Americans were attacked by Al Qaeda before we knew them by that name

This attack did not receive a great deal of media attention.

Office of the Program Manager - Saudi Arabia National Guard 13 November 1995

Source

What is OPM-SANG?

You have to go all the way back to 1945 to find the beginnings of the Office of the Program Manager – Saudi Arabia National Guard (OPM-SANG). President Franklin Delano Roosevelt was on his way home from the Yalta Conference where he negotiated the conclusion of World War II, when he sat down with the then Saudi King, Abdul Aziz al Saud, and conceived the idea of a joint venture for security matters in the kingdom.

In 1973 an agreement was signed by U.S. ambassador James Akins and Saudi Crown Prince Abdullah creating OPM-SANG to oversee the modernization program. The National Guard in the kingdom is a full time fighting force whose mission is both external and internal Saudi security and stability.

The August 2, 1990, Iraqi invasion of Kuwait ended the “oasis of calm in the turbulent Middle East” as Saudi Arabia was described by then secretary of defense William Perry. During the next two months threats against the royal family increased in direct proportion to the arrival of half a million American forces in preparation for Operation Desert Storm, the first Gulf War. Two SANG battalions along with OPM-SANG advisors provided the ground combat force that retook the Saudi city of Khafji after it was seized by the Iraqis in January of 1991.

On November 13, 1995, those threats became reality when a 220-pound bomb parked in a car next to the OPM-SANG headquarters office building exploded at 11:20 a.m. Five Americans and one Indian national were killed immediately and 23 Americans were injured. The Islamic Movement for Change claimed responsibility. This group later became better known as Al Qaeda.

Those who lost their lives were James H. Allen of Illinois, Alaric J. Brozovsky of Washington, William L. “Dub” Combs of Virginia, SFC David K. Warrell of North Carolina, MAJ (R) Wayne P. Wiley of Minnesota, and Termal B. Devadas of India. Bali Krishnan of India died shortly after the bombing. Tracy Henley of Alabama died of his injuries on November 13, 1998. Twenty-three American military members and civilian employees were awarded the Purple Heart for suffering injuries in the service of their country.

Four Saudi nationals of the Sunni sect of Islam were beheaded in May 1996 for the OPM-SANG bombing. Their confessions had been televised throughout the kingdom identifying them as veterans of Osama bin Laden’s terrorist training in Afghanistan.

The OPM-SANG bombing forced the departments of state and defense to realize the vulnerability of Americans outside the U.S. Resulting studies produced recommendations to increase the security of deployed forces, intelligence sharing, and interagency coordination.


Sources: CNN, Globalsecurity.org, Interpress Service, Michael Coe, Perry Force Protection, 1996; Perry Senate Testimony, 1996; Historical Dictionary of Terrorism

Inaugural Memorial Ceremony Redstone Arsenal 2014

Source

We didn't know their name then, but we would later.

“I thought it was an earthquake.”

“I thought it was a gas explosion.”

“I thought damn, the bastards got us.”

And they had. It was an act of terrorism on Americans by a group we would come to know as al Qaeda: the bombing of OPM-SANG Headquarters, Riyadh, Saudi Arabia, on November 13, 1995. Five Americans and one Indian lost their lives that day. Forty-two were injured and another Indian national later died. Three years later - to the day - a sixth American died of his injuries.

Most hardly remember.

Some will never forget.

It was a normal morning at the downtown office building, which was being refurbished. Contractors, laborers, and a variety of pickup trucks were busy coming and going around the property that had no fence and no guard on duty. All that changed at exactly 1120 hours.

The sound could have been a rocket-propelled grenade or an electrical transformer exploding. It wasn’t. It was a car bomb parked next to the building’s cafeteria. The perpetrators hoped to kill as many Americans as possible during their lunch hour.

Several employees escaped serious injury by only a split second. One of them bent down to pick up a pencil on the floor when a large metal window frame blew over him and embedded into the wall. Another had just risen from her chair and stepped over to a file cabinet when the explosion blew an air conditioning unit out of the wall. It landed in the chair she’d just vacated. Lana Breeze, a civilian employee, was headed to the cafeteria. She was stopped by her boss’s call to come into his office for a conference. The blast left her wounded in the leg, arm and mouth, but she said, “My destiny may have been quite different.” It wasn’t until her husband received a call from OPM that he even knew there had been a bombing. He worked on the other side of the city near the international airport.

Others were not so lucky. LTC John Collins followed orders to exit the damaged building and found his friend, LTC Larry Allen, on the floor outside the travel office, bleeding from his leg. Allen insisted he was fine, but Collins helped him out of the building anyway. A Saudi driving by in a truck stopped and offered to help. The two officers climbed in the back seat with Collins keeping pressure on Allen’s leg. At the hospital more of Allen’s injuries were discovered. To this day he credits Collins with keeping him from bleeding to death. He also knows, if he hadn’t been delayed going to lunch that fateful day, he would have been seated right next to his comrades-in-arms who were killed.

