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Remembering the impact of Al Qaeda's bombings of U.S. embassies, 25 years later

AILSA CHANG, HOST:

Twenty-five years ago today, this was our lead story.

(SOUNDBITE OF MONTAGE)

UNIDENTIFIED REPORTER #1: Large explosions hit the U.S. embassies in Kenya and Tanzania this morning.

UNIDENTIFIED REPORTER #2: It was quite chaotic inside the embassy. The air was filled with smoke and dust, and it was very difficult to see.

CHANG: Those embassy bombings in 1998 left 224 people dead, including a dozen U.S citizens. More than 4,000 people were injured. NPR's Michele Kelemen reports on a memorial ceremony at the State Department today.

MICHELE KELEMEN, BYLINE: Edith Bartley lost her father and brother in the blast at the embassy in Nairobi. She wants to make sure this day is never forgotten.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

EDITH BARTLEY: The near-simultaneous bombings of our embassies in East Africa were not only attacks on U.S. soil abroad, but they were attacks on humanity. They were the precursor to 9/11.

KELEMEN: Al-Qaida carried out the attacks on embassies that didn't meet the State Department's own security standards at the time. Prudence Bushnell was the ambassador in Kenya in 1998 and says she had been trying to fix that.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

PRUDENCE BUSHNELL: My efforts to persuade senior decision-makers in the department to relocate a chancery that did not meet our own security standards from a vulnerable location produced feedback - stop nagging.

KELEMEN: She says she didn't stop nagging.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

BUSHNELL: So I kept pushing back, finally wrote the secretary of state. Three months later, we were blown up.

KELEMEN: John Lange was the Deputy Chief of Mission in Tanzania and was in his office at the time of the blast.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

JOHN LANGE: And I remember - and I can still see it in slow motion - the glass from the window behind me blew over my head and landed on the people in front of me.

KELEMEN: Luckily, he says, no one in his office was badly hurt. Eleven people were killed and 85 injured in that bombing. Many later suffered from post-traumatic stress syndrome. And while Lange says he's glad to see the State Department's medical unit paying more attention to mental health, he says the changes are long overdue.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

LANGE: I would hope that Med would do a mental health survey of current and retired employees and dependents who went through traumatic situations in Nairobi, Dar es Salaam, Iraq, Afghanistan and elsewhere. For the victims of the 1998 bombings, it's never been done.

KELEMEN: Former and current diplomats and families of victims were gathered in the State Department's Diplomacy Center for the event. Secretary of State Antony Blinken told them their advocacy is paying off.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

ANTONY BLINKEN: I simply want to say thank you because your own efforts, your own courage, your own commitment has done so much to make this institution better than it was in looking out for its people.

KELEMEN: But Blinken admits there's still a lot of work to do, and it's always a challenge to find the right balance - improving security while letting diplomats do their job engaging with local communities. After the embassy bombings, local staff returned as soon as they could. Blinken says 79 of them still work in the embassies in Kenya and Tanzania 25 years later.

Michele Kelemen, NPR News, the State Department.

(SOUNDBITE OF STORMZY SONG, "FIRE AND WATER") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.

Michele Kelemen has been with NPR for two decades, starting as NPR's Moscow bureau chief and now covering the State Department and Washington's diplomatic corps. Her reports can be heard on all NPR News programs, including Morning Edition and All Things Considered.