US ruling on Khobar Towers blast shows Iran's hand in Middle East terror
American forces in Saudi Arabia were already on high alert in June 1996 when a petrol tanker tried to enter the Khobar Towers complex in the Saudi city of Dhahran. It was turned away at a checkpoint.
So when it pulled up in an adjacent car park an eagle eyed sentry ordered the evacuation of the dormitory building used by US Air Force pilots and staff.
Minutes later, Iranian-sponsored terrorists detonated their load of 15 tons of explosives, killing 19 US military personnel.
More than 22 years later, a court in Washington DC this week ordered Iran to pay more than $100 million to the blast’s victims, underscoring Tehran’s role in Middle Eastern terrorism.
The ruling marks the latest in a string of court judgments against Iran in the US, ordering Tehran to pay tens of billions of dollars in compensation to victims of attacks by its Lebanese Shiite proxy Hezbollah and other groups. They include families who lost loved ones in 9/11, hostages snatched in Beirut and individuals tortured in Iranian custody.
On Monday, Chief Judge Beryl Howell entered a default judgement against Iran and the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps, the elite wing of the Iranian military, which did not defend themselves against claims they were behind the Dhahran attack.
“Due to their support for Saudi Hezbollah’s bombing of the Khobar Towers on June 25, 1996, both defendants are jointly and severally liable for the pain and suffering inflicted on the fifteen plaintiff service members present at Khobar Towers at the time of the bombing and the emotional distress inflicted on the twenty-four plaintiff family members,” she concluded, referring to the pro-Iranian Shiite terrorist group operating in the Gulf kingdom.
In reaching her decision, she cited FBI evidence obtained from six members of Saudi Hezbollah, arrested by Saudi security forces shortly after the bombing. They admitted their role and that “senior officials in the Iranian government provided them with funding, planning, training, sponsorship, and travel necessary” for the assault.
The judgement means 15 service members who were at the complex when it was bombed were entitled to damages for assault, battery and intentional infliction of emotional distress.
And she said 24 relatives of people who died were also due compensation, although it was not clear how they would ever obtain any money.
Iran’s permanent mission to the United Nations did not immediately respond to a request for comment.
Paul Gaston, a lawyer for the plaintiffs, told Reuters: “The plaintiffs are very pleased with the decision, and look forward to pursuing collections. Having the court ruling gives them some measure of justice.”
It is the not the first such ruling to stem from the attack.
In December 2006, another federal judge in Washington ordered Iran to pay $254.4 million to family members and the estates of 17 Americans who died in the attack.
Sovereign governments are typically protected from prosecution by individuals in US courts. However, exceptions are allowed for suits against countries deemed to be state sponsors of terrorism.
Iran was designated by the US Department of State as a state sponsor of terrorism in January 1984.
Since then Beirut hostages, such as Terry Anderson, wounded survivors of attacks and families of those killed – including Jerusalem bus bombings - have won more than $50 billion in payouts.
One of the biggest covered the 1983 Hezbollah bombing of a Marine compound in Beirut which killed 241 US service members. Injured survivors and families of the dead were awarded $2.65 billion in 2007.
Last year, a judge in Washington ordered the Iranian government to pay $63 million to Amir Hekmati, a former US Marine who accused his Iranian captors of torture. Hekmati, a dual US-Iranian national, was freed in January 2016 after being held prisoner for four and a half years.
In May, a judge in New York issued a default judgement ordering Iran to pay more than $6 billion to victims of the 9/11 attacks, that killed almost 3000 people.
Thomas Burnett found “the Islamic Republic of Iran, the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps, and The Central Bank of the Islamic Republic of Iran” liable for the deaths of more than 1,000 people. Although investigators have so far found little evidence of direct Iranian support for the attacks, several of the hijackers travelled to Afghanistan via Iran without having their passports stamped.