Bomb Kills Americans in Saudi Arabia

Dr. Bill Atherton had just lain down, knowing he was on call that night at the Dhahran Health Clinic in Saudi Arabia. "I was resting in bed and I felt the shaking. I felt the bomb's impulse from 10 miles away," said the Calgary native, a surgeon at the hospital run by the Aramco oil company.

Bomb Kills Americans in Saudi Arabia

Dr. Bill Atherton had just lain down, knowing he was on call that night at the Dhahran Health Clinic in Saudi Arabia. "I was resting in bed and I felt the shaking. I felt the bomb's impulse from 10 miles away," said the Calgary native, a surgeon at the hospital run by the Aramco oil company. Within an hour, Atherton was in the emergency ward, painstakingly picking glass out of the backs and faces of shocked victims of the biggest terrorist attack against Americans in the Middle East since 1983. A bomb-laden gasoline truck and a small white car had pulled up to the gates of Khobar Towers, a U.S. military housing complex serving the King Abdul-Aziz airbase. The truck's driver quickly dashed into the waiting car and sped off. American guards on rooftop patrol saw the manoeuvre and rushed to evacuate residents. There was no time. Within three minutes, a massive blast ripped off the front half of an eight-storey apartment building with a force equal to 3,000 lb. of dynamite.

The bomb killed 19 Americans, injured another 386 people and left a huge crater 10 m deep. But the tragedy reverberated far beyond Saudi Arabia, overtaking the agenda of the Group of Seven meeting of the world's richest nations in Lyons, France. Leaders of the United States, Britain, Canada, France, Germany, Japan and Italy hurriedly endorsed a 40-point plan to combat terrorism. The measures - many of which were outlined in Ottawa last December - are designed to counter a threat that has replaced superpower nuclear confrontation as the major Western security preoccupation of the post-Cold War era.

The terrorism theme sapped the urgency from the economic issues the G-7 leaders had gathered to discuss: job creation, increasing globalization and an agreement on a new debt-relief package for the 40 poorest nations. For Canada, it was supposed to be the Helms-Burton summit, the payoff for months spent lobbying allies to unite against the United States and President Bill Clinton's determination to punish nations that trade with Cuba. But the Saudi bombing made it easier for Clinton to argue that those countries Washington defines as "rogue" nations - Iran, Iraq, Libya and Cuba - must be isolated. And despite Prime Minister Jean Chrétien's insistence that progress had been made against the Helms-Burton law - "It was raised at the highest possible level that you could hope for," Chrétien told reporters - the final communiqué contained only an oblique reference urging countries to abide by international trade pacts. The statement made no specific mention of Cuba or third-party trade penalties. "Helms-Burton was raised a few times, but it was not a significant part of the discussion," said U.S. Treasury Secretary Robert Rubin. Reflecting that perspective, the American media paid less attention to Canada's complaint than to a breakthrough on computer chips that Clinton worked out with Japanese Prime Minister Ryutaro Hashimoto.

Clinton's apparent refusal to budge on the anti-Cuban law was the second disappointment for Prime Minister Jean Chrétien, who had hoped to sign a trade agreement with the European Union in Rome before the Lyons summit. Ironically, Spain blocked the deal by insisting on a clause outlawing extraterritorial application of national laws, a direct tit-for-tat retaliation for Canada's seizure of a Spanish trawler off Newfoundland's coast in the March, 1995, "turbot war." In the end, Chrétien's 25-minute meeting with the Pope at the Vatican may have proved the highlight of his European jaunt. Still, Ottawa garnered some kudos for urging the G-7 to share more intelligence information to combat international terrorism. "People are moved, money is moved, weapons are moved across borders," said Foreign Affairs Minister Lloyd Axworthy.

Last week was not the first time the G-7's annual economic meeting has been overshadowed by dramatic news events. Nor is it the first time Western leaders have stood together against terrorism. But while the official statements and international posturing may play well to voters at home, it has so far done little to protect the innocent from a rising tide of terrorism. In little over a year, the world has suffered the Oklahoma City bombing, Tokyo's subway gas poisoning, the renewed Irish Republican Army campaign and countless Middle Eastern bus and truck explosions. Conceded U.S. state department spokesman Glyn Davies: "A determined terrorist is difficult to stop."

