Al Qaeda Attacked Americans 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
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 Michigan, 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
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.