Death in the Desert

May 10, 2008

Ten years have passed since terrorists detonated a massive truck bomb parked just outside the north perimeter fence of the Khobar Towers military billet in Dhahran, Saudi Arabia. The force of the blast, which could be heard 20 miles away, sheared off the face of Building 131 and killed 19 Air Force airmen. Hundreds more were injured, many of them grievously.

Americans now are no strangers to terrorism, having lived through subsequent terror strikes against the US embassies in Kenya and Tanzania, the US Navy destroyer Cole in Aden harbor, and the Pentagon and the World Trade Center towers in the United States. These and other outrages have left America deeply engaged in a global war against terrorists, which Secretary of Defense Donald H. Rumsfeld has dubbed “the Long War.”

For airmen, the Long War, in many ways, began on a specific night—June 25, 1996, a decade ago this month. (See “Khobar Towers,” June 1998, p. 41.)

Most of the terrorists who attacked that night were Saudi nationals. They had military and intelligence connections with Iran, and some had ties to a shadowy group known as the Islamic Movement for Change. They shared with al Qaeda, Osama bin Laden’s terrorist organization, a desire to cleanse the Saudi kingdom of the American military presence.

In June 2001, a US federal grand jury indicted 14 of these operatives on charges stemming from the Khobar Towers attack. A few have been punished for their crimes, including some executed by Saudi Arabia. However, the presumed ringleaders, Abdel Karim Hussein Mohamed Al-Nasser and Ahmed Ibrahim Al-Mughassil, are still at large and are featured prominently on the FBI’s Most Wanted Terrorists list.

The Hour of Attack

The air was almost cool enough for jogging as the hour of 10 p.m. approached on June 25, 1996. Beyond Khobar Towers, the final Muslim prayer call of the day was just ending. Most of the residents of Khobar Towers were in their rooms.

They were airmen of the 4404th Wing (Provisional). Their mission was to enforce the no-fly zone over southern Iraq, as mandated by several United Nations resolutions. Since shortly after the end of the Gulf War in 1991, Air Force units flying from the base in the kingdom’s Eastern Province had provided the bulk of the airpower used to keep Saddam’s military in check. Most rotated through on 90-day temporary duty assignments.

On that night, the 4404th’s wing commander was Brig. Gen. Terryl J. Schwalier—but not for long. Schwalier had just finished his one-year tour and was sitting at the desk in his room, on his last night in Saudi Arabia, writing a note to Brig. Gen. Daniel M. Dick, who was taking over the wing in the morning.

Elsewhere, the commander of the 79th Fighter Squadron, out of Shaw AFB, S.C., was filling out promotion recommendation forms in Building 133. Members of the 33rd Fighter Wing from Eglin AFB, Fla., in Building 127 and Building 131, were packing to go home.

Others were keeping watch. SSgt. Alfredo R. Guerrero was the security forces shift supervisor on duty that evening. He went up to the rooftop of Building 131 to check in with the two sentries posted there.

While Guerrero was on the roof, the three security forces troops noticed a sewage tanker truck and a car enter the parking lot adjacent to Building 131. They watched the driver wheel the truck to the second-to-last row and then turn left, as if to depart the lot. Then, however, the truck slowed, stopped, and began backing up to the fence line, stopping again right in front of the center of Building 131’s north side. The driver and passenger got out and jumped into the waiting car.

Even as the suspicious car sped out of the parking lot, the three USAF security forces personnel were in motion. They radioed in an alert and started the evacuation plan from the top floor. As one floor was departing, its residents would notify residents on the floor just below. Thus was Building 131 to be emptied in a “waterfall” fashion. They managed to notify residents on the top three floors, many of whom were fleeing down the building’s stairwell.

At 9:50 p.m., four minutes after the alert, the bomb contained inside the tanker truck exploded with a force that shook the surrounding area.

It was a blast like no other in the Gulf region—ever. In November 1995, a terrorist car bomb had exploded in Riyadh, but it featured only a few hundred pounds of explosives. More recently, a few small package bombs had exploded in the nearby nation of Bahrain. The Khobar Towers weapon, however, exploded with a force equal to at least 20,000 pounds, and perhaps as much as 30,000 pounds, of TNT. The power of the blast was magnified several ways. The truck itself shaped the charge by directing the blast toward the building. Moreover, the relatively wide clearance between the truck and the ground gave it the more lethal characteristics of an airburst.

