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Shortly before 10:00 p.m. local time on June 25, 1996, a Datsun driven by Hani al-Sayegh, a prominent member of the Saudi branch of Hezbollah, or “Party of God,” pulled into the far corner of a parking lot adjacent to Building 131 at the King Abdul Aziz Airbase in Dhahran, along the oil-rich Persian Gulf coast of Saudi Arabia. The eight-story apartment structure was part of a housing complex known collectively as Khobar Towers, then home to more than two thousand American, British, French, and Saudi troops. Building 131 was occupied almost exclusively by members of the U.S. Air Force, enforcing the no-fly zone that had been in effect over southern Iraq ever since the end of the first Gulf War. With al-Sayegh in the Datsun was Abdallah al-Jarash, who had been recruited into Hezbollah at the Sayyeda Zeinab shrine in Damascus.
A few minutes later, a white, four-door Chevrolet Caprice entered the parking lot and waited for the Datsun to blink its lights—the all-clear signal. When it did, a tanker truck followed the Chevy into the lot. The truck had been purchased earlier that month from a Saudi dealership for approximately 75,000 Saudi riyals and taken to a farm outside Qatif, twenty minutes or so from Dhahran. There it had been outfitted with some five thousand pounds of explosives and turned into a massive bomb.
After the truck backed up to a fence just in front of the north side of Building 131, the driver, Ahmed al-Mughassil, commander of the military wing of the Saudi Hezbollah, and his passenger, Ali al-Houri, a main Hezbollah recruiter, leaped from the cab, raced to the Chevy, and drove off, followed by the Datsun.
Sgt. Alfredo Guerrero was pulling sentry duty on the rooftop at Building 131 when he saw the driver and passenger abandon the truck and the two cars speed away. Almost certain that they were staring at a bomb in the lot below them, Guerrero and two other sentries sounded an alarm. Then Guerrero, who had been stationed in Dhahran for only a month, began to race through the top floors of Building 131, warning people to leave. The sergeant had cleared the better part of two floors when the tank truck exploded, ripping a crater thirty-five feet deep and eighty-five feet wide and shearing off the north face of the apartment building.
Despite the heroism of Alfredo Guerrero, who escaped without serious injury, nineteen Americans were murdered at Khobar Towers and more than five dozen others were hospitalized. In all, 372 U.S. military personnel suffered wounds in the explosion. Khobar was the most deadly attack on American citizens abroad in thirteen years, since the October, 1983 explosion at a U.S. Marine barracks in Beirut, Lebanon, killed 241 marines. And the totals might have been far higher. In his haste, the driver of the truck had parked perpendicular to Building 131. Had he parked parallel and delivered the impact of the explosion along a broader front, he might have succeeded in toppling the entire structure, with a catastrophically greater loss of life.
My wife, Marilyn, and I and our children were visiting my parents at their home in North Bergen, New Jersey, when the Khobar terrorists struck. June 25, 1996, was a Tuesday, not a Saturday or a Sunday, but the day afforded a rare chance to get everyone together. I’d kept my schedule light. Just as important, schools had let out only a few days earlier, and summer camps and other activities would soon kick in. Marilyn and I grabbed a small window of opportunity, and as so often seems to happen in hyperbusy lives, the window closed before we were ever quite through it. My mother was preparing dinner for the family when the FBI command center called to tell me that the attack had taken place a half hour earlier. (Saudi Arabia is seven hours ahead of East Coast time.) I’d never heard of Khobar Towers, but that was irrelevant. Marilyn and I immediately began to refill the car with the kids and their gear.
My predecessor as director of the Federal Bureau of Investigation, William Sessions, had traveled with a large security detail, including a driver. He might have been wise to do so: the world is full of nuts. But I had been an FBI agent myself, one of the grunts, and I didn’t choose to live in the grand style now that I ran the place. Nor did Marilyn and I want our children to grow up thinking they were in protective custody or that they had to travel in a convoy to see their own grandparents.
