Monday, July 6, 2009


Al-Qaeda Excluded from Suspect List
The pro-Saudi bias of former FBI director Louis Freeh during the investigation of the 1996 Khobar Towers terror bombing in Saudi Arabia that killed 19 United States airmen shut down a probe in which Osama bin Laden was clearly implicated. Had the case run its course, the US may not have been so brutally blindsided by 9/11.

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 officials.
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 Jack Cloonan. 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 interviews."
But the Saudis never conducted such interviews. The same thing happened when Mislock requested access to phone records for the immediate area surrounding Khobar Towers.
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 bombing.
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 their investigation".
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 be rebuffed.
"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 Coleman.
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 would have allowed US investigators to verify key elements
of the accounts. In fact, Saudi officials refused even to reveal
the names of the detainees who were alleged to have made the
confessions, identifying the suspects only by numbers one
through six or seven, according to a former FBI official
involved in the investigation.
Justice Department lawyers argued that the confessions were
completely unreliable, and unusable in court, because they had
probably been extracted by torture. At Attorney General Janet
Reno's insistence, both Reno and FBI Director Louis Freeh said
publicly in early 1997 that the Saudis had provided little more
than "hearsay" evidence on the bombing.
There were also major anomalies in the alleged confessions of
Shi'ite plotters that should have aroused the suspicions of FBI
The Saudis claimed that on March 28, 1996, Saudi guards at the
al-Haditha border crossing with Jordan had discovered 38
kilograms of plastic explosives hidden in a car driven by a
Saudi Hezbollah member. That member not only admitted to his
Saudi Hezbollah membership, according to the Saudi account, but
led the secret police to three more Saudi Hezbollah members, who
were allegedly arrested on April 6, 7 and 8.
What was peculiar about that account is that on April 17, 1996,
Saudi officials had announced that they had found explosives in
a car at the border with Jordan on March 29, and said that "a
number of people" had been arrested. And four days later, Saudi
Interior Minister Prince Nayef had announced the arrest of four
men in the bombing of the Office of the Program Manager of the
Saudi National Guard in Riyadh on November 13, 1995. Their
confessions were broadcast on Saudi television that same day.
In the announcement of the arrests, reported by the New York
Times, Nayef referred to the arms smuggling attempt of March 29,
saying it was still not clear if the November blast in Riyadh
and the smuggling attempt were related.
That statement had clearly implied that Saudi officials had
reason to believe that there was a link between the jihadist
network believed to have carried out the Riyadh bombing and
those who had been caught after the March 29 explosive smuggling
After the Khobar bombing, however, the Saudis began to link the
interception of explosives in late March to the Shi'ite they
were saying had carried out the Khobar Towers bombing.
One day in July, according to a former Clinton administration
official, Freeh came into the White House situation room livid
with anger, telling officials there he had just learned that the
Saudis had arrested a Saudi Hezbollah activist in March with
concealed explosives and had discovered the Shi'ite plot to bomb
Khobar Towers.
Nayef's statement suggesting a possible tie to the Riyadh
bombing of the previous November was a deliberate deception of
the United States, which the Saudis never explained to US
officials. "We asked why they didn't tell us about this earlier
and didn't get an answer," says Williams.
If the Saudis had actually arrested the four Saudi Hezbollah
members who had been ordered to carry out the bombing, as they
later claimed, it would have been known immediately to the rest
of the Saudi Hezbollah organization, which would obviously have
called off the bomb plot and fled the country.
Further undermining the Shi'ite explosives smuggling and bomb
plot story is the fact that the Saudis had secretly detained and
tortured a number of veteran Sunni jihadists with ties to bin
Laden after the bombing.
The Sunni detainees over Khobar included Yusuf al-Uyayri, who
was later revealed to have been the actual head of al-Qaeda in
Saudi Arabia. In 2003, al-Uyayri confirmed in al-Qaeda's regular
publication that he had been arrested and tortured after the
Khobar bombing.
