As troops began installing a 400-foot security perimeter around a military compound bombed by terrorists last week, President Clinton on Saturday appointed a retired general to carry out a “full assessment” of the attack and to review the safety of U.S. forces across the Middle East.
The installation of the widened buffer around the Khobar Towers housing complex near Dhahran was announced during a visit by Defense Secretary William J. Perry as part of a series of urgent steps to improve security at the post. Later, the base commander said he repeatedly sought permission to widen the buffer earlier this year but was turned down by the Saudis.
Officials say the proximity of the 5,000-pound truck bomb was the main reason for the high number of casualties Tuesday night, when 19 U.S. military personnel died and more than 400 people, including Saudi and other civilians, were wounded. The bombers backed the deadly truck into a fence only 35 yards from a residential building.
“We will do everything in our power to discover who was responsible, to pursue them and to punish them,” Clinton said at a news conference in Lyons, France, where he was attending a summit of the seven largest industrialized democracies.
He said he had appointed retired Gen. Wayne Downing, former commander in chief of Army special operations forces, to investigate the bombing and evaluate security measures at other U.S. facilities in the region to prevent similar attacks. Downing was ordered to report back in 45 days.
Saudi officials declined to confirm Perry’s statements Friday that investigators had indications of an organizational link between the bombing at Khobar and an attack at a U.S.-run military training center in Riyadh, the Saudi capital, that claimed seven lives in November.
Four Saudis were executed last month for that attack. Saudi Arabia said then that it had successfully smashed a small “home-grown” terrorist cell of Islamic extremists confined to the oil-rich desert kingdom.
If investigators do establish a connection, it could indicate a broader plot than officials had previously described and raise anew the question of whether the bombers had any assistance from people or states outside Saudi Arabia.
Sources familiar with the investigation suggested that the Dhahran bombers may be connected to a group apprehended trying to enter Saudi Arabia from Jordan two months ago with high-grade explosives. While that shipment was intercepted, Saudi security forces feared that another one may have “slipped through,” one source said.
The incident set off alarm bells and caused an intensive security operation by the Saudis that was going on even before the blast at the Khobar complex, one source said.
At the blast site, investigators continued to turn up clues in the rubble, including a truck chassis and a Mercedes-Benz hubcap believed to have come from the truck that blew up, U.S. and Saudi officials said. The chassis carried the vehicle’s serial number, and Persian Gulf newspapers quoted Saudi officials as saying that investigators had the truck’s license number and were homing in on its owners.
Newspapers also said that a composite sketch of two suspects, based on eyewitness reports, would soon be published by the Saudi authorities.
On his one-day visit to Saudi Arabia, Perry discussed the terrorist threat with King Fahd and other senior Saudi officials in this Red Sea port.
He also used his visit to the blast site to boost morale among the young military personnel shaken by the attack, which sheared off the front of an eight-story residential building and sent killing shards of debris to several neighboring buildings.
“This bomb succeeded in causing great destruction, but it failed in its ultimate target. Because this attack will not drive us away,” Perry said at a news conference. The United States, he said, “will not be intimidated by terrorists or rogue nations.”
Clinton, who plans to attend memorial services for the blast’s victims in Florida today, echoed the sentiment. “Let me be clear,” he said. “Just as no enemy could drive us from the field in World War II and the Cold War, we will not be driven from the frontiers of our fight against terrorism today.”
On the campaign trail in Dallas on Saturday, Bob Dole, the likely Republican presidential nominee, called for a united American front against terrorism, saying that “when tragedies like this occur, we’re not Democrats, we’re not Republicans--we’re Americans.”
But he also suggested that Clinton’s defense policies had left Americans vulnerable to terrorist attacks like the bombing in Saudi Arabia.
At the base outside Dhahran, the principal security improvement will be the wider perimeter, to be completed within a week, around the complex, which houses about 2,250 Americans and a sprinkling of French and British troops. Increased patrols and relocating residences away from the perimeter were also ordered.
Speaking to reporters in Khobar, base commander Brig. Gen. Terry Schwalier said he had asked “many different times” for permission to widen the perimeter around the base, but Saudi officials refused, according to wire reports. He said the wider perimeter would have meant taking space used for parking near a park popular with locals.
Schwalier’s comments were the first disclosure that the military had considered the previous buffer zone of 80 to 100 feet insufficient. Earlier, U.S. officials had said the distance was sufficient according to a vulnerability assessment report based on last fall’s Riyadh bombing.
Also Saturday, the Air Force reported that an airman initially thought to be hospitalized was one of those killed in the blast and that one of those believed dead is alive but seriously injured.
Forensic teams said formerly unidentified remains were those of Airman 1st Class Christopher B. Lester, 19, of Pineville, W.Va. His relatives had been told that he was hospitalized in very serious condition.
Authorities previously believed the remains were those of Airman Paul A. Blais, who is assigned to Patrick Air Force Base in Florida.
Blais’ mother, Maria Taylor, reached at her home in Hampton, Va., on Saturday, said the Air Force informed her Friday evening that her son was alive.
“It’s a wonderful feeling. It’s the best day of my life,” Taylor said. She said Air Force officials told her that Blais was in a coma but that his condition was improving.
Times staff writer James Gerstenzang contributed to this story from Lyons, France.