Air Force Magazine June 2006, Vol. 89, No. 6
For US airmen, the Long War with terrorists began on
|The scene on
||An aerial view of the destroyed
The Hour of Attack
They were airmen of the 4404th Wing (Provisional). Their mission was to
enforce the no-fly zone over southern
On that night, the 4404th’s wing commander was Brig. Gen. Terryl J. Schwalier—but not for long. Schwalier had just finished his one-year tour and was sitting at the desk in his room, on his last night in Saudi Arabia, writing a note to Brig. Gen. Daniel M. Dick, who was taking over the wing in the morning.
Elsewhere, the commander of the 79th Fighter Squadron, out of Shaw AFB, S.C.,
was filling out promotion recommendation forms in Building 133. Members of the
33rd Fighter Wing from Eglin AFB,
Others were keeping watch. SSgt. Alfredo R. Guerrero was the security forces shift supervisor on duty that evening. He went up to the rooftop of Building 131 to check in with the two sentries posted there.
While Guerrero was on the roof, the three security forces troops noticed a sewage tanker truck and a car enter the parking lot adjacent to Building 131. They watched the driver wheel the truck to the second-to-last row and then turn left, as if to depart the lot. Then, however, the truck slowed, stopped, and began backing up to the fence line, stopping again right in front of the center of Building 131’s north side. The driver and passenger got out and jumped into the waiting car.
Even as the suspicious car sped out of the parking lot, the three USAF security forces personnel were in motion. They radioed in an alert and started the evacuation plan from the top floor. As one floor was departing, its residents would notify residents on the floor just below. Thus was Building 131 to be emptied in a “waterfall” fashion. They managed to notify residents on the top three floors, many of whom were fleeing down the building’s stairwell.
At , four minutes after the alert, the bomb contained inside the tanker truck exploded with a force that shook the surrounding area.
It was a blast like no other in the Gulf region—ever. In November 1995, a
terrorist car bomb had exploded in
Building 131 did not cave in completely, but that was only because it was made of prefabricated cubicles that had been bolted together. Had the apartment building been built in a more traditional manner with cross-support beams, the blast might have leveled it, causing the deaths of most residents.
The first memories for many of the survivors in buildings nearest the blast began when they found themselves in the dark, thrown across their rooms or out into hallways. Now, as they struggled to understand where they were and what had happened, they shouted and called to each other, trying to discover who was alive and who was dead.
In Building 131, a sergeant had been cleaning dust from under his bed. The mattress fell on him, partially shielding and protecting him. In Building 127, a squadron commander found a squadron mate sitting in a pool of blood with a dagger of glass in his thigh. In Building 133, nearly 400 feet from the explosion’s center, one of the officers who had been writing promotion forms was thrown 30 feet into the hallway. He looked up to see the roiling dust, fire, and smoke coming from the direction of Building 131.
Oak doors were blown off their hinges, and furniture was jumbled. All windows and frames within 1,500 feet of the blast crater were blown out.
Fears of another explosion, gas attack, or building collapse darted in and out of the minds of the airmen. When occupants of the most severely damaged buildings attempted to move, they felt the shards of glass crunch around them. Nearly all of the hundreds of injuries that night included lacerations from broken glass.
The airmen had to get out of the dark and devastated buildings. Alerted by Guerrero and his team, many were already moving in the stairwells when the bomb went off.
Across the compound, Schwalier felt plate glass shatter over his back as the blast wave blew out his window, frame, and heavy curtains. Through the hole in the wall he saw the fireball and smoke. He pounded on the door of the joint task force commander, Maj. Gen. Kurt B. Anderson, who had traveled to Dhahran for the next day’s change of command ceremony. Then he raced out of the building to assess the damage.
Hundreds of people were moving away from the northeast corner.
“They’re coming through the wall,” squawked an unknown voice over the wing’s FM radio bricks. Observers near the north perimeter saw figures in white robes moving through the compound in the chaos. A hundred yards back, at Building 127, airmen began picking up the wounded and moved them toward the interior of the compound for safety.
The first casualties arrived at the clinic just a few minutes after
Ten minutes later the clinic was deluged. Outside the buildings, the wounded
overwhelmed the flight surgeons in the small clinic. One flight doctor treated
casualties until he himself was forced to seek attention for his own wounds.
Intravenous drips were hooked over the uprights of covered walkways as victims
were laid out on the sidewalk. Dozens were sent to Saudi hospitals in
ambulances. Soon after
, Saudi doctors and nurses arrived at
At , medical emergency logs listed 16 fatalities. Two more bodies would be found in the rubble by morning and the 19th a few hours after that.
For a time,
Gen. Ronald R. Fogleman, the Air Force Chief of Staff, spent a day talking with airmen and visiting the wounded. At one of the small dispensaries, a young airman was so intent on removing stitches that she didn’t even look up at the hubbub when the Chief stopped in. Fogleman gave her a spot promotion.
In mid-July, retired Army Gen. Wayne A. Downing, a former commander of US Special Operations Command, arrived to head up an investigation at Defense Secretary William J. Perry’s request. Schwalier showed him the devastated buildings. It was hot, with temperatures in the buildings near 112 degrees and a horrible smell rising out of the heat and rubble. “A smell of death,” Schwalier called it. “Literally.”
