Suspect in 1996 Khobar Towers bombing arrested

WASHINGTON (AP) — A man suspected in the 1996 bombing of the Khobar Towers residence at a U.S. military base in Saudi Arabia has been captured, a U.S. official said Wednesday.

Ahmed al-Mughassil, described by the FBI in 2001 as the head of the military wing of Saudi Hezbollah, is suspected of leading the attack that killed 19 U.S. service personnel and wounded almost 500 people. The June 25, 1996, bombing at Khobar Towers, a military housing complex, was the deadliest such attack targeting U.S. forces since the 1983 bombing of the U.S. Marines’ barracks in Beirut that killed 241 American servicemen.  

Saudi paper Asharq Alawsat, which first reported the development, said he was arrested in Beirut and transferred to Riyadh. The Saudi Interior Ministry had no immediate comment. The U.S. official spoke on condition of anonymity because this person was not authorized to publicly discuss the matter.

Al-Mughassil, also known as Abu Omran, is one of 13 people named in a 2001 indictment in Alexandria, Virginia, in connection with the bombing. Charges include murder of federal employees and bombing resulting in death. None of the 13 has yet been brought to court to face charges, according to court documents.

The lead prosecutor listed in court records from 2001 is James Comey, now the FBI director. In the Khobar attack, militants parked a fuel trailer truck just outside the shallow perimeter of the apartment complex, 85 feet away from one of the eight-story buildings. The blast demolished one side of the building, leaving a massive crater.

The U.S. later moved its Air Force contingent to the Prince Sultan Air Base, a vast compound in a remote stretch of desert south of the Saudi capital, Riyadh. The Saudi Hezbollah extremist group was founded by members of the desert kingdom’s Shiite minority who fled into exile in the 1980s to escape what they said was persecution by the kingdom’s Sunni majority.

The 2001 indictment placed heavy blame on Iran for nurturing the attack but stopped short of mentioning any Iranians by name or linking them directly to Khobar. However, in 2006, U.S. District Judge Royce C. Lamberth ruled the Iranian government financed the bombing, ordering it to pay $254 million to the attack’s victims. Iran repeatedly has denied being involved.

Joshua Stueve, spokesman for the U.S. Attorney in the Eastern District of Virginia, declined comment. Shiites in the kingdom have long complained that Saudi Arabia’s leadership treats Shiite grievances as a security problem rather than an issue to be resolved politically. Four prominent Shiite activists met with the late King Fahd in 1993 for reconciliation talks after years of violence that included attacks by the Saudi Shiite Hezbollah group, which the kingdom has branded a terrorist organization.

The meeting — the culmination of many discussions between Saudi officials and Shiite activists in exile — resulted in the return of some 350 activists to the kingdom, the release of political prisoners and a more relaxed policy that allowed the building of more Shiite mosques.

After the 1996 attack, members of the Saudi Hezbollah group were either arrested or fled into exile. While the group no longer exists in the open and was dismantled after the Khobar attacks, it continues to be popular among some radical pockets of Shiites in Saudi Arabia’s oil-rich Eastern Province.

The group was created in 1987 in eastern Saudi Arabia as a pro-Iranian organization modeled after the Lebanese Hezbollah militia. It also is believed to have operated in Kuwait and Bahrain. The FBI’s Most Wanted Terrorists list identifies al-Mughassil as having been born in the eastern Saudi city of Qatif in 1967.

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