National Security & Defense

State Department Mum about Capture of Iran-Backed Terrorist

Aftermath of the Khobar Towers bombing in 1996. (Photo: Department of Defense)

The Saudi Arabian terrorist suspected of leading a deadly, Iranian-financed attack on a U.S. base has reportedly been captured.

State Department officials refused to comment on the reported arrest of Ahmed al-Mughassil, a leader of the Saudi chapter of Hezbollah, the Iranian-backed terrorist group. The group has long been regarded as responsible for the 1996 bombing of Khobar Towers, a U.S. Air Force housing complex, which killed 19 U.S. personnel and wounded hundreds of other people.

“I’d have to refer you to the government of Saudi Arabia,” State Department spokesman John Kirby told reporters. “It has to remain my answer today that I’d refer you to the Saudis for a law enforcement question internal to them and to their processes.”

Though al-Mughassil has been on the FBI’s list of most wanted terrorists for years, his arrest might have come at an inconvenient time for President Obama’s team. Congress is just weeks away from voting on a deal negotiated by Secretary of State John Kerry that would ease sanctions on Iran as part of an accord that is supposed to halt the regime’s nuclear program for the next decade.

A federal judge ruled in 2006 that Iranian “senior leadership” organized the 1996 attack, which al-Mughassil is suspected of leading. “The totality of the evidence at trial . . . firmly establishes that the Khobar Towers bombing was planned, funded, and sponsored by senior leadership in the government of the Islamic Republic of Iran,” U.S. District Judge Royce C. Lamberth wrote. “The defendants’ conduct in facilitating, financing, and providing material support to bring about this attack was intentional, extreme, and outrageous.”

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Under the terms of the pending nuclear deal, Iran would get as much as $150 billion in sanctions relief. The Obama administration has admitted that at least some of this money will be used to finance more terrorism. “We’ve decided that we need to address the nuclear threat and then turn to the terrorism,” Adam Szubin, acting undersecretary of the treasury for terrorism and financial intelligence, told a Senate panel August 5.

Congressional Republicans have cited the sanctions relief as one of the reasons lawmakers should vote to pass a resolution disapproving of the deal. “If this deal is consummated, it will make the Obama administration the world’s leading financier of radical Islamic terrorism,” Senator Ted Cruz said last month. “Billions of dollars under control of this administration will flow into the hands of jihadists who will use that money to murder Americans, to murder Israelis, to murder Europeans.”

#related#Iran has long denied any involvement in the Khobar attack. Kirby spoke more delicately than Lamberth when asked if the United States blames Iran. “I think we’ve spoken to this, previous administrations have spoken about an alleged Iranian role in the attack on Khobar Towers and there’s indictments going back to — I think it’s 2001 — which point to Iranian involvement,” he said.

Lamberth’s ruling came as the George W. Bush administration was “resist[ing] recommendations that it engage in diplomatic talks with Iran,” according to a contemporaneous Washington Post report.

“There were a lot of rumors that the State Department did not want this case to proceed because they ultimately want to have a rapprochement with Iran,” Shale D. Stiller, an attorney for the victims’ families, said at the time.

— Joel Gehrke is a political reporter at National Review.

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