Dealing With Yemen, U.S. Should Remember the Cole: Ali H. Soufan

Oct. 12 (Bloomberg) -- Anwar al-Awlaki may be dead, but the two terrorists in Yemen most deserving of U.S. retribution remain alive and well.

They are Jamal al-Badawi and Fahd al-Quso, two al-Qaeda members who in 2000 confessed to U.S. investigators their roles in the bombing of the USS Cole, which occurred 11 years ago today. The attack on the U.S. Navy destroyer, at the Yemeni port city of Aden, left 17 sailors dead and almost 40 injured.

The two were convicted for their part in the Cole bombing by a Yemeni court in 2002, after the U.S. government decided not to press for extradition. Since then, they’ve gone through a cycle of repeatedly “escaping” from jail, being rearrested and, eventually, receiving clemency. Quso is today helping to coordinate al-Qaeda’s activities in the country.

Yemen is complex, and for 33 years President Ali Abdullah Saleh has maintained power by playing a balancing game that involves manipulating political factions, tribal alliances and, on many occasions, Islamic extremists. That helps explain why the Yemeni government has turned a blind eye to Badawi and Quso. But it doesn’t explain the U.S. government’s inaction.

Although both men have been indicted in federal court in New York and the Federal Bureau of Investigation has placed them on its Most Wanted Terrorists list (with a $5 million bounty on their heads), few U.S. officials have shown any real desire to apprehend them. The reason is that the Cole bombing is the case that many in Washington would rather forget.

When my partner, Special Agent Robert McFadden of the Naval Criminal Investigative Service, and I interrogated Quso in early 2001, besides confessing his role in the Cole bombing, he told us about a mission he undertook in January 2000 for a key Osama bin Laden aide named Walid bin Attash (who is generally known as Khallad). Quso said that, with another operative, he had transported $36,000 from Yemen to Bangkok and given it to Khallad.

Investigating that claim led us first to the Washington Hotel in Bangkok, where Quso had stayed, and then to a phone booth in Malaysia, which Khallad had used to contact Quso. We asked others in the U.S. intelligence community what they knew about the meetings and the travel a year earlier, and each time they said they didn’t have any information.

The day after the Sept. 11 attacks, we learned that wasn’t true: Other intelligence agencies were aware of Quso and Khallad’s movements in early 2000. Worse, it turned out that the meeting in Malaysia was al-Qaeda’s Sept. 11 planning summit. After Khallad received the $36,000 from Quso, two men he had traveled with from Malaysia to Bangkok, Khalid al-Mihdhar and Nawaf al-Hazmi, purchased first-class tickets to San Diego. On 9/11, they crashed American Airlines Flight 77 into the Pentagon.

In the period after the attacks, we also learned from detainees at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, that al-Qaeda terrorists viewed the U.S. as being weak for failing to respond to the Cole bombing, which in turn inspired them to initiate more attacks. Images of the Cole bombing played a major role in al-Qaeda propaganda tapes and recruitment efforts.

Why didn’t the U.S. respond? By Oct. 29, 2000, when the damaged ship was towed out of Aden harbor, we were aware that al-Qaeda was behind the attack. The outgoing Bill Clinton administration, however, was distracted by internal problems and didn’t act, and the incoming George W. Bush administration also ignored the case.

At one point during our investigations, a visiting official from Washington told us that the Bush White House didn’t want al-Qaeda blamed for the Cole attack because it didn’t want to be pressured into taking action against the group in Afghanistan. The deputy secretary of defense, Paul Wolfowitz, later told the 9/11 Commission that the Cole attack was “stale.” The families of the dead U.S. sailors were not permitted to meet with the president.

In the end, it doesn’t matter whether the U.S. failure to respond inspired al-Qaeda to bigger things. We owe it to the dead sailors and their families, and to future generations of American servicemen and women, to ensure that no American death goes unpunished.

I will never forget visiting the damaged Cole after I landed in Yemen, and seeing bodies draped in American flags lying on the blood-stained deck, while those still alive -- many with cuts and bruises -- fought to prevent the ship from sinking. It pains all of us involved in that investigation that two of the terrorists behind it are still free -- especially in a country that receives millions of dollars in aid.

(Ali H. Soufan, a former FBI supervisory special agent, was the case agent for the USS Cole investigation. He is the chief executive officer of the Soufan Group, an international strategic consulting group, and the author of “The Black Banners: The Inside Story of 9/11 and the War Against al-Qaeda.” The opinions expressed are his own.)

To contact the writer of this article: Ali H. Soufan at

To contact the editor responsible for this article: Tobin Harshaw at

    Before it's here, it's on the Bloomberg Terminal.