Khobar Towers

June 1, 1998

No one in the 58th Fighter Squadron could go home from Dhahran, Saudi Arabia, until all rooms were clean. The contract airliner was to arrive on June 27, 1996, to fly most of the main body of 100 people home to Eglin AFB, Fla. Six of the squadron’s F-15Cs would make the hop across the Atlantic, while the others were to join an Air Expeditionary Force exercise in progress.

It was Tuesday evening, June 25. For two days, personnel from the 58th had been swapping desks and packing their personal belongings, preparing to hand over duties to the incoming 27th FS. Lt. Col. Doug Cochran, the 58th FS commander, was scrubbing the bathroom in his quarters in Building 127, where most squadron members lived. Others lived in Building 131, at the north corner of the Khobar Towers complex, sharing it with a rescue squadron from Patrick AFB, Fla., and people from other units.

Brig. Gen. Terryl J. Schwalier, commander of the 4404th Wing (Provisional), was already packed, ready to leave after the change of command ceremony planned for the next day. Then came the blast. At approximately 9:50 p.m., a truck bomb exploded, throwing the force of more than 20,000 pounds of TNT against the concrete structure of Khobar. By the next day, the Air Force knew the worst. Nineteen Americans had died in the line of duty.

Intelligence Failure

Initial reports from the scene strongly suggested an intelligence failure was to blame for the terrorist attack. Secretary of Defense William J. Perry declared, “Our commanders were trying to do right but, given the inconclusive nature of the intelligence, had a difficult task to know what to plan for.” “We will pursue this,” President Clinton pledged. “Those who did this must not go unpunished.”

In Washington, officials launched investigations of the Khobar Towers incident specifically and military force protection policy in general. Within three days, Perry had chartered a retired Army officer, Gen. Wayne A. Downing, to do a fast, unvarnished review of the facts. In Congress, the House National Security Committee organized a fact-finding team and had it on the ground in Saudi Arabia within two weeks. Rep. Floyd D. Spence, the South Carolina Republican who heads the House National Security Committee, soon claimed that his staff study found “intelligence failures” at Khobar Towers.

Then, in late August, came Downing with his report, which singled out Schwalier for not protecting the wing. Downing’s report took DoD and the entire chain of command to task for failings in its force protection policy. Then the report went on to charge that “it appears that the ‘fly and fight’ mission and ‘quality of life’ took precedence over force protection” at Khobar Towers and that Schwalier “did not adequately protect his forces.”

Downing’s decision to point the finger at Schwalier made light of the idea that there had been an intelligence failure or shortcomings in military-wide policy. “Intelligence did provide warning of the terrorist threat to US forces in Saudi Arabia,” Downing said. “As a result, those responsible for force protection had both time and motivation to reduce vulnerabilities.”

Ultimately, Downing’s accusation led Secretary of Defense William S. Cohen to override two separate Air Force legal investigations which had found that the chain of command did all that could reasonably be expected to protect the airmen at Khobar Towers.

As punishment, Cohen said he was going along with recommendations of the nation’s top military officer, Army Gen. John M. Shalikashvili, to stop Schwalier’s promotion to major general, announced over a year earlier. “I have concluded that it would not be appropriate to promote Brigadier General Schwalier to the rank of major general,” Cohen stated in July 1997. “He’s not being made a scapegoat,” Cohen said of Schwalier. “He’s being held accountable.” The action by Cohen played a part in Gen. Ronald R. Fogleman’s immediate decision to resign as Air Force Chief of Staff.

In announcing his decisions, Cohen said several security deficiencies stood out: One, he said, was the lack of an effective alarm system to warn of impending terrorist attack. Another was inadequate evacuation planning.

The idea that Schwalier and his wing staff were not motivated or had somehow failed to make Khobar Towers as secure as possible became the dividing line in Washington’s reaction to the tragedy and the source of conflict between the Air Force and Cohen. What really happened at Khobar Towers prior to June 25, 1996, however, told a story very different from the quick conclusions of the Downing report. It was the story of a commander whose motivation helped the wing save lives, even in the face of the biggest terrorist bomb ever directed against Americans.

