Attack on the USS Cole

The investigation

IN THE EARLY stages of the investigation, the Yemeni authorities rounded up some 60 people for questioning. Most of those detained were associated with the Jihad organisation, and this seems to have been mainly a trawl for information.

However, on October 16, the police found bomb-making equipment at a flat in Aden which was rented by two men who had been missing since the attack on the USS Cole [Associated Press, 18 October].

The landlord said he had rented the flat for a month to at least one non-Yemeni Arab with a Gulf accent. One tenant had given the landlord forged identification. In a yard near the flat the tenants had parked a fibreglass boat which was now missing [al-Ayyam, 17 October].

According to President Salih [al-Jazeera television, 17 October], a 12-year-old Yemeni boy told the authorities that a man with spectacles and a beard gave him money to watch his car near the port on the day of the bombing. The man then went to the sea in a rubber boat he had carried on top of the car, and did not return. Police had then traced the man back to the flat. Yemeni officials said the missing men had arrived in Yemen four days before the attack.

(The type of boat used for the attack is unclear. Initial reports spoke only of an inflatable, though a fibreglass boat has been mentioned several times during the investigation.)

On October 19, Yemeni security officials disclosed that documents which they believed originated in Hadhramaut had been found at the flat. A vehicle believed to have been used by the attackers also contained documents from Hadhramaut. Investigators were sent to Hadhramaut and to Saudi Arabia. The owner of a welding shop, who had done welding for the suspects, was also questioned [Associated Press].

On October 23, investigators said they had had found several names on fake identity cards and on documents in homes and cars. One of these was Abdullah Ahmed Khaled al-Musawah, apparently a resident of Lahej province, though it was doubtful if that was the man’s real name.

The address on "Musawah's" card turned out to be bogus, and the director of the civil registration office in Lahij, which had issued several of the cards that were found, was detained for questioning, along with a number of his clerks [ABC News]. A later report [AP, 6 November] said that some of the officials in Lahij were Jihad supporters and had provided the suspected bombers with government cars for use inside Aden and between Aden and Lahij.

Meanwhile, several more houses around Aden were searched. At one, the suspects had built a corrugated wall to block the view of neighbours, who had been complaining about constant work on the boat. On the day of the bombing, neighbours saw the boat leaving the house, towed by a Nissan four-wheel drive truck.

Between November 4 and November 6, a further four men living in Aden were arrested. They were said to have been tracked down through phone records, which showed that the suspected bombers had been in contact with them [AP, 6 November].

On November 6, Associated Press reported that the two main suspects took their boat for a test ride in Aden harbour a month before the bombing. A fisherman who helped them take the boat down into the water was being treated as an accomplice.

By November 7, investigators were still holding 46 people, mostly Yemenis. They included five officials from Lahij and Sayoun (Hadhramaut province) who were thought to have had some contact with the bombers during March. Four of those detained in Aden had been traced by phone records. Nobody had been formally charged. According to a Yemeni official, the authorities were still seeking four or five suspects who had been identified by witnesses and other suspects as being linked to the blast. [Reuters and CNN, 7 November]

Based on descriptions given by fishermen, landlords and the 12-year-old boy, Yemeni artists produced sketches of the two suspected bombers. Associated Press said these would be sent to Egypt and Saudi Arabia to be checked against photographs of Arab veterans of the Afghan war. The suspects were said to be well built; one had a beard and wore glasses.

The authorities had also identified four houses in Aden which were believed to have been used by the suspected bombers [Reuters, 7 November]. On November 10, the Yemen Observer reported that the bombers had rented a house in Hedjuff (between the Tawahi and Ma’alla districts of Aden) which they had used for planting explosives in the boat. It was not clear if this house was a new discovery or one of the four mentioned earlier.

A search of the sea bed in the area of the bombing was completed on November 10. The debris recovered was sent to the US for analysis, along with a car believed to have been used by the bombers.

On November 11, "Yemeni sources close to the investigation" told Associated Press that more than one of the suspects being questioned - supporters of Jihad and other Islamist groups - had admitted involvement in previous failed attempts to attack American interests in Yemen.

There were believed to have been at least three previous attempts:

  • In the first week of November, 1999, they had planned to attack a convoy of US military personnel heading to Yemen's National Center for the Removal of Land Mines. This was foiled when Yemeni security forces discovered explosives about a mile from the hotel where the Americans were staying. Suspects questioned in connection with the Cole bombing were said to have known details of the route taken by the Americans to and from the centre.

  • A second attempt allegedly targeted the Royal Hotel in Aden, where most of the 30 American servicemen were staying. (No details of this have been given.)

  • A third attack, on 3 January, 2000, was intended to blow up the American destroyer, USS Sullivans, as it refuelled in Aden. This was called off when the weight of explosives made the bombers’ boat unseaworthy.

One of the suspects being questioned told investigators that the attack on USS Cole was masterminded by an Arab man - a veteran of the Afghan war - who telephoned the bombers from the United Arab Emirates, and provided their instructions and finances.

The suspect said he had bought the boat used for the attack in the UAE. He had also bought a video camera to record the attack, but became nervous and left Aden on October 11 - the day before the bombing. The suspect further claimed that the group worked in small cells of two or three people, and many of those involved did not know each other [AP, 12 November].

In contrast to this, Asharq Al-Awsat quoted Rifai Ahmed Taha, a former leader of the Egyptian al-Gamma’at al-Islamiyya, as saying that the boat used in the attack was locally made and powered by an engine cannibalised from a farm tractor. The entire operation, he said, had cost between $5,000 and $10,000.

