The Cole Bombing Legacy

In al Qaeda, Other Terrorist Events on October 12, 2010 at 12:40 pm

Ali Soufan writes another op-ed for NYTimes, this time about the legacy of the Cole bombing:

TEN years ago, Qaeda terrorists blew a hole in the side of the Navy destroyer Cole in Yemen, killing 17 sailors. Yet the attack’s mastermind still hasn’t been prosecuted, and many of the men tried and imprisoned for the bombing are again free.

As Washington debates whether to increase aid to Yemen, it should first remember its duty to seek justice for those sailors — and to heed the broader national-security lessons from the attack.

As soon as the F.B.I. received news of the Oct. 12 bombing, I flew to Yemen with a team to investigate. The bodies of sailors draped in flags on a blood-stained deck, guarded by teary-eyed survivors, formed a heartbreaking image that motivated us during the following months.

Our investigation faced difficulties from the beginning. Yemen’s weak central government’s on-again, off-again relationship with extremists meant that Al Qaeda had influential sympathizers in positions of authority, as well as among powerful tribes in the country’s vast desert. As a consequence, we regularly faced death threats, smokescreens and bureaucratic obstructions.

While such obstacles were not unexpected, what surprised us was the lack of support from home. No one in the Clinton White House seemed to care about the case. We had hoped that the George W. Bush administration would be better, but except for Robert Mueller, the director of the F.B.I., its top officials soon sidelined the case; they considered it, according to Paul Wolfowitz, the deputy defense secretary, “stale.” Even the families of the sailors were denied meetings with the White House, a disgrace that ended only when President Obama took office — and a precedent I hope the administration maintains.

Still, our team pressed ahead and, together with agents from the Naval Criminal Investigative Service, we tracked down many of the Qaeda members responsible for the attack, secured confessions from them and prosecuted them. We were aided by courageous Yemenis from the country’s security, law enforcement and judicial services who shared a commitment to justice and an understanding that ignoring Al Qaeda would only embolden it. We left Yemen with most of the terrorists locked up.

After we were gone, however, Yemen began releasing terrorists under presidential pardons and through a questionable “rehabilitation” program. Many of the men we helped convict went free.

For example, Fahd al-Quso, who had confessed to his role in the Cole attack and was sent to prison, is now out; earlier this year he gave press interviews and was featured in a Qaeda video threatening the United States. Jamal al-Badawi, who confessed to being Mr. Quso’s boss and received a death sentence, has gone through a cycle of “escaping” from prison, receiving clemency and allegedly being rearrested.

Meanwhile, the security situation in Yemen has deteriorated. Freed operatives and the availability of safe havens arguably make Yemen an even better base for Al Qaeda than Afghanistan or Pakistan, as does the fact that the government is distracted by a rebellion in the north and a secessionist movement in the south. Not surprisingly, Al Qaeda’s Saudi branch recently moved to Yemen and merged with the local faction to form Al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula.

In response, Washington is considering increasing military aid to Yemen, to as much as $1.2 billion over six years, up from $155 million in 2010. But it should do so only if it wins from Yemen a guarantee that it will be consistent in its fight against Al Qaeda.

An important test of that commitment should be how Yemen responds to a long-overdue request that Mr. Badawi and Mr. Quso be handed over to American officials to be properly prosecuted. Extraditing the two men would also help with another problem connected to the Cole attack: the case against Abd al-Rahim al-Nashiri, the plot’s alleged mastermind, who has been in American custody for almost eight years.

Mr. Nashiri has yet to be tried because he was subjected to waterboarding and other so-called enhanced interrogation techniques, rendering his statements legally problematic, even those given after interrogators stopped using the counterproductive measures.

Fortunately, there is enough evidence to convict Mr. Nashiri based on confessions we gained legally from Mr. Badawi and Mr. Quso — we even read them the Miranda warning — and from other physical evidence we found during the investigation. Their presence in court would enable us to use their confessions.

It is not merely an insult to the 17 dead sailors, their families and our national honor that Washington does nothing while convicted terrorists walk free and Mr. Nashiri sits unprosecuted. It also harms our national security. We long ago realized that if the American government had not let the Cole attack go unanswered, and if our investigation had not been so constrained, we could have undermined Al Qaeda and perhaps even averted the 9/11 attack. After 10 years, we need to finally put that lesson to use.

Ali H. Soufan was an F.B.I. special agent from 1997 to 2005.

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