A Naval Destroyer in Yemen?
The terrorists sitting in Bayt Habra, a safe house in Sanaa, nodded in agreement. They wouldn’t ask bin Laden for his approval of their operation. It was a tough decision for them, but they felt that it was the right one. While they revered their emir, they knew that the al-Qaeda leader felt a close personal connection to Yemen: his father had been born there, and one of his wives was a Yemeni. The operatives doubted that he could bless an operation against the Yemeni government. But they had to act; their friend Abul al-Hasan al-Mihdhar would soon be executed. On May 5 he had been sentenced to death in a Yemeni court. What they had in mind was no less than Mihdhar’s rescue from jail. To fund the operation, they planned a series of car thefts. It was May 1999.
On December 28, 1998, Mihdhar’s group, the Islamic Army of Aden-Abyan, had kidnapped sixteen Western hostages (twelve Britons, two Americans, and two Australians) who were touring Yemen. The group had announced that they would release the hostages only if the Yemeni government released nine Islamists being held in jail and if international sanctions on Iraq were lifted. The Yemeni government had refused to accept their demands and had launched a rescue operation the next day.
When the kidnappers saw Yemeni soldiers approaching, they took cover behind the hostages and started firing at the soldiers. During an intense firefight, two kidnappers and four hostages—three Britons and one Australian—were killed. The Yemenis arrested the remaining kidnappers and rounded up any members of the group they could find. Mihdhar himself was captured and brought before a judge, who sentenced him to death. His friends and fellow terrorists in Yemen, among them many al-Qaeda members, resolved to rescue him—they just wouldn’t tell bin Laden.
To fund the rescue operation, Mihdhar’s supporters had come up with the car theft plan. They would steal and then sell cars from an American rental company in Yemen. With the proceeds, they would buy weapons and vehicles. Before they got very far, the Yemeni authorities learned of the plot and made numerous arrests. The Yemeni Criminal Investigative Division (CID) raided the al-Qaeda safe house in Sanaa after learning that al-Qaeda members were involved.
One of the al-Qaeda terrorists staying in the safe house at the time of the raid was Abu Jandal. He had recently returned to Yemen to get married—at least that’s what he’d told bin Laden. He confided to friends that finding a bride wasn’t the only reason he had left Afghanistan. He was unhappy with bin Laden’s pledging bayat to Mullah Omar, the leader of the Taliban, and with bin Laden’s endorsement of the honorific bestowed upon Mullah Omar in 1996 following the Cloak of the Prophet spectacle: Amir al-Mu’minin. Abu Jandal felt that al-Qaeda’s aligning itself with the Taliban was a distraction from the organization’s broader goals. It was not what he had signed up for.
Like many operatives, he also wasn’t happy that Egyptians were running al-Qaeda. Traditionally, Arabs from the Persian Gulf are accustomed to having Egyptians work for them. In al-Qaeda Egyptians took many of the top positions: they headed most of the training camps and were in other positions of power as well, and they tended to order the Gulf Arabs around. Of the nine members of the shura council, seven were Egyptian. And of the heads of al-Qaeda’s various committees, other than bin Laden himself and Abu Hafs al-Mauritani, all were Egyptians. The division extended to recreation: when al-Qaeda members played soccer on Fridays, the teams were usually Egyptians versus Saudis and Yemenis (and everyone else).
Bin Laden understood the resentment, but there was little he could do. Part of the problem was that Egyptians joined al-Qaeda permanently, while those from the Gulf states, especially Saudis, fought for a couple of months and then returned home. Bin Laden called it “vacation jihad,” and jihadi strategist Abu Musab al-Suri often joked that the Gulf Arabs came for a few months to “cleanse themselves after a week of spending time with whores in Bangkok.”
When Abu Jandal told bin Laden that he was returning to Yemen to find a wife, he also told him that he wanted to settle down and that this meant that he could no longer serve him. The al-Qaeda leader seemed unconcerned and gave Abu Jandal $2,500 in cash as a wedding present, telling him to “go and think about it after you are married.” Bin Laden appeared confident that Abu Jandal’s absence would not be permanent.
