Post-Blast, US Moves To Tighten Security Throughout Mideast
DHAHRAN, SAUDI ARABIA
The United States is reevaluating security measures in the Persian Gulf and throughout the Middle East in the aftermath of the bombing of a US Air Force apartment block in Dhahran, Saudi Arabia, last Tuesday.
The blast was the largest ever in the region to be used against Americans, killing 19 US military personnel. Along with its crater and rubble, it left fresh questions about Saudi cooperation with US security officials prior to the bomb attack.
President Clinton, speaking at the G-7 summit in France over the weekend, appointed Gen. Wayne Downing to assess the Dhahran bombing and "also evaluate all policies and measures at other facilities in the entire Central Command, which includes the Persian Gulf and Middle East regions. He will recommend any steps necessary to prevent further similar attacks."
Despite repeated hints in recent months that US military personnel here might be targeted, Saudi authorities prevented security measures that would have minimized the bomb's damage, senior American officers and soldiers say.
Several requests had been made to the Saudis to permit an extension of the perimeter around the most vulnerable buildings housing US troops, but they were denied, US security sources say.
Another request was made in the days prior to the attack. But when it, too, was denied, security officers even raised the possibility of moving soldiers from the most vulnerable rooms to a camp along Dhahran's fortified flight line, where US jets are based.
"We told them [the Saudis], but for some reason no one was listening," said an Air Force security officer, who could not be named. He was part of a security detail set up around the bomb site.
Behind him, troops were rushing to extend a perimeter of concrete barriers to 400 feet away from apartment buildings housing the US military in Dhahran.
Soldiers sweating under an intense sun directed the placement of the new barriers. Troops here continue to mourn a tragedy that many feel could have been prevented. There was anger that these measures are only permitted now, when it is too late.
And the threat has not disappeared. Some Saudis passing by have behaved suspiciously since the blast, the security officer said. "They have been probing us all day, seeing how we react," he said.
A bomb attack in the capital of Riyadh in November - the first of its kind in Saudi Arabia and carried out by Saudi bombers - killed five Americans and sparked a reappraisal of the threat to the 5,000 US troops in the country.
Internal opposition to Saudi Arabia's ruling family and to the US presence has grown among Islamic fundamentalists since the 1991 Gulf war, when Saudi Arabia served as a base for the allied forces fighting against the Iraqi forces that had invaded Kuwait.
"The world changed in November with respect to operations, as the world has changed now with the size of this particular explosion," said Brig. Gen. Terryl Schwalier, the Air Force wing commander in Dhahran. Escorting US Secretary of Defense William Perry to the bomb site Saturday, General Schwalier pointed across the gaping chasm of the crater to the concrete barriers mangled by the blast. The faade of the building was shorn away, with mattresses and clothing still hanging from jagged edges.
Mr. Perry said that a reevaluation of security measures was under way throughout the region, and that the blast would not change close US ties to Saudi Arabia, the world's leading oil producer.
Schwalier said that last November US forces conducted a "vulnerability assessment" and drew up a list of 40 new security precautions, which included extending the protective concrete perimeter around buildings from less than 100 feet to 400 feet, as well as mounting joint US-Saudi patrols.
When the Saudis said "no," the Americans - noting the particular vulnerability of the spot where Tuesday's truck bomb exploded - cut down trees to provide a clear line of sight and doubled the existing barrier to keep any suicide bomber from driving directly toward the building.
The Saudi refusal to extend the perimeter, which would have effectively blocked the road and kept Tuesday's truck bomb at a much greater distance from the building, was "not atypical," Schwalier said. "We did what we could, given the environment."
The US State Department has issued a string of warnings to American citizens in Saudi Arabia since November, and the embassy in Riyadh received threats of attacks. Several months ago, Saudis were caught with explosives coming into the country.
Before Tuesday's attack, Saudi officials dismissed the threats, in part to deflect attention from Saudi opposition groups.
But Shawn Clevenger, a senior airman from Raymond, Wash., who was thrown across the room by the blast and hit with shrapnel in the ankle, said US troops took the threats seriously.
"Security was already beefed up, but they got us at [our] weakest point," he said. "We didn't expect such a big bomb."
Forensic details about the bomb, which is believed to have been made of between 3,000 and 5,000 pounds of explosives packed into a tanker truck, are expected to yield clues about the bombers. US officials say that the degree of sophistication of the device will help determine if the culprits are from inside Saudi Arabia or had help from anti-Western regimes such as those in Iraq or Iran. Investigators have found the crankshaft and other parts of the truck, including a serial number. A similar examination of car remnants from the blast last November led authorities to the bombers.
US officials, who would not go on the record, said that Saudi officials had prevented American investigators from interrogating the four men responsible for the November bombing before they were executed in May. Both sides now say they will work closely on the Dhahran bombing.