The covert raid in Tripoli this weekend that nabbed an al Qaeda operative with links to the devastating 1998 bombings of the American embassies in Kenya and Tanzania is more than just a professional triumph for National Security Advisor Susan Rice. It's also a deeply personal one.
Rice was the assistant secretary of state for African affairs when simultaneous truck bombs tore through the two embassies, killing more than 200 people. Colleagues from the time said the magnitude of the attack and its enormous human toll left Rice deeply shaken. They said her memories of that bloody day may have made the capture of Abu Anas al-Libi particularly gratifying.
"It was a searing experience for all of us who were involved," said Daniel Benjamin, who was the National Security Council's director for counterterrorism when the strikes occurred. "I'm sure there was some satisfaction for her that this guy will be brought to justice."
It's extremely rare for officials as senior as Rice to have such a personal connection to an individual terror attack, particularly one that took place nearly 16 years ago. Former officials who worked with Rice in 1998 say that dealing with the aftermath of the twin bombings almost certainly shaped the advice she provided to President Obama as he weighed whether to send Delta Force commandos into Libya last weekend.
"I have no doubt that her prior experiences played into her recommendations to the president regarding this operation," said P.J. Crowley, who was the top NSC spokesperson at the time of the attack.
White House spokesperson Patrick Ventrell said last week's raid meant that "one of the world's most wanted terrorists was captured and is now in U.S. custody," but declined to comment on Rice's role in the operation or to make her available for an interview.
Rice wrote her doctoral dissertation at Oxford about Zimbabwe and has focused on Africa professionally since the early 1990s, first at the White House and then at the State Department. That leaves her unusually well-positioned to advise Obama on the new security challenges emerging from the continent, which is rapidly coming to rival the Middle East and Southeast Asia as a terror hub.
Al-Shabab, a Somali extremist group, took responsibility for last's month deadly siege of an upscale mall in Kenya; one of its top leaders narrowly escaped being captured by commandos from SEAL Team 6 this past weekend. Al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb, which mounts operations throughout West Africa, took control of northern Mali last year, the first time an al Qaeda affiliate managed to conquer a significant portion of a sovereign country. In Nigeria, fighters from the Islamist group Boko Haram have killed thousands of Nigerian security personnel and destroyed a large United Nations compound, killing dozens of U.N. officials. Islamist groups have also carried out strikes in Algeria, Libya, Niger, and Tanzania.
Rice is now responsible for crafting the administration's overall strategy for dealing with that growing threat. Several of the decisions she made earlier in her career have been deeply controversial, however, and the White House's coming policy choices about Africa could draw intense congressional scrutiny.
Rice's critics point to a pair of episodes from her time as one of the Clinton administration's top Africa hands. The first stems from the White House's decision to leave the U.S. Embassy in Sudan closed, in large part because of strong opposition from Rice. The facility had been shuttered in 1996 because of security fears. Thomas Pickering, who took a senior job at the State Department in 1997, wanted to reopen the facility to build better relationships with top officials from Sudan, a country that had sheltered Osama bin Laden for years and had intimate knowledge of the Islamist group that would eventually become al Qaeda. Pickering's requests were overruled by then-National Security Advisor Sandy Berger. Tim Carney, who was the U.S. ambassador to Sudan at the time, told the New York Times that leaving the embassy shuttered was an enormous and dangerous mistake, and he said Rice bore much of the responsibility.
"We took our eye off the ball," he said. "We did not know what was happening in Khartoum, a center of extremist Islam. There was no logic to our policy beyond punishing Khartoum and supporting the rebellion in south Sudan. That the Sudanese could not ensure our security was complete and utter nonsense. In my experience, Rice failed in her judgment. Our interests suffered."
The second controversy also involves Sudan. In the aftermath of the Sept. 11 attacks, Sudanese officials said that they had had valuable intelligence about Islamist activity in their country but couldn't get a meeting with Rice to discuss the information while there was still time to potentially avert the strike.
The 1998 embassy bombings, meanwhile, clouded Rice's nomination to succeed Hillary Clinton as secretary of state. Republican critics had spent weeks faulting the administration for failing to better protect the U.S. Consulate in Benghazi, Libya, before it was overrun in an attack that left U.S. Ambassador Chris Stevens and three other Americans dead. After meeting with Rice last November, Maine Republican Senator Susan Collins linked the Benghazi attack to the earlier terrorist strikes in Tanzania and Kenya.
"What troubles me so much is the Benghazi attack in many ways echoes the attacks on those embassies in 1998, when Susan Rice was head of the African region for our State Department," Collins said, adding that "in both cases the ambassadors begged for additional security" but had the requests turned down by the State Department.
No credible evidence has ever emerged suggesting that Rice was involved in rejecting the requests for stronger protective measures at the embassies, and Crowley said he believed she was still haunted by the strikes.
"She will never forget getting that call at 5 a.m.," he said. "None of us will."