Sometime after Abu Jandal’s departure for Yemen, bin Laden outlined a plan to his driver, Salim Hamdan: he and Abu Jandal should marry two sisters, as they were two of his most trusted followers and he wanted to bind them in this way. Hamdan did exactly as he was asked. Abu Jandal’s growing misgivings with the direction al-Qaeda was taking were laid aside, and ultimately the two married sisters.
The Yemeni authorities who had raided Bayt Habra questioned Abu Jandal for an hour and a half, concluded that he was not part of the plot, and released him. Four hours later he bumped into another al-Qaeda operative, Ibrahim al-Thawer, alias Nibras (later to become one of the Cole suicide bombers), who warned him that the Yemeni police were searching for him again to ask more questions. Abu Jandal wasn’t going to stay around and see what they wanted. Telling himself that “there is no one for you but the sheikh”—bin Laden—he fled to Afghanistan. Other al-Qaeda members who hadn’t been picked up also left the country.
Bin Laden, pleased to have his trusted bodyguard back, gave Abu Jandal a warm welcome. When Abu Jandal told him about the raid, bin Laden asked worriedly: “Was it against us specifically or did someone do something wrong?” Abu Jandal outlined the full sequence of events, and told the al-Qaeda leader that the arrests seemed to have been made in response to the car thefts, not because the Yemenis were cracking down on al-Qaeda. “That is good to hear,” bin Laden said, and a look of calm relief passed over his face as he invoked the president of Yemen: “The ship of Ali Abdullah Saleh is the only ship we have.”
Mihdhar was executed in front of officials from the Yemeni prosecutor’s office and the interior ministry on October 7, 1999. The al-Qaeda members who were arrested and found to be part of the plot were given jail sentences. As their weeks in jail progressed, their thinking about the Yemeni state changed. So, too, did the thinking of their fellow al-Qaeda comrades living in Yemen who regularly visited them. Until then al-Qaeda members had viewed the Yemeni state as a friend who sometimes erred. They therefore mostly avoided operations in the country. This episode ended that view, and now they saw the Yemeni state as an accomplice of the West. Other actions by the Yemenis around this time helped to poison the relationship, among them the arrest and incarcertation of Khallad (Walid bin Attash), apparently in a case of mistaken identity.
One of the men most deeply affected by his time in jail was Hassan al-Khamiri, who spent nine months behind bars. Khamiri was older than most other al-Qaeda members and was “considered like a father by all the brothers,” in the words of Abu Jandal. He returned to Afghanistan as soon as he was released, and his al-Qaeda brothers saw a changed man. He had become bitter and had developed a deep loathing for the Yemeni government. He already hated the United States: the emir of an al-Qaeda training camp in Afghanistan, he had lost a few of his men when the camp was bombed by the Americans in retaliation for the 1998 East African embassy attacks.
Khamiri and other al-Qaeda members tried to pressure bin Laden into launching a big operation in Yemen as punishment for their incarceration. “The brothers in Yemen are frustrated and need to do something. If you don’t authorize it, they’ll do it alone,” Khamiri warned bin Laden.
“Have the brothers be patient,” bin Laden replied. “An operation in Yemen is coming, and you will be involved. You need to be patient and discreet.”
Khamiri returned to Yemen to help plan the operation and regularly visited the operatives who were still in jail. He spent a good deal of time speaking to Khallad, and to Khallad and Muhannad bin Attash’s younger brother Abdul Aziz bin Attash (al-Bara). Although al-Bara’s sentence was up, because of his family’s close ties to bin Laden, the Yemenis continued to hold him, citing national security reasons. They thought that he could be a future bargaining chip with bin Laden. “Don’t worry,” Khamiri told al-Bara, “the sheikh understands our concerns. Some kind of action is coming.”
In the summer of 2000 Khamiri sent al-Bara a letter saying that bin Laden and Saif al-Adel had asked him to no longer visit him and their other al-Qaeda brothers in prison; he had to remove himself from “suspicious activities.” Khamiri concluded, “Soon you will hear the good news.” It was a clear message that he would be involved in an operation.
Al-Bara smiled and burned the letter—while sitting in his Yemeni prison cell.
October 12, 2000. The darkness of the night was only beginning to retreat as I drove my car from my apartment in Brooklyn to the FBI offices in Manhattan. It was around 6:00 AM, and it wasn’t unusual for me to be awake and on my way to the office at that early hour. The hours before daybreak were in many ways my favorite part of the day. New York was silent and peaceful, traffic and honking almost nonexistent. Not only did the quiet remind me, somehow, of my years in rural Pennsylvania, but it also gave me time to think clearly and without interruption before things started getting busy.
