DoD Leaders Say Anti-terrorism Top Priority
By Linda D. Kozaryn
American Forces Press Service
WASHINGTON, July 11, 1996 U.S. forces may move out of Riyadh and other urban areas of Saudi Arabia as part of an intensified DoD anti-terrorist effort in the wake of the bombing in Dhahran.
Defense Secretary William J. Perry; Army Gen. John Shalikashvili, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff; and Army Gen. J.H. Binford Peay III, Central Command commander in chief, appeared before the Senate Armed Services Committee July 9. Committee members queried the three on the June 25 truck bombing at Khobar Towers housing complex that killed 19 airmen and injured hundreds more. Perry told committee members the tragic attack revealed vulnerabilities in force protection measures at the facility.
"We have just lost 19 members of our [military] family and we feel their loss deeply," Perry said. "But we must carry on the mission they were conducting. We must learn from this tragic event and establish measures to provide better protection for our forces."
That protection includes rebasing troops outside of urban areas; allocating more funds for intelligence activities; and improving physical security by expanding perimeters, building more fences and barriers and enforcing strict access procedures.
Four days after the blast, Perry met with Saudi King Fahd and other top Saudi officials. The defense secretary said he stressed to the host nation leaders added security measures would have to be made to protect U.S. troops from the heightened threat in the region. Saudi leaders promised their full cooperation, Perry said.
More precautions will not eliminate the risk involved in military operations, however, Perry said. "Enhancing physical barriers, increasing vigilance and improving intelligence will go far as precautions against such attacks, but we can never fashion absolute defenses against the criminals and terrorists who seek to attack us," he told the committee in a prepared statement.
U.S. officials increased security throughout the region and were working with Saudi officials after a car bomb killed five Americans and two others in November 1995 at a U.S. National Guard facility in Riyadh, Saudi Arabia, the defense chiefs said.
According to Peay, local commanders implemented more than 130 security improvements at Khobar Towers between November and June. They included adding concrete barriers along roads, clearing fields-of-view along perimeters, providing 24-hour guards, and increasing U.S. and Saudi patrols. At the time of the bombing, Peay said, the facility had considerably better protection than it had throughout the Persian Gulf War.
But, Perry said, military intelligence officials had underestimated the terrorist threat in the region. "The intelligence was not useful at a tactical level," he said. "It didn't specify the nature of the threat or the timing, and therefore it was not what we might call actionable intelligence in terms of doing our planning."
The Khobar Towers attack was "10 times as powerful as the previous attack," Perry said. The bombers were "well organized, had sophisticated training, did extensive practice and had access to military quality explosives and detonating devices," he said.
"It is my working assumption that these bombers had extensive support from an experienced and well-financed international terrorist organization," Perry said. "If we identify another nation as the source of the bombing, we should retaliate."
At Perry's request, retired Army Gen. Wayne A. Downing, former commander of the U.S. Special Operations Command, is heading a task force assessing the circumstances surrounding the bombing. Downing will also recommend more security measures to prevent future terrorist attacks and measures to minimize casualties. The committee will receive a complete briefing when Downing completes his assessment next month, Perry said.
U.S. service members in the Persian Gulf region are on the front line of terrorism, and the threat is growing increasingly more sophisticated, Peay said. "Even with the additional security upgrades, we should recognize that we remain vulnerable to terrorist attacks," he told committee members. "I don't believe that any amount of money or physical security upgrade alone can stop a determined terrorist."
Perry and Shalikashvili echoed Peay's warning: The United States can expect more terrorist incidents, and they can expect them soon.
"Terrorism will always seek the weak link and take the most indirect approach to its ends," Shalikashvili said. "It will make every effort to strike at the seams, seeking shock effect and publicity over military utility. Terrorists will continue to be [as] patient as they are destructive."
Not even the Israelis, who have more experience than any other people in dealing with terrorism, have figured out a way to defeat it, Shalikashvili said. "Yet in the areas where our interests our great, we must accept that risk, while at the same time continuing to work consistently and methodically to reduce the risk to our men and women in uniform."
Gulf region security ranks as a vital national interest, according to Perry. When the defense of such interests is at stake, he said, the United States must be prepared to use military force, even at the risk of casualties. The U.S. military presence reminds rogue nations the United States will fight to defend its interests, he said.
"If deterrence fails, our military presence becomes the base on which we quickly build our fighting force, thereby ensuring a rapid military victory with minimum casualties," Perry remarked. "I believe that our military presence in the region is essential. ... We must not allow ourselves to be driven out by terrorists."