The Khobar Towers bombing in Saudi Arabia not only left 19 airmen dead and 500 wounded but also exposed a new fact of life for American forces: Forward-deployed combat units face a long-term, lethal threat from the modern breed of international terrorist.
Gen. John M. Shalikashvili, Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, said that the Khobar bombers had “a much higher degree of sophistication” than anyone expected, likely had foreign support, and were well trained and equipped. He warned that similar attacks by such terrorists will recur and that not all can be thwarted.
“The question,” he contended, “is not whether another Khobar Towers will occur but when another Khobar Towers will occur.”
Against this background, some senior officers have begun looking at terrorism in a new way—as deeds having real military significance, not just political impact. General Shalikashvili, for one, now refers to terrorism as “warfare,” especially when used by rogue states against US forces.
“Terrorism . . . is a very effective tool for [outlaw nations] to use,” he said. “For some groups and for some nations, this is now the preferred form of warfare against the United States.”
Gen. Wayne A. Downing, the retired Army officer who led DoD’s investigation of the Khobar bombing, was even more explicit in his claim that terrorism has acquired military value for the rogues. “It is their strategic weapon,” he declared. “It is their force-projection capability.” General Downing suggests that such terror attacks should be formally viewed as acts of war.
Secretary of Defense William J. Perry, who announced his resignation in December 1996, regarded the Khobar bombing and an earlier strike in Riyadh as attacks not only on US citizens but also on the US security strategy in the region. He maintained that the goal of nations like Iran and of local Saudi dissidents, who carried out the attacks, is to drive out the US military presence. “Terrorists normally prey on the weak,” he noted, “but even militaries have vulnerabilities and present targets with high publicity value.”
No More Taboos
Recently retired Sen. Sam Nunn, the Georgia Democrat who formerly chaired the Senate Armed Services Committee, noted that for decades terrorists were interested only in making political statements or drawing attention to a cause by carrying out small-scale acts of violence—assassinations, kidnappings, hijackings, and the like. Terrorists, he said, were eager to win over public opinion and viewed certain acts—use of chemical weapons, for example—as taboo. In Senator Nunn’s view, everything changed in the 1990s and terrorists now seem bent on creating maximum casualties, especially among US forces.
The October 1983 suicide terrorist attack that killed 241 US servicemen in Beirut still ranks as the largest single act of terror to hit US forces. However, the US contingent in Lebanon had an ill-defined peacekeeping mission and was lightly defended, and the attack was mounted to dramatize a political grievance. In contrast, the Khobar terrorists executed a sophisticated truck-bomb attack against a major US combat contingent, penetrating its defenses and bypassing concrete barriers erected 80 feet from the high-rise residential unit. The target—Operation Southern Watch—was military.
US leaders warn that the future may bring even deadlier attacks with unconventional weapons, from nerve gas and biological warfare agents to infectious diseases, radiological material, and even nuclear weapons. In fact, Secretary Perry said that he received a stack of intelligence reports every week on threats to US forces in the Middle East, including threats to use chemical and biological mortar attacks and large vehicle bombs.
“The threats—chemical, biological, very large truck bombs—are feasible,” said the Pentagon chief. “Some people say this is worst-case planning, but I believe we have to be prepared for more attacks on our forces, not just in Saudi Arabia but all over the Gulf region—Saudi Arabia, Kuwait, Qatar, Bahrain. . . . We are going to prepare for a very intense threat.”
With good reason. In recent years, as the US and other target nations have developed protective measures to thwart bombings and attacks, the most advanced terrorists have been busy devising new and more effective means to defeat them.
The terrorists operating in the Middle East and Persian Gulf region today “are much, much more sophisticated in terms of organization, technical skills, and bomb-making abilities,” General Downing noted. “It used to be people were making very, very crude bombs, and now the bombs are extremely sophisticated—ingenious in some cases.”
In the Khobar Towers bombing, a gasoline truck filled with up to 8,000 pounds of high-explosive was lit off with a military-grade triggering device. Even more impressive than the advanced nature of the device was the planning required to mount such an attack in the tightly policed Saudi kingdom. “Smuggling that size explosive is not easy,” said General Downing. He added that the bombers picked out the “perfect, vulnerable place” to focus their bloody assault.
