NAIROBI, Kenya – As President Barack Obama prepares to visit East Africa, nearly 15 years after terrorists bombed two U.S. embassies here, security experts say that the region still faces threats from militants.
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 attack.
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 U.S. 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 Tanzania.
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 past.
Gration, a retired U.S. 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 U.S. consulate in Benghazi, Libya, he said, in which four Americans were killed, including the ambassador, on Sept. 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 U.S. 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 U.S. 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 interests.
The new U.S. 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 U.S. works closely with host governments on security matters. And the U.S.-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 U.S. 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 Sept. 11, 2001.
Despite the criticism of the U.S. 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 U.S. 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 oneself completely.
"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."
Associated Press reporter Tom Odula contributed to this report.