After last week's conviction of four followers of Islamic militant Osama bin Laden in the deadly bombings of two U.S. embassies in East Africa in 1998, we may be tempted to conclude that our greatest terrorist threat is from a Saudi renegade rather than the nation of Iraq.
That would be a serious mistake. Here is why.
On June 25, 1996, a 5,000-pound bomb exploded outside the Khobar Towers residence for American military personnel in Saudi Arabia, which housed the pilots enforcing the "no-fly" zone in southern Iraq. Nineteen U.S. airmen died. It was Saudi Arabia's most lethal terrorist bombing, and it occurred just after an Arab summit ended.
That meeting, the first Arab summit since the Gulf War, was convened because Saudi Arabia and Syria both wanted Arab support for their special concerns. Benjamin Netanyahu had just been elected Israeli prime minister, and Syria wanted a tough Arab line against Israel. The Saudis were worried about Iraq. Hussein Kamel Majid, Saddam Hussein's son-in-law, had defected in August (he later returned to Iraq and was killed within days), precipitating alarming revelations about the unconventional weapons Iraq retained in defiance of the U.N. cease-fire resolution. Iraq was the only Arab state not invited to the summit, which took a tough line against Baghdad. The summit demanded that Iraq comply with the U.N. resolutions and held the Iraqi regime responsible for the suffering of the people under sanctions.
The Iraqi media responded to the summit's final statement by lashing out at the United States, Saudi Arabia and Kuwait. Al Thawra, the official newspaper of the ruling Baath Socialist Party, charged that it "was written with Arabic letters but with American sentences and phrases paid for by Saudi and Kuwaiti dirty money." The official Iraqi army paper, Al Qadissiya, warned, "Before it is too late, the Arabs should rectify the sin they committed against Iraq when a number of Arab armies joined the 30-state coalition and participated in the aggression against it." The daily Al Iraq wrote, "Both agent regimes in Saudi Arabia and Kuwait, the enemies of the Arab nation, instigated the Americans, Zionists and smaller agents to strike at Iraq and destroy it."
In intelligence parlance, that kind of media assault is called a "threat environment" and is considered a meaningful indicator in regard to terrorism. Two days after the summit ended, with the Iraqi press still blasting away, the Khobar Towers bombing occurred.
Who was behind the blast? Wasn't Iraq the most obvious suspect?
Indeed, Wafiq Samarrai, a prominent defector who headed Iraqi military intelligence during the Gulf War, said that Iraq had formed a special committee to carry out terrorism, including attacks in Saudi Arabia, near buildings where U.S. soldiers lived.
Yet in 1996, with elections in November, the Clinton administration had no interest in fingering Iraq for the Khobar Towers bombing. As a candidate in 1992, Bill Clinton had talked tougher than his opponent, President Bush, on Iraq, arguing that Hussein should have been overthrown. But as president, Clinton was much softer, settling on a policy of "containing" Iraq. Even after Majid's defection, the administration continued to maintain that its policy was sufficient to deal with the Iraqi threat.
Initially after the Khobar Towers bombing, both the FBI and the CIA leaned toward the view that the renegade Saudi fundamentalist, Bin Laden--that is, not a nation-state--was responsible. That was convenient from a U.S. perspective. If evidence showed that a terrorist state was said to be behind the bombing, the administration would have been expected to take action. Yet from the Saudi perspective, it was the worst possible answer. It made the regime's domestic opponents appear more capable and determined than they were. That may explain why the Saudi Embassy leaked information from the interrogation of Saudi Shiites rounded up after the bombing. Under torture, they acknowledged responsibility and fingered Iran. Most people will say anything under torture, but the Saudi leak ended speculation that Bin Laden was responsible.
It is now five years later. Thus far, the U.S. has no policy on Iraq, and the Saudis have turned to Iran to help them deal with Iraq. Saudi Crown Prince Abdullah recently rebuffed the Bush administration, turning down its invitation to visit Washington.
One thing the new administration can do to help clarify matters is to revisit the bombings in Saudi Arabia. Almost certainly, it will find that the evidence points toward Iraq and that Hussein remains a far more dangerous figure than is generally recognized.