A report published in mid-August 1996 by the London-based
Palestinian newspaper Al Qods al-Arabi, based on sources with
ties to the jihadi movement in Saudi Arabia, said that six Sunni
veterans of the Afghan war had confessed to the Khobar bombing
under torture. That was followed two days later by a report in
the New York Times that the Saudi officials now believed that
Afghan war veterans had carried out the Khobar bombing.
A few weeks later, however, the Saudi regime apparently made a
firm decision to blame the bombing on the Saudi Shi'ite.
According to a Norwegian specialist on the Saudi jihadi
movement, Thomas Hegghammer, in 2003 - shortly before al-Uyayri
was killed in a shoot-out in Riyadh in late May 2003 - an
article by the al-Qaeda leader in the al-Qaeda periodical blamed
Shi'ites for the Khobar bombing.
In a paper for the Combating Terrorism Center at West Point,
Hegghammer cites that statement as evidence that al Qaeda wasn't
involved in Khobar. But one of al-Uyayri's main objectives at
that point would have been to stay out of prison, so his
endorsement of the Saudi regime's position is hardly surprising.
Al-Uyayri had been released from prison in mid-1998, by his own
account. But he was arrested again in late 2002 or early 2003,
by which time the CIA had come to believe that he was a very
important figure in al-Qaeda, even though it didn't know he was
the leader of al-Qaeda in the peninsula, according to Ron
Suskind's book The One Percent Doctrine.
In mid-March 2003, Suskind writes, US officials pressed the
Saudis not to let him go. But the Saudis claimed they had
nothing on al-Uyayri, and a few weeks later he was released
again. The head of al Qaeda in Saudi Arabia and the Saudi secret
police were playing a complex game.
The question of how the alleged plotters got their hands on
roughly 5,000 pounds of explosives - the estimated amount in the
truck bomb - was one of the central questions in the
investigation of the bombing. But interviews with six former FBI
officials who worked on the Khobar Towers investigation revealed
that the investigation had not turned up any evidence of how
well over two tons of explosives had entered the country.
Not one of the six could recall any specific evidence about how
the alleged plotters got their hands on that much explosives.
And one former FBI official who continues to defend the
conclusions of the investigation flatly refused to tell this
writer whether the investigation had turned up information
bearing on that question.
If the Saudi Hezbollah group had actually been plotting to bring
the explosives into the country by hiding them in cars, they
would have had to get more than 50 explosives-laden cars past
Saudi border guards who were already on alert. There is no
indication, however, that any additional cars with explosives
came across the border in the weeks prior to the bombing.
Gareth Porter is an investigative historian and journalist
specializing in US national security policy. The paperback
edition of his latest book, Perils of Dominance: Imbalance of
Power and the Road to War in Vietnam, was published in 2006.
(The series was supported by the Fund for Investigative
Asia Times/Inter Press Service
July 3, 2009
Saudi Bombshells, Part 2
Why U.S. Officials Blamed Iran
By Gareth Porter
WASHINGTON - In March 1997, United States Federal Bureau of
Investigation (FBI) director Louis Freeh got what he calls in
his memoirs "the first truly big break in the case": the arrest
in Canada of one of the Saudi Hezbollah members the Saudis
accused of being the driver of the getaway car at Khobar Towers.
Hani al-Sayegh, then 28 years old, had arrived in Canada in
August 1996 after having left Saudi Arabia, by his own account,
in August 1995, for Iran and Syria. The Canadian government
charged him with being a terrorist, based on claims by the Saudi
In order to be transferred to the United States without facing
deportation to Saudi Arabia, where he was believed to face the
death penalty, al-Sayegh had to agree to a plea bargain under
which he would admit to having proposed an attack on US
personnel, for which he would have to serve up to 10 years in
In fact, the only thing al-Sayegh had actually admitted to,
according to FBI sources, was having proposed an attack on one
AWACS plane that had been turned over to the Saudi Air Force - a
proposal he said had been rejected. Both before and after being
brought to Washington, moreover, al-Sayegh steadfastly denied
any knowledge of the Khobar Towers bombing.
