MULTIPLE sources, including CNN, AP and Saudi newspaper Asharq Al-Awsat, reported Aug. 27 that Ahmed al-Mughassil was arrested in Beirut and transferred to Saudi Arabia. Al-Mughassil was identified in a 2001 U.S. Department of Justice indictment as the mastermind behind the Khobar Towers bombings, a 1996 attack against a Saudi housing complex where foreign military personnel lived. Nineteen U.S. servicemen were killed, and almost 500 were reported injured in the attack.
The details surrounding al-Mughassil’s arrest are rather mysterious. Asharq Al-Awsat reported that al-Mughassil was actually arrested two weeks ago, after Saudi intelligence discovered he had traveled to Beirut from Iran and was in a southern Beirut neighborhood controlled by Hezbollah. CNN did not go so far, reporting merely that al-Mughassil had been “bundled into a plane” and taken to Saudi Arabia.
Stratfor sources have reported an additional detail not currently being covered in the mainstream media: that the Iranians, who had ostensibly provided al-Mughassil safe haven for years, informed the Lebanese Internal Security Forces of al-Mughassil’s arrival in Beirut. Lebanon’s security forces then picked up al-Mughassil at the Hezbollah-controlled airport and immediately turned him over to the Saudis on a private jet that was waiting for him. Though this account has not been confirmed, it fits within the larger realignment occurring across the region as a result of the US-Iranian nuclear accord. For months, even years, leading up to the accord, Iran attempted to prod the Saudis into a diplomatic conversation, but the Saudis have thus far staunchly refused to participate. The rumors also come in the context of a great deal of diplomatic activity related to the Syrian civil war; both Iran and Saudi Arabia want to settle the conflict in a way that suits their respective, and divergent, interests.
When it occurred, the Khobar Towers bombing was not exactly a clear-cut case. A US indictment claimed that evidence suggested covert Iranian involvement, but no Iranian officials were singled out. It was al-Mughassil, the leader of Hezbollah al-Hejaz (the Saudi faction of Hezbollah), who was identified as the plot’s mastermind; numerous others were identified as being involved, many of whom the Saudis have already imprisoned. A US federal judge even ruled in 2006 that Iran owed the families of 17 American victims of the bombings a total of $254 million.
However, history has cast some doubt over Iran’s role in the attack. For one thing, Hezbollah al-Hejaz never actually claimed responsibility for the Khobar Towers bombing. Iran maintained that al Qaeda was the guilty party, and the Sept. 11 commission suggested an al Qaeda link. Former US Secretary of Defense William Perry has also said in recent years that he believes al Qaeda, and not Iran, is to blame for the attack.
There has been no confirmation from the Saudi, Lebanese or U.S. governments that al-Mughassil has actually been detained; all reports have been from anonymous officials and confidential sources. But assuming that al-Mughassil has actually been arrested, perhaps the most confusing of the scant verifiable details available is that Lebanon was either actively or passively involved in offering al-Mughassil to the Saudis. Lebanon — the same country that passed a general amnesty law in 1991 giving sanctuary to figures such as Imad Mughniyah, Hassan Ezzeddine, Ali Atwa, Mohammed Ali Hammadi, and Cpl. Wassef Ali Hassoun — is not known for extraditing wanted individuals to foreign countries. In the past, Lebanon has not succumbed to U.S. pressure in similar circumstances, even when the United States demanded control over suspects in the 1985 hijacking of TWA Flight 847.
It is even less clear why Iran would have decided to offer up al-Mughassil in the first place, if it was in fact Iran that informed the Saudis of al-Mughassil’s movements. Is it a show of good faith to Saudi Arabia, an Iranian attempt to show that the Islamic republic is interested in at least partially mending ties with the kingdom? It could be, but offering up one militant who authored a bombing in 1996 is not likely to have much of an effect on the Saudi-Iranian relationship. Was it a low-stakes understanding reached between the Americans and the Iranians, a way for Iran to show it is willing to cooperate with the United States in limited ways outside the framework of the understanding reached on Tehran’s nuclear program? There is no evidence to support such a theory, but, to a degree, it seems credible. Next week, Saudi King Salman is due to make his first visit to the United States since he ascended the throne. Washington will likely press Riyadh to hand over al-Mughassil. The Saudis, as they have with previous suspects tied even to the case, will likely refuse but will enjoy having something to hold over US President Barack Obama.
Whatever the details, this much is clear: A well-known militant with a $5 million bounty on his head flew from his safe haven in Iran to Lebanon, a country known for harboring wanted suspects, and to territory controlled by Iranian-backed Hezbollah. After landing in Beirut, he was whisked away to Riyadh. Something in the geopolitical relationship between Iran, Lebanon and Saudi Arabia made this possible. And though we can not yet delineate the precise chronology of events or identify who is responsible for what, the strangeness of the events should give us pause and force us to reconsider what other previously held notions about the Middle East need re-evaluation or may be obsolete altogether.
© 2015, STRATFOR
Publishing by The Manila Times of this article is with the express permission of STRATFOR.