I was at the wheel of my own car, heading unaccompanied down the New Jersey Turnpike, when I first discussed the attack with Attorney General Janet Reno, my direct boss and first line of communication with the Clinton administration. I also talked with then Deputy National Security Adviser Samuel R. “Sandy” Berger in those early hours after the attack. Sandy, who would take over as the principal adviser the next year with the resignation of Anthony Lake, was helping coordinate the national-security response, and the FBI was a vital part of that. I was on an unsecure car-phone line, though, and if Janet and Sandy did have more information than I had already picked up, they were unable to share it with me. In those early hours and for months to come, we all had far more questions than answers.
Six and a half hours after Khobar Towers was hit and Building 131 destroyed—about 10:00 p.m. East Coast time—Marilyn and I were pulling into our driveway in Great Falls, Virginia, just as Bill Clinton first announced the attack to the public, in a brief address from the Oval Office.
“The explosion appears to be the work of terrorists,” the president explained. “If that’s the case, like all Americans I am outraged by it. The cowards who committed this murderous act must not go unpunished. Within a few hours, an FBI team will be on its way to Saudi Arabia to assist in the investigation. . . .”
The president closed by echoing a point he had made earlier: “Let me say it again: We will pursue this,” he said with a stern voice. “America takes care of our own. Those who did it must not go unpunished.”
Those were words—and a promise—I would not forget.
For the FBI, the Khobar Towers attack was indeed a call to action. The Bureau’s primary responsibilities were and remain domestic, but during my first three years as director, we had been expanding our global presence. Crime and terrorism had gone multinational, and we had to do so ourselves if we were to combat it effectively within our own borders. The Bureau also had specific extraterritorial responsibility for bombings where Americans were killed. That gave us jurisdiction, and we needed to exercise it as quickly as possible.
Crime scenes can grow stale in a hurry. Evidence is lost, or it decays beyond any useful capacity. Well-meaning efforts to clear up the site of a human disaster can destroy vital information about angles of impact, the size of an explosion, and the nature of the explosive materials themselves. Often, too, the smallest and most easily lost remnants can be the most telling. A piece of circuit board no bigger than a fingernail found in the fields around Lockerbie, Scotland, ultimately led us to the Libyans who had blown Pan Am flight 103 out of the sky. We didn’t want to miss something similar in this instance.
All that is standard operating procedure for any crime scene, but from the very beginning it was clear that the attack on Khobar Towers was no ordinary criminal event. For one thing, it had occurred in an extraordinary place. Although it has long been one of America’s most vital allies in the Middle East, Saudi Arabia ranks among the world’s most closed societies. The usual problems of gaining access to a crime scene on foreign soil and establishing liaison with local authorities—never easy when you fly agents in to work an investigation—were compounded in this case not just by the secrecy that surrounds everything on the Arabian Peninsula but also by the special evidentiary needs of a legal system based on Islamic religious law, the Sharia. Just as Saudi overzealousness at the crime site could destroy evidence for us, so insensitivity on our part could destroy the admissibility of evidence for the Saudis.
The real possibility existed, too, that wherever the attack had been planned and whoever had carried it out, local fundamentalists might well be involved. Saudi Arabia’s able ambassador to the United States, Prince Bandar bin Sultan, had been quick to announce a reward of 10 million riyals (then about $3 million in U.S. dollars) for information leading to the arrest of the bombers. But the kingdom exists in a delicate balance between its vast ruling monarchy and the Wahhabis, the more conservative Muslims who control the streets and mosques. Were the attackers foreign or home-grown terrorists? Either way, we were walking into the middle of an incendiary arrangement, to the discomfort of both sides.
The previous fall, following a similar bombing attack on a Riyadh compound where U.S. civilian contractors were training members of the Saudi National Guard, authorities had rounded up several suspects and questioned them over a period of many months. Just about a month before the Khobar attack, Saudi authorities had broadcast the subjects’ confessions on state-controlled television, then beheaded the penitents before we had a chance to interview them, or even sit in on interviews the Saudis conducted. Again, the haste of the executions raised questions in the Clinton administration over what was being served: justice or expediency?
We had more jurisdiction in the crime this time than we’d had in that earlier bombing—nineteen dead U.S. servicemen, as opposed to five murdered Department of Defense contractors—but there was no guarantee the Saudi royal family would see it that way or cooperate to any greater degree even if they did. Without that cooperation, we would end up once again spinning our wheels in the sand.