According to Secretary Perry, the Khobar terrorists showed they were capable of “clandestinely accumulating and employing a large supply of explosive materials, developing sophisticated intelligence, maintaining tight operational security, and penetrating the extensive Saudi domestic security apparatus and the measures we had taken for force protection.”
The most deadly form of terrorism today generally entails state sponsorship. Rogue nations, such as Iran, Iraq, Syria, and Libya, have been in the forefront of such activity, supplying the weapon materials, safe havens, training, and often inspiration and guidance for terror operations.
Today, a new threat has emerged from a shadowy network of Islamic fundamentalists in the Middle East, many of them battle-hardened mujahedeen fighters who spent long years fighting in Afghanistan, first against the Soviet Union and then against secular Afghan leaders. US officials said the radicals are united in their extremism and exchange information regularly.
“These terrorists can communicate rapidly,” said John P. O’Neill, chief of the FBI’s counterterrorism section. “We have found that the vast majority of them now have cell phones, they use fax machines, they are on the Internet, and they have laptop computer capability. Some of them even have encrypted laptop computer capability.”
The Khobar bombing was a shock to the American system, and it caused the Pentagon to set in motion a major new effort to combat terrorism worldwide, though its prime focus is the Gulf region. In the wake of the bombing, General Shalikashvili was designated as the central figure and chief advisor on protecting US forces against terrorism. In October, the Joint Staff created a new position—director for Combating Terrorism—headed by Brig. Gen. James Conway, USMC.
Today, the US has 15,000 military personnel in the Persian Gulf region, with about 5,000 of that number in Saudi Arabia. These troops remain on the highest state of alert in anticipation that terrorists will attempt to strike again. Former Secretary Perry directed US forces to maintain the high security level, which he described as an “attack is imminent” posture.
In Europe, US forces have decades of experience in dealing with terrorism, a result of leftist bombings and assassinations of the 1970s and 1980s. The large number of US forces in the Pacific region operate in what General Downing describes as a “placid lake” of stability, but they too are vulnerable, officers said. They point out that, during the 1991 Gulf War, Iraq attempted two terrorist actions against American forces in the Pacific—one in Manila and one in Jakarta.
Under the guidance of US Central Command, military units in the Middle East took immediate steps to prevent another Khobar-type bombing by tightening their security efforts. The US also seeks to develop new technologies, techniques, and training to avert similar disasters.
That bombing prompted security improvements at all Saudi bases. In addition, DoD launched a major force relocation effort that resulted in the rapid building of a new central air base at Al Kharj, located well away from Saudi cities in a remote part of the Arabian desert. [See “Miracle in the Desert,” January 1997, p. 60.] American forces based in Riyadh also were moved to more secure facilities at Eskan Village.
In Kuwait, Air Force personnel in exposed positions were moved onto the Ali Al Salem AB. In the United Arab Emirates, Air Force personnel living in an urban hotel were relocated to a UAE air base that provided better force protection.
That was only the beginning. Secretary Perry ordered all commanders worldwide to reexamine force protection in light of what he termed, in a memorandum to the commanders, a “rapidly escalating” terror threat to US forces. The Secretary’s order called on all commanders to question whether troops should remain in their existing locations or be moved away from urban areas. Also given scrutiny was the status of military dependents and whether they should be withdrawn, as many were from Saudi Arabia. Finally, commanders were asked to assess the focus of the nation’s intelligence-collection effort to address the terrorist threat.
The Secretary also sought to have commanders examine how the military commands can work more effectively with host nations to protect US forces. As part of a force-protection policy put in place after the review, the commanders in chief recommended making the location of forces the critical factor in all force-protection planning. Antiterrorism training and intelligence sharing also will be stepped up.
