Anatomy of a Bombing

How Ahmed al-Mughassil Bombed Khobar Tower and Walked Free—Until Now

A group of Saudi officials survey the damage done to an apartment building for U.S. military personnel at the Khobar Towers housing complex in Dhahran, June 27, 1996. Reuters

Two weeks ago, according to several media reports, Ahmed al-Mughassil, the military chief of Saudi Hezbollah (Hezbollah al-Hijaz) and the principal architect of the 1996 Khobar Towers bombing, was apprehended in Beirut—where it was believed he lived under Lebanese Hezbollah protection—and was transferred to the custody of Saudi Arabia. A physically small man, standing at five feet four inches and weighing 145 pounds, Mughassil is accused of orchestrating and then personally executing one of the most spectacular terrorist attacks carried out by Iran and its proxies against the United States.

The circumstances of Mughassil’s capture are still unknown, but the timing raises multiple questions. How did a man who evaded capture for almost 20 years suddenly get caught? And what does it mean that the arrest comes against the background of the Iran nuclear deal and in the context of rising tensions between Iran and Saudi Arabia and between their respective allies in Lebanon?

Aerial photograph of the Khobar Towers complex near King Abdul Aziz Air Base, Saudi Arabia on June 29, 1996.
Aerial photograph of the Khobar Towers complex near King Abdul Aziz Air Base, Saudi Arabia on June 29, 1996. Reuters
Officials in Beirut, Riyadh, and Washington have yet to confirm Mughassil’s capture, but it is no secret that both Saudi and American investigators have been keen to apprehend him for years. Mughassil was indicted in the United States District Court for the Eastern District of Virginia for the bombing, and the U.S. State Department’s Rewards for Justice Program offers $5 million for information leading to his capture.

Mughassil was known to Saudi authorities even before the Khobar bombing, which is why he fled Saudi Arabia in the 1990s and made his way to Beirut. It was in Beirut that, around 1993, Mughassil set in motion the plotting and surveillance that would lead to the attack on U.S. and coalition forces stationed at Khobar Towers in 1996.


In 1993, the FBI would later conclude, Mughassil instructed a Saudi Hezbollah cell to initiate surveillance of Americans in Saudi Arabia. Saudi Hezbollah operatives spent three months casing American targets in Riyadh, passing their surveillance reports to Mughassil, who met with the operatives to debrief them personally. He then shared

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