Did Iran Give Up the Khobar Towers Terrorist?
It sure looks like it. And that signals an interesting change in Iran’s post-nuclear deal relations with America.
The capture of Ahmed al-Mughassil, the prime suspect in the June 1996 bombing of Khobar Towers in Saudi Arabia, was particularly and personally gratifying for me, a former FBI agent who spent years investigating and disrupting other terrorist attacks. But it’s unlikely that a lucky intelligence break alone led to Mughassil’s apparent capture in Hezbollah territory.
That’s not to take anything away from the impressive ability of intelligence agencies around the world to coordinate and track those like Mughassil, who’ve successfully evaded detection for years. Indeed, the “how” of his capture, which involved the intelligence and security services of Lebanon, Saudi Arabia, and the United States, is the stuff of spy novels. But the question of why Hezbollah allowed Mughassil to be plucked from its own backyard — without any retaliation or even a tangible response — may be even more fascinating.
That “why” likely stems from the shifting self-interests of both Iran and Saudi Arabia — specifically, from the realities posed by the soon-to-be-enacted Iranian nuclear deal. With the historic accord now in Tehran’s back pocket, it will make less and less sense for the regime going forward to offer safe havens to wanted terrorist suspects (with American blood on their hands, no less), who present glaring political and diplomatic liabilities. To prove its skeptics wrong, Iran must continue to show a willingness to change its stance on harboring terrorists.
Mughassil’s capture fits squarely into this equation. A Shiite born in al-Qatif, Saudi Arabia, in 1967, he was a state-sponsored and then state-sheltered terrorist — the “state,” in each case, being Iran, working with its proxy Hezbollah. The bombing of Khobar Towers, which killed 19 U.S. Air Force personnel enforcing a no-fly zone over parts of Iraq and wounded hundreds of others, involved actors in four countries — Saudi Arabia, Iran, Lebanon, and Syria — working with the Iranian-supported Lebanese Hezbollah and the Iranian-supported, but Saudi Arabia-based, Hezbollah al-Hejaz (a separate group from the Lebanese Hezbollah but still ideologically aligned with them and Iran). After parking a massive truck bomb near the tower’s housing complex, Mughassil left the scene, remotely detonated the bomb with an explosive yield of 20,000 pounds of TNT-equivalent explosives, and fled to Iran, beyond the reach of U.S. and Saudi security and intelligence services.
The ensuing FBI-led investigation devolved into a discordant orchestra of mismatched musicians, reading different sheets of music and following the direction of competing conductors. Then-FBI Director Louis Freeh was personally involved, not only visiting the scene in the immediate aftermath but also pressing the issue for years, often to the irritation of the White House. The FBI never stopped pushing for more cooperation from the Saudis, who were reluctant (to put it mildly) to reveal to U.S. officials the depth of Iranian involvement in the plot.
Riyadh feared retaliation from Tehran if the United States attacked Iran based on information gathered from Saudi Arabia. The kingdom also feared being embarrassed by the revelation that fully capable terrorist cells, funded and trained by foreign powers, were operating within its borders.
Even as new terrorism cases took the spotlight, Khobar remained an FBI priority. During the East Africa embassy bombings in 1998 and the USS Cole attack in 2000, cases in which I was directly and deeply involved, the bureau never stopped collecting evidence or cajoling Saudi officials to turn over evidence in their possession. That the United States finally secured indictments in June 2001 — five years after the attacks — was a testament both to the geopolitical roadblocks and the determination to find a way around them. Mughassil was one of those indicted, yet he remained at large. Then, three months after the indictments, al Qaeda brought down the World Trade Center and crashed a plane into the Pentagon.
On Aug. 8, nearly 14 years later, Mughassil was taken into custody by Lebanese authorities after landing in Beirut on a flight from Iran, traveling under an alias with an Iranian passport. He was then transported — through Hezbollah-controlled territory — to Lebanese national police headquarters for questioning and processing, and then back to the airport to be handed over to Saudi officials.