Sheri Claycamp and a fellow employee were the first two people to exit the building after the explosion. Over the next two weeks she stayed at the hospital sitting with the injured because her boss told her that was the place for her to be.

Some experiences cannot be explained logically. A civilian employee had just set his tray down on a table in the lunchroom and stepped around someone standing behind him. At that moment the bomb went off. When everyone in that room was accounted for, there was no one who could have been standing behind him. The man’s eardrums were ruptured from the blast, but everyone else on that side of the room died.

A secretary had just picked up a cup of coffee and was between the counter and the doorway, a space of no more than one foot. Had she been on either side of the wall when the bomb went off, she surely would have been seriously hurt. But she was uninjured.

A former emergency room nurse was one of the OPM employees. Though injured herself, her training kicked in. She helped set up a system of triage on the sidewalk outside the building, getting the most severe casualties into vehicles as quickly as possible. Many head scarfs (ghutras) of Saudi men on the street were used as bandages and tourniquets.

Word of the bombing quickly reached the main housing compound, which was only a few blocks away from the office building. Wives who didn’t yet know the condition of their own husbands went door-to-door through the neighborhood collecting bandages to be run over to the bombing site. Many of these women would spend the next weeks cooking meals for those working 14-hour shifts to keep the mission of OPM ongoing.

Those who were not at the office building did not escape the trauma of the explosion. Many OPM wives were teachers at the international school that American children attended. They were called to the office and told about the bombing, the impact of which many of them had felt. But they were given no specifics about the location of the explosion, the extent of injuries, or even who was hurt. (This was an era before cell phones, which today is hard to imagine.)

The teachers were told to round up the OPM students to be bused back to their compounds. They were also instructed not to tell them what had happened. The older students had heard hushed voices and whispers around the school, but many thought “Saddam was being crazy again.” Like Army Brats everywhere, they took the situation in stride, singing to the younger students on the ride home to keep them calm. The efforts to keep the children calm were undone when the bus arrived on the main compound, and a blood-covered, bandaged soldier came on to the bus calling for his children. “To say that the kids were scared out of their wits is an understatement,” according to an unnamed teacher.

Later in the day, one teacher got a phone call from her mother in the states assuring her not to worry. “CNN said it wasn’t one of your compounds that got bombed.” She couldn’t convince her mother that CNN got it wrong.

A student described “a tension and sadness surrounding everything and everyone” in the weeks that followed. “I remember a classmate saying not as many people were killed as in the Oklahoma City bombing, so it shouldn’t get more coverage in the news.” He also said over the years the hardest part for him has been the trend to consider all Muslims and Arabs as “bad people.”

Even those who didn’t feel the explosion could see the large, mushroom-shaped cloud of smoke coming from Olaya Thalateen Street. Susan Sholi and a friend were on their way to pick up their children from the preschool on the main OPM housing compound. She didn’t feel the impact, but she saw the cloud thinking it was a fire at a gas station. As her driver approached the area she saw “chaos.” With cars driving frantically in every direction, even over the median, her car was hit from behind. She and her friend ran through the streets taking turns carrying Sholi’s 2-year-old son. People were shouting to her in Arabic. “We couldn’t understand what they were saying, but I now believe they were trying to warn us,” Sholi said. When she arrived at the gate, a soldier was removing the American flag that always flew there. He had blood on his face.

LTC Allen was called to testify before the State Department’s Accountability Review Board in June 1996. “In my opinion, we made assumptions about the terror threat in Saudi Arabia that turned out to be very wrong.” With the experience of a Military Police officer, he said, “We took risks of exposure that today would be seen as very irresponsible. But in 1995, our leaders ignored even basic internal security precautions in part because we did not want to offend our Saudi hosts.”

After the bombing, the changes for OPM members and their families were dramatic. As OPM travel clerk Kelli Harrison stated, “I know evil now.” Several parents reported their children were afraid to go to sleep at night for weeks. The safety of the American children at the international school and the security of the U.S. housing compounds became a huge undertaking. OPM offices were re-opened inside the increased safety of one of the residential communities. A few years later the organization was moved outside the city to a large U.S. Air Force compound.

LTC Collins had an interesting conversation with his Saudi counterpart as a result of these efforts. The Saudi general insisted there was nothing further to be worried about by Americans. He said, “This act had to be done by a foreigner. No Muslim would have done this because the American advisors were under the protection of the Quran.”

COL William Huff, deputy program manager in 1995-1999, had the same experience with the Saudis. “Our bombing and the follow-on bombing at Al-Khobar, Daharan, in June 1996 didn’t seem to fully resonate with the Saudi National Guard, the Saudi government, or the Saudi Security Forces. They seemed convinced it would never happen again, and of course, it did.”

