Missing Link: How feuds and culture clashes have stymied the U.S.S. Cole investigation [Archives:2001/29/Reportage]

July 16 2001

The investigation was troubled from the start. On Oct. 13, within hours of the suicide blast that killed 17 American sailors on the U.S.S. Cole in Yemen, FBI agents assigned to the case touched down in the port city of Aden-and started to wait. For several hours the agents sat on their plane while the Yemenis searched through their luggage, itemizing every piece of high-tech equipment the gumshoes were bringing in. It was downhill from there. When they finally arrived at the Hotel Movenpick [Aden Hotel], where they would bunk three or four sweaty bodies to a room, they realized nobody had enough cash. They had taken off so fast few had got to the bank; and with the closest ATM 700 miles across the desert in Jeddah, Saudi Arabia, the FBI had to figure out how to fly in cash for living expenses.
Nine months later, the investigation into the attack in Yemen has ground to a halt. The bureau and the Yemenis have tried and failed to bridge the cultural chasm between them, haggling over investigative methods and security. The FBI and the U.S. State Department began a bitter feud over dealing with the Yemenis, leading to an open rupture between the agency’s chief investigator and the U.S. ambassador there. The upshot, U.S. officials say, is that the FBI still cannot prove what it believes: that the notorious Osama bin Laden and his al Qaeda terrorist network are behind the attack.
At the same time, mounting indications of bin Laden’s reach are coming to light. In a New York court earlier this month, a U.S. prosecutor suggested that Mokhtar Haouari, an Algerian citizen, was a bit player in a larger bin Laden plot. Not only were U.S. sites targeted to be bombed on Jan. 1, 2000, but there was a similar plot in Jordan and a planned attack against the U.S.S. The Sullivans while it was at port in Aden. “It is clear that the general guidance was given by al Qaeda network to pursue these three plots,” says a U.S. counterterrorism official.
But the FBI has not established proof of bin Laden’s involvement in the attack on the Cole, and it is unlikely to do so in the near future. On June 17, the last 13 FBI investigators in Yemen were pulled out because of a terrorist threat to U.S. forces. “They talked about it,” says a State Department official, “changed their minds three times, and finally, suddenly, they informed us, ‘We’ve got an airplane on the way to pick our guys up.'”
Leaving in a hurry was just the latest chapter in a dispute between the FBI and the State Department over how to keep the investigation on track, one that has grown from a tiff into a “monster turf battle,” according to an insider. State accuses the FBI of creating and deepening a rift with the Yemenis with clumsy demands for access. FBI officials counter that they want to make a case that will meet the rules of evidence of U.S. courts. “We are going to do it the same way we do it at home,” says a U.S. official. “We’re going to educate the host country.” There has also been a disagreement over other tactics. For as long as the FBI has been investigating overseas, it has wanted to carry “long guns” like rifles or submachine guns. State has blocked that, saying the bigger weapons are intimidating and heighten tensions, and therefore increase the likelihood of trouble. After heated debate, FBI agents were finally permitted to carry long guns hidden in their vehicles.
The situation became so bad that some weeks before the FBI finally pulled out, U.S. Ambassador Barbara Bodine refused to let the head of the FBI’s investigative team, John O’Neill, who matches her reputation for combativeness, back into Yemen. She continues to bar his entry. “O’Neill has been thrown out of better places than that,” an FBI agent says. “They hate each other,” says a U.S. official. “And that’s obviously worked to the detriment of the case.”
For a while there was some hope for progress. In the weeks before the FBI cleared out of Yemen, it got access to suspects the Yemenis had arrested earlier. “It looked as if we were going to get access to a group of people right before we pulled out,” says a State Department official. But the U.S. was not entirely pleased with the results. “There is some reason to believe the prisoners have been coached,” says a U.S. counterterrorism official. “We’ve still not received all the help we were assured,” he says. In the latest attempt to secure such help, William Burns, the Assistant Secretary of State for the Near East, will raise the issue during talks in Yemen this week.
Setting the guidelines for cooperation with the Yemeni government had been difficult enough. It took nearly a month after the attack for the U.S. and Yemen to sign a protocol, the contents of which remain classified, delineating how the investigation would be carried out and what responsibilities would be shared. Even as the FBI was tackling forensics, the Yemenis were making quick progress in their specialty-arrests. “They arrested everybody they could find with a beard,” says a Yemeni official. Now Yemeni sources have told TIME that the Yemeni Attorney General’s office could soon bring the suspects it has in custody to trial and put a unilateral and formal halt to what was once a joint Yemeni-FBI investigation. Likely convictions would quickly result in death for the suspects.
It would be a small catastrophe. For all their brusqueness, the Yemeni tactics did lead to the arrest of suspects with potential links to bin Laden. One was Jamal al-Badawi, who Yemeni officials believe is the bombing operation’s second in command. Al-Badawi allegedly told interrogators that some months before the attack, he spent time in a training camp in Afghanistan run by a well-known bin Laden associate. They also nabbed two document clerks in the government registry office in the town of Lahej who allegedly provided false documents for the conspiracy. Also in custody is a man who was allegedly assigned to videotape the bombing.
Al-Badawi’s reported confessions were apparently not the result of torture, say surprised State Department officials. His testimony revealed that the brains of the operation was still at large. U.S. and Yemeni officials say the ringleader was Mohammed Omar al-Harazi, an experienced terrorist of many disguises and aliases. U.S. intelligence officials reportedly believe al-Harazi is an explosives expert for al Qaeda and has inspired or directed several terrorist attacks on American targets over nearly a decade.
That seems to be enough for the Yemenis. “Osama bin Laden prepared, financed and perpetrated the Cole attack,” says Abd al-Karim al-Iryani, Yemen’s Prime Minister at the time of the attack and now a senior adviser to Yemeni President Ali Abdallah Salih. But that is not quite enough for the Americans. The FBI and other U.S. officials say they still don’t have the evidence to prove their case in a U.S. court, and that all goes back to not being able to conduct an American-style investigation. And even though the Yemenis have suspects, an FBI official says, “they don’t have everybody. There are people in the wind.”
In the beginning, the U.S.-Yemeni cultural chasm seemed comic. “Sometimes the Yemenis were completely baffled by our requests,” says a U.S. official. Such as the one for mud. Last autumn the FBI said it would pay the Yemenis $1 million for a bargeful of mud from beneath the explosion site. After some resistance and suspicion, the Yemenis smiled, pocketed the $1 million and let the dredging begin. The FBI shipped the mud off to Dubai, and agents sifted through it for forensic evidence-pieces of the boat and the two bombers that could provide important clues. Now there are no longer any American agents left in Aden. And the U.S. search for Osama bin Laden is still stuck in the mud.