By JASON STRAZIUSO
NAIROBI, Kenya — The U.S. State Department closed its embassies in four sub-Saharan African nations as part of a heightened security alert, days before the 15th anniversary of al-Qaida’s bombings of American diplomatic missions in Kenya and Tanzania.
Those two embassies targeted in the Aug. 7, 1998, attacks were rebuilt as more heavily fortified structures away from populated areas where they would be less vulnerable to attack.
Those embassies remain open, but the diplomatic missions in Rwanda and Burundi, small countries which border Tanzania to the west, and the island nations of Madagascar and Mauritius were ordered closed.
The State Department has shut down U.S. facilities in countries including Egypt, Jordan, Libya, Yemen, Saudi Arabia and Kuwait until Aug. 10. U.S. diplomatic posts in 19 cities, including the four in sub-Saharan Africa, will be closed through the end of the week.
U.S. officials gave no hint as to why the four U.S. embassies in sub-Saharan Africa were closed. None of the four is known for high-level terror threats. A State Department spokeswoman for Africa didn’t respond to an email query.
But al-Qaida operatives remain in East Africa, and one Africa expert noted that Burundi and Rwanda each have an older U.S. Embassy building that is less secure than newer embassies, such as those built far off the road in Tanzania and Kenya.
The expert, J. Peter Pham, the director of the Africa Center at the Washington, D.C.-based Atlantic Council, also noted that Mohammed Jamal Khalifa — a brother-in-law to Osama bin Laden — was killed in Madagascar in 2007. Khalifa was known as an al-Qaida financier and was reportedly killed by U.S. special operations forces.
“So there was an al-Qaida presence in Madagascar as recently as six years ago,” Pham said.
As for Mauritius, it is an offshore location for “all sorts of financing activities” in a loosely regulated atmosphere, Pham said, which could be used for nefarious activities.
In addition, the island nation has a territorial dispute with the U.K. over its ownership of the island nation of Diego Garcia, which the U.S. military uses as a military base, including for operations in Afghanistan and formerly in Iraq, he said.
On Wednesday, the 15th anniversary of the 1998 attacks, American personnel at the U.S. Embassy in Nairobi will stand beside Kenyan colleagues who were wounded in the devastating simultaneous truck bombings in Nairobi and Dar es Salaam. The attacks killed 224 people in total, mostly Kenyans, but also a dozen Americans. About a dozen of those killed died in Tanzania.
At the end of President Barack Obama’s trip to Africa in June and July, he and former President George W. Bush laid a wreath together at a memorial in Dar es Salaam for the victims of the bombing in Tanzania.
Even before the current embassy closings, the U.S. State Department had already warned that Burundi could be hit by a terrorist attack because it has deployed troops to Somalia to fight al-Shabab, an armed Islamist extremist group allied with al-Qaida. The April warning said attacks in Burundi could also target U.S. interests.
In July 2010, militants from al-Shabab detonated near-simultaneous blasts in Uganda’s capital as crowds watched the World Cup soccer final on TV screens, killing more than 70 people. Al-Shabab said the attack was in retaliation for Uganda’s sending of troops to Somalia to fight the militant group.