Adrian Walker

Bin Laden’s early targets

By Adrian Walker
Globe Columnist / May 7, 2011

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The Rev. Charles R. Stith isn’t the kind of man who is given to flashbacks. But the death of Osama bin Laden certainly brought back a flood of memories, as it would for anyone with Stith’s history.

Stith, longtime pastor of Union United Methodist Church in the South End, had just given up his pulpit for a diplomatic career when Al Qaeda struck one of its early blows against the United States. It was summer 1998; Stith had been confirmed a month earlier, but had not yet begun his duties as US ambassador to Tanzania.

The terrorist group bombed US embassies in both Tanzania and Kenya, as well as several other embassies in Dar es Salaam, Tanzania’s largest city. Various theories immediately emerged as to why Tanzania, a country with no real enemies, became the focus of an attack.

“The conventional wisdom initially was that Dar was chosen because it was a soft target,’’ Stith said earlier this week. “But my answer was that every embassy at that point was a soft target. ’’

The geography, Stith maintains persuasively, was never the point. “This was the opening volley in a war against America by Al Qaeda,’’ he said. “The message that was being delivered was that any country committed to a friendship with the United States was going to have a price to pay. Like all wars, it was territorial and about expanding Al Qaeda’s sphere of influence.’’

The blast, of course, was not the first the world had heard from Al Qaeda. But it was an early glimpse of its reach and of bin Laden’s determination to wreak havoc on America and its supporters. The investigation into the attacks consumed Stith’s tenure that began, as it happens, on Sept. 11, 1998. A new US Embassy had to be built, a process that would take years. The ambassador’s residence was badly pounded, too. All of Dar es Salaam’s embassy row suffered substantial damage. Combining the attacks on Tanzania and Kenya, 224 people were killed, including 12 Americans.

A massive investigation eventually led to the arrests of several Al Qaeda operatives in the bombings.

Stith had left office by the time a New York jury convicted four bin Laden loyalists of the attacks, in May 2001. The case was tried by federal prosecutors in New York because they were already handling the prosecution of Al Qaeda operatives in the 1993 bombing of the World Trade Center. This was years before Guantanamo became a terrorist prison or politicians questioned the wisdom of trying suspected terrorists in New York. Stith was among those who hailed the jury’s verdict when it was handed down.

If the goal of the attacks was to drive a wedge between America and its allies, it failed, Stith says. Tanzanian intelligence eventually aided in finding the attackers, and diplomatic relations between Tanzania and the other countries attacked remain strong. “Ultimately, it drove us close together, not farther away,’’ Stith said.

After leaving Tanzania, at the end of the Clinton administration, Stith returned to Boston, to head the African Presidential Archives and Research Center at Boston University. His interest in Africa has blossomed into a full-blown second career. Meanwhile, the attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, and the events that have followed them relegated the embassy bombings to a historical footnote, a prelude to far deadlier events.

But it certainly doesn’t feel that way to Tanzanians or Kenyans who have suffered the double blow of being attacked and nearly forgotten. Neither does it feel that way to a Boston minister, diplomat, and academic whose life was crucially affected by Osama bin Laden long before most of us knew who he was. Stith wasn’t celebrating this week, but he wasn’t sad, either.

“When I heard about the Special Forces operation that resulted in bin Laden receiving his just deserts, I thought about the families in Tanzania that lost loved ones,’’ Stith said. “My hope for them is that it helps to bring some closure.’’

Adrian Walker is a Globe columnist. He can be reached at