A senior Hezbollah operative accused of helping carry out the 1996 bombing of an American military housing complex in Saudi Arabia that killed 19 U.S. service members has been captured, U.S. officials said.
Ahmad Ibrahim al-Mughassil, 48, was arrested in Beirut and flown to Saudi Arabia to face questioning and likely prosecution, according to the Saudi newspaper Asharq al-Awsat.
U.S. officials confirmed that Mughassil, the former head of Saudi Hezbollah’s military wing, was in Saudi custody. He was indicted in 2001 for his suspected role in the bombing of Khobar Towers in Dhahran. In addition to the 19 dead, the blast left nearly 500 people wounded, many of them Americans.
Mughassil is believed to possess significant information about Hezbollah and Iran’s Revolutionary Guard Corps, U.S. officials said. It is not clear whether the Saudis will allow U.S. intelligence to interview Mughassil.
Officials also cautioned that extraditing him to the United States to stand trial remains a remote possibility because he is a Saudi citizen.
A spokesman for the FBI declined to comment. The FBI had offered a $5 million reward for information leading to the arrest of Mughassil.
The Khobar case was investigated by FBI Director James B. Comey when he was a prosecutor with the Justice Department in the Eastern District of Virginia. Comey was praised for resurrecting the case after it had stalled for years in another U.S. attorney’s office.
At the time, FBI Director Louis J. Freeh said: “The indictment represents a major step toward making sure that those responsible are brought to justice.”
Then Attorney General John D. Ashcroft accused Iran of inspiring, supporting and supervising the group that launched the attack. Iran has denied any involvement in the bombing.
Mughassil, also known as Abu Omran, directed terrorist attacks against U.S. interests in Saudi Arabia, authorities said. He was also in charge of recruiting young Saudi men to join Hezbollah and arranging for them to travel to Lebanon and Iran to receive training.
According to the indictment, Mughassil played a key role in orchestrating the attack on Khobar Towers, which was meant to drive the Americans out of the Persian Gulf region.
On the night of the attack, Mughassil and another Hezbollah operative drove a tanker truck laden with 5,000 pounds of plastic explosives into the U.S. compound.
The explosion tore through an eight-story building that housed about 100 U.S. Air Force personnel.
The device was estimated to be larger than the one used in the bombing of the Alfred P. Murrah Federal Building in Oklahoma City in 1995.
James Bernazzani, who was chief of the FBI’s Hezbollah unit in 1996 and later the deputy director for law enforcement at the CIA’s Counterterrorism Center, said Mughassil was a rising star in Hezbollah with ties to Iran.
Bernazzani suspects that Mughassil would be able to provide details about Iranian involvement in the attack.
“He knows everything,” Bernazzani said.