Intelligence operations in Beirut are never easy or straightforward. That Mughassil’s capture went off without apparent notice or outrage suggests that the Iranians and Hezbollah either had no idea about his capture — unlikely — or, more likely, knew and stepped aside.
The entire operation should give us pause. After all, life for a state-sheltered terrorist can be pretty good — until politics change dramatically, that is. Historic regional rivalries and entrenched power dynamics rarely shift significantly in one’s lifetime, affording someone like Mughassil relative security and freedom within certain geographic and geopolitical boundaries. Yet such shifts do happen.
Sabri Khalil al-Banna, the feared Palestinian terrorist also known as Abu Nidal implicated in hundreds of deaths across the globe, found relative sanctuary in Libya in 1987 after his expulsion from Syria. Only after Libyan operatives were extradited in 1999 to the Hague and convened before a Scottish court as part of a deal over the 1988 bombing of Pan Am 103 did then-Libyan leader Muammar al-Qaddafi decide Abu Nidal was no longer worth his trouble. He was kicked out in 1999 and ended up in Iraq, where he was shot and killed in 2002.
The same happened with the infamous Ilich Ramírez Sánchez, a.k.a. Carlos the Jackal, responsible for numerous terrorist attacks in Europe, including an attack on OPEC headquarters in Vienna and the murder of two French intelligence officers in Paris, both in 1975. As it became more or less palatable for countries to shelter him, Ramírez Sánchez bounced from one country to another. After being kicked out of Syria as part of the regional reshuffle that followed the Iraqi invasion of Kuwait in 1990, Carlos the Jackal believed he had found permanent sanctuary in Sudan (Syria supported the 1991 U.S.-led invasion of Iraq because of regional hegemonic competition and then-President Hafez al-Assad’s hatred of Saddam).
Regional realignment during the war saw Arab militaries, for the first time, fighting with a Western coalition against another Arab country — and U.S. forces stationed in large numbers in Saudi Arabia and Kuwait. As alliances and interests shifted yet again in the aftermath of the U.S.-led victory in Kuwait, Sudan reconsidered its decision to shelter Carlos the Jackal. Khartoum, as it turned out, was more interested in economic aid and commerce than in sheltering a terrorist that the French, who would end up playing a role in helping Sudan’s economy, wanted badly. In 1994, Sudanese officials tricked, drugged, and transported him to French custody.
The Jackal’s case helps us understand the strange politics that determine the fates of state-sponsored terrorists like Mughassil. Although the details of his capture remain spotty, Iran likely made a calculation: Sheltering a wanted terrorist was no longer in its best interests, given the sudden opportunity to reopen itself to the rest of the world both economically and diplomatically. Like Sudan in 1994, Iran wants to end its relative economic isolation. Its petro-dependent economy is in tatters, due to both sanctions and the low price of oil. And its proxy efforts in Syria, Yemen, and Lebanon are long-term expenses with uncertain benefits. “Giving up” Mughassil removes an irritant who provides little for a government now focused on accruing diplomatic capital.
The challenges facing this case — from a reluctant Saudi Arabia to subsequent terrorist attacks of a far greater scale — made it a perfect one to remain perpetually “under investigation.” The combination of shifting regional dynamics and the FBI’s unwavering focus likely brought about the capture of a terrorist who believed he had gotten away with his murders. Mughassil’s capture and arrest should be a lesson to state-sponsored terrorists everywhere: They are being played as pawns and are only safe as long as they are useful.
Whether or not Iran will shift away from using state-sponsored terrorism as a tactic remains to be seen. But the country must be ready to pivot in its relationship with longtime foes like the Saudis. The nuclear deal has forced Tehran to confront the obvious: Its sponsorship and arming of proxies like Hezbollah and its meddling across the Middle East — from Lebanon, to Iraq, to Syria — will increasingly come at cross-purposes with its mission to reengage with the world.
As history shows, once the liability of harboring a state-sponsored terrorist like Mughassil outweighs the utility, the state will gladly turn him out. Just ask Carlos the Jackal.
Photo credit: Getty Images News
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