Despite that consistent denial by al-Sayegh, a Washington Post
story on April 14, 1997, quoted US and Saudi officials as saying
that al-Sayegh had met two years earlier with senior Iranian
intelligence officer Brigadier General Ahmad Sherifi and that
Iran was the "organizing force" behind the Khobar bombing.
That story, leaked by officials supporting the Saudi version of
the Khobar story, cited Canadian intercepts of al-Sayegh's phone
conversations in Ottawa before his arrest as allegedly
incriminating evidence.
The story leant further credence to the general belief in
Washington that Iran had masterminded the bombing, mainly
because US intelligence had observed the surveillance of US
military and civilian sites in Saudi Arabia by Iranians and
their Saudi allies in 1994 and 1995.
What al-Sayegh actually told FBI agents in a series of
interviews in Ottawa and Washington, however, contradicted the
leaked story, according to sources familiar with those
Al-Sayegh admitted having carried out the surveillance of one
military site other than Khobar for the Iranians, but insisted
that it was not to prepare for a possible terrorist bombing but
to identify potential targets for Iranian retaliation in the
event of a US attack on Iran.
His testimony was consistent with what ambassador Ron Neumann,
who was director of the Office for Iran and Iraq in the State
Department's Bureau of Near East Affairs from 1991 through 1994,
had been saying about the Iranian reconnaissance of US targets.
While most official analysts were ready to believe that Iran was
plotting a terrorist attack against the United States, Neumann
recalls that he had discerned a pattern in Iranian behavior:
every time US-Iran tensions rose, there was an increase in
Iranian reconnaissance of US diplomatic and military faculties.
"The pattern could be taken as hostile but it could equally have
been defensive," says Neumann, meaning that the Iranians viewed
such reconnaissance of possible US targets as part of their
deterrent to a US attack.
Al-Sayegh would have been a strange choice for driver of the
getaway car at Khobar Towers. A frail man whose frequent asthma
attacks repeatedly interrupted his interviews with the FBI,
al-Sayegh recounted to investigators he had entered military
training with the Iranian Revolutionary Guards Corps, but had
been told by his IRGC handler after one particularly disastrous
exercise that his asthma made him unfit for military operations.
FBI veteran Jack Cloonan, who was talking with the agents
interviewing al-Sayegh that spring and summer, told al-Sayegh's
immigration lawyer, Michael Wildes, that he was convinced
al-Sayegh had not participated in the operation, according to
notes in the diary Wildes kept on the case.
Al-Sayegh continued to deny either that he was involved or the
Iranians had anything to do with Khobar, and as a result was
deported to Saudi Arabia in 1999 - despite the widespread
assumption within the FBI that he would be beheaded on his
Freeh had no case against the Iranians and their Saudi allies
unless he could get access to the Saudi Shi'ite detainees. In
the memoir My FBI, Freeh charged that president Bill Clinton
refused to press Saudi Crown Prince Abdullah for access to those
prisoners and then asked him for a contribution to the future
Clinton presidential library at a meeting at the Hay-Adams Hotel
in September 1998.
That account is disputed, however, by numerous Clinton
administration officials. Freeh, who was not present, cites only
"my sources", strongly suggesting that he got it from the
self-interested Prince Bandar.
Freeh claimed that former president George HW Bush had then
interceded with Abdullah at Freeh's request, resulting in a
meeting between Freeh and Abdullah at Bandar's Virginia estate
September 29, 1998. At that meeting, Abdullah offered to allow
the FBI to submit questions to the detainees and observe the
questions and answers from behind one-way glass.
But what Freeh left out of the story is that Abdullah's new
offer came at a time when the Saudis felt a greater need to
appease Washington on the Khobar Towers investigation than they
had previously.
In May 1998, the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) had learned
that Saudi intelligence had broken up an al-Qaeda plot to
smuggle Sagger anti-tank missiles from Yemen into Saudi Arabia
about a week before a scheduled visit to Saudi by vice president
Al Gore and had not informed US intelligence about the incident.
