Monday, June 26, 2006
KHOBAR TOWERS: 10 YEARS LATER
By Michelle Malkin ·
Louis Freeh, writing in the WSJ earlier this week, looks back:
On June 25, 1996, Iran again attacked America at Dhahran, Saudi Arabia, exploding a huge truck bomb that devastated Khobar Towers and murdered 19 U.S. airmen as they rested in their dormitory. These young heroes spent every day risking their lives enforcing the no-fly zone over southern Iraq; that is, protecting Iraqi Shiites from their own murderous tyrant. When I visited this horrific scene soon after the attack, I watched dozens of dedicated FBI agents combing through the wreckage in 120-degree heat, reverently handling the human remains of our brave young men. More than 400 of our Air Force men and women were wounded in this well-planned attack, and I was humbled by their courage and spirit. I later met with the families of our lost Khobar heroes and promised that we would do whatever was necessary to bring these terrorists to American justice. The courage and dignity these wonderful families have consistently exemplified has been one of the most powerful experiences of my 26 years of public service.
The FBI's investigation of the Khobar attack was extraordinarily persistent, indeed relentless. Our fallen heroes and their families deserve nothing less. Working in close cooperation with the White House, State Department, CIA and Department of Defense, I made a series of trips to Saudi Arabia beginning in 1996. FBI agents opened an office in Riyadh and aligned themselves closely with the Mabaheth, the kingdom's antiterrorist police. Over the course of our investigation the evidence became clear that while the attack was staged by Saudi Hezbollah members, the entire operation was planned, funded and coordinated by Iran's security services, the IRGC and MOIS, acting on orders from the highest levels of the regime in Tehran.
In order to return an indictment and bring these terrorists to American justice, it became essential that FBI agents be permitted to interview several of the participating Hezbollah terrorists who were detained in Saudi Arabia. The purpose of the interviews was to confirm--with usable, co-conspirator testimonial evidence--the Iranian complicity that Saudi Ambassador Prince Bandar bin Sultan and the Mabaheth had already relayed to us. (For the record, the FBI's investigation only succeeded because of the real cooperation provided by Prince Bandar and our colleagues in the Mabaheth.) FBI agents had never before been permitted to interview firsthand Saudis detained in the kingdom.
Unfortunately, the White House was unable or unwilling to help the FBI gain access to these critical witnesses. The only direction from the Clinton administration regarding Iran was to order the FBI to stop photographing and fingerprinting official Iranian delegations entering the U.S. because it was adversely impacting our "relationship" with Tehran. We had argued that the MOIS was using these groups to infiltrate its agents into the U.S.
After months of inaction, I finally turned to the former President Bush, who immediately interceded with Crown Prince Abdullah on the FBI's behalf. Mr. Bush personally asked the Saudis to let the FBI do one-on-one interviews of the detained Khobar bombers. The Saudis immediately acceded. After Mr. Bush's Saturday meeting with the Crown Prince in Washington, Ambassador Wyche Fowler, Dale Watson, the FBI's excellent counterterrorism chief, and I were summoned to a Monday meeting where the crown prince directed that the FBI be given direct access to the Saudi detainees. This was the investigative breakthrough for which we had been waiting for several years.
Mr. Bush typically disclaimed any credit for his critical intervention but he earned the gratitude of many FBI agents and the Khobar families. I quickly dispatched the FBI case agents back to Saudi Arabia, where they interviewed, one-on-one, six of the Hezbollah members who actually carried out the attack. All of them directly implicated the IRGC, MOIS and senior Iranian government officials in the planning and execution of this attack. Armed with this evidence, the FBI recommended a criminal indictment that would identify Iran as the sponsor of the Khobar bombing. Finding a problem for every solution, the Clinton administration refused to support a prosecution.
The prosecution and criminal indictment for these murders had to wait for a new administration. In February 2001, working with exactly the same evidence but with a talented new prosecutor, James B. Comey Jr. (now U.S. attorney for the Southern District of New York), Attorney General John Ashcroft's personal intervention, and White House support, the case was presented to a grand jury. On June 21, 2001, only four days before some of the terrorist charges would have become barred by the five-year statute of limitations, the grand jury indicted 13 Hezbollah terrorists for the Khobar attack and identified Iran as the sponsor.
Nonetheless, the terrorists who murdered 19 U.S. airmen and wounded hundreds more have yet to be brought to American justice. Whenever U.S. diplomats hold talks with representatives of Iran's Islamic government, Khobar Towers should be the top item on their agenda. The arrest and turnover to U.S. authorities of Ahmad Ibrahim Al-Mughassil and Ali Saed bin Ali Al-Houri, two of the indicted Hezbollah leaders of the Khobar attack believed to be in Iran, should be part of any "normalization" discussion. Furthermore, access and accountability by IRGC, MOIS and other senior Iranian government leaders for their complicity in the attack should be nonnegotiable.