USS Cole verdict

by Brian Whitaker

Originally published in Middle East International,8 October 2004

Almost four years after suicide bombers blew up the USS Cole in Aden harbour killing 17 American sailors, a Yemeni court has sentenced two men to death and jailed four others for their role in the attack.

Only one of the two facing execution, 35-year-old Jamal al-Badawi, is in Yemeni custody. The other, Abd al-Rahim al-Nashiri (also known as Mohammed Omer al-Harazi), was tried in his absence because he is held by the US at an undisclosed location.

Saudi-born Nashiri - regarded as the mastermind of the attack - left Yemen a few days before the blast but was captured in the United Arab Emirates two years later. He is the cousin of a suicide bomber who blew up the American embassy in Nairobi in 1998, according to the US.

Badawi, who shouted "This is an American verdict" as sentence was passed, is said to have received instructions for the bombing from Nashiri.

Fahd al-Qusaa, who trained in al-Qaeda camps in Afghanistan, was sentenced to 10 years. He allegedly bought the inflatable dinghy used in the attack as well as a video camera. Judge Najib al-Qadiri said Mr Qusaa was supposed to have filmed the bombing but failed to do so because he overslept.

Another Yemeni, Maamoun Msouwah, was sentenced to eight years and two former officials at Yemen's interior ministry, Ali Mohamed Saleh and Murad al-Sorouri, received five years each for forging identity papers.

The trial had long been delayed, mainly at the behest of the United States, but a further hold-up came last year when Badawi and Qusaa escaped from jail along with other suspected militants. They were recaptured in March.

Yemeni officials have been eager to close the file on the USS Cole affair without too much public scrutiny, but it may rumble on for a while yet. The defendants are expected to appeal, with the Yemeni press hinting that "new individuals" could be named in the process. It also remains to be seen whether the US will hand Nashiri over for execution or eventually put him on trial under American jurisdiction.

Another file that may or may not be closed is that of the northern rebellion led by the Zaidi cleric, Hussein al-Houthi, which officially ended on September 10 when the army announced that Houthi had been killed.

Houthi and his supporters had held out for almost three months against the full might of the Yemeni military - an illustration of the difficulty that the government has in imposing its will on remoter parts of the country.

As many as 400 people may have died in the extroardinarily destructive conflict which many Yemenis would have preferred to see resolved by negotiation.

The government insists that Houthi's anti-American agitation was part of a sinister plot with foreign backing. The army newspaper, "26 September", reported that documents had been found showing that he received support from unnamed "regional players", via Arab intelligence agencies, religious sects, or charities.

"The information elicited by Yemeni investigators shows that those sides aimed, through supporting Houthi, to spread havoc and instability in Yemen," the paper said, quoting interior ministry sources.

Despite government claims of victory, however, the Yemen Times said confrontations with the military were continuing, led by Houthi's successor, Sheikh Abdullah al-Ruzami, and that about 14 young suicide bombers had attacked the troops.