I was midway through my drive, deep in thought on a case I was working on—and almost exactly in the middle of the Brooklyn Bridge—when my cell phone rang. It startled me. A call at this hour meant that either something was wrong or a friend in the Middle East had forgotten the time difference. Having recently worked in Jordan to thwart the millennium attacks, I half-expected phone calls at early hours from the Middle East. But it wasn’t someone from Jordan on the phone; it was Kevin Cruise, supervisor of the I-45 squad, dedicated to the investigation into the East African embassy bombings.
“Did you hear what happened?” Kevin asked, skipping a hello and other niceties.
“I heard on NPR earlier,” I began cautiously. “Israel bombed Arafat’s headquarters. We probably need to take precautions . . .” As the words came out, I knew something else must have happened. That alone wouldn’t warrant a 6:00 AM call.
“Not that,” he interrupted, not allowing me to finish my sentence. “A navy ship in Yemen was bombed. There are a lot of casualties, and some sailors are missing.”
“Yemen?” I asked. “Why on earth do we have a navy ship in Yemen?”
Yemen was well known in the intelligence community to be full of radical Islamists, including al-Qaeda members. Radical Islamist fighters developed a close relationship with the Yemeni authorities during the country’s civil war, when President Ali Abdullah Saleh reportedly used Arab mujahideen veterans of the Afghan-Soviet war to help him lead the North to defeat the socialist South. In return for the mujahideen’s help, the government turned a blind eye to radical Islamist activities in the country as long as they weren’t directed against the government or didn’t harm the country’s interests.
As a result al-Qaeda sympathizers could be found throughout Yemeni institutions, including in the intelligence services. Some would help terrorists obtain visas and fraudulent documents, or tip them off when foreign governments were looking for them. Many non-Yemenis involved in the 1998 East African embassy bombings, for example, used fraudulent Yemeni passports to hide their real identities.
Yemen is a convenient place for a terrorist base, as it has a weak central government and tribes that in many ways operate as autonomous minigovernments. Some tribes are sympathetic to extremists, and others are willing to aid terrorists for reasons ranging from monetary reward to help in battles with rival tribes. The weak central government also means that the country’s borders are largely unsecured, allowing terrorists to enter and leave easily. To top it off, the country has a thriving arms market, giving terrorists access to the weapons and explosives they need.
“We’re looking into that,” Kevin replied to my question. “Just get in as fast as you can.” In situations like this, Kevin was curt and to the point. A former military man, he was efficient in emergency situations. He was a devout Catholic, a family man, and someone committed to the truth. I remember him telling me after 9/11, when the bureau was being incorrectly blamed for not stopping the attacks (before the 9/11 Commission told the real story), that he felt that people in church were looking at him differently. It saddened him that the American people were being misled and that the FBI’s reputation was being smeared.
“I’m on my way,” I told Kevin. Why on earth do we have a navy ship in Yemen? I said out loud to myself after hanging up. The question kept repeating itself in my mind as I hurried toward the office.
Ten minutes later I pulled up outside the NYO. I parked my car across the street in what was a no-parking zone, not wanting to waste the time looking for a spot and for once not caring whether I’d get a ticket.
Details of the attack were filtering in: at 11:22 AM Yemen time, the USS Cole, a navy destroyer weighing 8,300 tons and carrying almost 300 sailors, was making a routine fueling stop in the Port of Aden. Suicide bombers pulled alongside the destroyer in a small boat and blew themselves up. At this point 12 sailors were confirmed dead and many more were reported injured. News of deaths and casualties was still coming in, and the numbers were expected to rise.
Details of the attack were first sent in by Col. Robert Newman, a military attaché based in Sanaa. He saw and felt the explosion firsthand and alerted the embassy. The explosion was so powerful, Newman later told me, that it was heard as far as two miles away. The first ship on the scene to provide aid to the Cole was the British Royal Navy’s HMS Marlborough, which was in the vicinity. Sailors with the gravest injuries were flown to a French military hospital in Djibouti before being transferred to a U.S. hospital in Germany. Rescuers and crew members focused on trying to stop the Cole from sinking, a very real danger.