Then, on August 7, 1998, the US embassies in Nairobi, Kenya and
Dar Es Salaam, Tanzania had been bombed 10 minutes apart. The
CIA had quickly ascertained that al-Qaeda was responsible for
the bombings, with the result that US intelligence began to
focus more on bin Laden's operations in Saudi Arabia.
Gore had met with Abdullah on September 24, and had pressed hard
for access to an important al-Qaeda finance official, Madani al
Tayyib, who had been detained by the Saudi government the
previous year, but kept away from US intelligence.
The Saudi regime had long acted to keep the United States away
from the bin Laden trail in Saudi Arabia. During the Afghan war,
high-ranking Saudi officials, including interior minister Prince
Nayef himself, had worked closely with bin Laden. And those ties
had apparently continued even after the Saudi government revoked
bin Laden's citizenship, froze his assets, and began cracking
down on some anti-government Islamic extremists in 1994.
Evidence soon appeared that the regime had allowed Saudi
supporters of bin Laden to finance his operations through Saudi
charities, while encouraging bin Laden to focus on the US
military rather than the regime.
Investigators from the 9/11 Commission later learned that, after
bin Laden's move from Sudan to Afghanistan in May 1996, a
delegation of Saudi officials had asked top Taliban leaders to
tell bin Laden that if he didn't attack the regime, "recognition
will follow".
Meanwhile, Nayef was resisting CIA requests for bin Laden's
birth certificate, passport and bank records.
The CIA had been sharing its own intelligence on bin Laden with
the Mabahith, the Saudi secret police, including copies of
National Security Agency interceptions of the cell phone
conversations of suspected al-Qaeda officials. Then the
militants suddenly stopped using their cell phones, indicating
they had been tipped off by the Mabahith.
In early 1997, the CIA's bin Laden station even issued a
memorandum for CIA director George Tenet, who was about to
travel to Saudi Arabia, identifying Saudi intelligence as a
"hostile service".
By late September 1998, the Saudi regime was feeling the heat
from the Clinton administration for its failure to cooperate on
bin Laden's operations in Saudi Arabia. Abdullah's proposal was
a way to demonstrate cooperation on terrorism while helping
Freeh promote the Saudi line on the Khobar Towers.
FBI ignored evidence of bin Laden
Bin Laden had made no secret of his intention to attack the US
military presence in Saudi Arabia. He had been calling for such
attacks to drive it from the country since his first fatwa
calling for jihad against Western "occupation" of Islamic lands
in early 1992.
On July 11, 1995, he had written an "Open Letter" to King Fahd
advocating a campaign of guerilla attacks to drive US military
forces out of the kingdom.
Bin Laden's al-Qaeda began carrying out that campaign later that
same year. On November 13, 1995, a car bomb destroyed the Office
of the Program Manager of the Saudi National Guard (OPM SANG) in
Riyadh, killing five US airmen and wounding 34.
The confessions of the four jihadis from the Afghan war to the
bombing, which were broadcast on Saudi television, said they had
been inspired by bin Laden, and one of them referred to a camp
in Afghanistan which was associated with bin Laden.
"It was a backhanded reference to bin Laden," says veteran FBI
agent Dan Coleman.
The US Embassy in Riyadh immediately requested that the FBI be
allowed to interrogate the suspects as soon as their arrests
were announced in April. But the Saudis never responded to the
request, and on May 31, the embassy was informed only an hour
and half before that the four suspects would be beheaded.
When the bomb exploded at Khobar Towers on June 25, 1996, Scott
Erskine, the agent in charge of the Riyadh bombing
investigation, was about to return to the United States after
another frustrating meeting in which Saudi officials were not
forthcoming about whom they were going to prosecute.
When FBI Director Freeh visited Khobar a few days after the
bombing, he was told not to expect any more information on the
Riyadh bombing.
Instead of insisting that the Clinton administration put more
pressure on the Saudis to cooperate on the possibility of links
between the two bombings, Freeh quietly decided to drop the
investigation of the Riyadh bombing entirely. The case was put
on "inactive" status, according to two former FBI officials,
meaning that no more actions were to be taken, even though it
had not been formally closed.
