Attack on the USS Cole

The Bin Laden connection

In January 2001, Usama Bin Laden celebrated the bombing of USS Cole with a poem he recited at his son's wedding:

A destroyer: even the brave fear its might.
It inspires horror in the harbour and in the open sea.
She sails into the waves
Flanked by arrogance, haughtiness and false power.
To her doom she moves slowly
A dinghy awaits her, riding the waves.

Despite a long investigation by American and Yemeni authorities there is still no conclusive proof that Bin Laden ordered the attack but there is a growing body of circumstantial evidence - particularly in the number of links to other incidents that Bin Laden is accused of orchestrating: the 1998 embassy bombing in east Africa, the foiled millennium plot and the September 11 attacks in the US.

1. MOHAMMED OMAR AL-HARAZI (aka "Abu al-Mohsin" and "Abu al-Hasan")

Jamal al-Badawi, regarded as the most senior of the Cole suspects who have been arrested, told investigators that he received telephone instructions for the bombing from Mohammed Omar al-Harazi in the United Arab Emirates. Badawi said he had originally met Harazi in Afghanistan during the war.

According to US officials, Harazi, who sometimes uses the names Abdul Rahman Hussein al-Nashari or al-Nassir, is a cousin of the suicide bomber who blew up the US embassy in Nairobi in 1998. He had been a regular visitor to Aden but disappeared four days before the attack on the USS Cole.

In October 2001, Abd al-Karim al-Iryani, who was prime minister of Yemen at the time of the Cole attack, told the Guardian that Harazi was also the organiser of a Bin Laden plot to blow up the US embassy in India, which was foiled last June. "In India, Harazi did exactly what he did in Aden - prepared everything, then left," he said.

2. ABD AL-MUHSIN AL-TAIFI

A Yemeni national with possibel Saudi connections, al-Taifi is believed to have been one of the two suicide bombers. He was wanted for questioning about the 1998 bombing of the American embassy in Nairobi.

3. RAED HIJAZI

The man in charge of training for the Cole attack, according to the US, was Raed Hijazi, a former Boston taxi driver, who is an American citizen of Palestinian origin. Jordanian security officials say he is a close associate of Mohammed Abu Zubayda, a member of Bin Laden's inner circle.

Hijazi was arrested in Syria at the end of 2000 and later transferred to Jordan where he had been sentenced to death in his absence for involvement in Bin Laden's alleged millennium plot, which included targets in Jordan and the US.

There is also evidence that the suicide attack in Aden was originally planned as part of the millennium plot. Suspects have told the investigators of earlier attempt to blow up an American destroyer, USS Sullivans, as it refuelled in Aden on 3 January, 2000. That attack was called off when the weight of explosives made the bombers' boat unseaworthy.

In October 2001, Jordanian security sources disclosed that they had foiled a very similar plan to assassinate King Abdullah and his family during a Mediterranean holiday in summer 2000. The plot, allegedly by an Islamic group linked to Bin Laden, was to launch a suicide attack against the royal family's yacht with an explosives-laden speedboat.

4. KHALID AL-MIDHAR

According to the FBI, Khalid al-Midhar, a hijacker aboard the plane that crashed into the Pentagon on September 11 had earlier been caught on a surveillance video in Malaysia meeting an unnamed man (Tawfiq Atash??) who is suspected of involvement in the Cole attack.

But that is not the whole story, according to Abd al-Karim al-Iryani, who was Yemen's prime minister at the time of the attack. "Khalid al-Midhar was one of the Cole perpetrators, involved in preparations," he said. "He was in Yemen at the time and stayed after the Cole bombing for a while, then he left."

There has been speculation in the American press that hijacker Midhar had a family or tribal connection with Abu al-Hassan al-Mihdar, the executed leader of the Islamic Army. It is unclear whether the Arabic spellings of Midhar/Mihdar are identical, and Yemeni sources doubt that there is any connection and say that Khalid al-Midhar was a Saudi national.

5. HASSAN SAID AWADH KHEMERI

A Yemeni national, alleged to have trained in Afghanistan at a camp run by Bin Laden, who is believed to have been the second suicide bomber. He had previously been arrested in 1999  in connection with a plot to kidnap Americans working at a Baptist hospital in Jiblah, but was later released. The group of 16 who were arrested also included a brother of Tawfiq Atash. The kidnap was apparently aimed at securing the release of Abu al-Hassan al-Mihdar, leader of the Islamic Army (New York Times, 8 Dec 2001).

6. THE "BIN LADEN" LETTER

A letter believed to have been written by Usama bin Laden was found in the house of Jamal al-Badawi, regarded as the most important of the arrested Cole suspects (New York Times, 8 December, 2001, citing Yemeni sources). The letter is believed to have been brought out of Afghanistan by Tawfiq Atash, a Saudi of Yemeni descent.

Tawfiq Atash, who was arrested in Yemen in 1996 on suspicion of having Bin Laden connections but later released, met Khalid al-Midhar, the Pentagon hijacker, in Malaysia in January 2000.

According to the New York Times, the letter, written in late 1997, is not addressed to anyone by name, but includes general instructions for an attack on American ships off the coast of Aden. Its existence and contents have not been confirmed by the FBI.

The 1997 date suggests that Bin Laden had been planning an attack before American warships began visiting Aden and before the US switched its refuelling from Djibouti to Aden. If true, this would suggest that the bombing of USS Cole was not motivated specifically by the American military presence in Yemen (see Yemen and the US).

A brother of Tawfiq Atash - Adulaziz Atash - was one of 16 people, including Hassan Khemeri, who were arrested and later released in connection with a plot to kidnap Americans in Yemen in 1999.