Edition: U.S. / Global

Saudi Rebels Are Main Suspects In June Bombing of a U.S. Base

Published: August 15, 1996

The Government of Saudi Arabia now believes that native Saudi Islamic militants, including many veterans of the Afghan war, carried out the June 25 bombing that killed 19 American servicemen at a base in Dhahran, Saudi officials said today.

Since the bombing, the Government has detained scores of suspects who have been subjected to intensive interrogation about the bombing.

A Saudi dissident group in London, and an Arabic-language newspaper based here, say they have information that six suspects have confessed to involvement in the bombing.

But a senior Saudi official, while confirming that many militants were detained and being questioned, denied that anyone had confessed or that the case had been solved.

Saudi officials also said that they had evidence linking some of the detainees to the four men who were condemned and beheaded in connection with the bombing in Riyadh last November that killed five Americans and two Indians.

''Our mistake was to think that the first bombing was an isolated case,'' the senior official said. ''It now seems it was not an isolated case. There is an organization of violent opponents whose members are loosely connected, organized in semi-independent cells like other violent fundamentalist movements in the Arab world.''

But he added that if anybody had confessed, ''it will be announced immediately.''

''There is no reason to sit on it,'' he continued.

Officials at the Defense Department and other agencies said today that while the United States had been informed that a large number of suspects had been detained in Saudi Arabia for questioning as part of the bombing investigation, the Clinton Administration had not been informed of any confessions.

''We assume that they're rounding up all sorts of people to ask them if they know anything about the attack,'' a Pentagon official said. ''So there's no surprise that there have been detentions.''

The first report emerged on Saturday in Al Quds, a Palestinian daily based in London and known for its fierce opposition to the Saudi regime. In separate accounts the newspaper and the Movement for Islamic Reform, a Saudi opposition group, said that six Saudi Muslim fundamentalists, all former Afghan-trained fighters, had confessed to carrying out the June bombing. The six were reported to be from the Al Thoqba region of Saudi Arabia, near Al Khobar, where the June bombing took place. They represent a small part of the group of suspects detained over the last month by Saudi authorities in connection with the case.

Al Quds said the men made their confessions after having been subjected to torture.

Saudi officials confirmed that dozens of Saudi men are indeed being detained and questioned intensively. These men, willing to take up arms to defend their beliefs, are forming a new hard core of opponents to the ruling Al-Saud family.

In an interview today, Saad al-Faqih, a surgeon by training who speaks for the Movement for Islamic Reform in London, said information from ''multiple Islamic opposition'' figures in Saudi Arabia with close ties to the movement had confirmed the newspaper account.

He referred to the Interior Minister, Prince Nayef, a brother of King Fahd, in his description of the status of the investigation in Saudi Arabia.

''As far as I know, Prince Nayef is keeping the Americans away from all the details at this point,'' he said. ''But we are sure the young men have indeed confessed to the bombing, affirming their opposition to the American military presence in Saudi Arabia and to the regime. They are from a region that has supplied many of the estimated 6,000 Saudis believed to have gone and come back from Afghanistan in the past decade.''

Dr. Faqih left Saudi Arabia in 1994 and took refuge here after having signed several petitions to King Fahd demanding an end to corruption in the Saudi Government and seeking reforms. He has contacts in Saudi Arabia who keep him familiar with the militants and their views.

''Like the group that carried out the bombing in Riyadh last year, this new group is composed of young men who received training or spent time in Afghanistan,'' he said. ''They are uncompromising in their determination and will probably mount other operations against other targets.''

Their main demand is the release of noted militant religious figures jailed by Saudi authorities, particularly Safar al-Hawaly and Salman al-Awdeh. Both men, who are vehement critics of the Government, have been jailed since 1994.

Asked about the reports, a senior Saudi official who insisted on not being identified would say only: ''The investigation is ongoing. We may be headed toward a confession but we are not there yet.''

In a statement responding to the earlier reports of confessions, Prince Nayef said Saudi Arabia would make an announcement as soon as the investigation is completed. His comments were also viewed as refuting earlier suggestions by Secretary of Defense William J. Perry, who had said that Saudi investigations might point to an Iranian connection. Subsequently, the American official suggested he did not have direct evidence linking Iran to the bombing.

Clinton Administration officials said today that while the Saudis had not yet shared with them all of the information gathered in the investigation, it had always been assumed in Washington that Saudi citizens had played the key role in the attack, probably with help from terrorist groups outside Saudi Arabia.

Today Dr. Faqih said that the suspects reported to have confessed are, like those executed in connection with the Riyadh bombing, ''native Saudis, who are all Sunni Muslims with no outside connections to either Iran or Iraq.'' Abdelbari Atwan, editor of Al Quds, said today that Saudi authorities ''are still refusing to let United States investigators see the suspects.''