Marilyn and I had no sooner unloaded the kids and their bags than I turned around and headed the two dozen miles back into Washington, to the command center at the FBI headquarters on Pennsylvania Avenue. In those days, the official name of the facility—the Strategic Investigations and Operations Center—was almost as large as the space itself: three rooms on the third floor, maybe two thousand square feet in all, crammed with monitors and secure phones with direct lines to the White House, the Central Intelligence Agency, the Department of Defense, the National Security Agency, and elsewhere.
Even before Khobar Towers, we were spilling out of the space. An eighty-one-day siege in Jordan, Montana, had ended less than two weeks earlier with the surrender of the sixteen remaining “Freemen” antigovernment extremists who had holed themselves up in a rural compound. The long memory of the fiery end of the fifty-one-day siege at the Branch Davidian compound at Waco, Texas, three years earlier had kept us on high alert throughout the Montana ordeal. (The eleven-day siege ignited by the U.S. Marshals Service at Ruby Ridge in Idaho in 1992 was also much on our minds.) Khobar itself would soon seem a trigger to a summer of crises. Three weeks later, on July 17, TWA flight 800 exploded off Long Island minutes after taking off from John F. Kennedy International Airport, killing all 230 passengers aboard. No one knew what had brought it down: mechanical failure, a bomb, a ground-to-air missile all seemed possible in the early stages. Ten days after, a bomb exploded in Atlanta’s Centennial Park during the height of the summer Olympic Games. With crisis piled on crisis, we had agents stashed in the hallway, working highly sensitive investigations on open phone lines. We had no choice. A new command center ten times larger (named by me after “Bush 41”) would finally be ready in 1999, but that was three years down the road. For now, we had to make do with what was, and that was cramped beyond belief.
My national security adviser, Robert “Bear” Bryant, was waiting for me. So were John O’Neill, Bryant’s section chief in charge of terrorism, and a few other agents of similar rank. (John would take over as chief of security for the World Trade Center in September 2001. He was killed September 11 of that year when the North Tower collapsed.) Bryant was in my view the best agent we ever had for counterintelligence and counterterrorism cases. Rock-solid, smart, and incredibly talented, he cared more about the people who worked for him than anyone else I know. As midnight came and went, we pored over intelligence reports, trying to work out theories of the attack.
Information was still scarce, which was telling in its own right. When something like Khobar Towers is the work of a loose confederation or of rank amateurs, listening posts at the CIA and NSA tend to light up with related chatter: participants phoning their wives and brothers to celebrate the great event or, better still, calling each other to plan a rendezvous or a next attack. The more disciplined the planners and bombers, the more silent the listening stations. For the moment, at least, the Khobar attackers and their masters were being quiet as a tomb, a strong hint that they were among the pros of global mayhem.
As for a working theory, the best we could do on short notice was to assume that this attack was a continuation of the earlier one on the Saudi National Guard headquarters. That one had been carried out, so we were told, by disaffected Sunnis, young men in their twenties and thirties who were resentful of the royal family and in league with Osama bin Laden, the black sheep of one of the kingdom’s richest families. We had, of course, no direct confirmation of that. The men in question had had their heads removed, with no consultation from us, but in the absence of other leads to pursue, we began to pull in intelligence from a variety of sources on Sunni radicals and the networks that supported them.
None of that, though, began to solve what for all of us in the room was the most pressing need: access. The Bureau had been true to Bill Clinton’s word: 150 FBI pros—including agents, lab analysts, and forensic experts—were headed for Riyadh. But we could fly another ten thousand agents there and it wouldn’t do a bit of good unless we could get them to the crime site and secure the cooperation of our hosts. That required the intervention of the royal family, and the only person I even faintly knew who fit that description was the Saudi ambassador, Prince Bandar. I picked up the phone and called him.
The prince took my call that night, and he couldn’t have been more gracious. We need to work together, I told him, and we want to cooperate with the Saudis on the ground in the kingdom. First, though, we need your help. His answer was what I’d hoped to hear: please come out to see me.