Marines from the Interim Marine Corps Security Force, based in nearby Bahrain, arrived soon after to secure the area around the ship. They didn’t know if a second attack was planned and were taking no chances. They were followed by a U.S Marine platoon, which helped secure the Cole itself. The marines also secured a nearby hotel, the Mövenpick, where U.S. troops, investigators, diplomats, and the press would be staying when they arrived.
At the office I found the answer to the question I had been asking myself on my way in: the Cole needed to refuel in Aden because it was making a 3,300-mile transit from the Mediterranean, where it had last refueled.
Djibouti, on the Horn of Africa, had been used for several years as the refueling port for U.S. vessels, but in January 1999 it was dropped in favor of Aden. The Eritrea-Ethiopia War (1998–2000) had made Djibouti less appealing to the United States, although in intelligence reports it was never ranked as being as dangerous as Aden. The real reason for the switch was that while Yemen had supported Saddam Hussein in the first Gulf War, the Clinton administration had launched a major diplomatic initiative aiming to bring Yemen into the U.S. orbit. Trusting Yemen with hosting U.S. ships, along with the economic benefits that hosting provides, was part of that effort. The State Department and its country team in Yemen concurred that the security situation in Aden was acceptable.
While the diplomatic corps supported the move, security agencies warned against it. An intelligence report by the Naval Criminal Investigative Service’s Multiple Threat Alert Center (MTAC) warned that security in Aden was tenuous and that the central government had little or no control. Nor would this be the first time that radical jihadi terrorists were responsible for plotting an attack against a U.S. target. In December 1992, during the Yemeni Civil War, when Ali Abdullah Saleh was using Islamic militants to help the North defeat the South, terrorists bombed the Gold Mohur Hotel, aiming to hit U.S. Marines who were en route to Somalia to take part in Operation Restore Hope. The bombs missed their intended mark (the marines had already left) but killed a Yemeni citizen and an Austrian tourist.
All U.S. ships, before they visit a foreign port, are required to file a force-protection plan. The Cole’s plan—approved by higher U.S. military authorities—was that it would operate under threat or force condition “bravo,” which is a heightened state of readiness against potential attack. (The lesser condition is alpha; beyond bravo is charlie; delta signifies the most critical state.) Under bravo, security teams on deck are armed with shotguns and other small arms and looking for threats.
My later review indicated that the sailors and the captain of the USS Cole did everything they could under the circumstances. The fact that the Cole was a sitting duck and identified as such by the terrorists was the fault of those responsible for designating Aden a safe port. At such close quarters, it would be next to impossible for sailors on a destroyer to ascertain in a minute or two whether a small boat pulling alongside was a friend or an enemy.
Bob McFadden, the NCIS special agent with whom I later partnered in the Cole investigation, told me when we first met: “I’ve been coming here since 1997 and have a good sense of the atmosphere of Aden and the harbor, and when a ship pulls in there’s a lot of bustling activity. Small boats that service navy vessels routinely pull up to and away from the ship. It’s inconceivable that a nineteen-year-old sailor with a twelve-gauge shotgun would be able to distinguish friend from foe under those circumstances.”
JTTF supervisors gathered in Pat D’Amuro’s office in New York to discuss the bombing, although Pat himself was out of the office at firearms training. (His was the most spacious office for a meeting of this kind.) Senior officials from FBI headquarters in Washington, DC, participated via speakerphone, and the JTTF supervisors asked me to join them in the room.
A week earlier I had written a memo suggesting that an al-Qaeda attack was imminent. It was based on a video bin Laden had just released, in which the al-Qaeda leader, wearing a jambiya (a traditional Yemeni dagger) and standing in front of a map of the Near and Middle East, issued threats against America. John O’Neill had distributed that memo across the law enforcement and intelligence community. Because of the memo, and because of the previous al-Qaeda and EIJ-related cases I had been involved in (such as the East African embassy bombings, Operation Challenge in the UK, the millennium plot in Jordan, and operations in Albania) that had direct links to Yemen, the JTTF supervisors asked me to brief everyone on the history of Yemen, terrorism in Yemen, and who was likely responsible. This last point was especially relevant because of the bureau’s office of origin system: if al-Qaeda were behind the bombing of the Cole, the NYO would be charge of the investigation.
