The Curious Case of Hani al-Sayegh

Sending an accused terrorist to be tried in Saudi Arabia may get the United States off the hook with Iran.

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Run that one by again: The United States doesn't want to try a man suspected of a bomb attack that killed Americans — and they're sending him home?! Unless a federal court blocks his deportation, accused Saudi terrorist Hani al-Sayegh will be sent back to Riyadh Wednesday. The move comes after Sayegh, a Saudi dissident trained in Iran, stopped cooperating with an FBI probe into the 1996 attack on Khobar Towers in Dahran, Saudi Arabia, in which 19 U.S. military personnel were killed. Of course, going home could be more dangerous than staying in Washington. But the Justice Department says that the U.S. lacks sufficient evidence to charge Sayegh in an American court and that the Saudis plan to charge him as a participant the attack. "Clearly, there’s a lower standard of proof in Saudi courts," says TIME correspondent William Dowell. "It may be easier for Washington if the Saudis handle the trial — and the execution, which would likely follow — because then the Saudis would be the target of any retaliation."

Sending Sayegh — who was arrested in Canada after the bombing — back to Saudi Arabia could solve another touchy problem for Washington. At the time of the Dahran attack, President Clinton vowed that any country whose government was found to have been involved would face retaliation. "But," says TIME Middle East bureau chief Scott Macleod, "the attack occurred before the election of President Khatami, who has clearly demonstrated a commitment to end state terrorism and normalize Iran’s relations with the rest of the world. Given Washington’s desire to strengthen his reformist government against its hard-line opponents, the U.S. would be unlikely to take military action against Iran unless there were fresh acts of terrorism." Better that the unfettered and somewhat crude Saudi legal system handle the matter than risk upsetting a relatively docile Iran.