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Ghost of Khobar

By John Mohammadi
May 10, 2001
The Iranian

So, like a ghost that wakes up occassionally and takes many forms, the allegations of Iranian involvement in the 1996 Khobar Towers bombing in Dhahran, Saudi Arabia, have been re-animated in an article published recently in the New Yorker recently.

For those of you who may have forgotten, here are the known facts: Saudi Arabia's political stability was called into question following bomb attacks on US targets in November 1995 and June 1996. In the first incident a US- staffed Saudi National Guard unit at Riyadh Was bombed, killing five Americans and two Indians, while in the second, 19 US soldiers were killed when a massive bomb exploded at a barracks in Dhahran. Four young Saudis confessed to the 1995 Riyadh attack and were beheaded in May, before anyone else could verify their confessions. The second bombing clearly illustrates that they were not an isolated cell, suggesting that there is more widespread opposition to the presence of US troops in Saudi Arabia.

What followed were a series of confusing and contradictory allegations and speculation about the culprits who were responsible for the bombing. Radical Saudi Sunni and Shi'ite fundamentalists came under immediate suspicion. The Saudi government, which did not want the world to think that there was any political discord in their country, claimed that the culprits were influenced by exiled dissident groups, including Dr. Mohammad al-Masari. Then they blamed it all on Saudi Shi'ites who allegedly take their direction from Iran. The leaders of the Saudi Shi'ites, in turn, accused the Saudi government of trying to make a scapegoat out of them. Later on, there were claims at least one of the bombers had escaped to Iran, and another had escaped to Syria, (where he died under mysterious circumstances).

On the London-based daily Al-Qods al-Arabi (8/13/96) reported that six veterans of the Afghan war who had been trained by bin-Laden had confessed to the Dhahran bombing and the Saudis were preparing a statement detailing their confessions. The daily said the six were from the al-Jamiyin group, Sunni fighters in Afghanistan who once had been supported by the Saudi government. The report, which cited informed sources and sources close to the group said the six were being held in Jubail prison and were being questioned by the director of general investigations under the direct supervision of the Interior Minister, Prince Nayef. The report also said the Interior Minister had banned any other party from questioning them. Pentagon and White House officials refused to comment on the report.

Meanwhile, Bin Laden, who was hiding in Afghanistan and waging his own battles against the US from there, warned in an interview with London's Al-Qods newspaper of "preparations for major operations" if Americans don't leave Saudi Arabia: "We had thought that the Riyadh, and al-Khobar blasts were a sufficient signal to sensible US decision-makers to avert a real battle between the Islamic nation and US forces, but it seems that they did not understand the signal." The 1998 bombings of the US embassies in Kenya and Tanzania are also being officially blamed by the US government on Bin-Laden (and not Iran ... at least not yet.)

In April 1997, the Iranian Mujaheddin claimed that they had the evidence linking Iran to the Khobar towers bombing. There were also a series of different claims of responsibility. For example, the self-described "Movement for Islamic Change" claimed it made the Dhahran attack. Calling itself a "branch of the Jihad in the Arab peninsula,'' it said it had "proven that it has long arms in attacking the complex of aviators in El-Khobar."

Then there was the story of Hani Abdel Rahim Sayegh. Canadian authorities arrested the Shi'ite Saudi grocery clerk who had moved to Canada to escape from the repressive Saudi government. They claimed that he was an Iranian-trained terrorist linked to the bombing in Saudi Arabia, but never provided any evidence to support this claim, other than the fact that Al-Sayegh had visted the Iranian embassy and had admitted to having visited Iran. American government interrogators went to Canada and offered Al-Sayegh a deal: If you "cooperate" (probably meaning "Blame Iran!") we'll let you come to the US and live in the witness protection program with your family, and if you don't cooperate, you'll be deported back to Saudi Arabia where you'll get your head chopped off.

Mr. Al-Sayegh, who probably didn't want to have his head chopped off, eventually agreed to come to the US, but once he was on US soil, aided by a US lawyer and protected by US immigration laws, he immediately reneged on the deal. This was an embarrassment! Without his "cooperation", the US government couldn't blame Iran. They didn't even have enough evidence to prosecute Al-Sayegh and were forced to drop all charges against him. Al-Sayegh then applied for asylum. This put the US government in an even more embarrassing situation: on one hand, they couldn't simply release him after claiming repeatedly (and apparently, without any evidence) that he was an Iranian-trained super-terrorist from Hell, and on the other hand, since he was seeking political asylum from a government which was a well-known human rights abuser, they couldn't simply send him back to Saudi Arabia where he could be tortured and killed. So they hatched a plan and eventually did deport him to back Saudi Arabia, based on an unenforceable promise from the Saudis that he would not be harmed. Not much has been heard from poor Mr. Al-Sayegh since then.

The US media went nuts with speculation about an Iranian link. This, of course, was nothing new, as the same claims were made about the Oklahoma bombings and the crash of TWA 800, and also the bombings of Jewish cultural centers in Argentina (which was blamed on Iran thanks to the "evidence" provided by an Argentinian man with a criminal background who was apparently trying to get even with his Iranian-born former girlfriend.) But there was also an intense campaign, especially by the so-called "friends of Israel", to pressure the US government into bombing Iran, immediately and without stopping to ask any questions. The Israeli president, Ezer Weitzman, immediately blamed Iran for the bombing. One US newspaper printed a map of Iran on its front page, indicating "terrorist training camps" that were to be bombed. A famously pro-Israeli editorial writer in the New York Times wrote that the US was "cowardly" for not retaliating against Iran. Numerous other editorials similarly claimed that the US was seeking to "appease Iran" by not retaliating immediately.

