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Who Bombed Khobar Towers? Anatomy of a Crooked Terrorism Investigation

The official Khobar Towers investigation was precooked to arrive at the outcome that had been politically determined by the White House.

Ahmed Ibrahim Al-Mughassil, the Saudi Shiite oppositionist long accused of having planned the 1996 massive truck bomb explosion at the US Air Force barracks at Khobar Towers in Saudi Arabia, was captured in Beirut on August 8 by forces belonging to the Lebanese Internal Security Forces’ “Information Branch,” according to Al Akhbar, the Beirut Arabic-language newspaper on August 27.

Al Akhbar pointed out that those Lebanese security forces have been aligned with Saudi Arabia for many years, so the capture of Mughassil should be seen as part of the aggressive role Saudis are playing against Iran and all of its allies in the region. The Saudis will certainly seek to use Mughassil as a symbol of Iran’s alleged role in carrying out terrorist actions worldwide, in order to put more pressure on the Obama administration to maintain rigid hostility toward Tehran.

The Khobar Towers bombing, which killed 19 US servicemen and wounded 372, is one of the events that US officials and news media routinely mention as proof of Iran’s sponsorship of terrorism. And in 2001 the Bush administration indicted Mughassil, along with twelve other members of “Hizballah Al-Hijaz,” the Saudi Shiite dissident organization aligned with Iran, for allegedly carrying out the Khobar bombing under direction from Iran.

But an investigation of the Khobar Towers case that I conducted in 2009, based on interviews with more than a dozen former FBI, CIA and other administration officials knowledgeable about the official investigation, reveals a very different story:

  • The official Khobar Towers investigation led by FBI Director Louis Freeh was precooked to arrive at the outcome that had been politically determined by the White House.
  • The only evidence of Saudi Shi’a involvement in the bombing was from confessions obtained by torture by Saudi secret police.
  • The investigation ignored compelling evidence that Osama bin Laden’s al Qaeda – not Iran-supported Saudi Hezbollah” – planned and executed the bombing.

From the beginning of the investigation, the FBI and CIA were determined to focus solely on evidence of Iranian involvement and to exclude leads linking al Qaeda to the blast. FBI and CIA experts on bin Laden who offered to assist in the investigation were rebuffed. Jack Cloonan, a member of the FBI’s I-49 unit, which had investigated previous terrorist actions by bin Laden, recalled that when he offered his unit’s assistance on the probe to the Washington Field Office (WFO), he was told to “fuck off.”

Similarly, CIA Director George Tenet created an encrypted “passline” that allowed only a handful of agency officials to know what was going on in the investigation. One of those excluded was the head of the bin Laden unit at the CIA’s Counter-Terrorism Centre, Michael Scheuer. That unit compiled a four-page memo containing all the intelligence it had collected before the Khobar Towers bombing, indicating that al Qaeda was planning an operation in Saudi Arabia involving explosives during 1996. Scheuer told me that Khobar was one of the places that came up in the intelligence. “They were moving explosives from Port Said through Suez Canal to the Red Sea and to Yemen, then infiltrating them across the border with Saudi Arabia,” Scheuer told me.

Scheuer recalled how the head of the CIA’s Counter-Terrorism Centre, Winston Wiley, came to his office after getting that intelligence memo to convince him that Iran was responsible for the Khobar bombing. Wiley showed him a translated intercept of an internal Iranian communication in which there was a reference to Khobar Towers. “Are you satisfied?” Wiley asked him. Scheuer replied that it was only one piece of information in a much bigger universe of information that pointed in another direction.

While the FBI and CIA were studiously ignoring Bin Laden, he was publicly claiming responsibility for the Khobar bombings.

Freeh was personally handling the investigation at the FBI, according to a former FBI official involved in it. And he had already made up his mind from the beginning about Iran’s responsibility. “There was never, ever a doubt in my mind about who did this,” a former senior FBI official, who asked not to be identified, told me. During the course of my earlier investigations on this topic, I invited Freeh to respond to these claims, but he declined to comment.

FBI officials involved in trying to pursue their investigation of the Khobar Towers bombing in Saudi Arabia recalled in interviews how Saudi officials deliberately frustrated them at every turn. US intelligence intercepted communications from senior Saudi officials to the governor of Saudia Arabia’s Eastern province, ordering local officials there to obstruct the US investigation, according to one former FBI official who insisted on anonymity to discuss the FBI investigation.

