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Force Protection at Khobar Towers in Saudi Arabia

After the Khobar Towers bombing on June 25, 1996, everyone from commanders in the chain of command to AFOSI and 4404th Wing (Provisional) security police personnel focused intensely on Force Protection. Over 130 security enhancements were implemented at this location seven months before the terrorist attack. Check out the Best info about Khobar Towers Bombing.

Buildings

Al-Khobar Air Base was home to around 2,000 American service members stationed there to enforce the no-fly zone over Iraq established after the 1991 Gulf War, living in Khobar Towers apartment buildings. An attack on June 25 ripped apart Building 131 at Khobar Towers, killing 19 U.S. Air Force personnel and one civilian and becoming the worst terrorist incident to strike this compound since its construction in 1995.

The attack came as a shock to Brig. Gen. Terryl J. Schwalier raised questions about the safety of all U.S. forces operating there, leading President George W. Bush to send Air Force Secretary Robert M. Fogleman for an immediate and impartial assessment of security procedures at bases across Saudi Arabia.

Schwalier quickly ordered Lt. Col. James J. Traister, his newly appointed security police chief, to brainstorm ways of stopping car bombs from entering the Khobar Towers compound. Traister concluded that blocking and slowing vehicles attempting to breach his defenses was vital in protecting Khobar Towers from future attacks.

He directed his security forces to revise traffic patterns and lengthen blocks of road stars and tire shredders that guarded entryways. Furthermore, he ordered that doubled barriers be installed around the base’s perimeter fence, finally persuading Saudi authorities to permit the rows of concertina wire at its top and bottom edges.

Schwalier instructed his personnel to report any suspicious activities near the Khobar Towers compound and report them directly to AFOSI, who alerted the chain of command. These reports did not indicate an impending attack against it, however.

In 1996, the wing began implementing 39 recommendations from an AFOSI vulnerability assessment conducted shortly after the OPM-SANG bombing. Cohen specifically criticized Schwalier for failing to install a central fire alarm system and conduct evacuation drills – two measures the wing did implement due to suspicious package alerts; it also posted evacuation plans in each room, which instructed residents where to meet in an emergency evacuation situation.

Location

Khobar Towers was located in the Dhahran Desert of Saudi Arabia and housed coalition forces supporting Operation Southern Watch. This location straddled American and Saudi territory; coalition forces rented the airfield, ramp space, and facilities from Saudi authorities in exchange for housing, food, jet fuel support, and other benefits from Saudi authorities; specifically, 4404th Air Wing units resided within this complex.

The June 25, 1996 bombing resulted in 19 Airmen deaths and over 600 injuries, as well as Saudi citizens and Third Country Nationals (TCNs), severely damaging or destroying property and creating an immense crater. A bomb containing more than 20,000 pounds of TNT was set off outside the fence of the American-occupied section of the complex; detonation occurred shortly afterward by Ahmed Ibrahim Mughassil, who fled quickly after into Iran.

Once the bombing, Air Force officials assessed security procedures at OPM/SANG and Khobar Towers. The Air Force Office of Special Investigations (OSI) developed 39 action items to address critical vulnerabilities at each base – such as parking arrangements, radio security measures, and using third-country nationals on the ground; OSI also listed any places a terrorist could hide weapons or explosives.

OSI initiated both an OSI report and a congressional inquiry, the latter of which revealed that the bifurcation of force protection responsibilities between CINCCENT and JTF-SWA led to confusion regarding responsibility; since the Khobar Towers’ attack; however, this bifurcation has been rectified with security responsibility now falling exclusively with CINCCENT.

Iranian involvement has drawn much of the spotlight, but Lebanese Hezbollah played a vital role. According to a 2001 Department of Justice indictment, Mughassil, an active member of Hezbollah in Lebanon, had contact with Iran throughout its planning of this attack aimed at embarrassing America and its military ties with Saudi Arabia while upsetting influential Shi’i clerics; furthermore, its bombing demonstrated Iran’s support for Hezbollah among radical terrorists; all this tension eventually led to Osama Bin Laden and al Qaedas’ rise.
Security measures

FINDING 22

Following the OPM-SANG bombing, AFOSI immediately updated its vulnerability assessment of Khobar Towers and completed it by January 1996. Unlike its earlier report, this one contained 39 recommendations, of which 10 had already been scheduled while two, such as installing Mylar window film, had even been included in its Five Year Facilities Improvement Plan for implementation.

Before June 25, 1996, many of the security improvements recommended in the Air Force Office of Special Investigations Vulnerability Assessment had been implemented by the Air Force. Furthermore, reports of suspicious incidents at the Khobar Towers compound had begun being addressed by OFI before the June 25, 1996 bombing attack.

Air Force commanders of all levels remained vigilant to security issues given the known threats, with efforts including self-aid/buddy care training and security police training likely saving hundreds of lives.

Additionally, the command and control arrangement prioritized policy through service components; the CINCs communicated USCENTCOM policies regarding threat levels and Force Protection issues to their organizations in Saudi Arabia. This allowed for swift crisis responses and smooth transitions into war while increasing forces’ flexibility and adaptability against an ever-evolving terrorist threat.

At the same time, it must be remembered that in host nation environments where U.S. forces are minorities, commanders of service component forces must remain sensitive to the concerns of their Saudi counterparts and refrain from requesting force protection measures that draw attention to or distance U.S. troops from general Saudi populations.

The Air Force must change its organizational and operational structures to better equip and train its forces for deployment in contingency operations. As soon as the bombing at Khobar Towers took place, I asked Lieutenant General Record to provide recommendations on how the Air Force should organize, train, and equip its deployed forces better. Part A of this report details each of the Downing Task Force’s findings and offers specific suggestions regarding Air Force operations and structures (Tab A). Part B of this report addresses any actions or omissions connected with the bombing (Tab C). In each section’s final paragraphs, details have been given on how these and other issues have been dealt with via memoranda and action plans.

People

On June 25, 1996, a terrorist truck bomb attack tore through Dhahran’s Khobar Towers housing complex, killing 19 Air Force servicemembers and injuring many more. It sent over 20,000 pounds of TNT blasting through buildings and concrete walls before creating a massive explosion that created a crater that extended into the parking lot, scattering debris throughout the compound. Yet most Air Force personnel responded professionally, reflecting both their rigorous training as well as the courage of their leaders.

The United States military at Dhahran enjoyed an intimate relationship with the Saudi government. Housing, ramp space, and other facilities were provided at Dhahran base, as well as food, water, and jet fuel costs paid by them, while in return, U.S. troops were expected to maintain low profiles and adhere strictly to security rules.

Life at the towers was focused on work. Even those not on duty spent most of their time working, playing sports, or attending to personal business. If they had free time, they often pursued self-improvement by attending war college courses and studying for promotion exams. Furthermore, they worked out at the gym, played street hockey and softball with oil company employees, or attended gym classes.

Master Sgt. Norma Gillette, superintendent of the Air Force Innovation and Transformation Office, noted that airmen had demonstrated what their training had prepared them to do during an attack: use the buddy system effectively while acting according to exercise – with both U.S. military personnel as well as civilians from Saudi Arabia performing admirably to care for wounded, search for survivors, and ensure all those present were present and accounted for afterward.

One takeaway from the bombing was that modern weapons may not be enough to combat future terrorist attacks; more focus should be put on improving human intelligence and cultural understanding if threats from an increasingly determined enemy persist. These measures will likely prove more successful at safeguarding American lives than more complex weaponry ever could be.

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