The Process and Difficulties of Coding the Twenty-Year Old 1998 U.S. Embassy Bombings Case
On August 7th, 1998, trucks armed with explosives simultaneously detonated outside U.S. embassies in Dar Es Salaam, Tanzania and Nairobi, Kenya, bringing public attention for many to al-Qaeda for the first time. The explosions killed 224 people and injured over 4,500. The bombings took place exactly eight years after US troops were deployed in Saudi Arabia and were widely believed to be motivated by the extradition and alleged torture of four members of the Egyptian Islamic Jihad (EIJ).
So why did this twenty-year-old case remain only partially coded in tPP? I was surprised to find some of al-Qaeda leaders’ names sitting in our team spreadsheet, colored purple, indicating the case had never fully coded. My partner and I quickly claimed the thirteen defendants involved in the “USEB98” group. At this time, we had no idea what we gotten ourselves into.
With the help of our team’s legal researchers, we secured a 157-page indictment, and 397-page criminal document outlining the case’s history. With the little research I had done on the case, I found that many of the defendants had been charged but not tried due to their fugitive status, so we began by searching the docket for the word “sentencing,” yielding 198 results.
The docket was huge and overwhelming. As we began to click through the “sentencing” results, we soon found that there were far more than only thirteen defendants from the USEB98 case. As we began to work our way through the docket we found seven defendants who had not been listed on any of our team spreadsheets. Now we were faced with a twenty-seven person indictment, twenty of whom my partner and I took on to code.
There was plenty of information on some of the defendants such as Usama Bin Laden, Muhammad Atef, Mamdouh Mahmud Salim, and Sulaiman Abu Ghayth, as these are some of the most well-known al-Qaeda members.
However, it was much more difficult to find information on their lesser-known co-conspirators. We struggled to match these Arabic-to-English transliterated names to the actual defendants, as the docket and indictment had inconsistent spellings. On top of that, many of these defendants had dozens of aliases.
We drew upon numerous resources to successfully code these defendants. The most helpful of which may have been a CNN Fast Facts report from 2019 which gave a timeline of relevant events. This gave us information on the three defendants who were successfully charged and sentenced: Mohamed Suleiman Al Nalfi, Sulaiman Abu Ghayth, and Mamdouh Mahmud Salim. From there, we returned to the docket to get the specifics.
This left us with seventeen defendants who did not appear to have been tried – meaning they would qualify for our “charged but not tried” classification. This was due to their fugitive status, and with some deep digging, we were able to conclude that the majority of the defendants had been confirmed killed by U.S. airstrikes in Afghanistan and Yemen. Two defendants had died while awaiting trial/extradition, and one had been extradited to Egypt for other crimes and sentenced to death. The remaining defendants, Saif Al-Adel and Abdullah Ahmed Abdullah, are still on the FBI’s Most Wanted List over twenty years later.
Large cases dealing with Foreign Terrorist Organizations (FTOs) such as this are challenging for numerous reasons. First of all, transliterated names can be misguiding, and inconsistencies in spellings create challenges when searching for information such as age, veteran status, and additional sentencing information.
Secondly, remembering to always code according to the codebook and not your own logic can be challenging, particularly regarding the “Veteran Status” variable. As I read about these defendants’ military involvement and roles in al-Qaeda, I was tempted to code the “Veteran Status” and “Combat Veteran” variables as “Former/current member of the non-U.S. military” and “Yes” respectively. However, this would be incorrect as our codebook specifies that “Veteran Status” refers to one’s involvement in an official state-sanctioned military (and one recognized by the United States), not one’s involvement in a militant group. Although logically, these men were veterans of al-Qaeda, this does not qualify as formal military service and veteran status. It is worth noting that this key methodological determination was made in close consultation with tPP’s Advisory Board. In September 2019, tPP’s advisors were asked to weigh in on this issue, and in the end, they overwhelmingly concluded that non-state actor combat experience with insurgencies and other armed conflicts do not qualify as ‘veteran’ status within the project.
Lastly, cases involving al-Qaeda attacks need to be examined closely, as defendants charged for one attack may be involved in another, and therefore listed twice on our official spreadsheet. This was the case with a handful of the USEB98 defendants, some of which were also indicted for their involvement in the 9/11 attacks and USS Cole bombings in 2000. This needs to be specified on our spreadsheet by placing a (1) and (2) by the multiple listings to indicate the defendant has been indicted on two separate occasions. This can be especially tricky when there are discrepancies in the spelling of names.
Overall, completing the twenty-year-old USEB98 case was a huge challenge. But as new coders, my partner Courtney and I felt extremely accomplished upon completing such a large case. By the end of the week, Courtney and I had successfully coded twenty defendants, seven of which were completely new case starters. The completion of the USEB98 case was a great way to begin to wrap up my first semester as a tPP coder.