Life at Khobar Towers

The 4404th Wing grew out of the forces that stayed behind in 1991, after Desert Storm, to enforce UN resolutions and the terms of the cease-fire with Iraq. Its combat aircraft patrolled the no-fly zone over southern Iraq as part of Operation Southern Watch. Spread among several operating locations in four countries, the wing was manned by more than 5,000 troops on 90-day rotations. The USAF wing bedded down its tankers in Riyadh, fighters in Dhahran, and other aircraft in Kuwait. When air expeditionary forces deployed to the region they swelled the 4404th to 12 operating sites in five countries.

The 4404th had a reputation as a unit that was almost guaranteed to see action. Wing aircraft participated in strikes against Iraq and on several occasions tallied aerial victories. Air expeditionary forces chopped to the operational control of the 4404th when they deployed to the theater. By 1996, the wing had flown more than 100,000 sorties over Iraq.

Starting in July 1995, the man in charge of the wing was Terry Schwalier, the 12th individual to command the 4404th but the first to be assigned for a full year. With time to concentrate on details, he set out to give the wing more structure in flying operations and in quality of life. Khobar Towers was home to the bulk of the 4404th and served as its headquarters. Over the years, personnel had built a snack bar, tennis and volleyball courts, even a driving range, but the conditions still reminded Schwalier of something out of “M*A*S*H.”

Every Friday morning Schwalier gave a “Right Start” briefing to new arrivals. He explained standards and rules and urged them to look at the TDY as a time to improve the place and improve themselves. In the Right Start briefings, “one of my mission bullets was protecting forces in the AOR,” Schwalier said. He convened weekly senior staff meetings and made force protection a regular item.

Khobar Towers housed about 3,000 Air Force personnel and several hundred US Army troops. British and French forces also lived in the complex, in their own buildings. Even so, the coalition’s buildings took up only a fraction of the high-rises in Khobar Towers. To the south, divided by a fence, many more apartment buildings housed Saudi civilians.

At the northern end of the complex, where US forces lodged, two buildings looked out over a fence and trim parking lot toward a city park with play areas. Private homes stood across the street from the parking lot. A few hundred yards away, a large new mosque was under construction. The fence continued along the complex’s eastern side, where a dusty median separated Khobar Towers from another set of high-rises. A tall but slender concrete tower rose out of the median.

Inside Khobar Towers, work was the main preoccupation. Members of the rotating units, strongly encouraged by senior wing personnel, pursued self-improvement in off-duty hours. War college courses were offered and enlisted members studied for promotion tests. Physical workouts filled time, too. The troops frequently played street hockey and joined softball games with American oil workers at the Arabian American Oil Co. compound.

Host Nation Support

Much about life at Khobar Towers depended on the relationship between the coalition forces and their Saudi hosts. The Saudis supplied housing, ramp space, and facilities at King Abdul Aziz International Airport and elsewhere and paid for food, water, and jet fuel for the 4404th’s operations and living areas in the country. In return, the Western forces were expected to keep a low profile.

In meetings at 9th Air Force, before his departure, Schwalier learned that getting along with the Saudis was a concern. The Saudis welcomed American forces, but the two sides had never signed a formal Status of Forces Agreement defining the terms of the deal. Managing the differences in culture and perceptions and trying to be good guests were part of maintaining the important regional alliance. In fact, USAF decided to assign the 4404th wing commander and key deputies to one-year positions in part to deepen the bonds with their Saudi counterparts. But the 4404th sometimes had problems with their hosts. “When I arrived,” Schwalier recalled, “they had basically brought everything to a stop with respect to letting us do things on our site. Any time we would fix a building or put up a sign, we’d have to get approval from the Saudis.” At Schwalier’s first meeting with his hosts, Saudi officials lectured him about a long-running dispute over the location of a weapons storage area at the airport.

