Khobar Towers: One more Iranian Attack

Written by Walter Purdy.

Case of Study


"Iranian intelligence officers began to surveil American facilities around the world, and it was clear to us from the intelligence that they planned to attack us. And they did. Iranian intelligence, working with Saudi Hezbollah, blew up the American Air Force facility at Khobar Towers in Saudi Arabia." —Richard Clarke 1


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Iran has been waging a war against the United States since 1979. On February 1, 1979, the Ayatollah Khomeini returned to Iran after being exiled for 15 years. On November 4, 1979, Iranians stormed the U.S. Embassy in Teheran, seizing American hostages and marking the 15th anniversary of when Khomeini had been exiled.

With the Iranian Revolution in full force, the Khomeini government began exporting the Revolution and setting up proxies to fight the enemies of the Revolution and support Shi’as worldwide. One of the first opportunities came about with the invasion of Lebanon in 1982 by the Israeli Army. Hizbullah, “the Party of God,” was created by Shiite Muslim clerics in Lebanon and financed by Iran. Lebanon, after years of civil war, faced a new threat directed from outside. This new threat was clearly identified in Hijaz (Saudi Hizbullah), which operated in the kingdom of Saudi Arabia. “From its inception in 1987, Hizbullah al- Hijaz was a cleric-based group aligned with Iran, modeling itself on Lebanese Hizbullah. 2 The Iranians used their proxy to attack American interest in both Lebanon and Saudi Arabia. Saudi Hizbullah often met and recruited members at the Sayyeda Zeinab

Mosque in Damascus, Syria. Ahmed al-Mughassil, the military commander of Saudi Hizbullah met and recruited Saudi Shi’ite at the Sayyeda Zeinab Mosque. Al-Mughassil coordinated and arranged for the new recruits to travel to Lebanon and Iran for military training. Ali al-Houri, a lieutenant of Al-Mughassil, acted not only as a recruiter and liaison “with the Iranian Embassy in Damascus, Syria, which was an important source of logistics and support for Saudi Hizballah members traveling to and from Lebanon.” 3

In 1993, Ahmed al-Mughassil instructed a number of members of Saudi Hizballah to start surveillance and casing operations of sites in eastern Saudi Arabia, where Americans might be found to target. The surveillance team “produced reports, which were then passed to Al-Mughassil, then onto Saudi Hizballah chief Al-Nasser, and to officials in Iran.”4 In the summer of 1995, after extensive surveillance of American targets in Saudi Arabia, the cell began regular surveillance of Khobar Towers.

Members of the 4404th Fighter Wing (Provisional) based at Khobar Towers were tasked with conducting the “no-fly zone mission” as designated by Operation Southern Watch, which was “intended only to carry out a temporary mission until Iraq complied with U.N. resolutions and sanctions were lifted.” 5 Due to various threat factors and the bombing on November 13, 1995 of the Office of the Program Manager of the Saudi National Guard (OPM-SANG) in Riyadh, a number of security measures were implemented. While the the Long Commission Report, which stated that “the ability of Khomeini’s Iran to mobilize a small, but violently extremist portion of the Lebanese Shiite community against the government and the LAFLAF.” The leaders of Hizbullah were followers of Khomeini and were trained by the Iranian Revolutionary Guards in the Bekaa Valley. Hizbullah worldwide became a proxy for Iranian geopolitical and military actions against its enemies. “A cleric of Hizbullah al-Hijaz argued that there is no difference between the Hizbullah groups in Hijaz, Kuwait, Lebanon or any other place.” 2

One such proxy was Hizbullah al- terrorists conducted surveillance of the target, two vulnerability assessments were conducted by the U.S. Air Force Office of Special Investigations and “more than 130 specific actions taken in response to the vulnerability assessments that were conducted in July 1995 and January 1996.” 6 However, numerous recommendations were not implemented and not pursued with any urgency. These included extending the perimeter, coating all windows with Mylar and even moving personnel from exterior buildings to interior quarters away from the perimeter.

