USS Cole case raises questions about Yemen security [Archives:2004/769/Front Page]

September 2 2004

By Peter Willems
Yemen Times Staff

A lawyer representing suspects believed to have been involved in the bombing of the USS Cole read a document in court last week that may expose Yemen's former Interior Minister of assisting the mastermind of the attack on the US destroyer.
The defense lawyer, Abdul Aziz Al-Samawi, read what is believed to be an official letter by Hussein Mohammed Arab, former Interior Minister, which told security authorities to give “safe passage to Sheikh Mohammed Omar Al-Harazi with three bodyguards without being searched or intercepted. All security forces are instructed to cooperate with him and facilitate his missions.”
The order was to be followed between April 2000 and the end of the year. The attack on USS Cole occurred on October 12, 2000.
Since the letter was presented in court, analysts have been wondering about its implications and if there are now questions about Yemen's security.
“This document confirms that there is a breach in the Yemeni security system,” said Mohammed Al-Sabri, a freelance columnist who focuses on Yemeni-US relations. “This system has been infiltrated for a long time by terrorist elements because of old relations.”
Other analysts are questioning the authenticity of the document. Abdullah Al-Faqih, Professor of Political Science at Sana'a University, has mapped out three different scenarios. One is that the coverage of the letter presented in court was a “media blast” which may have blown the incident out of proportion since documents giving clearance at that time may have been common with no bad intentions. Another scenario is that the letter is a false document. But the last scenario is that the letter is authentic, which implies that “someone in the system may have been involved and there may have been more that could have been associated with terrorist elements,” said Al-Faqih.
He added that it is important to see what the government will do about the document. “The answer is for the government to form a committee to investigate it,” said Al-Faqih.
When asked whether the letter was authentic, Al-Samawi told Yemen Times, “If this document was not authentic, we wouldn't have presented it to the court.”
Al-Samawi would not comment on how the defense team was able to obtain the letter, but the court accepted it as evidence.
Last Friday, an official at the Ministry of Interior told local newspaper 26 September that the letter read by Al-Samawi in court was “false and baseless” and that the letter was not issued by the Ministry of Interior or former Minister Arab. The official added that the ministry has asked the prosecution to investigate the new document presented in court, mentioning that forgery on official documents is a crime.
Former Interior Minister Arab was removed from his position in April 2001.
Yemen was once viewed as being tolerant to Muslim extremists. After the attacks in New York and Washington, D.C., on September 11, 2001, the government joined the United States to fight terrorism and has rounded up hundreds of terrorist suspects, including key Al-Qaeda members.
“The government has worked hard to eliminate terrorist elements in Yemen for the last three years,” said a Yemeni analyst. “If there were some sympathizers of radical groups in the government, they may have already dealt with them.”
The United States has had its eye on some prominent Yemeni figures. Last March, the US Treasury Department charged Sheikh Abdul Majid Al-Zindani of recruiting Al-Qaeda operatives and being involved in purchasing weapons for Al-Qaeda and other terrorist groups. Al-Zindani, founder of a conservative Islamic university in Yemen and Chairman of the Shura Council in the Islah (Reform) party, fought in Afghanistan against Soviet occupation in the eighties.
Yemeni officials said that no action has been taken against Al-Zindani because the government has not received evidence from the United States.
Al-Harazi is one of the aliases used by Abd Al-Rahim Al-Nashiri who is being held by the United States in an undisclosed location and is charged in absentia. Believed to be the mastermind of the attack and a close associate of Osama bin Laden, Al-Nashiri was arrested in the United Arab Emirates in 2002 and handed over to US officials. He is also believed to have been connected to the 1998 bombings of US embassies in Kenya and Tanzania.
The Yemeni government has asked the United States to extradite Al-Nashiri, but US officials have said that he will probably go to trial in the United States.
The USS Cole was attacked four years ago as it was refueling at the port of Aden. Two men approached the destroyer in a dinghy loaded with 500 pounds of explosives killing 17 US sailors and wounding 33 others when the explosives were detonated. Six suspects believed to have been involved in the attack have been on trial in Yemen since the beginning of July.
If they are convicted, the men on trial could face capital punishment. Analysts believe, however, that the death sentence is unlikely since the defendants are not accused of being the actual bombers.