Sunday 19 January 1997 Issue 604
Talking peace, making war
SYRIAN intelligence officers played a key role in last year's bombing of the American military base in Saudi Arabia in which 19 US servicemen died. This is one of the central conclusions that has been reached by two inquiries into the bombing conducted by American and Saudi officials, details of which have been acquired by The Telegraph.
An apartment block housing US servicemen based at the Saudi port of Dhahran , on the Gulf coast, was blown up when a truck bomb parked close by exploded on June 25 last year. Investigators have established that the bomb was constructed in Lebanon's Bekaa Valley, an area which is exclusively under the control of the Syrian military.
The truck, fully primed, was then driven to Saudi Arabia through Syria and Jordan. After the bombing, a key Saudi dissident suspect fled to Syria to seek sanctuary.
But when Saudi investigators asked Syria to hand him over, the suspect was killed by Syrian intelligence to prevent him from disclosing details of Syria's involvement in the attack.
Investigators have found no evidence the Syrians ordered the bombing, but are satisfied intelligence officials were aware the attack was being planned and did nothing to prevent it.
News of Syria's involvement has caused alarm in Washington. It is one reason why details of the lengthy inquiry by the Federal Bureau of Investigation, which sent a team of specialists to Dhahran, have not been made public.
The Clinton administration has vowed to take military action against any foreign power suspected of involvement in the attack. Yet one of the cornerstones of the administration's foreign policy has been to persuade Syria's President Hafez al-Assad to play a constructive role in the Middle East peace process. That process is finely balanced. Hence the silence.
Syria's commitment to international terrorism is well documented and the Assad regime remains on the State Department's list of countries accused of sponsoring terrorism.
American officials, however, including Warren Christopher, the outgoing Secretary of State, have been trying to tempt Syria to abandon its terrorist past by holding out the prospect of a return of the Golan Heights.
But while President Assad has indicated a willingness to negotiate peace with Israel, he continues to support terrorist organisations and countries openly hostile to the peace process and Western interests, as the investigations into the Dhahran bombing have revealed.
According to both the American and Saudi reports, Iran, a long-standing US foe, was the originator of the Dhahran attack.
Iran provides training and support for numerous Arab terrorists, including two groups of Saudi dissidents which have been involved in previous attacks within the kingdom: the Organisation of Islamic Revolution of Jezier al-Arab, and the Hizbollah of the Hejez, both outlawed in Saudi Arabia.
The two groups are based in Teheran and work closely with Iran's intelligence ministry. A group calling itself "Hizbollah Gulf", which is thought to represent these two groups, claimed responsibility for the Dhahran bombing.
Supporters of these Saudi groups are allowed to use the Imam Ali training camp in east Teheran. After completing an advanced terrorism course, a group of Saudi dissidents informed Iranian intelligence officials that they intended to carry out a bomb attack against an American target in Saudi Arabia.
The Iranians approved but, fearing American retaliation, did not want to be directly involved. So the Saudis were put in contact with Osama bin Laden, a 40-year-old Islamic fundamentalist terrorist. Bin Laden, who works for Iranian intelligence, is a fierce opponent of both the Saudi regime and America's presence in the Gulf.
Bin Laden had recently taken up residence in Peshawar, on Pakistan's north-west frontier, where he fought with the Muhajideen during the Afghan civil war. After spending several years establishing terrorist training camps in Sudan, bin Laden has built up an impressive network of terrorist contacts throughout the Middle East, including with Hizbollah, the Lebanese militia based in the Bekaa Valley.
Hizbollah masterminded the suicide truck bombs which destroyed the American Embassy and a US Marine barracks in Beirut in the early Eighties. Bin Laden put the Saudi terrorists in contact with Hizbollah, which agreed to help with construction of the truck bomb.
Any doubts about bin Laden's involvement in the Dhahran attack were removed by an interview he gave in Peshawar shortly afterwards. The Saudi bombing, he said, "marked the beginning of war between Muslims and the United States".
The Saudi ringleaders of the operation flew to Syria where, according to US investigators, they obtained false passports and other covert aid from the Iranian Embassy in Damascus.
They then travelled to the Bekaa Valley, where they met up with a team of Hizbollah bomb makers. The Saudi and Lebanese terrorists then spent several weeks constructing the bomb. They used RDX-type explosive, the principal component of Semtex, which was also used in the truck bomb attacks against American targets in Beirut.
Under the terms of the mutual co-operation pact that exists between Syria and the militia, Hizbollah leaders are required to provide details of all their operations. Once constructed, the truck bomb was driven through Syria and Jordan to Saudi Arabia, before being detonated by remote control outside the US barracks in Dhahran.
US and Saudi investigators believe it would not have been possible for the truck bomb to be built in the Bekaa Valley and driven through Syria without the knowledge and approval of senior Syrian officials.
Like the Iranians, the Syrians would have been anxious to ensure it was not revealed that the bombing was carried out with the tacit approval of Damascus. Although President Assad himself may not be interested in blowing up American installations, it is clear he is prepared to provide support for terrorist groups who are.
In the Eighties, the Syrians turned a blind eye when Islamic terrorists passed through Syrian-controlled territory to attack American targets: the same duplicitous Syrian attitude applies today.
Whether it is foreign governments or Muslim extremists, few know where they stand in the Byzantine world of Damascene politics, as one of the key suspects in the Saudi bombing discovered to his cost.
American and Saudi investigators might never have known the true extent of Syrian involvement had not one of the key suspects, Jaafar el-Marzouk Dweihat, a Saudi dissident with close links to Iran, escaped to Syria immediately after the bombing.
By a stroke of good fortune, the Americans discovered his whereabouts and asked the Syrians to arrange his extradition. The Syrians agreed to comply, and Dweihat was duly detained. But he was never extradited. The official Syrian version is that he committed suicide while in prison. But none of those close to the case takes this claim seriously.
A more likely explanation is that he was murdered by Syrian intelligence to prevent him revealing the precise, and embarrassing, nature of Syria's involvement in blowing up an American military base in Saudi Arabia.
Posted here January 19, 1997
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