Khobar Towers: Tragedy and Response

  • Published

Khobar Towers: Tragedy and Response by Perry D. Jamieson. Air Force History and Museums Program, 2008, 276 pp.

At 2153 on 25 June 1996, outside the northern perimeter of the Khobar Towers Housing Complex for US personnel assigned to King Abdul Aziz Royal Saudi Air Base near Dhahran, Saudi Arabia, a Mercedes‑Benz tanker truck filled with 5,000 pounds of advanced plastic explosive detonated. The blast—with the equivalent force of more than 11 tons of TNT—dug a crater 55 feet across (and 16 feet deep), utterly destroying the exterior face of Building 131, located less than 35 yards away, across an empty lot.

Flying shards of glass and blunt-force trauma killed 19 US Airmen, all but one of them in Building 131. The shock wave—which shattered windows in nearly every dormitory—injured hundreds, caused structural damage to six of the high‑rise buildings, and broke windows a mile away. Residents of Bahrain, 20 miles distant, felt the shock wave, and those in the United Arab Emirates, 120 miles away, heard it.

Brig Gen Terryl J. “Terry” Schwalier was finishing his final day as commander of the 4404th Composite Wing (Provisional), the Air Force’s overall unit in Southwest Asia, which included more than 5,000 personnel at 11 locations in four nations—nearly half of them assigned to Dhahran. Like almost all of the members of the 4404th, those in Dhahran were on 90‑day in‑country rotations. Only 19 of the wing’s billets had tours longer than half a year, so about 10 percent of the wing—200 Airmen—began (or ended) their assignments each week.

The first officer to have a full year in command, General Schwalier—then in charge of his second wing and recently selected for promotion to major general—was in his quarters, beginning a letter to his successor Brig Gen Dan Dick, who would arrive in seven hours for the change-of-command ceremony in the morning. Schwalier and his staff had aggressively addressed force-protection measures during the previous year despite launching more than 100 flights a day. Most of the sorties involved Operation Southern Watch, enforcing the no‑fly zone south of 32 degrees north latitude in Iraq.

Researched and written by Dr. Perry Jamieson, an Air Force historian, Khobar Towers records the history of the bombing and its aftermath. The author relies principally on tape‑recorded interviews of more than 70 US military personnel (most prominently, Generals Schwalier and Dick as well as Lt Col Douglas Robb, PhD, interim commander of the 4404th Medical Group). Jamieson also draws on the interviews, records, and writings of SrA Ronald J. Biggs Jr., the 4404th’s command historian, and of historians SSgt Eric Grzebinski and SSgt Yancy Mailes, as well as official and unofficial documents and articles (identified in 45 pages of endnotes). He does not make use of publications that appeared after 2004.

Jamieson divides this well‑organized, carefully documented, and very detailed history into two parts. The first, “Tragedy,” consists of chapters titled “Approaching 10 P.M.,” “Operation Southern Watch,” “Stay Alert, Be Observant,” “The Attack,” and “In the Wake”; the second, “Response,” has seven chapters and an epilogue that detail the actions of personnel and commands in Dhahran; US Central Command; US European Command; Patrick AFB, Florida; Eglin AFB, Florida; and Washington, DC. Four maps and diagrams and more than 50 black‑and‑white photographs give the reader a clear picture of the subject matter.

Good history, however, does not simply recapitulate events, regardless of how accurately, adequately, and appropriately it does so; rather, it must offer judgments, interpretations, and implications for the future. Thus, the book should address two paramount questions: Did the personnel involved receive justice? Did we learn lessons from the lives lost and blood shed? It might also comment on topics such as preattack restrictions imposed by the Saudi Arabian government and its subsequent cooperation with the investigation; the adequacy of intelligence support; the wisdom of staffing a “provisional” wing for such a long duration; the effects of personnel turnover resulting from 90‑day rotations; US government decisions regarding Iraq, Iran, and Saudi Arabia; American civil‑military relations; and, of course, details about the enemy’s planning, support, and operation.

