Twenty-five years ago, at about 9:30 p.m. on the evening of June 25, 1996, a huge explosion rocked the barracks of the U.S. Air Force’s 4404th Temporary Wing in Khobar, Saudi Arabia. The explosion of a truck bomb was so massive that it could be felt in Bahrain 20 miles away. Nineteen American pilots were killed and 498 injured, most of them Saudis and foreign workers in adjacent car park buildings where the bomb exploded.
The terrorist attack on the Khobar Towers was the deadliest attack on America between the 1983 Marine barracks disaster in Beirut and September 11, 2001. Its legacy continues to haunt Washington’s relations with Iran. I watched the drama up close.
I was in Jerusalem that evening traveling with Secretary of State Warren Christopher as representative of Secretary of Defense William Perry. The next morning, we drove directly to Dhahran airport to see the site and interview the survivors. On the way I was told I should stay in Dhahran when Christopher left and get ready to visit Perry in a week or so. My luggage was in a dormitory, and she left without me.
The sight of the bomb was horrific. The outer walls of the barracks were blown out so you could see the destruction inside. There was a huge crater where the bomb had exploded. The nearby Saudi community has also been wiped out.
As Deputy Assistant Secretary of Defense for the Near East and South Asia, I was the most senior civilian official in the Ministry of Defense in Saudi Arabia. The Air Force assigned me a control officer as usual. She was a lieutenant who was wounded in the attack. At our first meeting she was still bleeding a little.
I met the Saudi ambassador to the United States who was at home in Riyadh when the attack happened and he rushed to Dhahran immediately. Prince Bandar bin Sultan bin Abdulaziz was an old friend. We worked closely together after the Iraqi invasion of Kuwait in August 1990 and the Gulf War in 1991. Bandar was careful not to definitively state that Iran was behind the attack, but he certainly pointed in that direction.
We later learned that the Saudis had a lot of information about the bombers they didn’t share. The Saudis learned of an Iranian-backed Saudi Shiite terrorist organization that was smuggling explosives into the Dhahran region.
The plot was hatched two years ago in the Sayeda Zainab Mosque in Damascus, Syria, by three parties: Iranian intelligence, Lebanese Hezbollah, and a group of Saudi Shiite terrorist groups with various names including Hezbollah in the Hejaz. The mosque It is the tomb of Zainab, the daughter of Fatima, the daughter of the Prophet Muhammad and his nephew Ali. It is a very sacred site for Shiite pilgrims to visit. In the 1990s it was a stronghold of the Iranian Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) in Damascus. When I visited the mosque in 1988 it was filled with widows and orphans of the Revolutionary Guards who were killed in the Iran-Iraq war.
The Iranian role has, rightly, garnered the most attention, but Lebanon’s Hezbollah was the key to the detonation. She provided the bomb maker who put the explosives in the truck. It has not been recognized before. The leader of Saudi Shiite collaborators was Ahmed Mughassil It was captured by the Saudis In Beirut in 2015.
Once Secretary Perry arrived, toured the bomb site, and met with Air Force leaders at the site, the next step was to find a new site to operate from, with better security. The Khobar Towers were in the middle of an urban area. The Minister of Defense and Aviation Prince Sultan bin Abdulaziz (the father of Bandar) suggested establishing a base south of Riyadh named after him and isolated in the depths of the desert.
Perry and I checked out the base, which was then empty, and agreed to move there. Within months, American, British and French planes and crews had been flown from Khobar to Prince Sultan Air Base where they had miles of empty space in every direction.
Back in Washington, the Clinton administration was uncomfortable with the evidence of Iran’s role. The Saudis were reluctant to share what they knew because they assumed Clinton would order retaliation against Iran if he was certain Tehran was responsible. This could lead to a war between the United States and Iran with Saudi Arabia in the middle, a nightmare scenario for the kingdom.
Clinton allowed a secret response to the Iranians. Around the world, CIA officers contacted Iranian intelligence and IRGC operatives secretly serving as diplomats and threatened to expose them publicly. Then agents will have to tell their superiors back home that their cover has been blown and go back to Iran. The sting forced dozens of Iranian militants to lose their positions abroad, greatly disrupting their operations. It was far more devastating to Iran than an air strike would have been, without the risks of starting an open war with no viable end and unforeseen consequences.
Three years later, as evidence of Iran’s guilt mounted, Clinton sent a Speech To Iran’s new president, Mohammad Khatami, who called on the reformist leader to bring the Iranian Revolutionary Guards officials responsible for the news to justice or hand them over to Saudi Arabia. As Special Assistant to the President for Near Eastern and South Asian Affairs, I have been tasked with delivering the message by delivering the message to Sultan Qaboos, a country that enjoys good relations with both America and Iran.
Accompanied by Assistant Secretary of State for Near Eastern Affairs Martin Indyk, I met Sultan Qaboos at his palace outside Paris. As we expected, the Iranians denied any involvement in the bombing. It was a helpful message to the Iranians that we were watching them closely. However, the letter had the unintended effect of intensifying the already strained relationship between Khatami and hardliners in the Iranian government.
Just last year court I ordered Iran To pay $879 million in compensation to the victims of the news. The issue just won’t go away.
At the barracks in 1996, the consulate in Dhahran hosted me and I shared my necktie with the chargé d’affaires. After five days of standing, the Air Force held a ceremony to commemorate the dead. Then at noon, two F-15s dropped onto the runway and gently lifted into the sky. Al-Qaeda had reintroduced the no-fly zone in the south over Iraq. The temperature in the field was over 120 degrees Fahrenheit. I have never been more proud of our men and women in uniform.