This time, attention focused on long-stable Saudi Arabia. Analysts say it may finally be falling prey to Islamic militancy as an ailing King Fahd and his royal family lose popular support - despite running a strictly orthodox Muslim theocracy. Two previously unknown groups claimed responsibility for the Dhahran bombing: Hizbollah-Gulf and Legion of the Martyr Abdullah al-Huzaifi, named after a Saudi who was beheaded last year for throwing acid at a military officer. The attack on the American base came less than a month after four militants were beheaded for a smaller blast last November at a U.S.-run Saudi National Guard training centre in Riyadh. Five Americans and two Indians died. There had been threats against the 5,000-strong U.S. military force in Saudi Arabia and security was increased. But no one predicted aggression on the scale of last week's bomb, which was far more powerful than the one that blew up Oklahoma City's federal building. Israeli President Ezer Weizman, among others, blamed Iran, which finances Lebanon's Hizbollah fighters and other Islamic militants. The Gulf state of Bahrain has also accused Iran of backing a group called Hizbollah-Bahrain that allegedly attempted to topple its government in June. Tehran has denied all such charges, but its state-run media warned that terrorism will continue as long as there is a U.S. presence in the region.

Among Western experts, there was an increasing willingness after the Saudi disaster to believe that the violence is homegrown. They cited anger among some Saudis about sharing their home with the American military, which was invited in to help throw Baghdad's troops out of Kuwait in 1991 and stayed on to enforce the no-fly zone over Iraq. There are also 35,000 non-military Americans working in Saudi Arabia. "The message to the regime is that it can't be so much in the pocket of the Western countries, particularly the United States," said Terence Taylor, assistant director of London's International Institute for Strategic Studies. Shibley Telhami of Cornell University agreed that recent Saudi unrest is indigenous. "You have to ask whether the American public will start asking questions about the American presence," Telhami added. "Our entire strategy for the next decade is oriented towards an increased presence in the region."

Unhappiness about the Western "infidel" has been compounded by a decline in the Saudi economy. Oil prices are at early 1980s levels, the state budget has not been balanced since 1983, and the population keeps rising. That means that "the state is no longer handing out the goodies," said Rosemary Hollis, a Middle East expert at the Royal Institute for International Affairs in London. "Key members of the royal family are seen to be taking their privileges for granted while others feel the pinch." Individual Saudis are also said to finance various foreign Islamic outfits, including militant groups like the Palestinian Hamas. "There are many wealthy families, some of them quite conservative, which have provided money for outside Islamic groups on a private basis," said a Western diplomat in Riyadh.

Canadian surgeon Atherton, who has been in Saudi Arabia for four years, says the growing anti-Western feeling is palpable. "There is a very active Saudi-ization of the country. It's happening in medicine. It's happening at Aramco. There are fewer Westerners and more Saudis getting the jobs," he says. "Saudi-ization is a stated government policy." Despite its pro-American orientation, the Saudi royal family may indeed be bowing to domestic anti-Western pressures. American officials complained last week that the Saudi government refused to let CIA and FBI agents question the four men convicted in last November's attack before they were executed - which might have yielded information that could have forestalled the latest bombing. Forty-two FBI agents quickly arrived in Dhahran to comb the wreckage of the devastated military dormitory. Then early Friday morning, hundreds of residents left their homes as calls came in that another bomb was about to go off. It turned out to be a hoax. But the week's events have unnerved expatriates such as Atherton, who already felt vulnerable. "We still go to the local shopping mall, where there are a lot of Saudis, but we have avoided several places where Americans congregate," he said. "I think there is a feeling that the Saudis would like us all to go home."

As it happens, Atherton, his wife and three children will make a trip home in about a month. But there is little chance that American troops will leave the country. "I think it would be a tragic mistake if we were to pull, pitch and run," said retired U.S. general Norman Schwarzkopf, who commanded allied forces during the Gulf War. "We have to show them that we are tougher than they are." With Saudi Arabia holding a quarter of the world's oil reserves, and the kingdom so dependent on the United States for its security, there is little chance that Washington will retreat from its strategic desert base. Instead, as the 19 dead Americans were eulogized in Florida last week, leaders in the industrialized world were left with little choice but to reiterate their resolve and talk tough on terrorism.

Maclean's July 8, 1996