Bin Laden made it more difficult to ignore his role, however, by
publicly claiming responsibility for both the Riyadh and Khobar
bombings. In October 1996, after having issued yet another fatwa
calling on Muslims to drive US soldiers out of the kingdom, bin
Laden was quoted in al-Quds al-Arabi, the Palestinian daily
published in London, as saying, "The crusader army was shattered
when we bombed Khobar."
And in an interview published in the same newspaper on November
29, 1996, he was asked why there had been no further operations
along the lines of the Khobar operation. "The military are aware
that preparations for major operations require time, in contrast
with small operations," said bin Laden.
He then linked the two bombings in Saudi Arabia explicitly as
signals to the United States from his organization: "We had
thought that the Riyadh and Khobar blasts were a sufficient
signal to sensible US decision-makers to avert a real battle
between the Islamic nation and US forces," said bin Laden, "but
it seems that they did not understand the signal."
Gareth Porter is an investigative historian and journalist
specializing in US national security policy. The paperback
edition of his latest book, Perils of Dominance: Imbalance of
Power and the Road to War in Vietnam, was published in 2006.
(The series was supported by the Fund for Investigative
Asia Times/Inter Press Service
July 4, 2009
FBI Chief Defended Saudis
By Gareth Porter
WASHINGTON - One of the United States government's top
investigators on al-Qaeda, veteran agent Dan Coleman, has a
theory that Osama bin Laden always took credit for terrorist
actions he had planned, but not for those he had not planned.
For example, bin Laden issued no claim about the 1993 World
Trade Center bombing and told his former business agent turned
Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) informer, Jamal al-Fadl,
that he had nothing to do with it, Coleman says.
As noted by the head of the bin Laden unit at the Central
Intelligence Agency (CIA), Michael Scheuer, in the 1995 Riyadh
and 1996 Khobar Towers bombings in Saudi Arabia a common
operational feature was identified: the vehicle carrying the
explosives was not parked so as to bring the entire building
If the team executing the Khobar bombing had parked parallel to
the security fence rather than backing up to it, says Scheuer,
it would have destroyed the entire building. The same thing had
happened in the bombing of the Office of the Program Manager of
the Saudi National Guard in Riyadh which killed five US airmen
and wounded 34.
The bin Laden unit of the CIA had collected concrete
intelligence on bin Laden's role in planning the Khobar Towers
bombing. In mid-January, 1996, according to the intelligence
compiled by the unit, bin Laden traveled to Doha, Qatar, where
plans were discussed for attacks in eastern Saudi Arabia. Bin
Laden arranged for 20 tons of high explosive C-4 to be shipped
from Poland to Qatar, two tons of which were to be sent to Saudi
Arabia, the report said.
Bin Laden specifically referred to operations targeting US
interests in the triangle of cities of Dammam, Dhahran and
Khobar in Eastern Province, using clandestine al-Qaeda cells in
Saudi Arabia, according to the intelligence reporting.
FBI agents working on the Khobar case simply rejected any
evidence of bin Laden's involvement in Khobar, however, because
the decision had already been made that the Shi'ites were
David Williams, then the FBI agent in charge of
counter-terrorism, recalls that he had read intelligence reports
suggesting bin Laden's involvement in the bombing, but says he
had done so "with a suspicious eye".
The FBI investigators dismissed the relevance of the evidence
linking bin Laden to the Riyadh bombing. As one former FBI
official explained the logic of that position, the Khobar Towers
bombing was completely different from the Riyadh bombing seven
months earlier: it was in an area of Eastern Province where
Shi'ite oppositionists were predominant and where al-Qaeda had
no known cell.
The facts, however, told a different story. The city of Khobar
itself was predominantly Sunni, not Shi'ite, and the triangular
area of the three cities had a large population of veterans of
the Afghan war who were followers of bin Laden. As a
London-based Palestinian publication reported in August 1996,
the six jihadis who confessed to the bombing were all from an
area called al-Thoqba near Khobar.
