Page 1 of 2 SAUDI BOMBSHELLS, Part 1 Al-Qaeda excluded from suspect list
By Gareth Porter
WASHINGTON - On June 25, 1996, a massive truck bomb exploded at a building in
the Khobar Towers complex in Khobar, Saudi Arabia, which housed United States
Air Force personnel, killing 19 airmen and wounding 372.
Immediately after the blast, more than 125 agents from the US 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 US 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.
United States 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 US 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 US investigation of the
bombing and to deceive the US about who was responsible for it.
The Saudi regime steered the FBI investigation toward Iran and its Saudi
Shi'ite allies with the apparent intention of keeping US 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
Freeh allowed Saudi Ambassador Prince Bandar bin Sultan to convince him that
Iran was involved in the bombing, and that former 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
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
But the Saudis never conducted such interviews. The same thing happened when
Mislock requested access to phone records for the immediate area surrounding
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'ite group called "Saudi Hezbollah", which Saudi and US
intelligence had long believed was close to Iran. They claimed that they had
extensive intelligence information linking the group to the Khobar Towers
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 US officials their evidence ... nor provided many details on
Nevertheless, Freeh quickly made Iranian and Saudi Shi'ite responsibility for
the bombing the official premise of the investigation, excluding from the
inquiry the hypothesis that Osama bin Laden's al-Qaeda organization 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
"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 US 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 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
Telltale signs of fraud
In the last week of October 1996, the Saudi secret police, the Mabahith, gave
David Williams, the FBI's assistant special agent in charge of
counter-terrorism issues, what they said were summaries of the confessions
obtained from some 40 Shi'ite detainees.
The alleged confessions portrayed the bombing as the work of a cell of Saudi
Hezbollah that had had carried out surveillance of US targets under the
direction of an Iranian Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps officer before
hatching a plot to blow up the Khobar Towers facility.
But the documents were curiously short of the kind of details that