The Hall of Death
A few hours after arriving in Yemen we went to visit the Cole, and as we approached the destroyer, our eyes couldn’t miss the gaping hole in its port side. It reminded me of a wounded lion I’d seen on the National Geographic Channel: its majesty was still apparent, but the wound, and the pain, were clearly deep. It was impossible not to feel overcome by sadness. We were all silent as we pulled alongside.
The feeling got even worse once we climbed on board. The ship had the stench of death. Bodies draped in American flags were lying on the main deck. Sailors walked around with blank and sullen faces, and they all had bags under their eyes. They were working day and night to save the ship. Many had cuts and bruises on their bodies, and their eyes told of immeasurable sorrow. They still hadn’t come to terms with what had happened. Some never would. It was heartbreaking.
We walked down to see the blast area. Blood was splattered across the floor. Bodies lay twisted and trapped in the metal. NCIS and FBI technicians were carefully trying to untangle them while keeping a lookout for pieces of evidence. We realized that this was an exceptionally tough job psychologically for crew members, and since the FBI and NCIS had the apparatus, we did as much as we could. Agents collected body parts from the floor.
Forensic experts were examining the wreckage and evidence. I watched one trying to determine whether the blackened object he was holding was part of a person, the ship, or from the suicide bombers and their boat. Divers searched the surrounding harbor waters. The hall outside the blast area, where bodies were first placed, was unofficially known as the “hall of death.” I felt sick.
With George taking the lead, we started interviewing crew members. We also had the team that was stuck in Germany, waiting for country clearances, interview injured survivors who had been flown to the Landstuhl Regional Medical Center—the largest American hospital in the world outside the United States. Between those survivors and others who were still on the Cole, we managed to piece together the last few minutes before the explosion.
After the Cole entered Tawahi Harbor at approximately 8:30 AM, the crew secured the starboard side to the “dolphin”—the fueling station. Refueling began. As is usual during refueling, small boats swarmed around the Cole, bringing supplies, taking trash, and doing maintenance jobs. A small boat approached, with two men aboard. The boat was approximately 35 feet long and 6 feet wide, powered by an outboard motor. It had a red carpet on its deck. It slowly pulled alongside the Cole, port side. The occupants waved. The crew waved back. The boat looked no different from others going to and from the Cole. There was no sign of explosives or of anything suspicious. The men cut the boat’s engine. Seconds later, at 11:22, the boat exploded. A huge hole, 40 feet in diameter, was blown in the side of the ship. A fireball injured and killed sailors who were waiting to eat lunch in the galley. Black smoke rose up to the sky.
The first days of an investigation are among the most crucial, as the memories of witnesses are still fresh and crime scenes are less likely to have been touched, and so it was frustrating for us that John O’Neill, the special agent in charge and our on-scene commander, along with others from the NYO, were not yet allowed into Yemen. Ambassador Bodine wouldn’t grant them country clearances and kept saying that we had enough officials on the ground. FBI headquarters tried explaining to her that to conduct an investigation, you need security and technical staff, divers, forensic experts, interrogators, detectives, and others, lots of them. The appeals had no effect; she felt she knew best.
We tried making the best of the situation and assigned everyone roles. The hostage rescue team, under Bob Hickey, was in charge of security at the hotel and in convoys. Steve Bongardt, though he continued to serve as co–case agent, remained in the command center because of his back problems, handling administrative issues and coordinating the exchange of information with the CIA. While our aim was to track those responsible and bring them to justice, it was likely that we would come across intelligence, so we’d give that to the CIA. And while the CIA’s focus was intelligence efforts, it was likely they’d uncover information helpful to us. As one of my former FBI colleagues, Don Borelli, likes to put it: “We’re the bird catchers and the CIA are the bird watchers.”
George Crouch was in charge of all personnel at the crime scene itself, the USS Cole. We planned to send a big group to the ship to examine evidence and interview every sailor. While there were more than three hundred sailors on the Cole, we thought that it was important to talk to each one individually. It was possible that one might have seen something nobody else had noticed, and we also felt that speaking to all of them would provide psychological benefits: many had not slept since the explosion and had spent every waking minute trying to save colleagues and the ship, and we wanted them to feel as if they were part of the investigation.
Tom Ward was in charge of investigating different sites. And I, as the case agent, would lead the investigation and alternate between all the different groups to ensure that everything was working smoothly. I would also take the lead in coordinating our investigation with the Yemeni authorities. We agreed that each morning our entire team would have a meeting at 7:00 to report on progress.
