CAIRO — Saudi Arabia has arrested the accused mastermind of a 1996 bombing that killed 19 American airmen, a Saudi-owned pan-Arab newspaper reported on Wednesday, citing unnamed officials.
The suspect, Ahmed al-Mughassil, was identified in an American federal indictment as a senior leader of an Iranian-backed Saudi militant group that sought to kill American military personnel in the Persian Gulf.
The bombing destroyed an eight-story building in Khobar Towers, a complex housing American Air Force personnel stationed in Saudi Arabia. Four hundred people were wounded in the blast, in addition to the 19 who were killed.
Mr. Mughassil is believed to have been living in Beirut since the attack, under the protection of Hezbollah, the Iranian-backed Lebanese group. Asharq al-Awsat, the newspaper that reported the arrest, said he was detained in Beirut and handed over to the Saudi authorities; it gave no further explanation.
A senior United States official in Washington who was briefed on the matter said on Wednesday that it was “likely” that Mr. Mughassil was in Saudi custody after apparently being seized in Lebanon. The official, who spoke on the condition of anonymity to discuss confidential intelligence and law enforcement reports, indicated that the American authorities were still waiting for additional details from Saudi officials, but expressed confidence that the mastermind of the Khobar attacks was no longer at large.
Mr. Mughassil’s arrest, nearly two decades after the bombing, was a vivid reminder of the longstanding animosity between Washington and Tehran at a time when the Obama administration is seeking congressional approval of an agreement to lift international economic sanctions against Iran in exchange for limits on its nuclear program.
Saudi Arabia is Iran’s chief regional rival. Saudi leaders worry that the nuclear deal could strengthen Iran and its conventional military. That could embolden it to step up support for its militant allies around the region, much like the group accused of carrying out the Khobar bombing.
Maj. Gen. Mansour al-Turki, a spokesman for the Saudi Interior Ministry, said in a text message on Wednesday that he had “no information” about the arrest of Mr. Mughassil but was looking into it.
Some analysts and American officials had suggested that Al Qaeda, a Sunni terrorist group, played a role in the Khobar bombing. But in 2006 a United States District Court in Alexandria, Va., citing classified evidence compiled in an investigation by the F.B.I. and the C.I.A., concluded that Iran was responsible. The court found that Iran, which is predominantly Shiite, had worked through a proxy — Hezbollah al-Hijaz, a Saudi militant group that is affiliated with the Lebanese Hezbollah. The court said Mr. Mughassil was the ringleader in the attack.
Khobar is a city on the Persian Gulf coast near Dhahran, in Saudi Arabia’s Eastern Province, home to many Shiite Muslims who often complain of neglect and discrimination in the Sunni-majority kingdom. The province continues to be a locus of antigovernment demonstrations, as well as more recent bombings of Shiite mosques by Sunni extremists.
An indictment filed at the federal court in Alexandria in 2001 named Mr. Mughassil as the military leader of Hezbollah al-Hijaz, based in Qatif, the provincial center, a few miles north of Khobar. The indictment said he had recruited other Saudi Shiites to join the group, and it named 12 other Shiites from Qatif as suspects, as well as an unidentified Lebanese member of Hezbollah.
The indictment said that the Lebanese suspect assisted in the construction of the fuel-truck bomb that was used in the attack.
Prosecutors said that Mr. Mughassil, based in Beirut and traveling often to Qatif, directed his associates to conduct surveillance of Americans in Saudi Arabia beginning as early as 1993, and that his group passed reports to Iranian officials and took direction from Iranian military officers.
In the spring of 1996, one of his associates was caught attempting to drive into Saudi Arabia with explosives obtained in Lebanon, and the Saudi authorities arrested three others as well. But Mr. Mughassil and his group continued to transport more explosives across the border and hide them around Qatif, the indictment said.
At about 10 p.m. on June 25, the indictment said, two accomplices acting as scouts drove into a parking lot next to Building 131 at Khobar Towers, where a getaway car had been parked; Mr. Mughassil then drove the truck bomb into the lot, parked it next to the building and fled.
Sgt. Alfredo R. Guerrero of the Air Force, who was standing guard on the roof, spotted the truck and ordered the building evacuated, a step that is believed to have saved many lives. When the bomb went off, the huge explosion tore the face off the building and rattled windows miles away.
In the aftermath of the bombing, United States officials sometimes complained that the Saudis were obstructing the investigation into the attack, while Saudi officials complained about getting too little deference from the Americans. At the time, Saudi Arabia was trying to partly heal years of strained relations with Iran, and even after the indictment Saudi security officials were reluctant to join the Americans in publicly blaming Iran for the attack.
Another suspect, Hani al-Sayegh, was arrested in Canada in 1997 and transferred to the United States. American officials said Mr. Sayegh had agreed to provide testimony about the Khobar bombing, but he later reneged and insisted he had no knowledge of it. The United States deported him to Saudi Arabia in 1999.
After United States prosecutors filed the indictment in June 2001, Saudi officials said they had detained 11 of the 13 Saudi suspects named in it, but would not extradite them to the United States for trial. It is unclear how their case was resolved.
The United States had offered a $5 million reward for information leading to the arrest of Mr. Mughassil.
The federal court in Alexandria ordered Iran to pay a total of $254 million to 17 families of those killed in the bombing.
The evidence showed that the “Khobar bombing was planned, funded, and sponsored by senior leadership in the government of the Islamic Republic of Iran,” Judge Royce C. Lamberth wrote in his ruling. “The defendants’ conduct in facilitating, financing, and providing material support to bring about this attack was intentional, extreme, and outrageous.” Iran has denied responsibility.
This entry passed through the Full-Text RSS service – if this is your content and you’re reading it on someone else’s site, please read the FAQ at fivefilters.org/content-only/faq.php#publishers.
(via NY Times)