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World Perspective | TERRORISM

Saudi Dissident's Claim Adds to Confusion on Bomb Probe

June 28, 1997|JOHN DANISZEWSKI | TIMES STAFF WRITER

CAIRO — More than a year after a truck bomb blasted the Khobar Towers military housing complex in Saudi Arabia, killing 19 American service personnel, a leading Saudi dissident insists that U.S. investigators are being deceived into accepting a false explanation for the attack.

In a statement faxed to news organizations this week, Saad Faqih, leader of the London-based Movement for Islamic Reform, said the June 25, 1996, assault was carried out by the armed Sunni Muslim resistance opposed to the rule of the Saudi royal family but that Saudi authorities have decided to pin the blame on Saudi Hezbollah, an Iranian-backed Shiite Muslim group.

Despite a year of intense investigation into the worst terror attack against the more than 20,000 U.S. troops serving in the Persian Gulf, clouds of uncertainty still surround the extremely delicate case.

The probe has created strains in the normally close U.S.-Saudi relationship while raising questions about whether the United States might be obliged to retaliate against Iran if its agents arranged the assault--a move the Saudis have suggested they would oppose.

U.S. investigators have complained about a lack of cooperation from the Saudi Interior Ministry, specifically about being prevented from sitting in on interrogations of suspects in Saudi prisons.

FBI Director Louis J. Freeh said Wednesday that his agents are working on "significant leads" and pledged to get to the bottom of the case. The official Saudi news agency, meanwhile, says the Saudis are near to announcing conclusions. Investigators soon will have to choose between the two leading theories on the bombing.

One is that it was carried out by Shiite dissidents in Saudi Arabia who may have had intelligence links with or logistics support from Iran, the Lebanese Shiite guerrilla group Hezbollah and possibly Syria. Shiite Muslims make up 10% of Saudi Arabia's population and have long complained of discrimination by the Sunni Muslim majority.

The second is that the attack was the work of a home-grown Sunni resistance, similar to the group of four Saudis executed last year for the November 1995 bombing of the Saudi National Guard training center in Riyahd. That incident killed five Americans.

Saudi and U.S. sources say the Saudis believe that the perpetrators were from Saudi Hezbollah, a previously unknown group made up of Saudi Shiites.

U.S. investigators scored a victory last week when one potential suspect, Hani Abdel Rahim Hussein Sayegh, an Iranian-educated Saudi Shiite arrested in Canada in March, was extradited to the United States.

Sayegh reportedly agreed in a plea bargain to disclose what he knows, giving the United States its first chance to independently verify Saudi claims of Saudi Hezbollah's involvement.

Sayegh, 29, denies any role in the Khobar Towers attack, and the information he has given to U.S. law enforcement officials thus far has not specifically tied Iran to the attack. However, he has identified Brig. Ahmad Sherifi, a senior Iranian intelligence officer, as a key figure in a 1995 plot that never resulted in an attack but is believed by some U.S. officials to have evolved into the plan for the Khobar Towers bombing, sources familiar with the case told the Washington Post.

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The claims by Faqih's group that the bombing was not an Iranian-inspired Shiite plot are, on one hand, self-serving because his Sunni opposition group wants to promote the belief that the ruling Saud family faces widespread, indigenous opposition. But the dissidents' claims also stand as a cautionary note to U.S. investigators, who so far have shown great reluctance to accept any Saudi conclusions about the attack at face value.

"A Sunni group has been detained and has confessed to a role in the Khobar bombing, and there is a Shiite group that was forced to confess but has nothing to do" with it, Faqih said in his fax, attributing the information to a source in the Saudi Interior Ministry. He said he wanted "to expose the regime's attempts to avoid admitting that there is an armed opposition within the country."

"If it is stated that the group that carried out the bombing comes from within the country, this would amount to an admission that there is a strong internal challenge," he said, whereas a foreign-sponsored attack by a religious minority would not be as harmful.

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