Khobar Indictments Strain Saudi-US Relations

25 June: The Saudis are taking up the cudgel for their affronted sovereignty against a 46-count indictment issued by the US federal grand jury on June 21, five years after the truck bombing at the Khobar Towers apartment building in Dahran, Saudi Arabia, that killed 10 American airmen and wounded nearly 400 in 1996. The indictments cite 13 Saudi citizens and a Lebanese man, said to be members of the anti-American “Saudi Hizballah” (or Hizballah Hijaz) dedicated to driving Americans out of the kingdom: Ahmed Al-Mughassil aka “Abu Omran”, Ali Al-Houri, Hani Al-Sayegh, Ibrhaim Al-Yacoub, Abddel Karim Al-Nasser, Mustafa Al-Qassab, Saed Al-Bahar, Abdallah A l-Jarash, Hussein Al-Mughis, Ali Akl-Marhoun, Saleh Ramadan, Mustafa Al Mua’alem, Fadel Al-Alawe and John Doe, a Lebanese male, app. 175 cm tall, with fair skin, fair hair and green eyes. Many intelligence services would give much for the identity of that Lebanese.
Unnamed Iranian officials are also said to be implicated. This troubles Saudi Arabia, whose ties with Iran have recently improved. Iran denies any involvement in the bombing.
None of the accused men are in the United States, which nonetheless issued the indictment now for the sake of obtaining international subpoenas against the accused men before the five-year term of limitations runs out. The FBI also hopes the Saudis will give up the suspects they are holding and let them go on trial in the United States. The US and Saudi Arabia are not bound by extradition treaty.
However, the Saudis are diametrically opposed to the US in their perception of the affair. Until now they have withheld cooperation in the five-year US inquiry and hampered its progress.
According to the indictment, the accused, mostly Shiites from the east Saudi town of Qatif, were recruited to an organization called Hizballah Hijaz while on a pilgrimage to a shrine in Damascus, Syria, dedicated to Sayyeda Zeinab, a member of the family of Ali. Syrian intelligence, which keeps track of every foreign visitor, would not have missed the conspirators.
Three years from inception to bombing
The conspiracy to strike at the Khobar Towers housing US airmen and their families was hatched over a three-year period. First, the US embassy in Riyadh and nearby fish market frequented by Americans was scouted in 1993; locations in the Eastern provinces, including the Khobar Towers, were surveyed one year later,
In the fall of 1995, Ahmed Al-Mughassil, “Abu Omran”, the ringleader, fixed on the Khobar Towers for attack, In 1996, he instructed another defendant to transport explosives by car from Beirut through Syria and Jordan to Eastern Saudi Arabia. After completing the mission the defendant discovered the vehicle was empty and complained, only to be told that it had been a trial run. In October 1995, a team member came to the home in Qatif of one of the defendants and showed him a detailed map of the Khobar Towers, their target.
In early March 1996, two members of the group were sent to Beirut – this time to pick up 38 kilos of plastic explosives for real. On March 28, they were stopped by a Saudi border patrol while trying to bring their freight in via Jordan. The explosives were discovered and the two men taken in for questioning, after which most of the group was rounded up in the Eastern Provinces between April 6 and 8.
But some group members remained free and determined to go through with their plan.
In May 1996, the Lebanese “John Doe” arrived in Saudi Arabia. Not much is known about him except that he belonged to the Lebanese Hizballah and was a truck-bomb expert. He may also have brought with him forged Iranian passports to give the cell members freedom of movement. Large quantities of explosive materials, detonators and stopwatches began flowing to Qatif at this time, although the indictment does not specify how it was smuggled in. The materials were cached in hiding places near the Khobar Towers.
On the evening of June 25, 1996,when most of the American airmen were at home with their families, the team parked a tanker filled with gasoline and explosives outside the housing complex and escaped the scene in a second other vehicle. A few minutes later, a colossal blast tore the entire frontage off the high-rise living quarters, imploding on the people and objects inside the apartments. Within seconds, the vacuum filled with burning fuel.