Prince Bandar lives at the crest of Washington diplomatic and political society. Other ambassadors wait in line to see the president; Bandar practically has his own key to the Oval Office. Thanks to the special relationship with the Saudis, and because of threats against him, he is the only ambassador to the United States assigned State Department protection. Bandar’s parties are legendary; the mansion in McLean, Virginia, where he lives and entertains, is epic. Passing between the enormous iron gates just off Virginia Route 123 that guard his driveway, I wondered who and how many people were waiting for me. I had come alone because I felt that the more the prince and I could put matters on a personal footing, the greater progress we would make, now and in the future. As it turned out, Bandar had only his highly competent principal deputy with him, Rihab Massoud, in effect the Saudi deputy chief of mission to the United States.
Over the course of perhaps two hours, including lunch, the three of us kicked around more working theories of the attack. The prince and Massoud, both excellent analysts, seemed to have no more idea than the Bureau did about who might be responsible, but Bandar did have new background information to offer. I learned for the first time that Hezbollah was active in the Sunni-dominated Eastern Province of Saudi Arabia, where the bombing had occurred. Although the Hezbollah is based in Lebanon, it takes its orders and draws financial and logistic support from Tehran, particularly Iran’s two security services, the Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps (IRGC) and the Intelligence and Security Ministry (MOIS). That raised the specter that the Iranian government had known of and backed the bombing of Khobar Towers. Bandar agreed it was possible, but he doubted that was the case. For Iran to officially sanction an attack in the Saudi kingdom would be very serious, he said—a grave turn of events.
“I’ll work with you and the FBI to get what you need. President Clinton told me you are in charge,” the prince said near the end of our meeting. It turned out Prince Bandar was true to his word—the beginning of a friendship that grew stronger as I came to know and trust him.
“What we need first,” I said, “is access for the contingent we are sending over there. We also want to talk and work directly with your police.”
Bandar promised to call Prince Nayef, the Saudi interior minister, to pave the way for the small army of agents we were flying into the kingdom.
“Do you know our police?” he asked.
“Well”—I laughed—“we have an agent in Rome. . . .”
Rome was, in fact, as close as we had been able to get to stationing one of our own in the kingdom. He dealt with Riyadh the way circuit preachers used to deal with tiny remote hamlets in the Old West: twice a year or so. With Bandar’s intervention, we would soon have an Arab-speaking agent living permanently in Riyadh, a huge leap forward.
As helpful as he was, Prince Bandar was not able to be completely forthright with me at that first meeting. He knew that two months earlier the Saudis had arrested a Qatif native named Fadel al-Alawe as he attempted to cross into the kingdom over the Jordanian border in a car loaded down with thirty-eight kilograms of plastic explosives. Under questioning, al-Alawe admitted to Saudi authorities that he had been involved in a series of surveillances at Khobar Towers. The car and its hidden explosives, he said, had been given to him in Beirut, and he had driven from Lebanon through Syria and Jordan to the border. By early April, three other plotters had been rounded up inside Saudi Arabia. As Bandar parceled the story out to me over the next several weeks, it became evident that the Saudis felt they had intercepted the plan and excised the terrorist cell that was to carry it out. In fact, the kingdom harbored numerous Hezbollah cells. With one rolled up, the plotters simply activated another.
Had we known about the earlier arrests, we certainly would have stepped up security at Dhahran. Quite possibly, we could have intercepted the tanker truck before it could be detonated. The nineteen dead might still be living. There’s a terrible potential price for holding that type of information so close to the vest. But secrecy is a way of life in that part of the world, and Bandar, I suppose, could argue that he had let out all he could by telling me at our first meeting about the Hezbollah presence in the Eastern Province. Besides, hindsight is always 20/20. We had to deal with what was, not what could have been.
When I got back to my office, I phoned Janet Reno and Sandy Berger and told them that I’d had a very productive discussion with Bandar. The table had been set for the team we were sending. Our lab analysts and forensic experts would have access to the crime site. I met that afternoon with John Deutsch, then head of the CIA, and told him the same thing. In both instances, I passed on Prince Bandar’s mention of the Hezbollah presence in eastern Saudi Arabia. That knowledge added to the stew, but in the absence of any stronger evidence, our working theory stayed as it was: Khobar was home grown, possibly connected to the earlier attack on the national guard building; for the Saudis, at least, an internal matter.
A little more than a day later, Bear Bryant, John O’Neill, a few others, and I boarded a plane at Andrews Air Force Base and followed our agents to the desert.
Copyright © 2005 by Louis J. Freeh. All rights reserved.