Although primarily concerned with the Americans on‑scene in Dhahran at the time of the attack and in its aftermath, Khobar Towers touches on several ancillary topics, and, where possible, it provides nuanced, judicious comments. For an understanding of high‑level decision making, the book draws upon Dr. Richard Kohn’s interview of Gen Ronald Fogleman (see “The Early Retirement of Gen Ronald R. Fogleman, Chief of Staff, United States Air Force,” Aerospace Power Journal 15, no. 1 [Spring 2001]: 6–23).

Khobar Towers reveals that when General Fogleman arrived in Dhahran on 3 July 1996 (“after all the high‑profile people had gone through”),

I [General Fogleman] sat down with [Brigadier General Schwalier], listened to what he had to say—to include his offering to retire to remove any kind of a target for people to attack both the institution and individuals. I told him at that time that I did not want him to retire but to get the facts out. . . . This is an important issue having to do with whether we support our troops in the field when we send them out there, and if you screwed up, you can expect to be held accountable. If you haven’t, then I will support you (p. 174).

High‑level investigations followed, chaired by Army general Wayne Downing (recently retired special operations commander), Air Force lieutenant general James Record, jointly by Air Force lieutenant general Richard Swope (the inspector general) and Air Force major general Bryan Hawley (the judge advocate general), and Secretary of Defense William Cohen. “When the results of the Swope‑Hawley investigation eventually were published, two Air Force reports were on record supporting General Schwalier’s actions” (p. 192). On 28 July 1997, General Fogleman retired as Air Force chief of staff, partly prompted by Secretary Cohen’s decision to revoke General Schwalier’s promotion and more generally by numerous policy clashes that General Fogleman feared made him a liability to the Air Force.

At least eight Naval War College classes that I taught have studied the Downing, Record, and Cohen reports, and almost all of the students have been torn in their judgments: Army and Marine Corps officers—experienced in force-protection priorities—had the harshest criticism of the 4404th’s leaders; Air Force officers—familiar with the demands of combat flight operations—tended to praise those leaders for all they had accomplished in force-protection efforts; Navy, Coast Guard, and international (naval) officers—accustomed to accountability, regardless of culpability, as part of their services’ culture—usually acquiesced in General Schwalier’s loss of promotion. But such responses were by no means uniform because everyone felt the tension between strict accountability for what occurs in or to one’s command and blameless—even commendable—performance of one’s leadership duties.

With regard to “lessons learned,” Khobar Towers is only indirectly helpful. Since it focuses on what the 4404th’s leaders did for force protection, the book does not discuss other measures they might have pursued, one of the thorniest of which deals with how far senior military officers can push operational concerns into political levels. For instance, the 4404th’s leaders twice asked the Saudi government to extend the northern perimeter from 100 feet to 400 feet away from Building 131; each time, according to former secretary of defense William Perry, “the answer was not now, not yet” (p. 34). What should a one‑star commander do in such circumstances? (Of note, investigators concluded that, given the size of the blast, a 400-foot separation likely would have had no effect in reducing the number of lives lost and personnel wounded.)

Additionally, the book proves only indirectly helpful for lessons learned because, according to its account, everyone in the Khobar complex and air base; Central and European Commands; Washington, DC; and the home air bases of most personnel at Khobar (Patrick and Eglin) performed magnificently. This may well be true. Nevertheless, one plainly has difficulty knowing how to do better in the absence of any record of individual mistakes, systematic (e.g., training) failures, or command oversights (e.g., doctrinal or procedural blind spots). Consequently, the reader must work harder to appreciate the existence of critical difficulties (finding an up‑to‑the‑minute command roster, for instance) and the recognition and handling of unanticipated challenges (establishing and operating adequate mass‑emergency medical and mortuary facilities; locating, identifying, and supporting wounded personnel taken to various off‑base hospitals; and almost instantly staffing crisis centers at home bases). Khobar Towers records very well how individuals and organizations reacted to the consequences of the attack; readers who have military responsibilities should study their actions to learn lessons for the future.

CAPT Thomas B. Grassey, PhD, USNR, Retired

San Diego, California

"The views expressed are those of the author(s) and do not reflect the official policy or position of the US government or the Department of Defense."