Few of the 14 people charged in the Khobar Towers bombing this week are likely to face trial in the United States, largely because Saudi Arabia will continue to refuse to turn over suspects it has in custody, terrorism and national security experts predicted yesterday.
The 1996 bombing in Dhahran, Saudi Arabia, which killed 19 American airmen and wounded hundreds more, is so entangled in Middle East politics that the possibility of actual American trials, such as the ones in New York for the bombings of U.S. embassies in Kenya and Tanzania, appears slim, experts in international terrorism said.
That assessment contradicts the vows of Attorney General John D. Ashcroft and departing FBI Director Louis J. Freeh, who said Thursday that the United States would work to bring those named in the indictments to trial while continuing to pursue other suspects in Iran and elsewhere.
"I'm very confident that they will be brought to justice and hopefully in the United States, some of them at some point," Freeh said. "Some day, someplace, somewhere, there may be a knock on their window -- or maybe not a knock -- and some FBI agent, perhaps with a foreign partner, is going to take them into custody."
As many as nine of the suspects are in the custody of the Saudi police, according to evidence gathered by human rights groups. The 13 named defendants are all Saudis, and one identified as "John Doe" is a Lebanese man accused of helping to convert a tanker truck into a rolling bomb.
In reaction to Thursday's indictments, Saudi defense minister Prince Sultan angrily accused the United States yesterday of meddling in his country's internal affairs.
Robert M. Blitzer, a former FBI counterterrorism official, said "that [reaction] doesn't bode well for us getting the guys who are in Saudi custody back here for trial. The chances of that are not high."
U.S. officials have long complained about a lack of cooperation in the case from Saudi authorities, who rounded up dozens of suspects in the weeks after the bombing five years ago but refused initial American requests to witness interrogations or view evidence.
The relationship improved enough to lead to Thursday's indictments, officials said. But analysts said the Saudi government stands opposed to extraditing any suspects, largely because it fears angering Iran.
The 46-count indictment handed up by a federal grand jury in U.S. District Court in Alexandria on Thursday alleges the militants were "inspired, supported and directed" by government officials in Iran.
The United States is also seeking to improve relations with Iran and its reform-minded president, Mohammed Khatami, who was elected to a second term earlier this month.
"If the Saudis give these people to us, they're going to obviously be afraid that the FBI will develop stronger evidence that the Iranians were involved," said Kenneth Katzman, a Middle East analyst at the Congressional Research Service. "That would just completely throw them off track with Iran. . . . The foreign policy drove how this thing was going to come out."
Blitzer said the indictments are a good way for the United States to preserve the option of prosecuting suspects in the case. But while those who remain at large may be intercepted in other countries, he said, the defendants already in Saudi custody are more likely to face trial there than in the United States.
"It may be that they're going to get justice in Saudi Arabia for what they did," Blitzer said. "It could be anything from extremely lengthy prison terms to capital punishment. . . . That may be the best you can do in cases like this."
But Ruth Wedgwood, a professor of international law at Yale University, said that Saudi officials could eventually come to a different conclusion, preferring to hand over the politically troublesome case to the United States rather than face the wrath of domestic extremists.
"Holding them indefinitely or trying them would be proof perfect to a lot of people that they were tools of the 'Great Satan' " Wedgwood said in a reference to the United States. "If I was Saudi Arabia, I would get rid of them. . . . It might make some sense politically."
Despite the lack of an extradition treaty between the United States and Saudi Arabia, suspects can be retrieved through "rendition." Victoria Toensing, a Washington lawyer and former deputy assistant attorney general, said U.S. prosecutors armed with arrest warrants are free to bring suspects back without formal extradition proceedings.
Staff writer Vernon Loeb contributed to this report.
© 2001 The Washington Post Company