Huff described a “seething caldron of discontent” only recognized after the bombing. Because young Saudi expectations were not being met, there were huge problems in the Kingdom that would continue to manifest in attacks. “Saudis liked western things, but they didn’t want to be westernized.”

Where are they now?

Many of the OPM-SANG military members from two decades ago still serve today, just without the uniform. They support the current generation of soldiers as government employees and contractors, often doing the same tasks they did when they were on active duty. Some survivors, both former military and civilian, work tirelessly volunteering their time and energy to draw attention to the many wounded warriors these recent years of war have produced. Many of them have children who now wear the uniform.

On November 13, 2015, a wreath will be placed at the OPM-SANG Bombing Memorial located in the U.S. Army Security Assistance Command headquarters at Redstone Arsenal in Alabama. The memorial was established in 2014 to honor those who lost their lives or were injured on November 13, 1995.

The work of OPM-SANG continues, though only adults are allowed to be part of the mission still ongoing in Saudi Arabia.

More by this Author


Comments 22 comments

Jodah profile image

Jodah 13 months ago from Queensland Australia

Kathleen, this was a very comprehensive article on the bombing of OPM-SANG Headquarters, Riyadh, Saudi Arabia and subsequent events. I vaguely remember the event but knew none of the details. Thanks for sharing.


Kathleen Cochran profile image

Kathleen Cochran 13 months ago from Atlanta, Georgia Author

Thanks, Jodah. This is actually a freelance article I've been sending out to the nation's newspapers trying to get them to cover the upcoming anniversary. Five Americans died. You'd think they would be interested.

I was asked to do this by many friends of ours who where at the HQ when the attack happened. My family was part of this organization 1990-1994, so we knew the people who died and were injured in 1995.


Jodah profile image

Jodah 13 months ago from Queensland Australia

Well I hope some of the newspapers publish it.


Kathleen Cochran profile image

Kathleen Cochran 13 months ago from Atlanta, Georgia Author

Thanks. I feel a great deal of responsibility to those Americans who lost their lives - 5 of them who very few seem to know about - and those who survived.


BlossomSB profile image

BlossomSB 13 months ago from Victoria, Australia

I hope some of the newspapers publish it, too. People need to know about it. You have written it well and such an event needs to be remembered.


Kathleen Cochran profile image

Kathleen Cochran 13 months ago from Atlanta, Georgia Author

BlossomSB: On behalf of the two personal friends we lost - thank you.


Annette Hollowell 13 months ago

I was one of those older children on the school bus singing songs until we reached the perimeters of Oasis compound. My father was late for lunch that day and evaded harm, although his secretary was injured and later required 42 stitches. My mother was reading on our front porch when the blast knocked her out of her chair and split our front door. She took off running to the office building to find my father, he was at the hospital with his secretary. My mother didn't know for hours whether he was alive or dead, so instead of focusing on that she helped the wounded, grabbing ghutras from the men and making bandages. I remember being "home-schooled" on the compound for weeks afterwards. I remember the routine bomb threats we received after that point, and eventually the threats against the international school (SAIS-R). At that point they began to ship us home, most of us with only a few weeks notice. I can't believe its been 20 years, this bombing and our experience in Riyadh shaped my childhood in inexplicable ways. Thank you for your thorough treatment of this story.


Larry Allen 13 months ago

Thanks for telling our story!


Carl Giardino 13 months ago

Our thoughts are with the families who suffered on that sad day. Having worked in KSA since 1984 and continue to live in Riyadh, even though the actual OPM building in Riyadh is gone, when I drive by the location, it brings back the memory like it was yesterday. I had many friends who worked for OPM and many of us played softball together. That day changed the Kingdom forever for all of us and I commend all the OPM folks who continue to perform their duties over here today. Thank you.


Kathleen Cochran profile image

Kathleen Cochran 13 months ago from Atlanta, Georgia Author

Annette, Larry, and Carl: Thank you for commenting on this site. I hope my followers read what you have written, then read this article with a different outlook. It is your story. I've just tried to tell it. Thank you.