Flying Concrete

The blast wave struck, full force, against the north face of Building 131. In an earlier measure designed to protect the building, authorities had placed jersey barriers between the parking lot and the structure. The bomb’s explosive force slammed pieces of the jersey barriers into the first four floors. The outer walls of the bottom floors were blown inward into the rooms. With their structural support now blown away, the facades of the top three floors sheared off and fell into a pile of rubble and bodies. Walls on the east and west ends were blasted four feet from their original positions. Marble floors in several bedrooms buckled and collapsed. Steel elevator doors were ripped away.

Building 131 did not cave in completely, but that was only because it was made of prefabricated cubicles that had been bolted together. Had the apartment building been built in a more traditional manner with cross-support beams, the blast might have leveled it, causing the deaths of most residents.

The first memories for many of the survivors in buildings nearest the blast began when they found themselves in the dark, thrown across their rooms or out into hallways. Now, as they struggled to understand where they were and what had happened, they shouted and called to each other, trying to discover who was alive and who was dead.

In Building 131, a sergeant had been cleaning dust from under his bed. The mattress fell on him, partially shielding and protecting him. In Building 127, a squadron commander found a squadron mate sitting in a pool of blood with a dagger of glass in his thigh. In Building 133, nearly 400 feet from the explosion’s center, one of the officers who had been writing promotion forms was thrown 30 feet into the hallway. He looked up to see the roiling dust, fire, and smoke coming from the direction of Building 131.

Oak doors were blown off their hinges, and furniture was jumbled. All windows and frames within 1,500 feet of the blast crater were blown out.

Fears of another explosion, gas attack, or building collapse darted in and out of the minds of the airmen. When occupants of the most severely damaged buildings attempted to move, they felt the shards of glass crunch around them. Nearly all of the hundreds of injuries that night included lacerations from broken glass.

The airmen had to get out of the dark and devastated buildings. Alerted by Guerrero and his team, many were already moving in the stairwells when the bomb went off.

Ubiquitous Blood

In the dark, people called to each other as they groped their way out through the stairwells. “You could see the bloody palm prints streaked along the walls, and you could tell they belonged to people who were injured and trying to get away,” recalled FBI agent Sue Hillard, who arrived as part of the team to investigate the disaster.

Across the compound, Schwalier felt plate glass shatter over his back as the blast wave blew out his window, frame, and heavy curtains. Through the hole in the wall he saw the fireball and smoke. He pounded on the door of the joint task force commander, Maj. Gen. Kurt B. Anderson, who had traveled to Dhahran for the next day’s change of command ceremony. Then he raced out of the building to assess the damage.

Hundreds of people were moving away from the northeast corner.

“They’re coming through the wall,” squawked an unknown voice over the wing’s FM radio bricks. Observers near the north perimeter saw figures in white robes moving through the compound in the chaos. A hundred yards back, at Building 127, airmen began picking up the wounded and moved them toward the interior of the compound for safety.

The first casualties arrived at the clinic just a few minutes after 10 p.m. Ten minutes later the clinic was deluged. Outside the buildings, the wounded overwhelmed the flight surgeons in the small clinic. One flight doctor treated casualties until he himself was forced to seek attention for his own wounds. Intravenous drips were hooked over the uprights of covered walkways as victims were laid out on the sidewalk. Dozens were sent to Saudi hospitals in ambulances. Soon after midnight, Saudi doctors and nurses arrived at Khobar Towers to help with the long process of treating the hundreds of people who needed glass removed from their faces and skin and stitches to sew up lacerations.

At 3 a.m., medical emergency logs listed 16 fatalities. Two more bodies would be found in the rubble by morning and the 19th a few hours after that.

For a time, Khobar Towers had Washington’s full attention. President Clinton vowed that the United States would pursue and punish the killers and any helpers. Dignitaries, beginning with Secretary of State Warren M. Christopher, traveled to Dhahran to show their support and concern.

Gen. Ronald R. Fogleman, the Air Force Chief of Staff, spent a day talking with airmen and visiting the wounded. At one of the small dispensaries, a young airman was so intent on removing stitches that she didn’t even look up at the hubbub when the Chief stopped in. Fogleman gave her a spot promotion.