The first, which attracted much publicity, was the so-called hunt for “accountability.” The House National Security Committee had a team on the ground quickly, and it produced its report within weeks.
owning’s probe was the first of three major investigations conducted by the
military. Downing’s report found fault with Schwalier and others, made
numerous recommendations, and called for leaving disciplinary actions to the
chain of command. Two subsequent Air Force reports followed up with additional
force protection tasks. Neither of those two USAF investigations held any single
individual responsible. Ultimately, Pentagon leadership, in the person of new
Secretary of Defense William S. Cohen, focused on the commander, Schwalier, who
was blamed for, in effect, failing to prevent an act of war. He took the fall
and resigned on
The second question—who did the foul deed—was investigated along an
entirely different path. Within days, 70 FBI agents were in
However, the Saudi leadership was intensely sensitive about allowing outside
investigators to dig around for clues. It was not until November 1998 that the
FBI gained the access it wanted to suspects held by
When it came, the federal indictment spelled out a compelling story. Thirteen
members of Hezbollah cells based in
At the time of the Hezbollah planning, however,
In January 1996, Schwalier and his commanders evaluated security at
But as the FBI found, plans for the attack were thorough and sophisticated.Leaders of the military wing of the Saudi branch of Hezbollah began to prepare a bomb plot in 1993, and the plotting intensified over the next three years.
Step one was to initiate surveillance of American activities in the kingdom.
In 1994, the terrorists narrowed down the target list to several installations
The FBI found that it was Al-Mughassil who chose
Then their plan almost went awry. Another operative, Fadel Al-Alawe, tried to
bring in more explosives from
Even with a diminished team of terrorists, however, Al-Mughassil had enough people and enough plastic explosives to go ahead with the attack. As listed in the indictment, a group of nine carried it out. In addition to Al-Mughassil, they were Ali Al-Houri, Hani Al-Sayegh, Ibrahim Al-Yacoub, Abdel Karim Al-Nasser, Mustafa Al-Qassab, Abdallah Al-Jarash, Hussein Al-Mughis, and an unidentified Lebanese man.
No specific word of the Hezbollah group’s plans reached the Americans
trying to defend
Then-Secretary of Defense William Perry later acknowledged that the
“It did not provide the user with any specific threat, but rather laid out a wide variety of threat alternatives,” Perry went on. “My assessment is that our commanders were trying to do right, but, given the inconclusive nature of the intelligence, had a difficult task to know what to plan for.”
The Nineteen Airmen
These US Air Force members fell in the
Images courtesy of Eglin AFB, Patrick AFB, Offutt AFB, Melissa L. Mackiewicz, and www.joshuawoody.com
The indictment makes clear that the Saudi terrorist cell had been closely
In late March, the new security forces chief, Lt. Col. James J. Traister, and a small group walked the perimeter with a Royal Saudi military police officer. Traister asked for the barriers on the Saudi side of the fence to be moved five feet out to prevent people from climbing up the barriers and onto the fence. The Saudis also gave permission to place rows of concertina wire at the top and bottom of the fence.
Traister asked if the plants and vines could be removed. The Saudis said no. Airmen cut back the vines on their side of the fence anyway.
In May, a suspicious incident caught the attention of the airmen at
Also in May, the support group commander, Col. Gary S. Boyle, asked his Saudi counterpart about moving the fence out to extend the perimeter. But the fence was not an arbitrary marker in the middle of an undeveloped field. The public parking lot was used often by Saudis visiting the city park. In addition, the Saudi police had the responsibility to patrol the fence around the compound. The fence was not moved, but at the wing’s request, the Saudis increased their patrols of the fence line.
It was not enough to deter the terrorists.
Al-Mughassil, Al-Houri, Al-Sayegh, Al-Qassab, and the unidentified Lebanese man bought a tanker truck in early June 1996. Over a two-week period they converted it into a truck bomb. The group now had about 5,000 pounds of advanced, high-grade plastic explosives, enough to produce a shaped charge that detonated with the force of at least 20,000 pounds of TNT, according to a later assessment of the Defense Special Weapons Agency.
Then came the evening of
The US indictment that told the details of this story was filed June 21,
2001, just days before a five-year statute of limitations was due to expire.
“As a legal matter, important charges arising out of the Khobar attack, if not filed promptly, might have been lost under our statute of limitations on the fifth anniversary of this tragedy, which is next Monday,” said Attorney General John Ashcroft on June 21. Ashcroft also commented that “the indictment returned today means that next week’s five-year anniversary of this tragedy will come with some assurance to victims’ family members and to the wounded that they are not forgotten.”
What had taken so long? The Saudis already had four of the conspirators in custody before the bomb went off.
International politics and the changing
First, as reported by Elsa Walsh in The New Yorker in 2001, the Saudis had
evidence of Iranian involvement early on. But the Saudis were concerned about
For example, Mustafa Al-Qassab, a member of the main team, was caught in
The second factor was a shifting relationship with
Meanwhile, the US-Saudi relationship was fraying. The Saudi royal family
sought support from hard-line clerics, including the Wahhabi sect, to justify
inviting Western troops into the kingdom after
This diagram depicts the location of the truck carrying the explosives. As the truck pulled into the parking lot outside the perimeter fence, three USAF security personnel were on the roof of Building 131.
During the visit, Clinton and Crown Prince Abdullah talked about more
cooperation on the
Whatever swung the balance, the Saudis agreed to let the FBI interview the
The Clinton Administration made one more push in the summer of 1999.
By then, the 4404th had long since moved to Prince Sultan Air Base in
In the fall of 1997, with no fanfare, Building 131 at
The State Department’s Rewards For Justice program is still offering $5
million for information leading to the arrest of four of the
Rebecca Grant is a contributing editor of Air Force
Magazine. She is president of IRIS Independent Research in
Copyright Air Force Association. All rights reserved.
The above article was used Courtesy of The Air Force Association.