General Downing surveyed US operating bases throughout the area and found security of Army and Navy units in high-threat areas to be adequate. He said that, for the Air Force, the Khobar attack “has been a big wake-up call.” Yet he defended the Air Force’s security operations in Saudi Arabia, noting that the local environment traditionally had been free of terrorist activity. In those circumstances, he said, “It’s just hard to change your mindset.” Others had pointed out that Air Force units dispatched on long-running “temporary” deployments, such as Operation Southern Watch, have not been provided the forces and systems needed for extremely tight security.
US military leaders have declared their intent to tap all sources for antiterrorist expertise. Britain and Israel, they said, are the world leaders in countering terrorism because of their respective experience with Irish militants and with Middle Eastern and Islamic terrorists. General Shalikashvili called on the US defense community to look to these nations for expertise in providing better protection for US forces.
Needed: New Tools
“Why is it that this great nation, that can build B-2s, the best submarines, . . . has to use a highway divider to put around buildings as the most advanced, most sophisticated piece of blast-deflection equipment that our industry can produce?” General Shalikashvili asked. He called for a major defense industry effort to develop better counterterrorism and security tools.
Pentagon officials noted that, for each tank that it produces, the Army allocates $1.2 million to install protection for the four-man crew and that the Air Force incorporates more than $1 million worth of protective devices in each F-16. Yet at Khobar Towers, according to General Shalikashvili, the officers in charge would not spend money to put antiblast film on windows.
“We are going to have to do things differently,” he said.
More and better technological advances are needed to protect US forces, the General said. These include simple items, such as electronic alarms and seismic sensors, that can warn people of imminent attacks or detect terrorists’ movements.
General Downing, in his report on the Khobar Towers bombing, took note of the relatively low-technology counterterrorism tools that were in use: concrete Jersey barriers and guards posted on rooftops using binoculars, often in 125° heat. “Compare that to what the British do,” General Downing said, noting that, at one British base, a complete sensor system was installed to provide advance warning of terrorists or other intruders.
The Israelis are experts at hardening facilities against terrorist bombs and constructing new buildings that use antiterrorism security features, according to General Downing.
“We need to get with them and talk and see what they are doing and adopt those kinds of things that are relevant to us,” General Downing said, adding that the military is beginning to make some security improvements since the Khobar bombing.
He favors dealing with terrorism as a form of warfare against the US, rather than as a particularly bloody form of crime. Only then, said the General, will Washington be in a position to deal seriously with the problem.
“If you consider the terrorist act an act of war against you, then you have a tremendous range of options available to you,” said General Downing, a former commander in chief of US Special Operations Command. “To defeat terrorism, to keep it under control, we need to bring the power of the US government to bear—all agencies.”
In his report, General Downing noted that timely and accurate intelligence is crucial. However, he said, intelligence-gathering efforts against terrorists have been hamstrung by recent restrictions that limit CIA field officers’ ability to recruit unsavory characters with access to terrorists groups, or who are members of such groups. Most experts agree that intelligence penetration is the key to thwarting terrorists before they can strike. Planting spies within the groups has proved difficult but not impossible.
Intelligence analysis—the timely and accurate interpretation of raw intelligence “take”—is also vital. General Shalikashvili said DoD already has increased the number of analysts working in antiterrorism cells at every level from the Pentagon down to the Joint Task Force. Most of these cells are on a 24-hour watch.
“Terrorists will always search out and strike at the weakest link in our chain of defenses,” Secretary Perry said. “Our goal is to find and strengthen those weak spots, and we are doing just that.”
Even so, the Secretary warned that there will be future terrorist acts against US military forces, and some will result in tragic consequences because “no force-protection approach can be perfect.”
Everyone acknowledges that the stakes are high. “Terrorism represents an undeclared war against the United States,” General Downing said. “The military forces of this country are currently and clearly superior to all others in the world. Convinced of the futility of challenging our forces directly, some enemies are waging war against us asymmetrically. They use terrorism.
“Some of these enemies feel our greatest vulnerability is our intolerance for casualties. If we prove ourselves incapable of responding to terrorism, the terrorists will continue to represent a significant threat to us, especially to our servicemen and -women deployed overseas.”