The United States charged 14 suspected Middle Eastern terrorists Thursday in the deadly bombing of an American military barracks in Saudi Arabia in 1996, but prosecutors did not name any Iranian officials despite evidence that Tehran helped orchestrate the attack.
The charges in the Khobar Towers bombing mark what outgoing FBI Director Louis J. Freeh called "a milestone" in an ongoing five-year investigation that at times has threatened to languish under the weight of diplomatic, political and legal obstacles.
The grand jury indictment charges that Hezbollah militants began eyeing possible U.S. military targets in Saudi Arabia as early as 1994 before detonating a truck loaded with 5,000 pounds of plastic explosives at the U.S. military barracks in Dhahran two years later. The nighttime attack killed 19 Air Force personnel and wounded 372 other Americans.
According to the indictment, Iranian government officials "inspired, supported and directed" the militants, but Freeh says there was not enough evidence to charge the Iranians.
"Diplomatic considerations played no part" in that decision, Freeh said. While more people may yet face indictment, "I am confident . . . that everyone who could be charged based on the sufficiency of the evidence has been charged."
The failure to indict any Iranians frustrated the relatives of several victims. Some Middle East analysts suggested that the omission may reflect the United States' desire not to ostracize the more moderate, reform-minded regime of President Mohammad Khatami, who was reelected less than two weeks ago.
"I would suspect that the decision not to name [any Iranians] is a political one, not a legal one," said Dan Goure, a foreign policy expert at the Lexington Institute think tank.
Roughly half of the 14 named defendants are already in custody in the Middle East, according to a law enforcement official who asked not to be identified because of the sensitivity of the ongoing investigation.
While Freeh declined to discuss specifics, he said the indictment will set off a global hunt for the remaining fugitives by U.S. law enforcement personnel and their allies. "There's a number of [the defendants] that we need to find, and we will find them," he said.
The defendants, charged with murder, conspiracy and the use of weapons of mass destruction against U.S. nationals, face the death penalty if tried in the United States. Freeh said he believes some or all of the defendants could be extradited to the United States under international treaties.
Those implicated include 13 leaders and followers of the Saudi Hezbollah--an Islamic militia that promotes violence against U.S. nationals--and a 14th suspect known only as "John Doe," a Lebanese Hezbollah member who allegedly aided in the building of the truck bomb.
One of the defendants, Hani al-Sayegh, was already in U.S. custody in connection with the bombing for two years until 1999, but he was deported from Atlanta to his native Saudi Arabia after federal authorities could not come up with enough evidence to prosecute him. Al-Sayegh had initially promised to help the FBI in the often-frustrating early days of the probe, but the deal fell apart.
The investigation met other roadblocks.
Immediately after the explosion, Prince Bandar ibn Sultan, the Saudi ambassador to the United States, promised the United States "swift, harsh justice."
But the FBI complained that the Saudis stonewalled their investigation in its early days.
Freeh acknowledged Thursday that "there was an estrangement" early on. "We didn't know each other. We didn't deal with each other." But cooperation improved significantly once the FBI set up an office in Riyadh, and the relationship developed into "a very strong one," leading to Thursday's charges, Freeh said.
No such rapprochement was evident in Freeh's chilly dealings with the Clinton administration over the investigation.
Freeh sparred at times with both federal prosecutors and political appointees in the Clinton administration over what he thought was the sluggish pace of the prosecutions. One published report suggested that he distrusted the White House's motives in the Khobar investigation, suspecting they were driven more by public relations and Iranian politics than by justice.
Asked Thursday about his relations with the Clinton administration in the investigation, Freeh said that "any concern I had about the direction of this case was certainly superseded and, gratefully, handled by [prosecutors'] judgment and understanding of the evidence."
Pointedly, Freeh refused to say whether he had ever asked the Clinton administration to bring charges against any Iranians in the case. He said he had never done so with the Bush administration because he said the evidence was lacking.