Later, in February 1996, the Saudis mysteriously denied landing clearances to US aircraft. The aircraft that routinely rotated personnel in and out of Dhahran was denied diplomatic clearance. It landed in Bahrain, where the 4404th had to shuttle personnel from there to Dhahran by C-130. The 58th FS, en route from Eglin, waited with their jets in Europe for a week before receiving permission to land.

Saudi officials sometimes queried changes in fuel requirements when the 4404th went from single-engine F-16s to twin-engine F-15s. Sorting out fuel rations took weeks. Complaints about food peaked when paper clips, hair, and bits of glass were found in food at the Desert Rose mess hall. Contract workers prepared the food, but the Saudis had fallen behind on payments to the contractors. The eruption of three cases of salmonella poisoning in one week convinced the wing commander to call for help. Extra commissary items from 9th Air Force soon improved the situation.

For all that, Saudi Arabia offered the great advantage of being almost wholly free of terrorism. Saudi laws were strict and dissent was rare. The Gulf states, which generously funded religious causes, were seldom targets for terrorists. The kingdom was considered one of the world’s safest places for US forces.

The First Bomb Explodes

Then, Saudi peace was shattered by the first terrorist bombing. On Nov. 13, 1995, a car bomb with the equivalent of 200 pounds of TNT exploded in the courtyard of the Office of the Program Manager, Saudi Arabia National Guard, known as OPM-SANG. The explosion killed five Americans and injured more than 30. The perpetrators were arrested by Saudi authorities, who viewed the incident as an aberration, a one-of-a-kind event that was unlikely to recur.

For the US military, though, the Riyadh bomb was a major event. Gen. Joseph W. Ralston, then head of Air Combat Command, and Lt. Gen. John P. Jumper, the head of 9th Air Force, visited the theater in late November and reviewed force protection measures.

US diplomats felt the shock, too. The State Department launched a review of facilities in Riyadh. The embassy requested Mylar for windows of some buildings. The request was denied on the basis that the threat level was not high enough. The OPM-SANG headquarters did win approval to have Mylar installed on windows in its new facility, but the project was not completed until October 1996, almost a year after the Riyadh bombing.

In Dhahran, a little over 200 miles away, the 4404th Wing took action to increase its level of force protection. “We immediately started to check and reinforce our barrier,” Schwalier said. “We worked straight for three or four days bringing in barriers that were strewn along the highway. We got very serious about completely surrounding our area with these Jersey barriers.”

The initial steps included raising the alert status and restricting personnel to the compound. “Indications remain such that we need to be on our toes,” Schwalier wrote to his wife three days after the OPM-SANG bomb. “We’ve turned our living area into a bit of a fortress-with cement barriers and concertina wire. Our cops are on 12-hour shifts-having doubled up on the gates and increased their patrols.” Schwalier was glad to see that the increased security activity around Khobar Towers got the attention of the wing’s young men and women. These people were his responsibility, and he hoped to keep them focused on security.

For the 4404th, the initial actions at Khobar Towers and other facilities were only a start toward improving force protection. The wing now faced a heightened but amorphous challenge. “We realized there were people out there who were serious about hurting Western interests,” Schwalier said. Every Wednesday, Schwalier convened a meeting of the wing leadership for a security review of battle staff directives tracking progress on security measures. “We were aware of security before, but we got hyper about it as a result of the Riyadh bombing,” Schwalier explained.

Assessing Vulnerabilities

The Air Force Office of Special Investigations on Jan. 8 turned in its semiannual report assessing the Khobar Towers facility and potential vulnerabilities. Investigators said that they had found 39 action items covering matters ranging from radio security and parking arrangements to fence line vegetation. Several action items focused on security for senior personnel. Another item dealt with third country nationals employed on base who might carry in a bomb.

The OSI team listed many potential vulnerabilities. The tower that loomed over Khobar Towers would be a sniper’s dream. Nearby apartment buildings could be platforms for attack. To the south, only a fence separated the coalition area from Saudi buildings.

