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Mastermind Of Khobar Towers Bombing Captured After 20 Years

  • RFE/RL

A man described as the mastermind of the 1996 bombing of the Khobar Towers U.S. military residence in Saudi Arabia has been captured after nearly 20 years on the run, officials said August 26.

Ahmed al-Mughassil, leader of the Saudi Hezbollah group and one of the FBI's most wanted terrorists with a $5 million bounty on his head, was under indictment for the attack on a U.S. Air Force dormitory that killed 19 U.S. service personnel and wounded almost 500 people.

Mughassil, also known as Abu Omran, was captured in the Lebanese capital Beirut two weeks ago after traveling there from Iran, and transferred to Riyadh, U.S. and Saudi officials said. Saudi intelligence believes that four other suspects wanted in the bombing are living in Iran.

Saudi Arabia and the United States have accused Iran of orchestrating the devastating truck-bomb attack. Iran has denied any responsibility.

In 2006, a U.S. federal judge ordered Iran to pay $254 million to the families of 17 U.S. service personnel killed in the attack in a judgment entered against the Iranian government, its security ministry, and the Revolutionary Guards.

The 209-page ruling found that the truck bomb involved in the attack was assembled at a base in Lebanon's Bekaa Valley operated by Hezbollah and the Revolutionary Guards, and the attack was approved by Iran's Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei.

The militant group Hezbollah Al-Hejaz confirmed that the suspect Mughassil, a 48-year-old Saudi, was stopped by security officials at Beirut airport and detained on August 7.

The Saudi newspaper Asharq al-Awsat called the capture of Mughassil an "achievement, for the man had been in disguise in a way that made it hard to identify him."

Details of Mughassil's life remain elusive. He was born in Saudi Arabia's eastern city of Qatif, a predominantly underdeveloped Shi'ite region that is home to the kingdom's vast oil reserves.

Toby Matthiesen, who has written extensively on Saudi Shi'ites in a book titled "The Other Saudis," said Mughassil was rumored to have gone to Iran after the 1979 revolution and is believed to have fought at some point in Lebanon's 15-year civil war that ended in 1990.

The Saudi Hezbollah group, also called Hezbollah al-Hejaz, was established in Saudi Arabia's Eastern Province in 1987 in retaliation for the killing of more than 400 Iranians who died in clashes that same year with Saudi riot police in Mecca during the annual hajj pilgrimage.

In the 1996 bombing, militants parked a fuel tanker truck just outside the shallow perimeter of the Khobar Towers apartment complex, 85 feet from one of the eight-story dormitories. The blast tore the face off one side of the building, leaving a massive crater.

Three other Saudis are still on the FBI's most-wanted list for the attack: Ali al-Hoorie, Abdelkarim al-Nasser, and Ibrahim al-Yacoub.

Nine other Saudis have been imprisoned in the kingdom for the past 19 years after secret trials with unknown verdicts in connection with the attack, Matthiesen said. It's unclear whether Mughassil will face a similar trial or be given one in a special court handling terrorism cases.

With reporting by Reuters and AP