In mid-July, retired Army Gen. Wayne A. Downing, a former commander of US Special Operations Command, arrived to head up an investigation at Defense Secretary William J. Perry’s request. Schwalier showed him the devastated buildings. It was hot, with temperatures in the buildings near 112 degrees and a horrible smell rising out of the heat and rubble. “A smell of death,” Schwalier called it. “Literally.”

Different Directions

The investigations of the Khobar Towers bombing went in two directions.

The first, which attracted much publicity, was the so-called hunt for “accountability.” The House National Security Committee had a team on the ground quickly, and it produced its report within weeks. Downing’s probe was the first of three major investigations conducted by the military. Downing’s report found fault with Schwalier and others, made numerous recommendations, and called for leaving disciplinary actions to the chain of command. Two subsequent Air Force reports followed up with additional force protection tasks. Neither of those two USAF investigations held any single individual responsible. Ultimately, Pentagon leadership, in the person of new Secretary of Defense William S. Cohen, focused on the commander, Schwalier, who was blamed for, in effect, failing to prevent an act of war. He took the fall and resigned on July 31, 1997. (See “The Second Sacking of Terryl Schwalier,” April, p. 38.)

The second question—who did the foul deed—was investigated along an entirely different path. Within days, 70 FBI agents were in Saudi Arabia working on the case. FBI Director Louis J. Freeh visited the site on July 2, 1996. Freeh would later describe the Khobar Towers investigation as a personal mission.

However, the Saudi leadership was intensely sensitive about allowing outside investigators to dig around for clues. It was not until November 1998 that the FBI gained the access it wanted to suspects held by Saudi Arabia. And it was not until June 21, 2001—six months after departure from office of the Clinton Administration—that a court in Northern Virginia handed down an indictment.

When it came, the federal indictment spelled out a compelling story. Thirteen members of Hezbollah cells based in Saudi Arabia (and one from Lebanese Hezbollah) worked together to carry out the attack. They had been planning the Khobar Towers attack for years.

At the time of the Hezbollah planning, however, US interest was focused on a different place—Riyadh, where the US military mission’s compound had been bombed in November 1995. Five Americans died. US forces in the region, including the 4404th Wing, took it as a sign of an increased threat.

In January 1996, Schwalier and his commanders evaluated security at Khobar Towers and began to carry out a number of improvements. More than 130 separate security enhancements were completed. The 4404th had turned Khobar Towers into one of the best-guarded bases in the kingdom. The Air Force put guards on the roofs of the buildings, even though US Army, British, and French military living in other buildings in the Khobar Towers compound did not install rooftop guards of their own.

But as the FBI found, plans for the attack were thorough and sophisticated.Leaders of the military wing of the Saudi branch of Hezbollah began to prepare a bomb plot in 1993, and the plotting intensified over the next three years.

Step one was to initiate surveillance of American activities in the kingdom. In 1994, the terrorists narrowed down the target list to several installations in eastern Saudi Arabia; Khobar Towers was singled out as one of the key sites. According to the indictment, the terrorists then began looking for a place to hoard and store explosives.

The Iran Connection

Hezbollah was outlawed in Saudi Arabia, but the widespread organization had strong support from Iran in the form of the Iranian Revolutionary Guards, or IRG. Ahmed Al-Mughassil was one of the leaders. He directed others in their surveillance missions and supplied some of the money for surveillance expenses. Al-Mughassil had ties to Iranian officers and had trained with Hezbollah in Lebanon.

The FBI found that it was Al-Mughassil who chose Khobar Towers as the site for the attack. He reached that decision in fall 1995. Regular surveillance continued. The next challenge was to obtain a tanker truck, modify it, and bring in the sophisticated plastic explosives to transform it into a lethal truck bomb. Another conspirator, Saleh Ramadan, ferried one carload of explosives from Beirut to Qatif, an oasis town in eastern Saudi Arabia, in February 1996.

Then their plan almost went awry. Another operative, Fadel Al-Alawe, tried to bring in more explosives from Lebanon in March. Saudi border guards stopped and searched the car and arrested him. Al-Alawe talked, and the Saudis picked up Ali Al-Marhoun, Mustafa Al-Mu’alem, and Ramadan in April 1996.

