Fallout From Khobar Towers

Sept. 1, 1997

On the evening of June 25, 1996, sentries on the roof of the Khobar Towers compound saw two men pull a tanker truck into an adjacent lot and park it against a chain-link fence, 80 feet away. Khobar Towers was a high-rise apartment complex in a densely populated section of Dhahran, Saudi Arabia. Among those quartered there were airmen from the 4404th Wing (Provisional), which was flying Operation Southern Watch sorties over Iraq to enforce UN sanctions.

The sentries recognized the possibility of a truck bomb. They began knocking on doors to evacuate the building. Four minutes later, with only the top three floors vacated, the bomb went off. It exploded with the power of 20,000 pounds of TNT, completely blowing away the front of the nearest building and damaging five others.

Nineteen airmen were killed and hundreds were injured by flying glass. The bomb was 80 times larger than the next biggest device ever used by terrorists in Saudi Arabia. It left a crater 85 feet wide and 35 feet deep.

The questions were quick in coming. How did it happen? Who was to blame? The House National Security Committee had a fact-finding team in Dhahran in two weeks. The Department of Defense appointed a retired Army officer, Gen. Wayne Downing, to head an investigation.

Before the Khobar Towers case was settled, it had embroiled Congress, the news media, senior Administration officials, and Air Force leaders. It also figured in the decision of Gen. Ronald R. Fogleman to retire before completion of his tour as Air Force Chief of Staff.

Initial assessments pointed to the ambiguity of intelligence. Secretary of Defense William J. Perry said that “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.” Rep. Floyd D. Spence (R-S.C.), House National Security Committee chairman, said there were “intelligence failures” at Khobar Towers.

Then came the Downing report in September 1996. It put the blame on Brig. Gen. Terryl J. Schwalier, 4404th Wing commander. Downing said “it appears that the “fly and fight” mission and “equality of life” took precedence over force protection” and that Schwalier “did not adequately protect his forces.” Thus Schwalier was nominated to meet the relentless demand that someone be punished.

The Air Force conducted two comprehensive inquiries. Both found that Schwalier had done all that could have been reasonably expected. Fogleman was fierce in his defense of Schwalier. He told the Senate Armed Services Committee that if sustaining casualties in an attack can lead to punitive action, it would have a “chilling effect” on field commanders. The decision by Secretary of Defense William S. Cohen to override the Air Force’s judgment was a factor in Foglemanís early departure.

In July, declaring that Schwalier “could have and should have done more” to defend Khobar Towers, Cohen cancelled Schwalier’s previously approved promotion to major general. It was not enough that Schwalier had taken 130 specific actions to improve security in the year before the explosion–or that he had implemented 36 of the 39 recommendations from the most recent vulnerability assessment.

The wing had operated on a “temporary” basis since 1992. Most personnel were assigned on 90-day rotation. In addition to the Southern Watch mission, Schwalier juggled numerous responsibilities. Among them was security against terrorist acts, including suicide bombers, satchel charges, sniper fire, kidnapping, assassination, hijacking, and car bombs on the perimeter. Penetration of the compound by a car bomb was regarded as the leading threat.

Cohen told reporters there were several security deficiencies but that two stood out: the lack of an effective alarm system to warn of impending terrorist attack and inadequate evacuation plans. Schwalier inherited a standard speaker and siren system that the Cohen report said was “plainly inadequate.” The siren had not been tested since 1994. Commanders were reluctant to set it off, lest the Dhahran community mistake it as the signal for a Scud missile attack, for which the siren had historically been used. For evacuations, the wing used the “waterfall” method, first alerting top-floor occupants who then helped alert lower floors on their way out. Previous evacuations were completed in 10 to 15 minutes. Cohen faulted Schwalier for not conducting evacuation drills. Six actual evacuations, triggered by suspicious packages, in the past year were deemed “an inadequate substitute for exercises.”

(News reports have belabored the absence of Mylar protective window film. Schwalier had budgeted for it, and the Cohen report found it “unlikely that Mylar would have prevented the vast majority of the fatalities,” although it might have reduced the injuries.)

Was security insufficient? Yes. Nineteen airmen died and many others were injured. Could more have been done? Again, yes. With the benefit of hindsight, it’s an easy call to make. However, the solution ultimately chosen after the Khobar Towers attack–to move troop housing out of the congested urban area altogether–was not available to Schwalier.

Neither justice nor security was well served in the handling of the Khobar Towers case. Perhaps it was satisfying to those who wanted a sacrifice, but it did not help with the real needs of forces in the field for resources, support, and backing from the nation that sent them out.