No one could say with any certainty which, if any, of the potential vulnerabilities might be a true threat. The vulnerability assessment helped the wing leadership focus on five scenarios: a suicide car bombing; a bomb in a parked, abandoned car; a man-portable bomb carried into the compound and left there; a man-pack body charge worn by a suicide intruder; and finally, a package or letter bomb.

Under Schwalier, the 4404th set out to work the action items. Given what had happened at OPM-SANG, preventing a car bomb from penetrating the compound at Khobar Towers emerged as a top priority. Khobar Towers had just one entrance for vehicles. To prevent penetration, the defense there had to block and slow any vehicle that might attempt to ram through. Traffic patterns were reset and lengthened. Road stars and tire shredders were put in place. Barriers and bunkers sealed the entryway.

The gate obstacle course presented a formidable challenge to an intruder, but it also might delay military traffic entering the base. Idling cars with military passengers might make easy targets. To compensate, the 4404th set up two guard checkpoints, allowing vehicles to enter a more protected area while waiting to complete the identification check.

Tightening Up

The wing also tightened controls on who entered the compound. “I wouldn’t let vendors come on base” right after the Riyadh bombing, Schwalier noted. “We tried to make sure we really got a grip on everything that was going on within the compound.” Personnel arriving at Khobar Towers in early 1996 remarked on the tight security.

Take the case of David Winn, the US consul general in Dhahran, who had worked in the Middle East for 25 years. Winn was accustomed to flashing a pass to enter the ARAMCO compound that was home to some of the 19,000 American civilians living in the Eastern Province. One day that spring, he drove to Khobar Towers for a quick stop at the commissary. Winn was frisked by the armed security police, and teams inspected his car before they let him drive on through the serpentine road blocks. Winn was pleased to find a parking spot a few feet from the commissary. He went in to buy razor blades and came out to find the security police ready to tow his car because he parked within 25 feet of a building, too close for the minimum safe distance in case the consul general’s car had turned out to be an abandoned car bomb.

“My God, Terry, you know they really gave me a shakedown,” Winn later told Schwalier, noting that he was starting to wonder about the adequacy of security at the consulate. Schwalier laughed a bit at Winn’s reaction. However, he told Winn, “Nothing’s going to happen on my watch, and it may be overreacting, but I’m going to make sure nothing happens to this compound.”

The Bahrain Bombs

USAF residents of Khobar Towers could determine the threat level on a given day by whether or not Schwalier let them travel off base. For example, the nation of Bahrain was a popular destination for a few hours’ leave. Getting there required only a 40-minute drive through checkpoints and across a causeway that led to the Navy Central Command Component, Forward, facility with its post exchange and a beach club. The Navy facility was a place to go to get something to eat and have a beer.

However, when threat indications rose, Schwalier shut the gates. December, January, February, and March were bad months. Two small bombs exploded in post offices in Bahrain. The Diplomat Hotel and Royal Le Meridien Hotel in Manama, Bahrain, were bombed. More small bombs detonated in a tailor shop, a supermarket, and the Yateem Shopping Center. Bombs hit a bank, two restaurants, and another hotel. Worse yet, the terrorists started to use petrol bombs. Seven persons died in one restaurant attack. The terror in Bahrain was local, not directed at Americans. Still, Schwalier was determined that the 4404th would not be caught in the middle. “My concern was that they were starting to choose places Americans might frequent,” Schwalier said.

When Khobar Towers residents were allowed to go downtown in Dhahran, they did so under strict rules. No one could go alone, but groups had to be less than four. Occasionally, Schwalier changed the rules to takeout only. Groups of two to four could buy food at shopping mall restaurants, but they were not allowed to sit down and eat.

Concern over the safety of Americans off base grew high during hajj that spring. “Remember that being locked down is not a punishment,” SSgt. Richard Roberts tried to explain in a base newspaper article. “It is just another safety measure commanders use to ensure your well-being.”