The Washington field office representatives on the call made the case that this wasn’t an al-Qaeda plot. Their view was that the Islamic Army of Aden-Abyan, Mihdhar’s group—still operational after his death—was behind the attack. I argued that it was more likely that al-Qaeda was behind the incident, as an attack of that magnitude required planning, funds, and greater operational capability than a local terrorist group would have. Bin Laden’s video threat strengthened this view.
After hearing both arguments, FBI director Louis Freeh decided that agents from the two offices should go to Yemen until we found out who was behind the attack. Having to replace a WFO team with a NYO team, or the reverse, would waste the precious first weeks after an attack, when evidence is still on the ground and witnesses’ memories are fresh.
The next decision to make was who would represent the NYO. Pat Fitzgerald and another assistant U.S. attorney from the Southern District of New York, David Kelley, were consulted. They would be handling any prosecutions for the bombing, and they said that they wanted me. I had worked closely with both men on the 1998 East African embassy bombings, the millennium attacks in Jordan, and other cases. I was happy to be working alongside them again.
In terrorism prosecutions it’s necessary to have a case agent who is an expert in the organizations involved and who understands what is legally required to prosecute the culprits. Half the battle is determining who is responsible; the second half is capturing them and ensuring they’re prosecuted. With Fitzy’s much-vaunted memory came a dedication that put work before everything. He had a stove in his apartment in New York that wasn’t hooked up for ten years. When Heather, my girlfriend, joked with him about it, he said: “I don’t like to rush things.” He is the son of a doorman and went to school on a scholarship.
Kelley is a Renaissance man: a great lawyer and prosecutor, a sharp-witted intellectual, a volunteer professor at a law school, an NFL referee, and an athlete who keeps himself in top shape. I remember once checking security with John O’Neill on the roof of our hotel in Aden. We spotted Kelley swimming solitary laps. Everyone else was too worried about personal safety to use the pool. David wasn’t going to let the terrorists ruin his regimen. Instead of going to a gym, he ran up and down the hotel stairs. Whatever he does, he works hard to be the best at it. He’s also a pretty funny guy. When he first met Heather, he asked her what she did and she told him, “Social work. I work with children with challenges.” David said, “So that’s how you met him,” pointing at me.
Normally big teams of agents are sent to investigate an attack of the magnitude of the USS Cole bombing, but I was told that I could pick only three people from the New York office to go with me initially; the U.S. ambassador to Yemen, Barbara K. Bodine, was limiting the number of country clearances she was approving. (Unless the United States is at war, the State Department can limit the number of U.S. personnel allowed into a foreign country.) My superiors assured me that more would be allowed soon, but that in the meantime we should go ahead and start investigating.
I picked three colleagues from my I-49 squad: Steve Bongardt, George Crouch, and an NYPD detective stationed with the JTTF, Tom Ward. Steve was an obvious choice, as he was my partner on most of my cases at the time, and we worked well together. We were also close friends and spent a lot of our free time together, even double-dating. It is common for agents to spend their free time with other agents. You feel a kinship, having shared many of the same life-and-death experiences, but beyond that, because of the classified nature of the job, they’re the only people you can discuss your work with outside the office.
Steve is a former navy pilot, and, as we’d be working with the navy on the investigation, this background would be useful. He has that Top Gun mentality of navy pilots, which allows him to think outside the box and take on issues that others might be too timid to touch. This attitude later placed Steve at the forefront of the FBI’s pre-9/11 battle to break down the lack of intelligence sharing between the FBI and the CIA. He would not just go along with restrictions that damaged national security. It was in his nature to fight back. This showed itself on every level: despite having pulled a muscle in his back a week before the departure for Yemen, which made walking and sitting difficult, he refused to stay home.
George Crouch is a first-class investigator and has a great sense of humor. When working overseas on operations in hostile countries, you work, eat, and sleep in close proximity to your colleagues. You’re with them twenty-four hours a day, for months on end. A big consideration when choosing a team is who you’ll get along with. If the people don’t get along, it can harm an investigation. George is a former marine captain (he was in the Judge Advocate General’s Corps), and so he, too, would know how to work with the navy. The most important things in George’s life are his wife, Laura, and his family, and I’ve always had a special respect for him. He and Laura became close friends of Heather’s and mine.