A former Justice Department official who was involved in the investigation during the Clinton administration was baffled by the implication of Freeh's remarks. The official, who asked not to be identified, said Freeh never discussed bringing charges against the Iranians with top-level Justice Department officials.
The official said that "if you had the ability to prove Iranian culpability at a criminal level, it would have geopolitical implications." But the ultimate decision not to charge any Iranians was probably guided by legal and evidentiary roadblocks involving the secret intelligence sources that U.S. investigators stumbled upon, the official added.
Allegations Against Iranian Officials
"'It's one thing to have [secret intelligence], but it's another to be able to put someone on the stand to say this is what happened," the official said. "My educated guess is that you just don't have sufficient clarity or certainty to proceed against the Iranians."
Even so, the indictment returned Thursday by a grand jury in Alexandria, Va., lays out a damning set of allegations against Iranian officials as the backbone of the bombing.
The indictment alleges that the Saudi Hezbollah, driven by a loyalty to Iran and a dislike of the government in Saudi Arabia, acted in concert with unnamed Iranian leaders.
The Iranian Embassy in Syria, according to the indictment, "was an important source of logistics and support for Saudi [Hezbollah] members traveling to and from Lebanon," supplying a Mercedes for one of the bombing defendants to drive to a military training site in Lebanon in 1989.
When the Saudi Hezbollah began surveillance of Americans in Saudi Arabia in 1993, reports on the operations were sent to officials in Iran, the indictment alleges. Once the U.S. military barracks was identified as a possible terrorist target in 1994, one of the bombing defendants "received a phone call from a high Iranian government official inquiring about the progress of their surveillance activity," U.S. authorities maintained.
The plan for the attack was set in motion by early 1996. "The attack was to serve Iran by driving the Americans out of the Gulf region," the indictment alleges.
The attack came at 10 p.m. on June 25, 1996, after weeks of preparation at a farm in Qatif, where the militants allegedly converted a tanker truck into a bomb more powerful than the one Timothy J. McVeigh used in the Oklahoma City blast. The bomb had a power equal to that of 20,000 pounds of TNT, authorities said.
Two of the defendants allegedly drove the truck bomb into the Khobar Towers parking lot and parked it by a fence in front of Building No. 131 before fleeing in a getaway car. Minutes later, the bomb exploded, ripping the face off the north side of the building. Two servicemen from California were among the 19 Air Force personnel killed.
Bush Calls Bombing 'Deplorable Act'
President Bush, traveling in Alabama on Thursday, decried the bombing as a "deplorable act of terrorism," and he offered his sympathies to the families of the dead and to those injured in the blast. "Your government will not forget your loss and will continue working, based on the evidence, to make sure that justice is done."
Atty. Gen. John Ashcroft, meanwhile, said the charges should underscore the Bush administration's commitment to fighting terrorism and ensuring the safety of Americans abroad.
The timing of the indictment was driven by the five-year anniversary of the bombing next Monday, which officials said could have forced the expiration of some lesser charges under the statute of limitations. But associates of Freeh said securing an indictment before he leaves office in the coming days also became something of a personal crusade for him.
Freeh, who is stepping down under a cloud of turmoil at the FBI, said he hopes the success in cracking the bombing case will bring "some measure of peace and closure and, of course, the conviction that this crime will be pursued to whatever end it takes us."
U.S. 'Let Iran Get Away With One'
But Richard Wood of Modesto, whose son, Airman 1st Class Justin Wood, 20, was the youngest serviceman killed in the bombing, said the indictments brought mixed emotions.
"On the one hand, I'm happy that it's finally being recognized that something happened over there. It seemed like it was forgotten for a long time," he said. "But there are Iranians that should have been charged. I question why they're not. I think our government really let Iran get away with one."
Times staff writer Norman Kempster contributed to this story.
Keeping a lid on: Assessing the damage to U.S.-Iran ties. A9