The North Perimeter Fence

After the June 25 bombing, the location of the northern perimeter fence would become a major issue. Buildings 131 and 133 sat about 80 feet back from the northern perimeter fence. Across the road and over the fence lay a paved parking lot with neatly tended tamarind trees marking the rows. Schwalier had arrived in 1995 to find the fence pocked with holes in several places. Crews repaired them. Extra Jersey wall barriers went up as a direct result of the OPM-SANG bomb. The OSI in January reviewed the perimeter and recommended continuing action to trim vegetation and provide better lines of sight but said nothing about moving the northern perimeter fence out. Beyond the fence was Saudi territory and Saudi police patrolled outside the fence.

Securing the compound against penetration continued to be the wing’s main goal. In late March, Schwalier asked the new head of the Security Police, Lt. Col. James J. Traister, to think hard about how to protect Khobar Towers from a car bomb. Traister and a small group walked the perimeter with a Saudi police officer, and afterward Traister asked that the barriers on the Saudi side of the fence be moved five feet further out, the better to prevent people from climbing up the barriers and onto the fence. The Saudis also gave permission to place rows of concertina wire at the top and bottom of the fence.

Traister asked if the plants and vines could be removed to improve the line of sight for his cops. The Saudis said no. They preferred to let the vegetation grow in order to prevent curious civilians from peering at the Americans, especially American female troops with their Western clothes and jogging shorts. Wing personnel cut it back on the American side, anyway. Then, in May, Col. Gary S. Boyle, the wing’s support group commander, asked his Saudi counterpart about moving the fence out to extend the perimeter. The Saudis stated it was not a request that could be approved at that time. They increased their Red Hat police patrols outside the fence. As the wing knew, the fence was not merely an arbitrary marker in the middle of an undeveloped field. The public parking lot into which it would have to be moved was used often by Saudis visiting the city park.

In April, as an additional measure to protect the perimeter, Schwalier posted security police sentries on the roofs of buildings along the perimeter. Rooftop sentries were unique to the 4404th. Neither the Army nor the forces of Britain and France posted sentries on their buildings in the complex. The job of the sentries was to monitor the perimeter.

Completing the Protection Measures

The 4404th completed 36 of the 39 recommended actions listed in the January vulnerability assessment, but three remaining items would generate controversy after the bombing.

Like the embassy in Riyadh, Khobar Towers did not get protective Mylar coating for its windows. Schwalier put a request for the $4 million project in his five-year budget plan.

The lack of a central fire alarm system fueled accusations of negligence. Khobar Towers buildings did not have fire alarms. Many rooms had smoke detectors, and a fire inspection visit in February, plus revamped evacuation plans in April, satisfied the wing that fire safety standards were being met. In the aftermath of the bombing, Cohen would fault the wing commander for tolerating a siren system that he called “plainly inadequate.” The fact is that Schwalier inherited the standard “Giant Voice” speaker and siren system that could alert the entire compound. The siren had not been tested since 1994, but there was a reason. Commanders were reluctant to set it off, lest the Dhahran community mistake it as the signal for a Scud missile attack, the purpose for which the siren had historically been used. In an emergency, the security police desk would notify the wing operations center to set off Giant Voice.

Cohen also criticized Schwalier for not conducting evacuation drills. But Khobar Towers residents were experienced in real evacuations. Evacuation plans posted in the rooms gave instructions for where to meet. In the year leading up to the bombing, residents of Khobar Towers carried out several actual evacuations, triggered by suspicious package alerts.

For example, in May a suspicious package was spotted in an elevator shaft in Building 129. The wing used the “waterfall” method, first alerting top-floor occupants who then helped alert lower floors on their way out.

The package turned out to be a workman’s toolbox, but it had been good practice. “Our timing was about five minutes” in the May evacuation, Schwalier noted. “Based on the inputs that I received from the fire chiefs, that’s about as good as you can do.”

The last item in the January vulnerability assessment was a suggestion to disperse mission essential personnel, but Schwalier and his deputies reckoned that maintaining unit cohesion and keeping housing units together as much as possible was most important to the mission.

