WASHINGTON — Osama Bin Laden had made no secret of his intention to attack the U.S. military presence in Saudi Arabia. He had been calling for such attacks to drive it from the country since his first fatwa calling for jihad against Western “occupation” of Islamic lands in early 1992.
On Jul. 11, 1995, he had written an “Open Letter” to King Fahd advocating a campaign of guerilla attacks to drive U.S. military forces out of the Kingdom.
Bin Laden’s al Qaeda organization began carrying out that campaign later that same year. On Nov. 13, 1995 a car bomb destroyed the Office of the Program Manager of the Saudi National Guard (OPM SANG) in Riyadh, killing five U.S. airmen and wounding 34.
The confessions of the four jihadists from the Afghan War to the bombing, which were broadcast on Saudi television, said they had been inspired by Osama bin Laden, and one of them referred to a camp in Afghanistan that was associated with bin Laden.
“It was a backhanded reference to bin Laden,” says veteran FBI agent Dan Coleman.
The U.S. 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 only an hour and half before that the four suspects would be beheaded.
When the bomb exploded at Khobar Towers on Jun. 25, 1996, Scott Erskine, the agent in charge of the Riyadh bombing investigation, was about to return to the United States after another frustrating meeting in which Saudi officials were not forthcoming about whom they were going to prosecute. When FBI Director Louis Freeh visited Khobar a few days after the bombing, he was told not to expect any more information on the Riyadh bombing.
Instead of insisting that the Clinton administration put more pressure on the Saudis to cooperate on the possibility of links between the two bombings, Freeh quietly decided to drop the investigation of the Riyadh bombing entirely. The case was put on “inactive” status, according to two former FBI officials, meaning that no more actions were to be taken, even though it had not been formally closed.
Bin Laden made it more difficult to ignore his role, however, by publicly claiming responsibility for both the Riyadh and Khobar bombings. In October 1996, after having issued yet another fatwa calling on Muslims to drive U.S. soldiers out of the Kingdom, 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 in an interview published in the same newspaper Nov. 29, 1996, he was asked why there had been no further operations along the lines of the Khobar operation. “The military are aware that preparations for major operations require time, in contrast with small operations,” said bin Laden.
He then linked the two bombings in Saudi Arabia explicitly as signals to the United States from his organization: “We had thought that the Riyadh and Khobar blasts were a sufficient signal to sensible U.S. decision-makers to avert a real battle between the Islamic nation and U.S. forces,” said bin Laden, “but it seems that they did not understand the signal.”
According to Coleman, one of the FBI’s top investigators on al Qaeda, bin Laden always took credit for terrorist actions he had planned but not for those he had not planned. For example, bin Laden issued no claim about the World Trade Centre bombing and told his former business agent turned FBI informer, Jamal al-Fadl, that he had nothing to do with it, Coleman says.
The Riyadh and Khobar bombings even had a common operational feature. As noted by the head of the bin Laden unit at the CIA, Michael Scheuer, in both cases, the vehicle was not parked so as to bring the entire building down. If the team executing the Khobar bombing had parked parallel to the security fence rather than backing up to it, says Scheuer, it would have destroyed the entire building. The same thing had happened in the OPM SANG bombing.
The bin Laden unit of the CIA had collected concrete intelligence on bin Laden’s role in planning the Khobar Towers bombing. In mid-January, 1996, according to the intelligence compiled by the unit, bin Laden traveled to Doha, Qatar, where plans were discussed for attacks in eastern Saudi Arabia. Bin Laden arranged for 20 tons of high explosive C-4 to be shipped from Poland to Qatar, two tons of which were to be sent to Saudi Arabia, the report said.
Bin Laden specifically referred to operations targeting U.S. interests in the triangle of cities of Dammam, Dhahran and Khobar in Eastern Province, using clandestine al Qaeda cells in Saudi Arabia, according to the intelligence reporting.
FBI agents working on the Khobar case simply rejected any evidence of bin Laden’s involvement in Khobar, however, because the decision had already been made that the Shi’as were responsible.
David Williams, then the FBI agent in charge of counter-terrorism for the Bureau, recalls that he had read intelligence reports suggesting bin Laden’s involvement in the bombing, but says he had done so “with a suspicious eye”.
The FBI investigators dismissed the relevance of the evidence linking bin Laden to the Riyadh bombing. As one former FBI official explained the logic of that position to Inter Press Service (IPS), the Khobar Towers bombing was completely different from the Riyadh bombing seven months earlier: it was in an area of Eastern Province where Shi’a oppositionists were predominant and where al Qaeda had no known cell.
The facts, however, told a different story. The city of Khobar itself was predominantly Sunni, not Shi’a, and the triangular area of the three cities had a large population of veterans of the Afghan War who were followers of bin Laden. As the London-based Palestinian publication reported in August 1996, the six jihadis who confessed to the bombing were all from an area called Al Thoqba near Khobar.
One of the veteran jihadis detained after the bombing, Yusuf al-Ayayri, who was then the actual head of al Qaeda in the Arabian peninsula, was from Dammam and knew the jihadi community in that region very well, according to Norwegian specialist on al Qaeda Thomas Hegghammer.
The FBI and CIA knew nothing about bin Laden’s movement in that part of Saudi Arabia, however, because they were completely dependent on Saudi intelligence for such information. A CIA memorandum dated Jul. 1, 1996 said the Agency had “little information” about the “location, size, composition or activities” of opposition cells in Saudi Arabia.
Interviews with FBI officials involved in the investigation make it clear that they were not interested in evidence linking bin Laden to the bombing, because they understood their task to be limited to getting whatever information they could from Saudi officials.
Williams says he didn’t question the Saudi account of the Khobar plot, because, “You start to believe the people who are your interlocutors.”
Asked about the evidence that bin Laden was behind the plot, another FBI official with substantive responsibility for the investigation told IPS, “I didn’t get involved in that aspect. That wasn’t my job.”
(*This is the fourth of a five-part series, “Khobar Towers Investigated: How a Saudi Deception Protected Osama bin Laden.” The work on this series was supported by the Fund for Investigative Journalism.)