Maha Witherington 13 months ago

The article says it all - 20 years passed and it's still fresh in our minds - never forgotten - Annette is a lovely person, I consider her one of my own kids - she was a friend and a schoolmate of my daughter - followed her over the years as she turned to be a lovely young lady - we lived the entire trauma from day one - we still mourn those who left us and continue to pray for their families - on that sad day, my husband Phillip was in the building, he was in a meeting at the OPM-SANG office building the morning of 11/13/1995 with the contracting folks in their office, Tracey Henely and Dub Combs and others - they were talking about the building office renovation - Phillip has just finished the renovation of 2 floors in the building a week prior - o/a 1100 the meeting ended and Phillip got in his car and headed out to one of our OPM-SANG compounds which was a few minutes away from the office building - 15 minutes later, he heard of the bombing - he could not believe it - he then got a call confirming the bombing - he was with two of his employees - he took them both back to Oasis compound and drove to the disaster site - he could not believe that this was the same building he left less than 20 minutes ago - as the Chief of Facilities and Housing for OPM-SANG - he grabbed his foreman and began draining the water tanks to avoid the building from completely collapsing - there were 2 huge ones on top of the building - in addition, due to power loss, and the OPM-SANG switch board located in the bombed building and provides communication to all of our other compounds will completely use power after the generator runs out - they ran to the street and pulled a power line, connected it to the building so we can stay connected with families and loved ones - he went in room by room checking on people and helped picking up others in need - what this man saw was so emotional ans shocking - the hardest was picking up remains of the folks he met with in the morning - sad sad sad - I can write pages and pages of what happened and what we had to deal with - the after math and the trauma kids, adults and workers went through - I will never forget the operation center on Oasis once we started arriving as they were counting heads - my three kids were scattered in 3 different schools, one in SAIS-R, one in boarding school in Bahrain and one in the OPM-SANG daycare - did not know the fate of my husband, neighbors and others from the OPM-SANG family for the next few hours - very hard moments cannot be written or expressed in words - a day never forgotten - a day that changed our lives - a day which over the years continued to make us stronger and strive to assist OPM-SANG during it's hardest times - only those who went through it will understand what I'm saying - serving is an honor and with an organization who gave us so much - and for those who lost their lives - the mission continues - OPM-SANG was our family and home away from families and home - it gave us so much and we had to pay it back by standing strong - one hand, one team and one family - God bless ALL


Kathleen Cochran profile image

Kathleen Cochran 13 months ago from Atlanta, Georgia Author

Maha: What you've written is so full. Nobody else can tell your story. I felt this way about so many of the accounts I got back. I wish I could have used every single word.


Susan Sholi 13 months ago

Thank you so much for taking the time to sit down and write this article about what we all went through that fateful day and the effects that it had on all of us. Each in a different but very profound way. Maha: I was so proud to work for Phil as his branch secretary following the bombings and in the push to move forward on Eskan. He is truly a good man.


Kathleen Cochran profile image

Kathleen Cochran 13 months ago from Atlanta, Georgia Author

Susan: This was sooo worth doing just to hear comments between the OPM-SANG family like these. To the 2,000+ folks who have viewed this hub so far (10 Nov 15) please excuse some of our personal comments. Once an Army family - always an Army family. Some of you will understand.


RTalloni profile image

RTalloni 12 months ago from the short journey

This post helps explain the realities to people and it is important for first-hand accounts to be shared without media filters. To not learn everything possible from the event, including individual experiences within it, is to lose opportunity. No need to excuse the personal comments for they are important to the memory.


Kathleen Cochran profile image

Kathleen Cochran 12 months ago from Atlanta, Georgia Author

RTalloni: Thank you for your understanding and encouragement. You make some excellent points. Hope others will take them to heart.


Jim Combs 12 months ago

Thank you for your article....


Kathleen Cochran profile image

Kathleen Cochran 12 months ago from Atlanta, Georgia Author

Jim: Thank you for your family's sacrifice. We will never forget Dub.

Please give Don and my best wishes to Georgette.


Erica Tatum 12 months ago

Thank you, Kathleen. Our family left OMP-SANG 5 months prior and while we have heard personal accountings from that horrible day I learned more through your well written article. I have also shared it with my children who were only 4 and 3 when we left the KSA.


Kathleen Cochran profile image

Kathleen Cochran 12 months ago from Atlanta, Georgia Author

Salamu alaykum, Erica. And welcome to HubPages. We attended a memorial for the bombing on Nov. 13, and everyone there said they learned something new from the speakers. One thing I learned and wished I could have included in the article concerned the King's sister. She lived in the compound across the street from the OPM-SANG housing compound. After the bombing she sent food to the families for weeks - anonymously. I thought that was amazing. Thanks for your comments!


Mommy Needs a Nap profile image

Mommy Needs a Nap 11 months ago from Arkansas

This is a great article. I had no idea this happened. I'm a home school mom. I'll be sharing this article with my two oldest tomorrow and sharing it with fellow home school mom's so their children can read it. Thank you for taking the time to share this story. All Americans need to know about this and remember what happened.


Kathleen Cochran profile image

Kathleen Cochran 11 months ago from Atlanta, Georgia Author

Mommy: My greatest satisfaction from writing this article came from American students in Saudi at the time of the bombing. There is a Facebook page for the American school in Riyadh. Someone posted this article and it generated a great many comments by students who shared their memories of the attack. Hope your students learn something of value from it. If there is any interest in learning more about living in the kingdom, I also have a book on amazon about Desert Storm. Thanks!

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