The creation of the AST

  • Published
  • By Dr. Deborah Kidwell
  • OSI Command Historian

Following Operation DESERT STORM in 1991, U.S. forces began Operation SOUTHERN WATCH to enforce United Nations sanctions imposed on Iraq. 

Some U.S. forces operated out of bases in Saudi Arabia. Specifically, members of the 4404th Fighter Wing (Provisional) lived at the Khobar Towers compound on King Abdul Aziz Air Base near Dhahran, Saudi Arabia, where personnel rotated on a regular basis. 

Increased terrorist activity in the country throughout 1990 resulted in additional security measures to protect U.S. forces, but the high-rise compound was located in a densely populated urban area, making security more difficult.

On the evening of June 25, 1996, sentries on the roof of the Khobar Towers compound saw two men park a tanker truck in an adjacent parking lot against a chain-link fence, 80 feet away from the building. The sentries recognized the possibility of a truck bomb and began knocking on doors to evacuate the building.

Four minutes later, the bomb went off.  It exploded with the power of over 20,000 pounds of TNT (the compound used in dynamite), completely obliterating the front of the nearest building, damaging five others and leaving a crater more than 85 feet deep. Nineteen U.S. servicemen were killed and several hundred were injured.

In the wake of the Khobar Towers bombing, the Office of Special Investigations (OSI) took steps to further its antiterrorism mission and capabilities in an ever-changing environment.  In March 1997, OSI leadership created the Antiterrorism Specialty Team (AST) to provide a fast, flexible, global response force protection capability consisting of antiterrorism, counterintelligence (CI) collections, and investigative services to support Air Force and DoD force protection operations.

This first team of 10 agents underwent a vigorous 18-week training cycle in specific preparation for the AST mission. They took advanced courses in CI force protection operations, protective service operations, surveillance detection, mission planning and bomb investigations.

The first test of the team’s rapid response capability came in September 1997, when four agents deployed to Cairo, Egypt, for BRIGHT STAR 97, a joint exercise in bare-base operations. Hard on the heels of this deployment came an overlapping participation in FOAL EAGLE at Osan Air Base, Republic of Korea. Both exercises affirmed the worth of the AST concept to address similar deployments.

Since then, AST members have played a key role in Operations ALLIED FORCE, ENDURING FREEDOM and IRAQI FREEDOM. They continue to deploy wherever needed today. Air Force commanders worldwide recognize their demanding training, deployment schedules, and efficiency of operations in European and Pacific theaters. 

Following the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, AST members immediately mobilized and deployed to Afghanistan to establish threat reporting to Air Force and other DoD forces entering Southwest Asia. The first female OSI agent to deploy in a combat zone was a member of the AST, and currently several AST and other OSI agents continue to provide CI support for any ongoing operations.  

Air Force and combatant commanders continue to recognize the importance of the AST concept to force protection. After the Khobar Towers incident, researchers found that a failure to adopt some of the recommended measures determined during a threat assessment, contributed to the loss of life. This conclusion underscored the importance of the organic threat assessment, antiterrorism, counterintelligence collections and investigative services embodied in the AST concept.

Today, OSI’s AST members continue to deploy to protect U.S. personnel and assets around the globe on extremely short notice.