Investigating Khobar Towers: How a Saudi Deception Protected bin Laden

Part 1: Al Qaeda Excluded from the Suspects List

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.)

Gareth Porter, an investigative historian and journalist specialising in U.S. national security policy, received the UK-based Gellhorn Prize for journalism for 2011 for articles on the U.S. war in Afghanistan. His new book, Manufactured Crisis: The Untold Story of the Iran Nuclear Scare, was published February 14, 2014. Read other articles by Gareth.

3 comments on this article so far ...

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  1. mabamford said on June 25th, 2009 at 5:38pm #

    to view a partial list of crimes committed by FBI agents over 1500 pages long see
    http://www.forums.signonsandiego.com/showthread.php?t=59139

    to view a partial list of FBI agents arrested for pedophilia see
    http://www.dallasnews.com/forums/viewtopic.php?t=3574

  2. mjosef said on June 26th, 2009 at 5:34am #

    For a must-read that accords fully with Gareth Porter’s reporting, read Peter Lance’s “Triple Cross.”

  3. Alene Ammond, Former NJ State Senator said on September 28th, 2009 at 11:01am #

    Dear Gareth,

    I am the former NJ State Senator who has been representing a former Army Intel Officer whose 85 Page Rear Area Threat Assessment was shredded. The Assessment was shredded by order of Major Kelley Langdorf. Shredding was witnessed by former Intel Officer Jonathan Tasso. Tasso, just out of Intel school was so shocked that he resigned from the Army.

    Now I have at least 45 A.F. survivors whom support a new formal investigation. Also have large number of Internal Army Docs (none classified) proving the case. I would like to speak with you. Have been interviewed by FBI Counter Intel in Philadelphia office. Two Washingt5on FBI Counter Intel experts flew in last year to interview. The main agent, a woman, Brandt Kinder appeared interested. I have many documents on the table. The following day a former A.F. Security Policeman who has worked with me for two years called her to ascertain how our meeting went. She was very rude to him. I called her to find out why. She lashed out with this: “you still gonna stick to your story that CPT Brady hasn’t paid you?”

    I immediately shot back “oh, all those airmen died, hundreds wounded and you want to know how much Brady paid me? I told her she could illegally go into our finances. Anyway, what if he had paid me. How would that change the facts? it showed me that the FBI will do anything to hold down new information.

    I am a former State Senator and experienced government corruption investigator I had no intention of allowing her to intimidate me. I fought back. CPT Brady was put out of the Army, could only afford to pay my expenses over these four years. I immediately wrote a letter to all the agencies involved including FBI Chief Mueller.

    But, here’s a hopeful part. CW4 Bryan Johnson, Army CIDC chief in Washington has been very supportive. We are on email to each other daily. He alone has guided and assisted me. Recently had lunch with him in Washington.

    Also, Leonard Trahan, Supervisor at the DODIG office in Arlington, Va. told me recently that I had proven the case and to go to the press.

    Jonathan Tasso, Intel Officer attached to Brady’s team witnessed the shredding and has written me an affidavit. I had given the FBI his name last year, but they never bother to find him. Tasso left the Army disillusioned over happened to Brady’s 85 Rear Area Threat Assessment. His Assessnent spelled out the poor state of Intel files; the lack of security; the questionable Saudi Security;

    So, was this internal incompetence? Jealousy of Brady who was making Maj Langdorf look highly incompetent? Stupidity? Arrogance or all of the above? Air Force Sec. Policeman, Sgt Larry Oliver and officer John Hubbell were put on the roof of the building nightly; they recorded and filmed nightly terrorist activity every night in the Parking Lot. Some were dressed as women; would drive their trucks into Jersey Barriers to see how close they could get to the perimeter fence.

    Due to my public personal as anti corruption, the FBI always meets with me. But, the Counter Intel agents in Philadelphia and Agent Kinder in Washington do not want to speak to me any longers about Khobar Towers. I am now ready to schedule a major press conference in Washington. I can arranged for at least of the A.F.

    CPT Brady felt responsible for the bombing and deaths. For years he said, he should have been warned about Major langdorf. Langdorf sent him to Lanstuhl Hospital Germany for a phony psyche evaluation. Jonathan Tasso says that is when Langdorf ordered his assistance, SFC Porter to begin shredding Brady’s files/assessment, etc. All Classifiedl

    Khobar was bombed while Brady was at Landstuhl. When he got back Langdorf order him to be guarded to prevent his contact with Gen. Downing’s investigators. Shocking!

    I do wish to speak to you. And ready to schedule a major press conference. Jim Brady was thrown out of the Army for a minor act. They wanted to get rid of this whistleblower at all costs.

    Very happy you are making this effort. Alene S. Ammond 856/429-0844; 103 Willow Way, Cherry Hill, NJ 08034
    If interested I will send you CW4 Bryan Johnson’s phone no.

    Alene Ammond
    Officers to attend.

    So, I have proven that something was amiss inside the Army
    ranks. Why? Jealousy of CPT Brady? All attempts made to
    discredit him and his report; I have copies of his internal
    Army Memorandum for Record describing the poor state of
    Army Intelligence records. He said there were only