In the months since the OPM-SANG bombing, intelligence traffic regarding possible threats had increased. Central Command leaders in March convened a working group of Army, Navy, Air Force, and coalition commanders to discuss force protection. However, no clear threat had emerged. The US Embassy’s regional security officer in Riyadh noted, there “appears to be a lot more ‘junk’ reporting … than previously.” “There weren’t many specifics,” remarked another US intelligence official in Riyadh. Conditions were safe enough for JCS Chairman Shalikashvili, accompanied by his wife, to visit the wing in May.

Senior US officials had concluded that the upper limit of a terrorist bomb that could make it into Saudi Arabia was no higher than the 220-pound OPM-SANG device. The Saudis concurred.

One particularly serious incident did occur in May. A car proceeding on the street along the eastern side of the compound did something unusual. The driver crossed the dusty median and banged the car against the solid concrete of the Jersey wall barrier. Then the driver backed up the car, nudged it against the barriers again, and drove away. Residents of Building 127 in Khobar Towers spotted the activity and reported it to wing security police. In response, the wing staked down the barriers along the perimeter.

Traister, the head of Security Police, was finishing his 90-day tour. On June 21, he summed up the efforts that the 4404th had made to protect Khobar Towers. The main point, he said, “is to stop and eliminate any threat (human bomber or car bomber) from getting past 12th Street into the compound”-that is, to prevent anyone from breaching the walls of the perimeter.

Traister was realistic about the limitations to the plan of defense, noting it “is not designed to stop standoff type weapons like rocket-propelled grenades, mortar fire, or sniper fire. Our intent is to make the base as hard a target as possible to force the enemy to go elsewhere.”

That’s a Bomb

June 25 was scheduled to be Schwalier’s last day of command. Months earlier, he learned of his selection for promotion to major general and he was on his way to a Pentagon job. He looked back on his year as commander of the 4404th with a sense of accomplishment. On his watch, there had been no flying accidents, notable improvements in and around Khobar Towers and other wing facilities, and better relations with his Saudi hosts. The Joint Task Force–Southwest Asia commander, Maj. Gen. Kurt B. Anderson, arrived for the change of command ceremony set for the next day, June 26, 1996. Schwalier took Anderson out for a quick trip into Dhahran for a Mexican food dinner.

As 9 p.m. approached on the evening of June 25, 1996, many of the residents of Khobar Towers were in their rooms. The commander of the 79th FS was writing promotion recommendations in Building 133. Members of the 58th FS were packing in Building 127 and Building 131. Schwalier sat at the desk in his room, writing a note to Brig. Gen. Daniel M. Dick, who was to replace him. Beyond Khobar Towers, the final Muslim prayer call of the day was just ending.

This graphic depicts the location of the truck carrying the equivalent of more than 20,000 pounds of TNT. At the time the truck pulled into the parking lot outside the perimeter fence, three USAF security policemen were on Building 131’s roof. They immediately started a “waterfall” evacuation notice when they saw the truck’s driver abandon the vehicle and race off in a car.

SSgt. Alfredo R. Guerrero, a security policeman and shift supervisor, went up to the top of Building 131 to check in with two sentries posted there. Once on the roof, Guerrero and the other policemen observed a sewage tanker truck and a white car enter the parking lot. They watched the truck drive to the second to the last row, turn left as if leaving the lot, slow down, stop, and then back up toward the fence line. It stopped directly in front of the center of the north facade of Building 131. The truck’s driver and a passenger jumped out and hurried to the waiting car, which sped out of the parking lot.

The three security policemen were already in motion. They radioed in the alert and started the evacuation plan to notify each floor of Building 131 in waterfall fashion. A roving security police vehicle heard the alert from the rooftop sentries and rushed to wave people away from the building. They had managed to notify only those residents on the top three floors before they were shaken by an enormous blast. Before the wing operations center could activate Giant Voice, the bomb went off.

