Investigations into the 1996 attack on Khobar Towers that killed 19 U.S. airmen moved closer to a conclusion after its alleged mastermind, Ahmed al-Mughassil, was caught and handed over to Saudi authorities in Beirut late last week.
Pan-Arab newspaper Asharq al-Awsat broke the news of the arrest, but stopped short of giving further details, reporting only that Mughassil was captured by Saudi intelligence and handed over to relevant Saudi authorities in Beirut.
The bombing destroyed an eight-story building in Khobar Towers, a housing complex for American Air Force personnel stationed in Saudi Arabia. Nineteen people were killed in the blast and 400 were wounded.
Former Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) analyst and senior Obama administration official, now with the Brookings Institution, told Al Arabiya News that Mughassil had been living in hiding in Beirut under the shelter of the Iranian-backed Hezbollah group.
“Mughassil has been protected by Iran and Hezbollah since 1996, he may have gotten careless about his security. The Saudis were quick to get him out of Beirut before Hezbollah could rescue him,” Riedel said.
At the time of the bombing, Riedel was the deputy assistant secretary of defense and recounted the day he was dispatched to the bombsite in an op-ed for Al Monitor: “The scene was devastating. Mughassil had driven a truck containing the bomb up to a protective wall near the barracks. He then remotely detonated the bomb. It was the equivalent of 20,000 pounds of TNT, larger than the bomb used to blow up the Marine barracks in Beirut. In addition to the Americans killed and wounded, dozens of Saudis and South Asian guest workers were injured. Mughassil allegedly fled to Iran immediately after the attack.”
Neither the U.S. nor Saudi Arabia have directly commented or confirmed Mughassil’s arrest. American newspapers were quick to welcome the news but raised doubts regarding the timing of it.
At the time of publication, the FBI’s most wanted list still had Mughassil listed as “at large” with a bounty of $5 million dollars and according to a report by Asharq al-Awsat, American analysts said that Washington were “the last to be informed regarding Mughassil’s arrest.”
The New York Times, in an editorial published on August 28, said that the news’ timing had something to do with the current debate over the P5+1 Iranian nuclear deal.
Under the deal reached in July, sanctions imposed by the U.S., the EU and the U.N. will be lifted in return for Iran agreeing long-term curbs on a nuclear program that the West has suspected was aimed at creating a nuclear bomb.
“While the arrest is welcome and long overdue, the timing has raised suspicions, coming as it does in the middle of a fierce debate in Congress about the wisdom of the proposed nuclear deal with Iran and whether Tehran can be relied on to fulfill its terms,” the editorial read.
‘U.S. does not need reminders’
However, former political analyst at the Saudi embassy in the U.S., Fahad Nazer, told Al Arabiya News that any talk linking Saudi Arabia with the arrest and attempting to influence the U.S. congress vote on the Iran nuclear deal would “not very convincing.”
“The U.S. does not need reminders that Iran has supported militant groups and terrorist acts that have targeted Americans. Iran is still designated as a state sponsor of terrorism by the United States government and the sanctions that are related to its support of terrorist groups are still in place,” Nazer told Al Arabiya News.
“I am also certain that Saudi policymakers are well aware that opponents of the Iran deal are facing an uphill battle in Congress and that the likelihood of Congress scuttling the deal at this point is decreasing by the day,” he added.
While the debate continues regarding the timing of the event, Riedel told Al Arabiya that the arrest and confirmation of Mughassil’s hiding in Beirut only reinforces the U.S. Republican congressional opposition to the nuclear deal, proving Tehran’s meddling in Middle East affairs and state-sponsoring of regional attacks.
“By putting Khobar in the headlines after 19 years, the Saudi operation dramatically reminds Americans of the numerous terror operations against American targets carried out by Tehran since 1979. This will strengthen the opposition to the deal by reinforcing doubts about Iran's trustworthiness,” Riedel said.SHOW MORE