Crime Library: Criminal Minds and Methods

The Bombing of Khobar Towers

"It's a Complex Culture"

Air Force Colonel Gary Boyle was transferred to Khobar Towers to oversee improvements in base security, but it was not a simple chore.  According to Air Force Online Magazine, the United States and Saudi Arabia had never signed a formal Status of Forces Agreement, which meant that American military officials had to ask local leaders for permission to do anything to their facilities.  Colonel Boyle soon found that dealing with the Saudis could be frustrating and sometimes maddening.

Colonel Boyle told the New York Times that he had invited his Saudi counterpart to walk the perimeter of the compound days after the Riyadh attack and had asked for permission to extend the perimeter to 400 feet.  Four months later, he was still waiting for an answer.  When he pressed the Saudi officer for a response to his request, the officer said "not now," pointing out that the parking lot opposite Building 131 was adjacent to a public park and a mosque, and its removal would be an inconvenience to the people who used those facilities.

"They'll never say no," a senior military commander told the New York Times, recalling his experiences with the Saudis.  "They say they'll study it.  It's a complex culture.  You have to understand their culture; we're on their land."

The Saudis objected to the Americans' request to trim the trees and shrubs around the perimeter.  Religious Muslims did not approve of the way Western women at the compound dressed.  Women in jogging shorts and bikinis were considered sacrilegious, and the Saudis wanted them hidden from sight.  In fact, many local merchants refused to serve Western women, even when they were clothed appropriately.  As a result, the foliage stayed as it was.

But the Saudis could not be blamed for not installing Mylar on the compound's windows.  When General Schwailer and his staff learned that Mylar "cost $50 a square meter, for a total cost of about $4.5 million," he submitted a formal request to his superiors to defer the project to the next fiscal year instead of asking for emergency funds.

General Schwailer's decision might have been influenced by faulty intelligence the Air Force received from the CIA and other government experts who believed that militants in Saudi Arabia did not have the capability to build a bomb larger that the 200-pound explosive that went off in Riyadh.  Furthermore, Air Force experts underestimated the damage that a bomb that size could cause. 

But while the experts were downplaying the magnitude of a possible threat, security police at Khobar knew something was up.  From what they had observed, "unidentified outsiders" had the compound under surveillance.  On one occasion, while one sentry scanned the desert through binoculars, another sentry noticed a man beyond the perimeter watching the first sentry through his own set of binoculars.   Personnel on the base knew they were being watched; they just didn't know why.

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