By mid-November, Yemeni investigators were confident that they had identified one of the two suicide bombers. He was named as Abd al-Muhsin al-Taifi, a Yemeni national, possibly with Saudi connections, who was wanted for questioning about the 1998 bombing of the American embassy in Nairobi (Washington Post, 17 November; Yemen Times, 20 November).

Shortly afterwards, the police sent files on six suspected accomplices to Yemen’s public prosecutor, with a view to trial early in January 2001. The prosecutor - probably as a result of American pressure (see below) - promptly returned them to the police for further investigation (Yemen Times, 11 December). 

Reports suggested that only two or three of the six would be tried and that the others (officials who helped to provide false identity documents) would give evidence as witnesses. Four more suspects - who may have fled the country - were still being sought. On December 11, the Yemen Times noted that a total of about 35 people were still being held in by the Political Security department connection with the investigation.

One man still being sought was named as Mohammed Omar Al-Harazi, from Haraz (east of Sana'a). Harazi is regarded as the main mastermind and financier of the bombers. According to the Yemen Times (11 December), he was living in the UAE and used to visit Aden, although he disappeared four days before the bombing.

The investigation took a further twist in December with reports that the US wanted to extradite Raed Hijazi, a former Boston taxi driver, for trial in connection with the Cole bombing. Hijazi, an American citizen of Palestinian origin, had been handed over from Syria to Jordan, where he had been sentenced to death in his absence (WCVB, AP, 6 December). On December 9, Yemeni investigators flew to Jordan to make further inquiries.

AT FIRST, Yemen’s efforts to track down the Cole bombers won praise from the US. President Ali Abdullah Salih, recognising the potential for damage to relations, appeared quickly in Aden, visiting the injured in hospital. A couple of days later, the government-run newspaper, al-Thawra, showed the president chairing a security committee and interviewing officials in his shirt-sleeves.

However, collaboration between the Yemeni and American rapidly became problematic. FBI detectives were not allowed to take part in Yemeni interrogations, though they were given transcripts (sometimes badly translated) and allowed to suggest further questions. The Americans were seeking to attend the interrogations, even if they did not take part in them.

Yemen, while recognising that it must co-operate to some extent for the sake of its relations with the US, insisted on maintaining its independence and sovereignty in a case which had occurred within its own jurisdiction.

These disputes resulted in a phone call from President Bill Clinton to President Salih. On November 6, State Department spokesman Richard Boucher said: "We got good cooperation during the first phase. ... We're in discussions with them [the Yemenis] on the modalities of how we will cooperate further in the future ... We do need more cooperation, further cooperation in the next phases of the investigation, and ... those discussions continue".

Yemen reportedly offered to provide the US with all its information from the inquiry if the US reciprocates - which the Americans refused to do.

By early November, the American investigators had now left their hotel in Aden, following a bomb threat, and were based offshore. This meant they had to travel to Aden by helicopter, and there were reports that one helicopter flight was refused permission to land - apparently for bureaucratic reasons.

The Yemenis meanwhile handed over a video from a surveillance camera in the port area, but the recording seems to have started after the attack, and the Americans said it had been edited. They also supplied a video from another camera, which turned out to have been pointing in the wrong direction.

These difficulties appeared to be resolved by the end of November, when both sides signed an agreement on procedure (New York Times, Reuters, 29 November). A State Department official said the deal met "the need of both sides in terms of being able to conduct their investigations in a manner that is consistent with their legal principles." This allowed FBI investigators to attend interviews with witnesses and suspects, and to submit written questions. The FBI was also been given access to documents and allowed to take physical evidence for analysis.

However, the Americans still had concerns about Yemeni plans to put the suspects on trial early in January. The US urged less haste, on the grounds that more time was needed to complete investigations and prepare for a fair and credible trial. 

It also urged the Yemenis to ensure that the defendants would have no grounds to complain about procedural irregularities, torture, or anything else what might damage the trial’s credibility. One reason why the Americans insisted on attending interrogations was to enable FBI officers to give evidence, if necessary, that statements had not been extracted through torture.

In 1999, the trial of 10 young men from Britain who were accused of plotting to cause explosions in Aden was marred by allegations from some of the defendants that they had been tortured and sexually abused.

The Americans also indicated that they wanted as much evidence as possible to be handled in a way which made it admissible in US courts, as well as those in Yemen. (This may indicate that the Americans are contemplating bringing further charges against the suspects in the US, or that they believe some of the evidence might be useful in other terrorism cases in the future.)

However, President Ali Abdullah Salih made clear that he would not allow the extradition of Yemeni suspects for trial in the United States, on the grounds that this is forbidden by the constitution (Washington Post, 10 December).

In an incident which may or may not be connected with the Cole explosion, Yemen  dismissed its naval chief, Brigadier Ahmed Abdulla al-Hassani, shortly after an inspection of the Hodeidah base by President Salih. One news agency report (AP, 2 December) said Hassani had absented himself from duty for two months before the Cole explosion, complaining of endemic corruption at the Defence Ministry. He returned to work after the bombing but persisted in accusing the ministry of indifference towards the country’s small navy.

The Yemen Times, on the other hand, said political observers viewed his sacking optimistically, because the Cole incident had "disclosed the state of indifference and sense of irresponsibility of Yemeni military officers". Immediately after the bombing, al-Hassani had ruled out terrorism and suggested the explosion might have been the result of a technical failure on the warship, the paper said.