Al-Mughassil continued his preparations to bomb Building 131, an eight story building that served as a residence for American air force personnel housed at Khobar Towers. Saudi Hizballah began smuggling explosives from Beirut, Lebanon to Qatiff, Saudi Arabia. On March 28, 1996, Saudi border guards discovered 38 kilograms of plastic explosives hidden in one such car driven by a Saudi Hizballah member who had come from Lebanon.

This arrest led to three other members of Saudi Hizballah, who were soon arrested. But this did not slow down the terrorist operational planning and activities. In June 1996, the terrorists purchased a large Mercedes-Benz tanker truck and “paid about 75,000 Saudi riyals for the truck. Over the next two weeks, the conspirators worked at a farm in the Qatif area to convert the tanker truck into a large truck bomb.” 7

On June 25, 1996, the temperature dropped into the nineties as the sun set over Dhahran, Saudi Arabia. Air Force Security Police Staff Sergeant Alfredo Guerrero headed out to check on the security posts on the Khobar Towers compound after handling reports and administrative tasks. SSgt. Guerrero began checking his numerous security posts on the facility starting with the security post on top of Building 131, an eight story barracks on the edge of the compound. 8

The terrorists departed Qatif in three vehicles that evening. Hani al-Sayegh was driving a Datsun “scout vehicle” and was accompanied by Abdallah al-Jarash in the passenger seat. Hussein al-Mughis was at the wheel of the get-away car, a white four-door Chevrolet Caprice, favored because the American car had a steel bumper and a big engine. Lastly, the Saudi Hizbullah military commander, Ahmed al-Mughassil, would drive the Mercedes Benz truck bomb accompanied by Ali Ali-Houri. The Datsun scout vehicle pulled into the parking lot and signaled the get-away car that the coast was clear.

Just before 10 p.m., SSgt. Guerrero was on top of Building 131 checking with Airman First Class Chris Wagar when he observed a white four-door Chevrolet Caprice pull into the parking lot. Al-Mughassil drove the truck bomb into the parking lot and backed as close to the perimeter fence as possible, closing the distance to Building 131. The two terrorists quickly exited their truck bomb and jumped into the white Caprice, which sped away. To those on the rooftop, this looked suspicious and had to be a truck bomb. Quickly, the three Air Force Security Police began going door to door, alerting the residents to evacuate the building. "Within minutes, the truck bomb exploded, devastating the north side of building 131. 9 The explosion killed nineteen members of the United States Air Force and wounded 372 other Americans." This was not the first attack, nor would it be the last conducted by the Iranians and Hizbullah.

U.S. EMBASSY BOMBING, BEIRUT

"It turns out that the Embassy was hit essentially by Hizbullah, even though that was not clear at the time. Hizbullah had Iranian support. It was simply a blow at the most visible symbol of American presence." — Ambassador Robert S. Dillon 10

In 1983, Beirut was one of the most dangerous cities in the world. Eight years of civil war, fighting between Christian and Muslim militias, the Palestinian Liberation Organization (PLO) under Yasser Arafat, invasions by Israel, the Syrians, and Iranians made surviving in Beirut a unique skillset. The Lebanese Civil War began on April 13, 1975 in front of the Notre Dame De La Deliverance Church in East Beirut, when PLO gunmen and Phalangist militia exchanged gunfire. At the end of the gunfire, Joseph Abu Assi and four of his Phalangist bodyguards were dead. Revenge and honor are two important concepts in the Middle East. And revenge always seems to win out over honor.

Phalangist militia, seeking revenge, killed 26 Palestinians who were travelling back to the Sabra refugee camp on a bus. From that point on, no one was safe in Beirut. Especially not the Americans who found themselves caught up in the chaos as they tried to craft a peace among warring groups that were motivated to fight, not talk peace. "The Israelis barged in to get rid of Arafat. French and American troops tried to impose some kind of order. Iranian Revolutionary Guards founded Hizbullah to fight the Israelis and hunt down every Westerner they could find." 11

On April 18, 1983, a suicide bomber drove his vehicle packed with explosives into the U.S. Embassy in Beirut. The suicide bomber detonated an estimated 2,000 pounds of explosives, killing 63 individuals including 17 Americans.

