The second major terrorist attack in Saudi Arabia was also a sign of Iran’s influence
Late in the evening of June 25, 1996, 19 US Air Force personnel and one Saudi citizen died when a tanker truck bomb blew the front off an eight-story block of apartments in the eastern Saudi city of Alkhobar. More than 370 Americans were wounded.
Building No. 131 in the Khobar Towers development was being used to house coalition forces enforcing the southern no-fly zone over Iraq following the end of the first Gulf War. It quickly became clear that responsibility for the attack lay with members of the pro-Iran Saudi branch of Hezbollah. But the attack also provided proof that Iran was a sponsor of terrorism and a threat to the entire region.
Five years almost to the day after the attack, a US grand jury indicted 14 individuals on murder and other charges. But as US Attorney General John Ashcroft made clear, there was no doubt that “elements of the Iranian government inspired, supported and supervised” the attackers.
RIYADH: June 25, 1996, was the day when trust was lost and an edifice was brought down. It was the day that rendered a tear in an evolving friendship. It was the day when a residential tower in Alkhobar, hosting soldiers of the coalition that was enforcing a no fly-zone in southern Iraq after the liberation of Kuwait in 1991, was bombed. It was the day when many things changed.
The news of the bombing — which killed 19 Americans and a Saudi citizen, and injured 498 people from different nationalities — came as a shock to many, as this was the second major terrorist attack in the Kingdom after the siege of Makkah in 1979. Those impacted directly by the bombing were left scarred for life, but those who felt its reverberations elsewhere went through a range of emotions that, for some, forever changed their worldview.
Twenty-four years on, I still have memories of the impactful day, of how I lived through the horror from afar. The news itself scared me because of the magnitude of the attack and because it targeted Americans when I was studying in the US. My first thought was whether there would be an adverse reaction, for the Oklahoma bombing on April 19, 1995, was still fresh in my mind.
I was in Boston studying English when the Oklahoma bombing took place. At that time, the first piece of news was the arrest of a Jordanian-American man who flew from Oklahoma on the day of the bombing. I still remember the suspicious looks of people on the subway that I used on my way to school.
A huge truck bomb is detonated outside a building housing US personnel in Alkhobar, killing 19 and one Saudi civilian.
Thirteen Saudis and a Lebanese man are indicted on terrorism charges by a Federal Grand Jury in Virginia.
Saudi Arabia says it has arrested 11 of the 13 Saudi suspects, who will be tried in the Kingdom.
A federal judge rules that Iran is responsible for the bombing and orders the government to pay compensation of $254 million to the families of Americans who died.
Ahmed Al-Mughassil, the man accused of being behind the bombing, is arrested in Beirut and handed over to the Saudi authorities.
Another US court orders Iran to pay $104.7 million in compensation to 15 injured victims of the bombing.
I was not targeted physically or verbally, but the looks were painful and a sense of distrust was evident. The arrest of Timothy McVeigh and Terry Nichols later came as a relief to many of us Middle Eastern students abroad. Later, I experienced the same feeling during the Alkhobar Towers bombing, and felt even worse after the 9/11 attacks.
The Alkhobar bombing also left me with a surreal feeling that this was not happening. Meanwhile, most of us had to face questions from those who could not understand why. And there was no escape from the blame. Americans were targeted, and while they had previously been victims of other terror attacks, the difference this time was the location: It happened in Saudi Arabia.
“Residents confirmed that the explosion preceded a blinding bolt of light. The flashing light was seen and a thunderous boom was felt as far away as in Petromin district, nearly 25 kilometers away from the Iskan complex.”
From a story by Saeed Haider in Arab News on June 27, 1996
I had moved to the city of Detroit at that time, and we did not have Twitter or social media to receive quick updates on the attack. The internet was something new. Arabic TV channels were not available at that time. The only source of information was from what we read in American newspapers and heard on US TV channels. Other updates on the attack came from friends who talked to their families back home.
During this period of uncertainty, I remember being asked many questions by my university friends, many of whom could not locate Iran or Saudi Arabia on the map. Most of the time my answers fell short. One comment that sticks in my mind was that of my university history teacher, who remarked with a smile: “When we defend you, you kill us.”
The period we lived in, after the Gulf War in 1991, was witnessing a lot of change. The presence of US forces in Saudi Arabia was unwelcome to a segment of society that saw their presence in the land of the Two Holy Mosques as an unannounced invasion. This narrative was widely distributed through the many cassette tapes of famous clerics, who never stopped calling for the withdrawal of American forces and the closure of their military bases.
My first impression, like many of my American friends, was that the Alkhobar attack was by terrorists who were influenced by hate speech. But it was later revealed that Iran was indirectly behind it. Investigations slowly revealed that there was a conspiracy to destabilize Saudi Arabia.
That was not surprising to me, knowing that the Iranian regime has been on a never-ending mission to destabilize Saudi Arabia ever since Supreme Leader Ali Khomeini came to power in 1979.
The regime’s main mission was to export its ideology through proxy forces in neighboring countries. What scared me most at that time was that Tehran had managed to do it through its arm in Saudi Arabia, Hezbollah Al-Hejaz, which claimed responsibility for the attack.
Iran is no stranger to sabotage and ill behavior in the region. It is consistently trying to brainwash youngsters in other countries to adopt its ideologies and turn against their own governments. We have seen how Tehran managed to find a footprint in countries in the heart of Africa and as far as South Asia.
The demonstration of Iranian pilgrims in Makkah in 1987 comes to mind. I watched in horror on TV how they turned the Hajj religious event into chaos, attacking, killing and injuring many innocent pilgrims. I have seen how they burned cars and beat to death police officers on the streets. Similar events happened in Madinah, when they also instigated riots and attacked pilgrims.
A government with an ideology that does not care about sacred places and innocent lives will for sure not feel any sympathy when it directs its minions in the region to carry out such attacks. Iran will not stay calm, and will not deviate from its main goal of destabilizing the region. It is still reaping what it sowed in Alkhobar and other areas. What has Iran gained since 1979 except chaos, war and economic sanctions?
- Mahmoud Ahmad is a former Arab News manager. He was a bachelor of marketing student at the University of Detroit Mercy when the Khobar Towers were bombed.