By Katherine McIntire Peters
August 16, 1996
The dates and places change, but the story is all too familiar: In 1983, it was the Marine barracks in Beirut, Lebanon. In 1993, the World Trade Center in New York City. In 1995, it was the Alfred P. Murrah federal building in Oklahoma City, and then the American military training facility in Riyadh, Saudi Arabia. In each case, terrorists loaded explosives into a car or truck, drove them to the targeted building and detonated them.
In each case, Americans were killed: 241 in Lebanon, 6 in New York, 168 in Oklahoma City, 5 in Riyadh. Hundreds of others were injured.
So how was it, that on June 25, two terrorists were able to drive a fuel truck loaded with 3,000 to 5,000 pounds of explosives to the Khobar Towers housing compound in Dhahran, Saudi Arabia, back the truck into hedges bordering a fence in front of an eight-story barracks for U.S. airmen, and set off an explosion killing 19 Americans and wounding hundreds of others?
The explosion, which ripped the facade off the barracks and left an 85-foot deep crater in the ground, was felt 20 miles away. The blast is still reverberating. The continued vulnerability of U.S. citizens to such an act of terrorism has confounded Members of Congress and citizens alike.
Now a congressional investigation into the bombing has shed new light on the tragedy. A staff delegation from the House National Security Committee-the oversight committee for the U.S. military-traveled to Dhahran in July at the request of committee Chairman Floyd Spence, R-S.C. The three-member, bipartisan delegation's investigation and subsequent report highlights the complexity of securing American facilities overseas. The report also raises serious concerns for U.S. security and intelligence personnel as they confront the growing threat of terrorism.
Those looking for a singular lapse in judgment or individual error to explain the U.S. vulnerability to the bombing will be disappointed. What is most striking about the report is that the factors contributing to the bombing were so many-cultural barriers between the United States and Saudi Arabia, political sensitivities, intelligence shortcomings, organizational turmoil and shortsighted budgeting.
To understand the circumstances that led to the bombing, it is necessary to understand the nature of Operation Southern Watch, the United Nations operation to enforce the "no fly" and "no drive" zones in southern Iraq following the Persian Gulf war. Conducted primarily by the United States, United Kingdom, France and Saudi Arabia, the operation has been ongoing since the Gulf War ended in 1991.
As the delegation report notes, the mere presence of American troops in Saudi Arabia is offensive to many and considered an affront to Islam. The American presence is considered "temporary" and there is no formal status of forces agreement between the United States and Saudi Arabia as there is with other host nations.
The mission is so sensitive that flight operations are designed to ensure that pilots do not fly over Saudi princes' palaces. All newly arriving troops are presented with "General Order No. 1: Respecting our hosts."
For the last six years, U.S. troops and coalition forces participating in Southern Watch have lived in the Khobar Towers housing complex. The fenced complex is in the middle of the city, surrounded by mosques, businesses and residences. On the north end, where the bomb exploded, the fence runs roughly 85 feet from the barracks, separating the facility from a public parking lot, a park and a mosque.
Until Nov. 13, 1995, when a car bomb containing 250 pounds of explosives detonated outside a military training facility in Riyadh, terrorist activity against Americans in Saudi Arabia was considered unlikely. After the bombing, security was reassessed and improved.
At the Khobar Towers complex, where troops from 4404th Fighter Wing (Provisional) were housed for Southern Watch, the urban setting posed a serious security concern to Air Force officials. A number of suspicious incidents along the north perimeter of the compound following the November bombing in Riyadh increased concerns.
In response to the incidents and the heightened security alert, Brig. Gen. Terryl Schwalier, commander of the 4404th, initiated positioning more concrete barriers around the perimeter and placing staggered barriers along the compound's main entrance. Bomb dogs were employed and security patrols were stepped up.
In March, Schwalier met with Lt. Col. James Traister, the 4404th's new security chief, to discuss security threats-including the threat of a car bomb. Following that meeting and a vulnerability assessment of the compound, Air Force officials initiated another round of counterterrorism measures: Additional guards were posted on roofs, security patrols were further increased, concertina wire was put down along the compound perimeter, guard pillboxes were fortified, and vegetation was cut down inside the perimeter fence.
Some things were not done, however. Coating windows with Mylar to reduce the impact of a bomb blast required more money than could be easily programmed in a short period of time, and available intelligence did not support elevating it on the priorities list.
Also, for cultural reasons, the Saudis declined to cut back vegetation outside the perimeter fence. They wished to keep American activity, specifically service women exercising in shorts and bare arms, out of public view. Such a visible display of U.S. "decadence" was anathema.
The Saudis also declined to extend the perimeter fence. The fence was a sufficient distance from the barracks to ensure safety from a 250-pound car bomb (the size of the Riyadh bomb the baseline for threat assessments). Extending it further from the barracks would have interfered with public parking at the mosque and park.
Because extension of the perimeter fence was not identified in a January vulnerability assessment conducted by the Air Force Office of Special Investigations, and because of a "perceived need not to offend their Saudi hosts by demanding quick resolution to American satisfaction," Air Force officials did not press the issue up the chain of command.
Had intelligence reports indicated the possibility of a significantly larger truck bomb, other actions might have been taken or priorities might have been reordered.
But priorities weren't reordered. "One of the primary factors contributing to the loss of American life from the bombing at Khobar Towers was the lack of specific intelligence regarding the capability of the terrorists who carried out the June 25 attack," the delegation reported.
Perhaps most significantly, the threat analysis following the November bombing did not project that terrorist groups were capable of building bombs larger than 250 pounds: "It is questionable whether the U.S. intelligence community produced a product useful to commanders in the theater. At the very least, the formal analysis failed to project an increasing threat."
A deficit of intelligence wasn't the only problem, however. A lack of continuity among Air Force personnel serving in Saudi Arabia hurt the service's ability to foresee and press for needed improvements. The average tour length is 90 days and every week 200 to 300 people, about 10 percent of the 4404th's manpower, turns over. In addition, because of the "temporary" nature of the mission, the command lacks resources typical in a permanent wing section. For instance, there is only one Arabic interpreter assigned to the nearly 3,000-member unit.
The bombing of Khobar Towers offers many lessons for the Pentagon and the intelligence community. Many of the threats posed in the aftermath of the Cold War will not be met by stealth bombers and nuclear submarines. Instead, things like shatterproof windows, better cultural and language skills and improved human intelligence will likely be more effective at saving lives and protecting American interests in the future.
It is always tempting to play "what if" after a tragedy: What if U.S. intelligence had focused as much on the terrorist threat inside Saudi Arabia as on the Iraqi order of battle? What if the United States and Saudi Arabia had stopped pretending this is a "temporary" mission and established the appropriate budgetary and organizational structures necessary to enhance security?
Perhaps none of these things would have save the lives of the 19 Americans killed in the bombing. The dead service members will never know.
By Katherine McIntire Peters
August 16, 1996