Ambassador Robert Dillon was in his office on the eighth floor of the U.S. Embassy, changing so he could go for a run at the American University of Beirut campus. As he changed into a shirt, covering his face, the bomb detonated, sending glass flying. Ambassador Dillon stated, "I ended up flat on my back. I never heard the explosion." 12President Reagan recorded in his diary on Monday, April 18, 1983: "Awakened with word a car bomb did great damage to our embassy in Beirut-killed scores of people including 5 of our Marine guard detail. First word is that Iranian Shiites did it." 13 The Iranians introduced the concept of martyrdom in Lebanon honoring Mohammed Hussein Fahmideh, the 13-year-old boy whom the Ayatollah Khomeini called the chosen one. From that point on there would be no turning back. The era of the suicide bomber in the post-modern world had begun.14 Seventeen Americans perished in the opening salvo of the Iranian terrorism war. Too often in terrorist attacks, people are drawn to the numbers and forget that each victim was a real person with family and friends. While memories fade with time, we should never forget those Americans who lost their lives in the bombing of the U.S. Embassy in Beirut.

  • Robert C. Ames, Chief of Near East and South Asia Division, CIA
  • Thomas Blacka, Controller, USAID
  • Phyliss N. Faraci, Administrative Officer, CIA
  • Staff Sergeant Terry Gilden, Ambassador’s Bodyguard, U.S. Army
  • Kenneth E. Haas, Chief of Station
  • Deborah Hixon, Agency Officer on TDY
  • Frank J. Johnston, Case Officer
  • James F. Lewis, Deputy Chief of Station
  • Monique Lewis, wife of James Lewis
  • Staff Sergeant Ben H. Maxwell, U.S. Army
  • William McIntyre, Acting Director, USAID
  • Corporal Robert V. McMaugh, Marine Security Guard, USMC
  • Staff Sergeant Mark E. Salazar, U.S. Army
  • William Sheil, Contract Employee, CIA
  • Janet Lee Stevens, journalist
  • Sergeant First Class Richard Twine, U.S. Army
  • Albert N. Votaw, Housing Officer, USAID

"They are dead; but they live in each Patriot’s breast, And their names are engraven on honor’s bright crest." — Henry Wadsworth Longfellow 15

U.S. Marine Barracks Bombing, Beirut "So it was with the Marines in Beirut good, milk-faced boys who stepped into the middle of a passion-filled conflict, of whose history they were totally innocent and whose venom they could not even imagine." 16 — Thomas L. Friedman, From Beirut to Jerusalem

The mission of the U.S. Marines in Beirut was to be a "presence" between the warring parties as diplomats worked out the peace. The mission was poorly constructed, the rules of engagement were unworkable, and the environment had changed dramatically. "What originally was a permissive environment had by then dramatically changed into a killing zone." 17

A yellow Mercedes truck traveled down Airport Road, passing the FAA Civil Aviation School on the driver’s left. Just ahead, after passing by checkpoint four, was his target. October 23, 1983 would be unlike any other Sunday in Beirut. Slowly turning into the Beirut International Airport public parking lot, the suicide bomber had now taken a full measure of his target. The driver of the truck began to pick up speed and crashed through the barbed wire fence, passing between two Marine checkpoints as he raced towards his target. At 6:20 a.m., the suicide bomber crashed his truck bomb into the sandbagged sergeant of the guard’s post inside the building and then detonated. Two hundred and forty-one military personnel lost their lives that morning. Hizbullah and the Iranians were perfecting a new tactic, one that would cause death and destruction in numerous countries as other terrorist groups sought to copy and modify this new way to attack a stronger enemy.