Even with a diminished team of terrorists, however, Al-Mughassil had enough people and enough plastic explosives to go ahead with the attack. As listed in the indictment, a group of nine carried it out. In addition to Al-Mughassil, they were Ali Al-Houri, Hani Al-Sayegh, Ibrahim Al-Yacoub, Abdel Karim Al-Nasser, Mustafa Al-Qassab, Abdallah Al-Jarash, Hussein Al-Mughis, and an unidentified Lebanese man.

No specific word of the Hezbollah group’s plans reached the Americans trying to defend Khobar Towers.

Then-Secretary of Defense William Perry later acknowledged that the Khobar Towers attack caught the Pentagon by surprise. Intelligence, Perry told the Senate Armed Services Committee, was “voluminous.” However, it was also “fragmentary and inconclusive,” he said.

“It did not provide the user with any specific threat, but rather laid out a wide variety of threat alternatives,” Perry went on. “My assessment is that our commanders were trying to do right, but, given the inconclusive nature of the intelligence, had a difficult task to know what to plan for.”

Stiffened Protection

Army Gen. J.H. Binford Peay III, who was then the commander of US Central Command, testified that more than 130 separate actions had been taken to beef up security at Khobar Towers between November 1995 and June 1996. “I can tell you in talking with Norm Schwarzkopf several times, the facility today at the time of the bombing was in considerably greater protection than it was throughout the Gulf War,” Peay told the Senate.

The indictment makes clear that the Saudi terrorist cell had been closely watching the Khobar Towers site for at least two years, and, at some point, the northern perimeter fence must have attracted Al-Mughassil’s notice. Saudi residents lived on the southern end, but to the north lay an empty parking lot. Buildings 131 and 133 sat about 80 feet back from the northern perimeter fence. In front of the buildings was a paved parking lot with neatly tended tamarind trees marking the rows. Schwalier had arrived in 1995 to find the fence had holes in several places. Crews repaired them. Extra jersey wall barriers went up, aimed at preventing an intruder from ramming the building.

In late March, the new security forces chief, Lt. Col. James J. Traister, and a small group walked the perimeter with a Royal Saudi military police officer. Traister asked for the barriers on the Saudi side of the fence to be moved five feet out to prevent people from climbing up the barriers and onto the fence. The Saudis also gave permission to place rows of concertina wire at the top and bottom of the fence.

Traister asked if the plants and vines could be removed. The Saudis said no. Airmen cut back the vines on their side of the fence anyway.

In May, a suspicious incident caught the attention of the airmen at Khobar Towers. A car drove across the dusty median on the eastern side of the compound. It banged against the triple row of solid concrete jersey wall barriers, backed up, and nudged them again before driving away. Residents of Building 127 spotted the unusual event and reported it to wing security forces.

Also in May, the support group commander, Col. Gary S. Boyle, asked his Saudi counterpart about moving the fence out to extend the perimeter. But the fence was not an arbitrary marker in the middle of an undeveloped field. The public parking lot was used often by Saudis visiting the city park. In addition, the Saudi police had the responsibility to patrol the fence around the compound. The fence was not moved, but at the wing’s request, the Saudis increased their patrols of the fence line.

It was not enough to deter the terrorists.

Al-Mughassil, Al-Houri, Al-Sayegh, Al-Qassab, and the unidentified Lebanese man bought a tanker truck in early June 1996. Over a two-week period they converted it into a truck bomb. The group now had about 5,000 pounds of advanced, high-grade plastic explosives, enough to produce a shaped charge that detonated with the force of at least 20,000 pounds of TNT, according to a later assessment of the Defense Special Weapons Agency.

Then came the evening of June 25, 1996. Al-Sayegh, with Al-Jarash in the passenger seat, drove a Datsun into the empty parking lot just outside the north fence of Khobar Towers. The Datsun was the scout vehicle. Al-Sayegh flicked the headlights to signal all clear. Al-Mughis had a borrowed white Caprice waiting as a getaway car.

Author Signs His Work

Just before 10 p.m., Al-Mughassil drove the tanker truck into the parking lot, positioning it for the attack. Four minutes later, the horrendous deed was done.

