Fifteen years ago this month, al Qaeda operatives executed two devastating, simultaneous car bomb attacks targeting the U.S. embassies in Kenya and Tanzania. The attacks in East Africa killed 223 people, injured more than 4,000, and brought international infamy to al Qaeda -- among other repercussions, they earned Osama bin Laden a place on the FBI's Most Wanted list.
U.S. embassies are still targets for violent extremists today -- as shown by the recent closure of 19 U.S. diplomatic outposts across the Middle East in response to intercepted communications from al Qaeda leaders -- but the nature of the terrorist threat has evolved over time. The relationship between al Qaeda Central and its regional franchises has changed dramatically, and the relationship between Sunni and Shiite terrorists is changing as well. These radicals have historically put aside their rivalries to focus on common enemies when their interests aligned -- witness Iran and Hezbollah's relationship with the Sunni Hamas and Palestinian Islamic Jihad, a terrorist organization active in the Gaza Strip. But such partnerships have become more complicated as the two groups find themselves in open battle for control of Syria.
While Iran and Hezbollah played crucial roles training and preparing al Qaeda to hit American embassies in East Africa in 1998, such collaboration appears unlikely today. Back then, the enemy of their enemy was their friend -- but today, the two Shiite powers are at the epicenter of a Sunni-Shiite war that threatens to spill over from Syria to Lebanon and Iraq, and well beyond.
This fact has once again been driven home by the Aug. 15 car bomb explosion in Beirut's Hezbollah-controlled southern suburbs, which killed at least 18 people. The most likely culprit for the attack is Sunni jihadists angered by the Shiite paramilitary group's support of the Syrian regime.
The East Africa embassy bombings were eventually determined to be solely the work of bin Laden, but there is no doubt that the jihadist network benefited from years of collaboration with Iran. Early in the investigation, the FBI was already examining Iranian links to the attacks: An Aug. 13, 1998, report by the Times of London noted that the FBI was focusing on the movement of Kazem Tabatabai, the Iranian ambassador in Nairobi, and Ahmad Dargahi, the Iranian cultural attaché in Nairobi, who had left their posts two weeks before the attacks -- a pattern seen in 1992 and 1994, in the period leading up to the bombing of the Israeli embassy and AMIA Jewish community center in Buenos Aires, respectively.
There were good reasons law enforcement and intelligence officials worried about a possible Shiite extremist connection to this clearly Sunni extremist attack. To begin with, the suicide truck bombs that hit the East African embassies were similar to previous Hezbollah attacks. And as the 9/11 Commission made clear, already in the early 1990s "Bin Laden reportedly showed particular interest in learning how to use truck bombs," notably like the one used in the 1983 U.S. Marine Barracks bombing in Lebanon. According to intelligence declassified for the 9/11 Commission Report, al Qaeda operatives, including top operatives involved in the Kenya cell's plotting of the embassy bombings, developed the tactical expertise to execute this kind of attack while attending Hezbollah terrorist training camps in Lebanon sometime in 1993.
Hezbollah's outreach to Sunni extremists in Africa and beyond, in fact, hearkens back even further. By the late 1980s and early 1990s, Hezbollah operatives began appearing in areas where Sunni Islamist groups were operating. For example, a 1987 CIA report documented Hezbollah's propaganda ties to Egyptian extremists. "Although logistical ties probably are extremely limited and are likely to remain so," the CIA noted, "for Hezbollah and its Iranian patron close public ties and apparent cooperation with radical Sunni groups constitute a valuable propaganda success underscoring their commitment to Islamic unity."
These ties would expand in a few short years, as al Qaeda and Iran joined forces to combat their common American enemy. According to the 1998 federal indictment in U.S. v. Usama bin Laden et al., the case against bin Laden in response to the East Africa embassy bombings, al Qaeda forged an alliance with the Iranian government as early as 1992, which was negotiated and agreed upon in Khartoum, Sudan. The relationship forged between the two entities in the mid-1990s led al Qaeda emissaries to travel to Iran for training in explosives, according to the 9/11 Commission Report. Author Lawrence Wright reported in his book The Looming Tower that Imad Mughniyeh, the head of Hezbollah's international terrorist branch and also believed to be a commissioned officer in Iran's Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps, also agreed to train al Qaeda members in exchange for weapons. Al Qaeda and its affiliated Egyptian Islamic Jihad sent members to Lebanon at various times between 1992 and 1996 to receive training from Hezbollah, according to the federal indictment.