The effect was devastating. The unnamed Lebanese was certainly a master of his craft.
The 5,000-pound bomb has been described as larger than the one that destroyed the Oklahoma city federal building in 1995, for which Timothy McVeigh was executed earlier this month, and more than twice as powerful as the one the Hizballah used to blow up US Marine barracks in Beirut in 1983, killing close to 300 men.
In its first response to the indictment, the Saudis angrily denied holding any members of any such organization as the Saudi Hizballah. However, they must have known all about it for five years, when three months before the bombing, they picked up and interrogated four members. The Saudis also denied Iranian and Syrian involvement in the organization’s work and choice of target.
debkafile‘s anti-terrorism sources reveal that the FBI came close to laying hands on one or two of the conspirators twice. A few weeks after the bombing, Syria detained a Saudi citizen called Jaafer Shawihath in the Yarmuk Palestinian refugee camp outside Damascus. He was suspected of being the contact man between the Saudi Hizballah and Iranian embassies in Damascus and Beirut. American and Saudi authorities got wind of the arrest and requested access. At first the Syrians denied holding the man. Then, in an effort to cover up the Iranian connection with the bombing, refused to allow American and Saudi officials to interrogate him. A Saudi security team finally received permission to question Shawihath. Upon landing in Damascus on September 18, 1996, the team was told Shawihat had choked to death on a peanut. The body was not made available for post mortem.
Later that year, one of the defendants, Hani al-Sayegh (who is charged under the indictment with “Conspiracy to Use Weapons of Mass Destruction against US Nationals”), slipped through American fingers. Detained in Canada, he was extradited a year later to the United States, where he promised to cooperate with the FBI investigation. However he reneged on his promise, presumably under threat from his fellow-conspirators, and was sent back to Saudi Arabia.
Saudi Anger
In the five years since the bombing, the FBI actively sought Saudi assistance in the inquiry, only to be given a polite runaround. Upon publication of the indictments, the Saudi defense minister and brother of the king, Prince Sultan Bin Abdul Aziz, accused the Americans of failing to hand over the documents and evidence in the case and a list of the accused. He added indignantly that while a foreign country may discuss the case, “it does not have the right to take any procedures. Only Saudi Arabia has the right to take procedures.”
Another of the king’s brothers, the interior minister, Prince Nayef Bin Abdul Aziz, added a day later that the kingdom was holding 11 of the 13 men indicted in the US and promised to put them on trial soon, but in Saudi Arabia. There was no question of handing them over to the United States. Sultan went further, declaring the United States had no right to issue indictments against Saudi nationals.
The entire issue touches on a sensitive Saudi spot, sovereignty.
The authorities in Riyadh are not standing up for the members of the Shiite “Hijaz Hizballah” implicated in the crime. Just the opposite. Indeed, all the friends, relations and associates of the 11 jailed men have probably been thrown into prison alongside them. Letting them all rot in prison without trial since 1996 – and continuing to do so – presents no problem in the kingdom. Its rulers’ overriding concern is to keep the foreigners away while they administer justice to their nationals according to their own system of laws and traditions, whatever the crimes, including acts of terrorism.
The US Justice Department rejects Saudi suggestions that the suspects will not be brought to justice in the United States.
Past sensitivities and differences have never upset the close US-Saudi relationship. Some 5,000 US troops and 40,000 civilian workers remain permanently in the kingdom, over the protests of various Saudi groups and Moslem militants. But now, debkafile‘s Saudi sources point out, the indictment dispute crops up only weeks after Crown Prince Abdullah called off his American visit to demonstrate his government’s disapproval of what is seen as US pro-Israeli bias in the conflict with the Palestinians.
US secretary of state Colin Powell will have his work cut out this coming weekend to smooth ruffled Saudi feathers. He may find there is no quick fix for the damage caused by the indictments and the Israel-Palestinian conflict.

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