One of the veteran jihadis detained after the bombing, Yusuf
al-Ayayri, who was then the actual head of al-Qaeda in the
Arabian Peninsula, was from Dammam and knew the jihadi
community in that region very well, according to Norwegian
al-Qaeda specialist Thomas Hegghammer.
The FBI and CIA knew nothing about bin Laden's movement in that
part of Saudi Arabia, however, because they were completely
dependent on Saudi intelligence for such information. A CIA
memorandum dated July 1, 1996, said the agency had "little
information" about the "location, size, composition or
activities" of opposition cells in Saudi Arabia.
Interviews with FBI officials involved in the investigation make
it clear that they were not interested in evidence linking bin
Laden to the bombing, because they understood their task to be
limited to getting whatever information they could from Saudi
Williams says he didn't question the Saudi account of the Khobar
plot, because, "You start to believe the people who are your
Asked about the evidence that bin Laden was behind the plot,
another FBI official with substantive responsibility for the
investigation said, "I didn't get involved in that aspect. That
wasn't my job."
In early November 1998, FBI director Louis Freeh sent a team of
agents to observe Saudi secret police officials interviewing
eight Shi'ite detainees from behind a one-way mirror at the
Riyadh detention center. He planned to use the Shi'ite testimony
to show that Iran was behind the bombing.
As expected, the stories told by the detainees recapitulated the
outlines of the Shi'ite plot that had already been described by
the Saudis two years earlier. Now there were even more
tantalizing details of direct Iranian involvement.
One of the detainees said Iranian Revolutionary Guards Corps
General Ahmad Sherifi had personally selected the Khobar
barracks as a target. Another said the Saudi Hezbollah members
had been not only trained but paid by the Iranians.
"We came away with solid evidence that Iran was behind it," says
a former FBI agent.
There was one problem with the evidence the FBI team collected:
the Saudi secret police had already had two-and-half years to
coach the Saudi Hezbollah detainees on what to say about the
case, with the ever-present threat of more torture to provide
the incentive.
But Freeh was not about to let the torture issue interfere with
his mission. "For Louis, if they would let us in the room, that
was the important thing," one former high-ranking FBI official
said. "We would have gone over there and gotten the answers even
if they had been propped up."
When Freeh took the accounts from the Shi'ite detainees in
interrogations witnessed by the FBI team, however, the Justice
Department didn't buy them as valid testimony. The department
refused to go ahead with an indictment as Freeh had desired,
evidently based on the same objection that had been raised two
years earlier: the Shi'ites had been subject to torture.
But in January 2001, president George W Bush kept Freeh on as
FBI director. Freeh told the new president that Iran had
masterminded the Khobar bombing, according to his testimony
before the 9/11 Commission, and the Justice Department then
began collaborating with Freeh on an indictment of the Saudi
Hezbollah which implicated Iran in the Khobar bombing.
The indictment was announced on June 21, 2001 - Freeh's last day
as FBI director.
Highly credible evidence soon showed, however, that the
Mabahith, the Saudi secret police, did indeed use torture and
coercion to get detainees to tell the stories demanded by the
Saudi regime - even in front of foreign observers - and that
they did so to protect al-Qaeda from investigation by the United
Three car bombings in Riyadh in November 2000 that had resulted
in the death of a British citizen were generally believed to
have been the work of al-Qaeda. But four British citizens, one
Canadian and one Belgian, had confessed to the bombings, and
their confessions had been broadcast on Saudi television.
After being released in 2003, however, the Canadian citizen,
William Sampson, made public his dramatic account of beatings
administered by the Mabahith while being hung upside down,
including blows which made his testicles swell to the size of
oranges. Sampson said the Saudis told him from the beginning
what they wanted him to confess to, repeating it over and over
while the beatings continued, and refined the story over time,
constantly adding new details.
Six weeks into the interrogation, after Sampson began to tell
them what they wanted, they started videotaping his confession,
using a wall chart to help him remember in detail the movements
he was supposed to have made.
