Everyone remembers the Twin Towers, but fewer recall the first towers targeted by violent extremists. Saturday marks the 15th anniversary of the Khobar Towers bombing in which 19 American servicemen and one Saudi national were killed and 372 wounded. For the families of those who died, justice has been long in coming, but a new court ruling gives hope that closure may be near.
The towers were bombed by members of Hezbollah al-Hejaz, a Shiite terrorist group sponsored by Iran. The Islamic Republic is directly or indirectly responsible for more American military deaths than any country since the Vietnam War. In the case of Khobar Towers, terrorists executed a direct order from senior Iranian government leaders. President Clinton met at Eglin and Patrick Air Force Bases with victims’ families and promised swift action. “He shook our hands and said justice would be served,” a family member told The Washington Times. “But it wasn’t served under him.”
The Clinton administration was aware of the Iranian connection but chose not to hold Tehran responsible publicly because it was engaged in a misguided attempt at diplomatic outreach to ostensibly “moderate” Iranian leadership. FBI director Louis Freeh, who oversaw the bombing investigation, later wrote that Mr. Clinton “had no interest in confronting the fact that Iran had blown up the towers.”
In 2001, President George W. Bush’s Justice Department charged 14 men linked to Hezbollah al-Hejaz in absentia for crimes related to the bombing, with the attorney general stating, “elements of the Iranian government inspired, supported and supervised members of the Saudi Hezbollah.” These men were never brought to trial. The victims’ families, working with the law firm of D.L.A. Piper and the American Center for Civil Justice, sought to make Iran accountable by other means. In 2006, U.S. District Judge Royce C. Lamberth ruled Iran was liable for the bombing and had to pay $254 million to the families. This provided the opportunity to seek funds from Iranian assets frozen in America since the 1979 revolution brought the Islamic regime to power.
The ruling wasn’t enforced for years. In 2009, Judge Lamberth issued a 191-page opinion criticizing executive inaction on rulings against Iran for sponsoring terrorism, which by then included more than 1,000 plaintiffs and awards totaling over $9 billion. “The plaintiffs in these actions face continuous road blocks and setbacks in what has been an increasingly futile exercise to hold Iran accountable for unspeakable acts of terrorist violence,” the judge wrote.
On June 21, a federal court in New York ordered compensation to be paid to the Khobar Towers families within six weeks. “I just want someone in our government to recognize that this was an act of state-sponsored terrorism and want Iran held accountable,” a family member said. But the twisting trail of justice may have another unhappy surprise for the long-suffering families of Iran’s victims. It remains to be seen if the Obama administration will act to bring them closure.