The bomb that did the damage was not like the package bombs in Bahrain or the Riyadh car bomb, containing only a few hundred pounds of explosives. It exploded with the force of 20,000 to 30,000 pounds of TNT. The sewage truck shaped the charge, and the high clearance between the ground and the truck gave it the more lethal characteristics of an air burst.

As the blast waves hit Building 131, they propelled pieces of the Jersey wall barriers into the first four floors. The outer walls of the bottom floors were blown into rooms. With no structural support below, the facades of the top three floors sheered off and fell into a pile of rubble. Walls on the east and west ends were blasted four feet from original positions, causing floors in several bedrooms to collapse. Building 131 did not collapse because it was made of prefabricated cubicles that were bolted together. Had it been built in a more traditional manner, it might have caved in from the blast.

Taking Casualties

At one moment, the 4404th personnel had been talking or working with squadron mates. An instant later, survivors nearest the blast found themselves in the dark, thrown across their rooms or out into hallways. Now, as they struggled to understand where they were and what had happened, they shouted and called to each other. The first casualties arrived at the clinic a few minutes after 10 p.m. Ten minutes later the clinic was overwhelmed. Commanders and first sergeants quickly began to try to account for their people. Wing rosters were inaccessible, and so the units began to conduct head counts. By 3 a.m., medical emergency logs had recorded 16 fatalities. Two more bodies were found in the rubble by morning. The 19th was found a few hours later.

The 4404th still had to perform its mission. Mess facilities were all up and running by noon on June 27. The C-130 squadron resumed operations that same day. On the afternoon of June 28, F-16 fighters from the 79th were back on station for the continuation of Southern Watch.

“Here we were, one of the most lethal air components in the world, an F-15 squadron, and someone sneaks up in the middle of the night and cuts our underbelly,” as one squadron commander put it later. He wished the dead had at least been given the opportunity to look the tiger in the eye, to confront the enemy face to face, and take them on. For some weeks afterward, Schwalier stayed at Khobar Towers as the wing got back on its feet. The change of command ceremony took place on July 15. “Three weeks ago, I had prepared a speech that expressed pride and appreciation,” Schwalier told the crowd at the ceremony. But in the aftermath of the June 25 bombing, those comments were no longer enough, he felt. “What I’ve seen in the last three weeks from 4404th men and women has been a wellspring of pride for me in the dedication, training, and heart of USAF,” he told them.

The Aftermath

The Defense Special Weapons Agency analyzed the crater and soon determined that the June 25 bomb was the largest terrorist device ever directed at Americans. The Lebanon bomb that destroyed the Marine Corps compound in Beirut on Oct. 23, 1983, packed the explosive force of 12,000 pounds of TNT­equivalent. The Oklahoma City bomb was far smaller. In the new and changed environment caused by the truck bomb with 20,000 pounds or more of force, Khobar Towers could not be protected. Thus, in the summer of 1996, the 4404th relocated to Al Kharj, a base that offered miles of desert perimeter, with personnel housed in tents.

Back in Washington, the investigations were under way. The Secretary of the Air Force, Sheila E. Widnall, commissioned Lt. Gen. James F. Record to conduct an investigation of the Downing charges. On Dec. 4, 1996, Record’s three-volume report found that Schwalier and his deputies and superiors had taken “reasonable and prudent” action to protect the force. However, the staff of the new Secretary of Defense, William Cohen, asked the Air Force to do a second evaluation. That report also found no grounds for taking action against Schwalier.

Despite these results, Cohen in July 1997 announced that he had decided to block Schwalier’s promotion to major general. The second star was withdrawn, and Schwalier resigned from the Air Force the same day. Fogleman, then Air Force Chief of Staff, announced his resignation the same week. That fall, in Dhahran, Saudi authorities demolished what remained of Khobar Towers Building 131.

Rebecca Grant is president of IRIS, a research organization in Arlington, Va. She has worked for Rand Corp., in the Office of the Secretary of the Air Force, and for the Chief of Staff of the Air Force. Her most recent article for Air Force Magazine was “The Epic Little Battle of Khafji,” which appeared in the February 1998 issue.