The US indictment that told the details of this story was filed June 21, 2001, just days before a five-year statute of limitations was due to expire. Despite Clinton’s vow to pursue the matter, the indictment was not brought during his time in office.

“As a legal matter, important charges arising out of the Khobar attack, if not filed promptly, might have been lost under our statute of limitations on the fifth anniversary of this tragedy, which is next Monday,” said Attorney General John Ashcroft on June 21. Ashcroft also commented that “the indictment returned today means that next week’s five-year anniversary of this tragedy will come with some assurance to victims’ family members and to the wounded that they are not forgotten.”

What had taken so long? The Saudis already had four of the conspirators in custody before the bomb went off.

International politics and the changing US stance in the region certainly played a role. The Iran connection that leapt out of the indictments had created a sticky situation for the Clinton Administration on three counts. Iran and certain factions in Saudi society shared a goal in driving the US out of the region.

First, as reported by Elsa Walsh in The New Yorker in 2001, the Saudis had evidence of Iranian involvement early on. But the Saudis were concerned about what the US might do to Iran if the link was made—and in turn, what Iran might do to Saudi Arabia. This made the Saudis cautious.

For example, Mustafa Al-Qassab, a member of the main team, was caught in Syria and returned to Saudi Arabia. In November 1998, he told the FBI with Saudi authorities present that an Iranian Revolutionary Guard official had picked the Khobar Towers site and supported and financed the attack, according to Walsh.

The second factor was a shifting relationship with Iran. By 1997, Iran had a new, more moderate government and Clinton was eager to improve relations. During the run-up to Khobar Towers, Iran was under the political leadership of Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani. Then in 1997 the more moderate Mohammad Khatami was elected. The Clinton Administration wanted a chance to improve relations.

Meanwhile, the US-Saudi relationship was fraying. The Saudi royal family sought support from hard-line clerics, including the Wahhabi sect, to justify inviting Western troops into the kingdom after Iraq invaded Kuwait in 1990. Now, the religious elements were vocally criticizing the continued presence of American and other Western military forces. On a separate level, the Khobar Towers attack happened at the beginning of a downward spiral that would lead by 1998 to a Saudi ban on using their airfields to launch strikes against Iraq during Operation Desert Fox.

The Crown Prince’s Visit

The concerns about Iran and Saudi Arabia were all in play when Crown Prince Abdullah visited Washington in the fall of 1998. The crown prince had become Saudi Arabia’s most powerful leader after a stroke incapacitated King Fahd.

During the visit, Clinton and Crown Prince Abdullah talked about more cooperation on the Khobar Towers case. Former FBI Director Freeh later charged that Clinton did not press the issue hard enough with the prince. Then-National Security Advisor Samuel R. Berger had a different account. According to Berger, Clinton told the prince that Americans wanted more Saudi cooperation in the investigation or else the American public would not support the US defense of Saudi Arabia from Iraq. Freeh also asked former President George H.W. Bush to intercede with the Saudis.

Whatever swung the balance, the Saudis agreed to let the FBI interview the Khobar Towers suspects in November 1998. Those interviews eventually led to the indictment in mid-2001, after Clinton had left office.

The Clinton Administration made one more push in the summer of 1999. Clinton sent a request for help with the Khobar Towers investigation to President Khatami. The letter, delivered through a third party, somehow leaked out to the press. No help came from Iran.

By then, the 4404th had long since moved to Prince Sultan Air Base in Saudi Arabia. (See “Miracle in the Desert,” January 1997, p. 60.) A granite memorial at Eglin AFB, Fla., and another memorial at Gunter Annex, Maxwell AFB, Ala., commemorated those lost in the attack.

In the fall of 1997, with no fanfare, Building 131 at Khobar Towers was razed by its Saudi owners.

The State Department’s Rewards For Justice program is still offering $5 million for information leading to the arrest of four of the Khobar Towers terrorists, most of whom are still at large.

Rebecca Grant is a contributing editor of Air Force Magazine. She is president of IRIS Independent Research in Washington, D.C., and has worked for Rand, the Secretary of the Air Force, and the Chief of Staff of the Air Force. Grant is a fellow of the Eaker Institute for Aerospace Concepts, the public policy and research arm of the Air Force Association. Her most recent article, “The Second Sacking of Terryl Schwalier,” appeared in the April issue.