Tom was assigned from the New York City Police Department to the JTTF; he is street-smart, with lots of investigative skills, and he pays close attention to detail. I never saw non-FBI members on the JTTF as outsiders—I include everyone from NYPD to CIA officials—so I didn’t think twice about taking Tom.
We only had a few hours before we had to leave for Yemen, and that time would be spent at the office, planning and preparing for the investigation. There was no time to go back home and pack for the trip, so I’d have to travel in what I was wearing and get anything I needed from stores near the FBI’s office or in Yemen. The command center was in full crisis mode: analysts were collecting data; agents were digging up old files on Yemen; allied intelligence services around the world were exchanging information; and senior officials were gathered on the main platform, discussing the case. As I finished preparing, I remembered that I had a date with Heather that evening. I tried calling her to tell her I’d have to rearrange, but I couldn’t reach her; she was at school, teaching a class. I left it to the ASAC’s secretary to tell her that not only did I have to cancel the date, but I didn’t know when I’d return.
An NYPD detective stationed with the JTTF drove Steve, George, Tom, and me to Andrews Air Force Base, and we met the team from the WFO there. A hostage rescue team (HRT)—an elite FBI SWAT team—came as well to provide protection. We couldn’t leave immediately, however, as we had to wait a couple of hours for our country clearances to be approved by Ambassador Bodine before we could take off. As we waited, news came through that there had been another terrorist attack in Yemen: a grenade had been thrown at the British embassy in Sanaa, blowing up one of its electric generators.
Once the clearances came we boarded a military cargo plane loaded with vehicles, weapons, and equipment. There were no seats, only netting on the side that we could rest on. The mood on the flight was anxious, as the FBI had no operational relationship with the Yemenis and we really didn’t know if we’d be welcomed or attacked. It was also possible that al-Qaeda might be stronger in Yemen than we thought, and that the USS Cole attack was a ploy to trap more agents in Yemen and then kill the new arrivals—us. In our investigation into the East African embassy bombings, we learned from interrogating one al-Qaeda member that this was a not uncommon maneuver.
We were also aware of problems that Yemeni officials had with the United States. Not long before the attack, Yemeni president Ali Abdullah Saleh had said that if he shared a border with Israel, he would engage in jihad against the country because of the ongoing Arab-Israeli conflict. He went on to lambaste the United States for supporting Israel—so it didn’t seem that we were heading into friendly territory. That’s why we had the HRT with us: they would provide extra firepower if something went wrong. With Somalia in the back of our minds—the image, from 1993, of U.S. soldiers overwhelmed by hostile fighters in Mogadishu and dragged through the streets and killed—we were determined not to go down without a fight if something happened.
No one was in the mood to talk much on the plane. I tried sleeping, but there was too much going through my head, so I reviewed the information we had on Yemen.
More than twenty hours later, after a refueling stop in Germany, our plane descended in Yemen. Looking at the country for the first time out of the plane window, I saw that it was even more sparsely populated than I had imagined. As we taxied on the runway and slowed down to a stop, we saw that we were surrounded by what appeared to be Yemeni Special Forces. Soldiers wearing camouflage uniforms had trained their AK-47s on us. Alongside them were military vehicles and jeeps with their machine guns pointed at us.
At first no one moved. We had no idea what was happening and didn’t want to trigger any reaction. Eventually, after what may have been a very long fifteen minutes, the U.S. defense attaché stationed in the country, Colonel Newman, came aboard. “What the hell is going on?” someone demanded. He said that he was unsure but that they were “working on it.” In the meantime, he said, the Yemenis told him that we should put all our weapons in a big duffel bag and give it to them.
That didn’t sound right. Walking unarmed into a country where U.S. sailors had just been killed was not something we were prepared to do, especially given the “welcome” we appeared to be receiving. The HRT bluntly refused. Meanwhile, I told George and Steve that I was going to try to find out what was going on. From the open door of the plane I picked out the Yemeni official who appeared to be in charge. Although armed, he was dressed in civilian clothes and was carrying a walkie-talkie, and he appeared to be issuing orders to the soldiers.
I stepped off the plane and walked toward him. I was still wearing my New York fall clothes, and it was like walking into a sauna. Sweat trickled down my forehead. “As-Salamu Alaykum,” I said.
“Wa Alaykum as-Salam,” he replied.