According to the Washington Post, in December 1996, the Saudi Interior Minister Prince Nayef ibn Abdel Aziz presented evidence of Iranian involvement in the bombing to FBI Director Louis Freeh. The evidence was later characterized by Freeh as mere "hearsay" and he criticized the Saudi's for lack of cooperation in the investigation and there was some speculation that the Saudi's were trying to destablize Iran and/or play down the scope of internal dissent in the Kingdom. Subsequently, on 21 May 1998, Agence-France Presse quoted Prince Nayef as stating that the bombing was "carried out by Saudi hands" and that "no foreign party had a role" in it.

However, that did not end things. According to some analysts, the Saudi refusal to pin the blame arises from a desire to prevent a US retaliation against Iran, which would then result in Iranian retaliation against Saudi Arabia. The interesting thing about this theory - which has been repeated so often that it has become the "truth" without a speck of evidence to support it - is the inherent double standard: If the Saudis don't blame Iran, these analysts engage in all sorts of discussions about potential Saudi motives for not blaming Iran. On the other hand, if the Saudi's do blame Iran, that will be taken by the same analysts at face value, without any sort of discussion about secret Saudi motives for doing so. In short, the Saudis can be believed ONLY if they do implicate Iran, and should be disbelieved if they don't implicate Iran! Well, if that is the sort of thinking that passes for analysis nowdays, I have hypothetical scenario too: the Israelis blew up the Americans at Khobar to prevent or hinder a possible US and Saudi rapprochement with Iran.

Of course, I also have no evidence to support this, other than rational speculation based on the following question: Who would benefit most from the bombing? Assuming that the Iranians really are so hell-bent on killing Americans and driving them out of the Persian Gulf, they are smart enough to know that blowing up a building in Saudi Arabia only invite military retaliation and international condemnation, worsens Saudi ill-will and fears of Iran at the same time that Iran was trying to patch things up with its neighbors, and possibly even results in a greater US military presence in the region.

On the other hand, the Israelis, who hate the idea that the US and Saudi Arabia may start to get along with Iran again, would obviously stand the most to gain from such a bombing, and therefore a credible case can be made for their involvement. Of course, some would say "Hey, Israel a democratic, peace-loving US ally and would not kill innocent people, certainly not Americans!" But is this really true or is it simply naive thinking? To borrow an Iranian saying, politics "has no mother or father." The world is, after all, a nasty place, and politicians are well-known for stabbing their friends in the back. But leaving the logical argument aside, there is at least one well-known empirical evidence and precedent for my admittedly hypothetical scenario, and it is widely known as the Lavon Affair.

In July of 1954, Israel recruited Egyptian-born Jews to blow up Americans in Egypt, in the hopes of ruining a developing Egyptian-US rapprochement. At the time, US President Eisenhower had promised aid to Egypt, and had urged the British to withdraw from their military base in the Suez Canal Zone, and Ben-Gurion had failed to dissuade Britain from doing so. It was to sabotage this rapprochement that the head of Israeli intelligence, Colonel Benjamin Givli, ordered his terrorists to into action in Egypt. On Givli's instructions, the terrorist network in Egypt planted bombs in American and British cultural centers, British-owned cinemas and Egyptian public buildings. His exact instructions were: "The Israeli origin should be totally covered while attention should be shifted to any other possible factor. The purpose is to prevent economic and military aid from the West to Egypt. The choice of the precise objectives to be sabotaged will be left to the men on the spot, who should evaluate the possible consequences of each action . . . in terms of creating commotion and public disorder." ("Israel's Sacred Terrorism" by Livia Rokach)

In accordance with these instructions, the Israeli terrorists fire-bombed the US Information Service libraries in Cairo and Alexandria, and blew up the Alexandria post office. Unfortunately for Israel, one of the bombs exploded prematurely in the pocket of an Israeli terrorists as he was entering a British-owned theater in Alexandria. Most of the 13 Israeli terrorists were then arrested and placed on trial by the Egyptian authorities, though a few escaped and one committed suicide before he could be captured. Of course, the Israeli press resorted to their typical hysteria about "anti-semitic show trials" and comparisons between Egypt and Nazi Germany, but the evidence was conclusive. Two of the Israeli-backed terrorists were hung. Years later, the rest were released from Egyptian prisons as part of a prisoner exchange with Israel, and top level Israeli officials even attended the wedding of one the released terrorists.

Officially, the Israeli government claimed that the whole thing was a rogue operation run by Israeli's Defense Minister, Pinckus Lavon. Eventually, and after many "committees of inquiry", the full truth was exposed. The conclusion was that the operation had in fact been set up behind Lavon's back by Peres, Dayan and Ben Gurion, and Lavon was officially exonerated.

Other instances of Israeli complicity in anti-Western terrorism can also be brought up, such as Israel's role in the attack by Israeli jets on the USS Liberty, but the full facts in those cases are still kept as state secret. However, the bottom line is this: Yes, Israel has been known to blow up people from allied states, including Americans, and if there is to be speculation about who blew up the 19 Americans in Khobar Towers, then any logical person would have to at least include Israel in the list of potential culprits. But of course, that will never happen, at least not in the US. Instead what we'll have are more mysterious explosions which, somehow or another and as a result of endless lurid speculation, become attributed to Iranians.

Of course, this is not to say that Iran doesn't bomb places - Iran is certainly no better or worse than any other country in this respect - but isn't interesting to see how "secret evidence" and rumors become accepted in this here democracy as a substitute for truth, until everyone just "knows" Iran is responsible, without anyone knowing exactly how or why or when or who ....

PS: For any readers who are going to accuse me of anti-Semitism for writing this, and for any real anti-Semites who think I have some sympathy for their cause, all I can say is "Don't flatter yourselves."

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