WASHINGTON — On Jun. 25, 1996, a massive truck bomb exploded at a building in the Khobar Towers complex in Khobar, Saudi Arabia, which housed U.S. Air Force personnel, killing 19 U.S. airmen and wounding 372.
Immediately after the blast, more than 125 agents from the U.S. Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) were ordered to the site to sift for clues and begin the investigation of who was responsible. But when two U.S. embassy officers arrived at the scene of the devastation early the next morning, they found a bulldozer beginning to dig up the entire crime scene.
The Saudi bulldozing stopped only after Scott Erskine, the supervisory FBI special agent for international terrorism investigations, threatened that Secretary of State Warren Christopher, who happened to be in Saudi Arabia when the bomb exploded, would intervene personally on the matter.
U.S. intelligence then intercepted communications from the highest levels of the Saudi government, including interior minister Prince Nayef, to the governor and other officials of Eastern Province instructing them to go through the motions of cooperating with U.S. officials on their investigation but to obstruct it at every turn.
That was the beginning of what interviews with more than a dozen sources familiar with the investigation and other information now available reveal was a systematic effort by the Saudis to obstruct any U.S. investigation of the bombing and to deceive the United States about who was responsible for the bombing.
The Saudi regime steered the FBI investigation toward Iran and its Saudi Shi’a allies with the apparent intention of keeping U.S. officials away from a trail of evidence that would have led to Osama bin Laden and a complex set of ties between the regime and the Saudi terrorist organizer.
The key to the success of the Saudi deception was FBI director Louis Freeh, who took personal charge of the FBI investigation, letting it be known within the Bureau that he was the “case officer” for the probe, according to former FBI officials.
Freeh allowed Saudi Ambassador Prince Bandar bin Sultan to convince him that Iran was involved in the bombing, and that President Bill Clinton, for whom he had formed a visceral dislike, “had no interest in confronting the fact that Iran had blown up the towers,” as Freeh wrote in his memoirs.
The Khobar Towers investigation soon became Freeh’s vendetta against Clinton. “Freeh was pursuing this for his own personal agenda,” says former FBI agent Jack Cloonan.
A former high-ranking FBI official recalls that Freeh “was always meeting with Bandar.” And many of the meetings were not in Freeh’s office but at Bandar’s 38-room home in McLean, Virginia.
Meanwhile, the Saudis were refusing the most basic FBI requests for cooperation. When Ray Mislock, who headed the National Security Division of the FBI’s Washington Field Office, requested permission to go door to door to interview witnesses in the neighborhood, the Saudis refused.
“It’s our responsibility,” Mislock recalls being told. “We’ll do the interviews.”
But the Saudis never conducted such interviews. The same thing happened when Mislock requested access to phone records for the immediate area surrounding Khobar Towers.
Soon after the bombing, officials of the Saudi secret police, the Mabahith, began telling their FBI and CIA contacts that they had begun arresting members of a little known Shi’a group called “Saudi Hezbollah”, which Saudi and U.S. intelligence had long believed was close to Iran. They claimed that they had extensive intelligence information linking the group to the Khobar Towers bombing.
But a now declassified July 1996 report by CIA analysts on the bombing reveals that the Mabahith claims were considered suspect. The report said the Mabahith “have not shown U.S. officials their evidence . . . nor provided many details on their investigation.”
Nevertheless, Freeh quickly made Iranian and Saudi Shi’a responsibility for the bombing the official premise of the investigation, excluding from the inquiry the hypothesis that Osama bin Laden’s al Qaeda organisation had carried out the Khobar Towers bombing.
“There was never, ever a doubt in my mind about who did this,” says a former FBI official involved in the investigation who refused to be identified.
FBI and CIA experts on Osama bin Laden tried unsuccessfully to play a role in the Khobar Towers investigation. Jack Cloonan, a member of the FBI’s I-49 unit, which was building a legal case against bin Laden over previous terrorist actions, recalls asking the Washington Field Office (WFO), which had direct responsibility for the investigation, to allow such I-49 participation, only to be rebuffed.
“The WFO was hypersensitive and told us to f*ck off,” says Cloonan.
The CIA’s bin Laden unit, which had only been established in early 1996, was also excluded by CIA leadership from that Agency’s work on the bombing.
Two or three days after the Khobar bombing, recalls Dan Coleman, an FBI agent assigned to the unit, the agency “locked down” its own investigation, creating an encrypted “passline” that limited access to information related to Khobar investigation to the handful of people at the CIA who were given that code.
The head of the bin Laden unit at the CIA’s Counter-Terrorism Center, Michael Scheuer, was not included among that small group.
Nevertheless, Scheuer instructed his staff to put together all the information the station had collected from all sources — human assets, electronic intercepts and open sources — indicating that there would be an al Qaeda operation in Saudi Arabia after the bombing in Riyadh the previous November.
The result was a four-page memo which ticked off the evidence that bin Laden’s al Qaeda organization had been planning a military operation involving explosives in Saudi in 1996.
“One of the places mentioned in the memo was Khobar,” says Scheuer. “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.”
A few days after receiving the bin Laden unit’s four-page memo, the head of the CIA’s Counter-Terrorism Center, Winston Wiley, one of the few CIA officials who was privy to information on the investigation, came to Scheuer’s office and closed the door. Wiley opened up a folder which had only one document in it — a translated intercept of an internal Iranian communication in which there was a reference to Khobar Towers. “Are you satisfied?” Wiley asked.
Scheuer replied that it was only one piece of information in a much bigger universe of information that pointed in another direction. “If that’s all there is,” he told Wiley, “I would say it was very interesting and ought to be followed up, but it isn’t definitive.”
But the signal from the CIA leadership was clear: Iran had already been identified as responsible for the Khobar bombing plot, and there was no interest in pursuing the bin Laden angle.
In September 1996, bin Laden’s former business agent Jamal Al-Fadl, who had left al Qaeda over personal grievances, walked into the U.S. embassy in Eritrea and immediately began providing the best intelligence the United States had ever gotten on bin Laden and al Qaeda.
But the CIA and FBI made no effort to take advantage of his knowledge to get information on possible al Qaeda involvement in the Khobar Towers bombing, according to Dan Coleman, one of al-Fadl’s FBI handlers.
“We were never given any questions to ask him about Khobar Towers,” says Coleman.
(*This is the first of a five-part series, “Khobar Towers Investigated: How a Saudi Deception Protected Osama bin Laden.” The series was supported by the Fund for Investigative Journalism.)