On October 14, 2014, U. S. Federal District Court Judge Royce Lamberth signed and entered an Order and Judgment holding "Iran accountable for its cowardly support of terrorism. The Court concludes that defendant Iran must be punished to the fullest extent possible for the bombing in Beirut on October 23, 1983." 18 Judge Lamberth held Iran liable for a total award of $453,596,509 in both compensatory and punitive damages. For years it was an unspoken truth that Iran and its proxies Hizbullah in Lebanon and Saudi Hizbullah were responsible for the bombings of the U.S Embassy in Beirut, the Marine Barracks in Beirut and Khobar Towers in Saudi Arabia. So why should anyone be surprised to learn that Iran’s Revolutionary Guards-Quds Forces introduced the EFPs to target U.S. military up-armored vehicles in Iraq? Make no mistake: the IRGC armed two Iranian proxies, the Mehdi Army and Badr Corps in Iraq, with EFPs to target U.S. military personnel. For thirty-five years Iran has targeted and waged a silent but lethal war against the United States. As the United States negotiates with Iran over its nuclear program as part of the P5+1 Negotiations, one must never forget that this is a government with much American blood on its hands, and a long history of deceptive practices.

ABOUT THE AUTHOR

Mr. Purdy is the President of the Terrorism Research Center, Inc., a Virginia-based company that provides cutting-edge training and research on terrorism, counterinsurgency, and homeland security issues. His book, Blue Mako Five: Exploits in Counter Terrorism will be published this fall.


Foot notes

  • 1 Clarke, Richard. “Transcript of the Briefing to the Joint Congressional Inquiry on U.S. Government Counterterrorism Organizations (Before September 11, 2001) and on the Evolution of the Terrorist Threat and U.S. Response: 1986-2001.” p. 7-8.
  • 2 Matthiesen, Toby. "Hizbullah al- Hijaz: A History of the Most Radical Saudi Shi’a Opposition Group."
    Middle East Journal. Volume64, No.2, Spring 2010. p. 179, 189.
  • 3 Eastern District of Virginia "United States of America v. Ahmed Al-Mughassil Indictment."
    US District Court
  • 4 Ibid. section 16
  • 5 U.S. Congress. House Committee on National Security "The Khobar Towers Bombing Incident Report."
    August 14, 1996. p. 11.
  • 6 Ibid. p. 7.
  • 7 Eastern District of Virginia "United States of America v. Ahmed Al-Mughassil Indictment."
    US District Court. Section 34.
  • 8 Terrorism Research Center. Inc. "TRC Report: Lessons Learned After the Khobar Towers Attack."
    June 25, 2011.
  • 9 Eastern District of Virginia. "United States of America v. Ahmed Al-Mughassil Indictment"
    US District Court. Section 37.
  • 10 S. Dillon "Foreign Affairs Oral History Collection."
    Association for Diplomatic Studies and Training, Arlington, Virginia. Interview of Ambassador Robert.
  • 11 Totten, Michael "The Road to Fatima."
    Gate: The Beirut Spring, the Rise of Hezbollah, and the Iranian War Against Israel, New York: Encounter Books, 2011. p. 5.
  • 12 S. Dillon "Foreign Affairs Oral History Collection."
    Association for Diplomatic Studies and Training, Arlington, Virginia. Interview of Ambassador Robert.
  • 13 Reagan, Ronald "The Reagan Diaries."
    New York: HarperCollins Publishers, 2007. p. 145.
  • 14 Terrorism Research Center Inc. "Suicide Bombings and Attacks-From 1980 to 2013."
    December 1, 2013.
  • 15 Longfellow, Henry Wadsworth "The Battle of Lovell’s Pond."
    Maine Historical Society, Accessed November 20, 2014. http://www.hwlongfellow.org
  • 16 Friedman, Thomas "From Beirut to Jerusalem"
    New York: Random House, 1989. p. 188.
  • 17 Geraghty, Timothy, Col "Peacekeepers at War: Beirut 1983-The Marine Commander Tells His Story"
    Dulles: Potomac Books, 2009. p. 8.
  • 18 "Kenneth S. Spencer v Islamic Republic of Iran"
    Opinion by Royce C. Lamberth, U.S. District Court Judge. October 14, 2014