Lessons Learned: Khobar Towers

As a First Responder engaging in anti-terrorism you do not need a crystal ball to predict the next method of attack, just a thorough review of which strategies and tactics used by terrorists yield a high degree of success. In some cases, the clues provided by their subversive activities may point directly to identifying their target too.

Learning about terrorism history, target selection, vulnerabilities and terrorist methodologies is a good thing. Especially, when the terrorists were successful because they use, repeatedly, what works. To their detriment terrorists today have limited resources, external pressures of being hunted themselves, political infighting, and all the usual problems of being engaged in a global war on all fronts. The advantage they have is that their success ratio is in their favor (i.e., they only have to be right once whereas we have to be right 100% of the time when defending against them). Remember, it's impractical to try and prepare for every potential possibility, but prudent to address those impending attacks based on probability.

We have the advantage of studying terrorist past successes over nearly a forty year time period (recent terrorism history). In short, terrorists like to use or attack trains, trucks, planes and buildings with bombs. Given the thousands of events we could study for insight, focusing on the spectacular ones can teach us a lot.

Event: Khobar Towers complex, Dhahran, Saudi Arabia

Date: June 25th, 1996

Target Significance: U.S. Air Force (USAF) contracted facility

Weapon: Fuel Truck containing 5,000 lbs. of explosives (blast yield 20,000 lbs. of TNT)

Casualties: Nineteen U.S. military members killed, and 372 wounded.

Synopsis: A little before 2200 hours on June 25th, 1996, a fuel truck converted into a truck bomb arrived at the USAF Khobar Towers facility and pulled into a lot that placed it next to building #131. The weaponized truck had been accompanied by another vehicle, Datsun semi-compact car, containing a driver and a passenger. The Datsun served as a scout vehicle for the truck bomb while a second auto, Chevy Caprice, arrived shortly after the fuel truck, parked some distance away and served as an escape vehicle. The arrival of all three vehicles was under the direct observation USAF Security Police assets assigned to be forward deployed to protect the facility. The terrorists in the Datsun signaled, by flashing their headlights, for the attack to begin and when the truck driver and truck passenger fled the vehicle and entered into the Caprice for the get-a-way, the security policemen responded by initiating an emergency evacuation of the building. Minutes later, the truck bomb exploded and leveled the face of the facility, killing 19 and wounding 372 U.S. personnel.

A thorough After Action Review (AAR) of the incident by the U.S. House National Security Committee revealed many notable findings. Among the failings were:

  • Military commanders, locally, had did not exploit their HUMINT (human intelligence) capabilities to determine immediate threats to the facility.
  • The Regional Security Officer, U.S. State Department, who inspected the anti-bombing protective measures put in place at the USAF installation did not conceive that terrorists would use such a large bomb. As a result, the protective measures were considered adequate in defense of a car bomb only.
  • Suspicious activities in and around the facility were recognized, but not further scrutinized. During a three month period leading up to the bombing, ten suspicious incidents were noted, with four indicating possible pre-incident surveillance being conducted by suspected terrorists. In one incident, a Jersey barrier (concrete barrier used on U.S. highways), used as a VBIED counter-measure, and placed at the perimeter of the towers had been rammed.
  • Although U.S. military forces established and maintained internal security at the site, the location of the base itself was under the direct control of the Saudi Arabian Military Police. The sharing of force protections between U.S. forces and the Saudi police assets "...caused significant challenges in the risk management of the Khobar Towers complex."

In short, all the typical failings were ever present, to include: lack of intelligence, inability to conceive of a unique threat which impeded proper planning, missed opportunities to further investigate known terrorist activities and overlapping protective responsibilities, to name a few.

The report also distinguished the successes of defending the facility. Among them were:

  • The military commander responsible for the Khobar Towers complex had been "very proactive and aggressive in implementing improved security measures" prior to the bombing. Due to the assertiveness of the commander, over 130 new security measures were implemented.
  • Many of the security measure enacted complemented one another as the threat condition increased during the months leading up to the incident. As the defenders awareness grew so did their defensive posture. For instance, threat condition awareness coupled with physical barriers and "serpentine driving control patterns at checkpoints" augmented the security inspections being done when either packages or personnel entered the base.
  • Threat and vulnerability assessments focused on protecting the entire installation in addition to individual buildings and recommendations were made.
  • USAF Security Police were well trained in executing emergency procedures, including mass evacuation techniques, while under attack and performed heroically doing so.

Although the attack did take place and successfully took life and caused hundreds of injuries, without the things that were done right the AAR panel concluded that death toll would have been catastrophic. Instead of 19 dead, it would have been hundreds.

So, how does knowing about the particulars of the Khobar Towers bombing in Saudi Arabia benefit police and security tasked with anti-terrorism? First, it serves as a blue print as to how to defend a static target (building, complex, school building, or anything of importance that does not move). Second, it illuminates the protection strategy that defense-in-depth measures must be inextricably linked providing a comprehensive defensive plan. Putting a guard at the front door is not sufficient. Having a guard as one component of 20 other measures working in tandem is, for example. Third, as the threat environment evolves security measures must change too. Utilize assessments to lead your defensive thought process when planning. Follow industry standards mitigating the threat(s) you have identified. Finally, imagine the unimaginable. Whenever a spectacular terrorist attack occurs the first comment made by those who were paid to protect is, "We never thought..." It's your job to think or the horrific and unimaginable. I guarantee that if you are not, someone else is.

Here is the least you need to know for this section:

  • The most probable method for a terrorist attack that First Responders will have to address is bombings against static targets.
  • Terrorists have demonstrated they will continuously use what has worked.
  • Anti-Terrorism protective measures against bombings need to be of a comprehensive design and evolve due to the changing environment.
  • When it is impossible to interdict a terrorist attack during the planning stage, then the defenders goal changes from disruption of the attack to mitigating the damage.