(CNSNews.com) – The reported arrest of the key suspect in the 1996 bombing of the Khobar Towers in Saudi Arabia, in which 19 U.S. military personnel were killed, will renew attention on Iran’s suspected role in the attack, at a time when the Obama administration is seeking congressional and public support for its nuclear agreement with Tehran.
Ahmed al-Mughassil, a Saudi Shi’ite indicted in the U.S. for masterminding the deadly bombing, was captured in Lebanon and transferred to Saudi Arabia, the London-based, Saudi-owned daily Asharq Al-Awsat reported Wednesday.
The timing has prompted some speculation that the arrest – or the Saudis’ leak that the arrest had happened – may be intended to sway the debate over the nuclear agreement by underlining Iran’s role in anti-U.S. terrorism. Sunni Saudi Arabia, Iran’s arch-rival in the region, is leery of the nuclear deal.
“The timing is suspicious,” wrote Brookings Institution senior fellow Bruce Riedel, who was deputy assistant secretary of defense at the time of the attack. “Is the news intended to remind Americans about Iran’s long history of involvement in terrorism, just as the Congressional debate on the Iran nuclear deal reaches its peak?”
The 2001 federal grand jury indictment that charged al-Mughassil and 13 others in connection with the June 25, 1996 bombing at the eight-story U.S. dormitory complex near Dhahran highlighted Iran’s role in the plot.
Charges against the men – 13 Saudis and a Lebanese – included murder, bombing, conspiracy to kill Americans and federal employees, conspiracy to use weapons of mass destruction, and conspiracy to destroy U.S. property.
On June 21, 2001 then-Attorney General John Ashcroft noted that “the indictment explains that elements of the Iranian government inspired, supported, and supervised members of the Saudi Hezbollah.” Al-Mughassil is identified as head of the military wing of Saudi Hezbollah, also known as Hezbollah al-Hejaz.
“In particular, the indictment alleges that the charged defendants reported their surveillance activities to Iranian officials and were supported and directed in those activities by Iranian officials,” Ashcroft said.
In Dec. 2006, a U.S. federal judge ruled that Iran was partly responsible for the Khobar Towers bombing, ordering the regime to pay $254 million in compensation to families of the victims.
Iran has long denied involvement in the Khobar Towers assault. But in collaboration with Shi’ite allies in Lebanon, Iraq and Saudi Arabia, it is suspected of having a hand in numerous attacks against Americans.
They began in the early 1980s with the bombings of the U.S. Marine barracks and U.S. Embassy in Beirut, and extended through the Iraq war when some 500 U.S. military personnel were killed in attacks linked to Iran and specifically the Qods Force – the Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corp (IRGC) division responsible for operations abroad.
Critics of the nuclear agreement negotiated between Iran and six world powers worry that the regime will use some of the funds unfrozen under the deal, and revenue earned as sanctions are lifted, to boost its sponsorship of terrorism.
Under the agreement, U.N. sanctions against the IRGC-Qods Force and its commander, Qassem Soleimani, will also ultimately be lifted, although the administration says that U.S. measures against them will remain in place.
‘To serve Iran by driving the Americans out of the Gulf’
According to the 2001 grand jury indictment in the Khobar Towers case, al-Mughassil not only masterminded the plot but personally drove the explosives- and gasoline-laden tanker truck to the target, backing it hard up against a fence before being whisked away in a waiting getaway car.
“Within minutes, the truck bomb exploded, devastating the north side of building #131, which was occupied by American military personnel,” the indictment said.
“The explosion killed nineteen members of the United States Air Force and wounded 372 other Americans.”
It said al-Mughassil was involved in recruiting young Saudi Shi’ites, arranging for them to undergo training in Lebanon and in Iran, and planning and supervising terror attacks.
“At the direction of an Iranian military officer,” surveillance of possible targets in Saudi Arabia began in 1994. Reports prepared by cell members on possible U.S. targets in the kingdom were passed to al- Mughassil, then passed along to the overall head of Saudi Hezbollah, Abdel-Karim al-Nasser, “and to officials in Iran.”
The indictment said Al-Mughassil explained to terror cell members that the group’s goal was to expel the Americans from Saudi Arabia, and that “he had close ties to Iranian officials, who supplied him with money and gave him directions.”
“Al-Mughassil said they would need enough explosives to destroy a row of buildings and that the attack was to serve Iran by driving the Americans out of the Gulf region,” it said.
The U.S. Rewards for Justice program offered a reward of up to $5 million for information bringing al-Mughassil to justice.
Al-Mughassil is also one of the FBI’s list, currently 28-strong, of “most wanted” terrorists. Three of the other men indicted in connection with the Khobar Towers attack, al-Nasser, Ali al-Houri, and Ibrahim al-Yacoub, also appear on the FBI list.