The Saudis even coached Sampson on what to say when he was
visited by Canadian Embassy personnel, threatening him with
further torture if he told the embassy officials the truth. When
the embassy personnel came to talk with him, Sampson's two
torturers were present for the entire interview, just as they
were presumably present at the questioning of the Shi'ite
detainees observed by the FBI team.
The other foreigners told similar stories of coerced confessions
under torture. Sampson and the five foreigners were released
only after a May 2003 suicide bombing by al-Qaeda on a Riyadh
compound housing 900 expatriates forced Saudi Interior Minister
Prince Nayef to acknowledge al-Qaeda as a terrorist threat in
Saudi Arabia.
Meanwhile, once out of office, Freeh became virtually a defense
lawyer for the Saudi regime on the Khobar Towers bombing.
Testifying before a joint hearing of the House and Senate Select
Intelligence Committees on October 9, 2002, he whitewashed the
Saudi policy toward the FBI investigation. Omitting any mention
of the Saudi deception over the explosives smuggling incident
and refusal to allow the FBI to pursue essential investigatory
tasks, Freeh suggested that the Saudis had done everything that
could be expected of them.
"Fortunately, the FBI was able to forge an effective working
relationship with the Saudi police and Interior Ministry," he
said. Any "roadblock or legal obstacle" that "would occur",
Freeh asserted, was because of the "marked difference between
our legal and procedural systems".
Freeh paid tribute to Prince Bandar bin Sultan, the Saudi
ambassador, as "critical in achieving the FBI's investigative
objectives in the Khobar case" and suggested that any such
temporary problems "were always solved" by Bandar's "personal
Freeh misrepresented the arrangement under which the FBI team
had observed the interrogation as "making these witnesses
directly available".
In an interview for a fawning biography of Prince Bandar, Freeh
even went so far as to call the Saudi beheading of four jihadis
who confessed to the Office of the Program Manager of the Saudi
National Guard bombing after refusing to allow the FBI to
question them as "swift justice" on a "Saudi domestic matter".
The final chapter of Freeh's connection with Bandar and the
Saudis, however, was still to come. In April 2009, Freeh
appeared as Bandar's defense lawyer in a British court case in
which Bandar was accused of illegally taking US$2 billion in
graft on a Saudi-British arms deal.
In the context of Freeh's straightened financial situation and
his very close relationship with Prince Bandar, this sequence of
developments in Freeh's relationship with the Saudis,
culminating in being put on Bandar's payroll, should have raised
eyebrows in Washington.
With a wife and six children to support, Freeh had been far more
vulnerable to Saudi blandishments than most senior
administration officials. And Bandar had made no secret that he
was willing to use the promise of financial benefits to
influence US officials while they were still in office.
He once told an associate, according to a February 2002 article
by Robert G Kaiser and David Ottaway of the Washington Post, "If
the reputation ... builds that the Saudis take care of friends
when they leave office, you'd be surprised how much better
friends you have who are just coming into office."
Freeh declined to be interviewed for this series.
In light of the history of Freeh's relations with Bandar, his
conduct of the investigation of Khobar Towers deserves new
scrutiny. Freeh effectively shut down a probe of a terror
bombing in which bin Laden was clearly implicated when the
Saudis had refused to cooperate; he refused to pursue any
investigation of a bin Laden role in the bombing; and he pushed
a seriously flawed Saudi account of the bombing, despite the
fact that it was tainted by the likelihood of torture.
The result of Freeh's blatant pro-Saudi bias was that bin Laden
was allowed more years of unhindered freedom in which to plan
terrorist actions against the US. Had Freeh not become an
advocate of the interests of the regime whose representative in
Washington eventually put him on his payroll, US policy would
presumably have been focused like a laser on bin Laden and
al-Qaeda two years earlier.
And perhaps the disinterest of the George W Bush
administration's national security team toward al-Qaeda before
9/11 would have been impossible.
Gareth Porter is an investigative historian and journalist
specializing in US national security policy. The paperback
edition of his latest book, Perils of Dominance: Imbalance of
Power and the Road to War in Vietnam, was published in 2006.
By Gareth Porter

(The series was supported by the Fund for Investigative

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