be executed.
A Tanzanian court refused to release Ahmed on bail this week and ruled that FBI agents would be permitted to interrogate him.
Tanzanian investigators suspect he was a central figure in the plot.
The Clinton administration has not sought to extradite Ahmed from Tanzania. Several non-American diplomats in the region speculated that the United States is allowing the Tanzanians to try Ahmed because they fear his trial in America might bring to light his dealings with U.S. authorities and other Western intelligence services.
Pub Date: 10/23/98