“It’s hot. Are you thirsty?” I asked, continuing in Arabic and pausing to wipe some of the sweat off my brow. His face registered surprise, and he looked me up and down.
“Yes,” he said slowly, nodding at the same time.
“I have some bottles of water for you and your soldiers,” I said, waving to George to bring them down to me from the plane. I handed him the bottles.
“Is this American water?” he asked.
“Yes.” Apparently American bottled water is a luxury in Yemen. The official distributed the bottles. Some soldiers drank the water, while others instead put it in their bags, perhaps to take it home to show their families.
That broke the tension, and a few Yemeni soldiers smiled. Some even said “thank you” in English.
I asked the Yemeni: “What’s going on? Why have you surrounded our plane?”
“Don’t worry, it’s only for your protection.”
“We appreciate that,” I told him, “but if someone is going to attack us, they will attack from outside, so your weapons need to face outward, not at us.”
“No, no,” he replied, “this is the best way.”
“Well, at least lower the weapons,” I said, “because otherwise an accident is going to happen and none of us wants that.” He ordered the soldiers to lower their weapons.
The Aden airport was old and basic, with just a single runway, two halls (one for regular passengers and one with chairs and couches for “VIP” passengers), and a few offices for administrative staff and security officials. We had equipment, supplies, and vehicles that we wanted to unload from the plane; the Yemenis, at the same time, wanted to inspect and approve everything that came off. They wrote down every detail, right down to the serial numbers of our weapons. We were stiff and exhausted from the long and uncomfortable flight and had little patience for all this red tape.
The airport was also swarming with Yemeni officials: all of the different national and local law enforcement, intelligence, and military agencies were represented. There were airport security personnel; the military; the ministry of the interior’s internal security force; the intelligence service, called the Political Security Organization (PSO); the regular police; and Aden security services. It appeared that none had ultimate jurisdiction and that all intended to monitor us.
Overlapping jurisdictions and blurred boundaries between security agencies are deliberate in some countries. Having one agency means that there’s a potential power base that may dominate the country. The presence of many jurisdictions, however, comes with its own problems: agencies spend their time fighting turf wars with each other, with the president of the country serving as the arbitrator. While such a situation may prevent one group from launching a coup, it doesn’t help outsiders trying to work with the different agencies. Every time we needed to do something in the airport we needed to coordinate it separately with each of them.
I found myself acting as the mediator between our side and the Yemenis and managed to establish rapport with them. I told them that we would give them any information they wanted and that we had nothing to hide. We were simply trying to investigate what had happened to our ship and wanted to work with them in the investigation. They appreciated this straightforwardness and the fact that we wanted to work with them. They also liked that I spoke their language.
I was told that my last name, Soufan, was a “Sada” name in Yemen. Sada is the plural of sayyid, which means “prestigious” and connotes social status. According to the Yemenis, Soufan is the family name of people descended from the Prophet. Some government ministers apparently also had the name, and the Yemenis at the airport eagerly inquired whether my family was from Yemen. “Perhaps a long time ago,” I answered, wishing neither to lie nor surrender a useful advantage. In tight situations people often want to find someone they can relate to, and I was happy to be that person for the Yemenis.
I also showed the Yemenis that I understood their perspective and told them that I knew that they had to square the image of American officials “invading” their country with jeeps and weapons with their local population, many of whom were very anti-American. They told me that earlier in the day marines had set up a base camp and (as is their custom) planted an American flag on the ground, which had upset the locals.
I later found out from a Yemeni friend that the harsh treatment we received when we first landed was due partly to a humiliation the Yemenis had suffered the day before. According to the Yemenis, when the marines’ Fleet Antiterrorism Security Team (FAST) landed hours after the attack, the Yemenis surrounded their plane, as had happened with us. The marines exited the plane in their Humvees and in a quick projection of force surrounded the Yemenis and took over the airport—without even firing a shot. It was an embarrassment for the Yemenis to have had their own airport seized so quickly.
Many of the Yemenis I dealt with sympathized with our loss. Especially among the law enforcement and intelligence community, there were those who shared our desire to seek justice for the murdered sailors. Many of the officials and officers I met at the airport—from the ministry of the interior, from state security—remained friends during my time in Aden. Whenever a U.S. plane landed in Aden, if I was free, I went with either the military attaché or a State Department representative to help smooth the entry. Many of the friends I made in Yemen then I still consider my friends today.