The Mövenpick was full of military and intelligence personnel, many having flown in directly from other places in the Middle East where they were stationed. And over the next couple of days the hotel would fill up even more, as FBI, CIA, NCIS, military intelligence, United States Central Command (CENTCOM), marines, and State Department officials—everyone from the United States who was in Aden in any official capacity—were told to stay at the hotel. For security reasons the State Department wanted all Americans to stay in one place; even members of the press got rooms there.
Living together in the same quarters created close bonds among different U.S. government entities used to working independently. At the moment of crisis, no one cared which U.S. government agency you were from; we all represented the United States and were all focused on one thing: finding out who was behind the murder of the sailors and bringing them to justice. It was a welcome change from Washington’s turf wars.
The ninth floor of the hotel was designated the command floor, and armed marines in full combat gear with loaded weapons guarded every entrance. All agencies and intelligence groups had offices and secure lines on that level, and no hotel staff or unauthorized personnel were permitted. The floor was headed by the NCIS assistant special agent in charge of the Middle East field office, Mike Dorsey. Mike was one of the first American law enforcement officers on the ground in Aden after the attack, having flown in straight from nearby Bahrain, where he was based. One of Mike’s many qualities is that he is a team player, and for him it is always about the mission and never who is in charge, so he was perfect for coordinating the different arms of the government and ensuring that everyone worked together. The NCIS had assets on the ground in Yemen—they had helped the government remove mines left over from the civil war—and Mike put all his assets at our disposal and told us that however he could help, he would.
The Mövenpick was one of two supposedly five-star hotels in Aden, but it was cramped. Three to four people were put into rooms that only had two beds, so people took turns sleeping on the floor. I roomed with George and Steve. We were the lucky ones, however, as some people didn’t even get rooms. The HRT slept on the floor of the hotel ballroom. When we asked whether there were other hotels, we were told that Barbara K. Bodine wouldn’t allow anyone to stay anywhere else.
Bodine was a tough, thin woman in her forties who had previously served as an ambassador in charge of terrorism for the State Department. While she was a seasoned diplomat, she gave people strange looks when they spoke, as if she were trying to catch them out. When we interviewed USS Cole sailors, some told us that Bodine treated them as if they were responsible for the bombing and as if they had unnecessarily inconvenienced her. We couldn’t believe that this was how a U.S. ambassador treated U.S. sailors who had just been victims of a terrorist attack.
As usual following an attack on U.S. citizens in a foreign country, the State Department prepared to put out a Reward for Justice poster, asking locals to help with the investigation. Such posters often produce useful leads, as they had with the East African embassy bombings. Without coordinating with us on the ground, Bodine’s staff worked on translating a standard poster to be published in Yemeni newspapers. When I opened a paper the next day to look at the ad—written, of course, in Arabic—I saw that rather than asking for cooperation, it warned the local population not to cooperate with us. Apparently no one in the embassy had noticed the colossal mistake.
Bodine had a tendency to be overly sensitive to how she felt the Yemenis would react to actions we took. Her attitude reminded me of a story my colleague and co-author Daniel Freedman likes to tell about George Shultz. When Shultz was secretary of state, before a new ambassador would head off to his or her country of destination, Shultz would call the person into his office and say: “Before you leave, you have one more test. Go over to that globe.” He would point to a giant globe he had in the corner of his office. “Show me that you can identify your country,” he would say. Without exception, the ambassador would spin the globe and point to the country to which he or she was heading. Shultz would gently correct the ambassador by pointing to the United States and saying, “No, this is your country.”
On October 18, almost a week after we had arrived in Yemen, we watched on a hotel television the memorial service being held for the victims of the Cole at the Naval Station Norfolk, in Virginia. President Clinton led the service. Many of the injured sailors, sitting in wheelchairs or resting on crutches, were present. The sky in Virginia was gray and overcast, a fitting backdrop for the ceremony. President Clinton said all the right things. He warned those responsible: “You will not find a safe harbor. We will find you, and justice will prevail.” That cheered our spirits. With the president making a declaration like that, we believed strong support for our investigation would be forthcoming.
