Bin Laden’s Legacy

As people in the U.S. and across the world cheer the death of Osama Bin Laden the talk is about justice for the 3,000 Americans who died on 9/11.  But Bin Laden took the lives of many others years before two airplanes crashed into the World Trade Center, a fact that many forget.

I can not.  My friend Prabhi Kavaler was one of 12 Americans and over two hundred Kenyans killed in the terrorist bombing of the U.S. Embassy in Nairobi on August 7, 1998, which Bin Laden orchestrated, with the help of Fazul Abdullah Mohammed, the suspected head of Al Queda's East Africa branch. 

Prabhi was 45 when she died, leaving behind a husband and two small daughters.

Her death underlines how Al Qaeda’s brand of evil touches people of all nationalities and faiths.  Prabhi’s father was Hindu, her mother Christian, her husband Jewish. Her parents were born in Lahore, Pakistan. She grew up in India, earning her bachelor, master of arts and doctorate degrees from the Delhi School of Economics. After graduation she worked for the Voice of America, then joined the North American branch of the United States Information Agency. It was there that she was introduced to her future husband, Howard Kavaler, an American consular officer. The two were married in England. After a brief stint in Jerusalem, they moved to America. Prabhi was naturalized as a U.S. citizen and eventually passed the U.S. Foreign Service Exam. She and Howard were posted to the Philippines, Kenya and France.

It was during their Paris tour that my husband Stephane and I met them. We had children the same age and shared a number of interests. So our friendship continued after they were posted back to Arlington, Virginia.  In the summer of 1997 Howard and Prabhi and their two daughters joined us during our annual beach vacation in Lewes, Delaware. They arrived by car from Virginia, clad in shorts and looking every inch the American suburban parents. We chatted about their next assignment. They had a choice between somewhere in Latin America and Kenya.  They chose a second tour in Nairobi because they believed it to be safer for the children.

In July of 1998 the Kavalers rented out their home in Arlington and flew to Kenya, moving into temporary quarters.  The day before the bombing Prabhi stayed home sick.  But the embassy was short staffed so she decided to go into work on August 7, even though she did not feel well and had not yet had a chance to unpack their belongings.

Both Howard and Prabhi were working in the embassy the morning the bomb went off.  I read about it in the news, just as I was arriving in Delaware for our annual beach holiday.  I called the State Department to check on them and learned the awful truth. A week later Stephane and I made a painful drive from our beach home in Delaware to Arlington National Cemetery for Prabhi’s funeral.

I never had the heart to ask Howard the details. I learned them eventually, in “Foreign At Home and Away,” a book by Margaret Bender about foreign- born wives in the U.S. Foreign Service.  The two worked in different parts of the embassy. Howard stopped by Prabhi’s desk that morning and she asked him to stop by the Community Liaison Office to check on the school bus schedule for their daughters. Howard first returned to his own office, then headed to a different part of the embassy to fulfill the requested task. A few seconds later he heard a loud thud and the building collapsed. Howard searched through the rubble in a desperate attempt to find Prabhi.  Rescue workers found her body later. 

The fallout continues to this day. Tara and Maya have navigated adolescence without a mother. Howard has never fully recovered from losing his wife.  President Obama got it 100% right in his speech following the announcement of Bin Laden’s death. “We know that the worst images are those that were unseen to the world,” said the President. “ The empty seat at the dinner table. Children who were forced to grow up without their mother or their father.”

When the news broke I emailed Howard to ask if Bin Laden’s death brought the family closure. He responded by calling the day “ bittersweet”  Bin Laden’s death won’t bring Prabhi back. Neither will the death  of Fazul Abdullah Mohammed, a citizen of both Kenya and Comoros, who died in a hail of gunfire in Somalia on June 11. He  is accused of playing a key role in the bombings of the U.S. embassies in both Kenya and Tanzania as well as the 2002 attack on an Israeli-owned hotel in Mombasa.

 U.S. President Barack Obama's adviser on national security issued a statement  calling Mohammed's death "another huge setback to al Qaeda and its extremist allies." He added that the death "provides a measure of justice to so many who lost loved ones because of the actions of this terrorist."

That may be so. But nothing can ever be the same. Not just for the Kavalers but for all of us. The family’s wish to move “ somewhere safe” in 1998 looks naïve today. The Kavalers fled Kenya and returned to the U.S. immediately after Prabhi’s death, only to live through the 9/11 attack on Washington, D.C.  Bin Laden’s legacy is that many of us will never feel safe anywhere, ever, again.




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