While I was dealing with the red tape, the HRT remained by the plane and monitored our gear to make sure that things weren’t being tampered with or taken. Everyone else sat on the side in the main terminal waiting for our entry to be sorted out. It took a couple of hours of sometimes tense negotiation to determine what we could and couldn’t take off the plane. The Yemenis insisted that we could not take certain vehicles and weapons. We didn’t really have a choice but to comply: it was their country, and the State Department officials at the airport said that we had to accept the Yemenis’ restrictions.
Our long guns had to be left on the plane, too, the State Department representatives at the airport told us. These M-4 machine guns and shotguns weren’t the weapons we routinely carried—we used handguns for that purpose—but we’d planned to keep them in the car in case we needed them. We tried negotiating but were told that Ambassador Bodine had insisted we didn’t need them. “The ambassador said that the Yemenis will protect you,” one State Department representative offered unconvincingly. We were unhappy, but, again, we didn’t have a choice. Because we needed to leave many things behind, some HRT squad members stayed behind as well to guard the plane and our equipment until it could return to the United States.
When we were finally ready to leave the airport, the State Department arranged pickup trucks for our luggage and equipment and a bus for us. We loaded up, and Yemeni soldiers climbed on top of the trucks to guard them. A convoy of Yemeni Special Forces in 4x4 jeeps with Dushkas—12.7 mm submachine guns—pulled up and said they would ride alongside us. The Yemenis told us to get into the bus and the convoy would head to the Mövenpick.
At this point I was exhausted. I was also hot, and the air-conditioned bus was appealing. But at the same time I didn’t want to get in it because if any problems arose, I wanted to be available to work with the Yemenis. I assumed that they would appreciate my gesture of riding with them rather than in the bus. As everyone else was filing into the bus, I started climbing to the top of one of pickup trucks.The soldiers were in midconversation when my head came up over the side. “You’re meant to be in the bus,” one told me flatly.
“No, I’m not,” I replied. “I’ll be riding on top with you.” I said it with certainty, and that apparently convinced them not to argue. They shrugged their shoulders and resumed talking to each other.
A few seconds later I heard someone else climbing up to the top of the truck. It was George. He had seen me and didn’t want me to be alone. The Yemenis glanced at him, looked at me, and turned back to talk to each other.
With everyone else inside the buses and our equipment in the trucks, the convoy set off. I have always disliked traveling in official convoys in foreign countries. My reaction is the same whether I’m given a bulletproof limousine with a police escort or a military convoy. While some may enjoy the luxury and sense of importance convoys provide, the attention always makes me feel unsafe, because it lets potential attackers know exactly where I am. Often when I traveled to foreign countries, I asked local authorities to provide a discreet pickup rather than lights and sirens.
As the convoy moved along, I focused on the other cars on the road. The road out of the airport passed a large construction site where a new airport was being built. George and I both did a doubletake when we saw the giant billboard that had been erected next to the site. It read: “Binladin.”
The sign, we realized, referred to the company that was building the new airport—the Saudi Binladin Group, one of the biggest construction companies in the Middle East. But to George and me, it was as if we were being told who was behind the attack and who we were looking for.
As a safety precaution, we moved at the speed of the other traffic, and the Yemenis tried hard to ensure that we never had to stop. The jeeps traveling ahead of us cleared the road. For most of the journey the system worked, and we passed through intersections and roundabouts without slowing down. But as we got closer to the Mövenpick, we encountered heavy traffic at one roundabout and the jeeps were unable to clear the road in time. As we slowed, one of the soldiers on our pickup truck started furiously signaling with his fingers at cars. George’s face registered shock. “I can’t believe what he’s doing,” he said to me. At first I didn’t understand George’s complaint. A couple of seconds later it dawned on me. In the Middle East the signal to slow down involves putting the tips of your fingers together. I was familiar with it from my childhood in Lebanon. But in the United States that gesture could easily be mistaken for a rude one.
The Mövenpick was ringed with Yemeni security officials who checked the credentials of everyone entering. U.S. Marines were stationed on the roof and inside the hotel. While it was comforting to see that the hotel was protected, it also reminded us that we were entering hostile territory and that our lives were under threat.