And initially it looked good. Ambassador Bodine was overruled by her superiors in the State Department, and the team in Germany with John O’Neill was finally allowed into the country. I went to the airport to prepare for John’s arrival. We didn’t want his group to have the same problems that we had encountered when we’d landed. The Yemeni official in charge of the airport had become my friend from our first day in Aden. I told him that John was “a very, very important man in the FBI.” I knew that because of the class and rank consciousness of Yemeni society, this would make entry easier for John.
“How important?” the official asked. “Special agent in charge” doesn’t translate well into Arabic, so I told him that John was the “boss of my boss, the equivalent of a general.” The Yemeni official was impressed and told me that he would personally welcome John on the runway. It was only fitting that he, as the most important official at the airport, greet a general, he reasoned, and I nodded solemnly. I also suggested that he open the VIP lounge for the new guests, and he agreed that it would be appropriate.
The official set up a formation of soldiers on the tarmac to greet John. As soon as the plane landed, I went into it to find John. At first I couldn’t see him. The plane was packed with people. Then I heard his voice shout “Ali.” He had spotted me. I waved him to the door, and he pushed his way through the other passengers and we hugged. Kevin Donovan, who later became the assistant director of the New York office, was one of the officials with him. I explained what was waiting on the tarmac. They were relieved and even laughed, as it was the opposite of what they were expecting.
John was already familiar with most of the problems that we were having with the Yemenis and Ambassador Bodine, and as we walked through the airport he put his arm around me and said: “Don’t worry, we’ll deal with all these problems. There’s a new sheriff in town.” John always inspired confidence. He had such a reassuring presence, and those who worked for him knew he would do anything he could to support his agents. Still, I was skeptical despite John’s reassurance; knowing as I did both Ambassador Bodine’s personality and John’s, I guessed that the two would clash.
Because of the rapport I had developed with the Yemenis at the airport, and because of John’s status as a “general,” we passed easily through airport security to the waiting escort. I pointed out to John the Binladin construction site with the big billboard as we passed it.
The first thing John did at the Mövenpick was speak to our team. He told them what he told me: that he’d deal with the problems we were having. John’s presence lifted their spirits. Next I took him to see the Cole. The sight of the giant hole on the side, the blood on the floor, the sullen look on sailors’ faces—it was all just as chilling every time I went to the destroyer.
We spoke to the captain of the Cole, Commander Kirk Lippold. John asked him, “How are you doing?” Lippold responded by speaking about his sailors. He told us who was killed, who was injured, and of the efforts being made to save the ship. He spoke slowly, clearly still coming to terms with the magnitude of what had happened. He was a brave and kind man, and it seemed as if each one of the sailors killed was one of his own children. John put his arm around the captain and asked him again, “How are you doing?”
Commander Lippold replied, “I’m not worried about myself.” He then paused and added: “The navy eats its own.”
It was sad to hear that the captain felt that his career was over. It shouldn’t have been. Commander Kirk Lippold was a rising star in the U.S. Navy. He was an Annapolis graduate and had all the right talent and assignments to become a future senior leader in the Department of the Navy. He was not responsible for his ship’s choosing to dock in the port, nor was there anything he could have done to prevent the bombing. And a commander who cared so deeply about his men was someone the navy should hold on to. We told him that. “It doesn’t matter,” he told us, and focused on what needed to be done: his only concern was saving the ship. His courage and resolve were inspiring. The same traits were displayed by everyone else on the ship.
After speaking to sailors and inspecting the blast site, John and I took a walk around the deck of the Cole. From one side we could see the hills of Aden lined up against the horizon. For a few minutes neither one of us spoke. We just leaned on the rails, thinking our own thoughts.
I broke the silence. “If we are right that al-Qaeda is responsible for this attack, as I believe we are, I am sure they had someone in those hills to record the operation to use it for propaganda purposes. That means there’s at least one more person involved in this operation, and he’s still out there.”
John nodded. “So let’s find him.”
It was at the hotel that I first got to meet some members of the CIA’s Counterterrorism Center, led by Hank Crumpton. One of the CTC officers—Ed—had been mentioned to me by fellow FBI agent and al-Qaeda expert Dan Coleman, who had worked with him in Pakistan, and Dan spoke highly of him. When Ed introduced himself, I mentioned Dan’s high estimation of him. He was friendly and said that he had heard good things about me, too, from CIA colleagues. (I would later encounter Ed in Guantánamo Bay, after 9/11, and then during the interrogation of Abu Zubaydah.)