Within a few weeks after the bombing, moreover, a glaring contradiction in the Saudi account of what Saudi officials had known about the bombing plot suddenly became evident: A former Clinton administration official recalled in an interview how Freeh had stormed into the White House situation room in July 1996, livid with anger. He had just learned that the Saudis were claiming they had arrested a Saudi Hezbollah activist in March with concealed explosives and had quickly discovered the Shi’a plot to bomb Khobar Towers.

But the Saudis had never said anything to their American counterparts in March or April 1996 about any Shi’a plot to blow up Khobar Towers. “We asked why they didn’t tell us about this earlier and didn’t get an answer,” David Williams, then the assistant special agent in charge of counter-terrorism, told me.

Either the Saudis had deprived the Americans of critical information they had about the security of the Khobar Towers facility or they were lying about obtaining that information – or both.

Interior Minister Prince Nayef had referred publicly to the smuggling incident in mid-April. He had said Saudi authorities had apprehended an individual trying to smuggle 38 kilograms of explosives into the country from Jordan on March 29, 1996.

Four days after that initial announcement, Nayef had announced the arrest of four men for an earlier car bombing at the Office of the Program Manager of the Saudi National Guard in Riyadh on November 13, 1995, which had killed seven American servicemen. In that same announcement Nayef had mentioned the smuggling incident again, saying it was still unclear whether it was linked to the Riyadh bombing or not.

The confessions of the four men were broadcast on Saudi television that same day. The men were all Sunni jihadist veterans of the Afghan War against the Soviets who said they had been inspired by Osama bin Laden. One of them had referred to a camp in Afghanistan that had been associated with bin Laden.

The US Embassy in Riyadh immediately requested that the FBI be allowed to interrogate the suspects as soon as their arrests were announced in April. But the Saudis never responded to the request, and on May 31, the embassy was informed that the four would be beheaded only an hour and half before the event.

In late October 1996, the Saudi secret police, the Mabahith, gave the FBI summaries of the confessions they had obtained from some 40 Shi’a detainees to the Khobar bombing. But the summaries contained no information that would allow the FBI to corroborate them, according to a former FBI official involved in the investigation who requested anonymity.

Khobar Towers remains a key part of the litany supporting a coercive US policy toward Iran.

While the FBI and CIA were studiously ignoring Bin Laden, he was publicly claiming responsibility for the Khobar bombings. In October 1996, bin Laden was quoted in al Quds al Arabi, the Palestinian daily published in London, as saying, “The crusader army was shattered when we bombed Khobar.” And when the same newspaper asked him in a November 29 interview why there had been no further operations along the lines of the Khobar operation, he said, “The military are aware that preparations for major operations require time, in contrast with small operations.”

Dan Coleman, one of the FBI’s top investigators on al Qaeda, told me that bin Laden always took credit for terrorist actions he had planned but never for those he had not planned.

In order to build a legal case against Iran and Shi’a Saudis, Freeh had to get access to the Shi’a detainees who had confessed. But the Saudis never agreed to allow FBI officials to interview them. In early November 1998, Freeh sent an FBI team to observe Saudi secret police officials asking eight Shi’a detainees the FBI’s questions from behind a one-way mirror at the Riyadh detention center.

By then Saudi secret police had already had two and half years to coach the detainees on what to say, under the threat of more torture. But Freeh didn’t care. “For Louis, if they would let us in the room, that was the important thing,” a senior FBI official involved in the Khobar investigation told me. “We would have gone over there and gotten the answers even if they had been propped up.”

But the Justice Department refused to go ahead with an indictment based on the information the FBI team brought back. Department lawyers knew the Shi’a detainees had been subject to torture, so they have ruled that the confessions were not valid.

The importance of that position on confessions obtained by the Saudis was proven correct a few years later when Canadian citizen William Sampson and five other Western residents described how the Saudi secret police tortured them to force confessions to setting off three car bombs in Riyadh – bombings that independent observers believed had been carried out by al Qaeda. After being released in 2003, Sampson told of beatings administered while being hung upside down, including blows that made his testicles swell to the size of oranges. Sampson said the torturers refined the story over time, constantly adding new details, and even used a wall chart to help him remember in detail the movements he was supposed to have made. Five other European and Australian also testified that they were tortured by Saudi secret police to force them to confess to Riyadh car bombings.

The Justice Department position on confessions obtained from torture changed, however, after George W. Bush was elected. Freeh made a deal with the Justice Department to remain FBI director long enough to get the indictment of Mughassil and twelve other Saudi Shi’a. The indictment was announced on June 21, 2001, Freeh’s last day as FBI director.

Khobar Towers remains a key part of the litany supporting a coercive US policy toward Iran. But the real history of the investigation of the bombing is a textbook illustration of how that coercive policy works to ensure its own indefinite continuation.

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