Brig. Gen. Terryl Schwalier was in command of the 4404th Wing (Provisional) when terrorists bombed the Khobar Towers barracks in Saudi Arabia killing 19 airmen in June 1996, 19 years ago today. The Supreme Court recently rejected hearing his appeal of President Clinton’s decision to pull him from the two star promotion list after an investigation of the Khobar Towers bombing. BG Schwalier asserted that he was being unfairly punished for his role in the June 1996 bombing.
There is a hard and true maxim about military leadership. “An officer is responsible for everything his troops do or don’t do.” It is an incredibly high standard to live up to and meant to be to ensure leaders exhaust every option in the performance of their duty. It is a driving force for the leader to assess and reassess their actions in a quest for excellence.
The Khobar Towers bombing was a watershed event in in our evaluation of the terrorist threat. Subsequent to it a litany of programs and actions were taken to lesson our vulnerability to the threat. Most visible was the adoption of military facility standoff distances to buildings inhibiting the ability of terrorists to get their truck bombs close enough to a building to take it down. The event also raised awareness about reacting to terror group reconnaissance of targets as was evident at the Khobar Towers.
Prior to the attack there were 100 indications that terrorists were interested in attacking US forces in the region and specifically the Khobar Towers. Among these indicators were efforts to recon the sight by suspicious personnel and a bombing at the Office of the Program Manager of the Saudi Arabian National Guard (OPM-SANG) on November 13, 1995 that killed five Americans.
The command took many actions (e.g. installing fences, barricades and mounting machineguns at the checkpoint) and tried to energize Saudi officials who would not acknowledge the existence of an organized terror threat in the kingdom. On June 25, 1996 unknown individuals parked a truck carrying 20,000 pounds of explosive close to a barracks building. The resulting explosion tore the front of the building off killing 19 airmen and injuring 500. The blast was felt 20 miles away in Bahrain and all windows were shattered within a mile of the blast. Sharp eyed security policeman Staff Sgt. Alfredo R. Guerrero observed the terrorists attempt entry to the compound and then position the bomb on the opposite side of a fence 72 feet away. His attempt to evacuate the building undoubtedly saved many lives. The bombing would eventually serve as inspiration for the Hollywood movie, “The Kingdom” starring Jamie Foxx.
Flash back to early 1991, my Infantry battalion 3-5 Cav was split between 20 man tents on a sandy spit and cots in a warehouse at the Dammam port waiting for our Bradley fighting vehicles. The Battalion was offered accommodations in Khobar Towers where one company had spent the night split among rooms. After his first visit, the BN commander declined and immediately pulled the company out of their apartments and put them with the rest of us in pretty poor conditions. I remember the commander speaking about not being part of another tragedy like the one that killed over 240 Marines when a truck bomb struck their barracks in Beirut.
Contrast this with the 4404th Wing (Provisional) that didn’t practice evacuating the buildings because of a concern that drills would create complacency and never considered moving troops from the most vulnerable buildings to inner compound buildings or off compound to a secure military base which was what was done after the attack.
Could the Air Force’s cultural expectation of comfort over security had a role in the Khobar Towers bombing? Was leadership intimidated by taking an action that would be seen as drastic? Maybe leadership didn’t want to deal with the griping of troops not having their own rooms on a deployment? Maybe the command wasn’t qualified to assess the threat?
In any case, every option was not exhausted and the General’s effort to secure a second star after the death of 19 airmen is unseemly at best. The lessons one can take away from this event is even after putting an elaborate plan into effect don’t stop assessing your plan and bring in other eyes to evaluate your approach. Most importantly don’t avoid the hard call because it’s hard.