With John and the rest of the team on the ground we had the manpower to really start investigating. We established an early-morning meeting that everyone, from the case agent to the technical staff staying at the hotel, would attend. No matter his or her role in the investigation—whether guarding a door, searching a site, or interrogating suspects—everyone is important. Without any one of them, our team wouldn’t function properly. In addition, all of them were risking their lives every day by being in Yemen. That deserved to be recognized, and so everyone was included in the morning meeting.
There were obstacles we faced, however, starting with the Yemenis. As was the case at the airport, all the different Yemeni agencies were trying to monitor us and were demanding that we clear everything with them. This meant that a large part of our day was spent negotiating the same terms again and again. Even when we just wanted a convoy to get to the Cole, it wasn’t enough to clear our visit with the PSO. We had to clear it with military intelligence, with the local police, and with other entities.
A second problem was that the highest levels of the Yemeni government were disputing whether the attack on the Cole was or was not a terrorist attack. After the bombing, President Saleh had first claimed that the bombing wasn’t a terrorist attack but an accident. Echoing this line, some Yemeni government officials tried to convince the United States that the explosion was caused by a malfunction in the Cole’s operating systems, and Saleh asked the United States government for money to repair the damage the United States had “caused” in the port. When it had become indisputably clear that the bombing was an attack, Saleh tried blaming Mossad, Israel’s national intelligence agency.
Hostility came from other quarters: clerics in mosques denounced our presence and warned people not to cooperate with us, and Yemeni parliamentarians claimed we were invading their country. We were also under the constant threat that extremists would try to attack us. Another concern we had was that a number of Yemeni officials we met were clearly sympathetic to al-Qaeda. The relationship made us question whether these officials had had anything to do with the attack. Many appeared to be playing a game with the extremists: they would let them operate as long as they didn’t harm Yemeni interests. The good news was that for many Yemeni officials, that line was crossed with the bombing of the Cole.
Finally, we were given reason to frankly mistrust some Yemenis. One morning during our 7:00 briefing, an HRT member entered the room and whispered something into his commander’s ear and then pointed up to the ceiling. We all looked up and saw that a wire with a small microphone was hanging down from the ceiling. Someone was trying to listen in. Because the hotel was made of cement, the wire was literally taped to the ceiling and was easy to spot. It must have been put in overnight. We followed the wire from the ballroom (where our meeting was taking place) through the hotel up to the mezzanine level, where it went behind a partition.
A U.S. Marine was standing nearby with a sniffer dog. Knowing that Yemenis in general are scared of dogs, I asked her to come with us. We went around the partition and saw a Yemeni man sitting at a desk monitoring cameras and listening to an earpiece. The Yemeni saw the dog, which snarled helpfully, and the man jumped onto the desk, shaking. When the dog started barking, he jumped off the desk and ran away from the listening post.
We looked at the cameras and examined the wires and saw that the Yemenis had set up monitoring devices in quite a few of our rooms. As we were looking at them, some other Yemeni officials ran into the area, but before they could speak, I angrily asked: “What is going on here? Why are you monitoring us? There are going to be problems.”
“No, no,” one officer responded, “this is for your own protection.”
“These ones,” I said, gesturing to the wires and cameras monitoring us inside the hotel, “aren’t. Outside the hotel is fine. But inside our rooms is not. Get rid of them.”
Convincing the Yemenis that the attack on the Cole was in fact a terrorist action and not a malfunction of the ship was a kind of game. We didn’t think they believed their official story—no intelligent person could, we thought—but it was their country and their rules, so we had to play along.
We took senior Yemeni officials representing all their intelligence and security agencies to the Cole. The delegation included the head of the PSO in Aden, Hussein Ansi; the head of President Saleh’s security team, Hamoud Naji; the chief of staff of the Yemeni military; and the governor of Aden. Navy engineers demonstrated that the damage done to the ship—the blast hole clearly went inward, not outward—meant that the explosion had to have been caused by an external attack. Sailors then recounted what they saw moments before the blast: the boat and the men on board. There was little to argue about, and when the Yemenis saw the blood, the bodies, and the pain on the faces of the sailors, they seemed genuinely touched, and expressed their sympathies.
We went directly from the ship to our hotel for a meeting with the Yemenis, and we were expecting a positive discussion as to how we could move forward with the investigation. We all gathered in a big conference room. We sat across from each other, Americans on one side, Yemenis on the other. John faced Naji, and I faced Ansi and translated for our side. Ansi was the first to speak. He was a short, mustached man with salt-and-pepper hair, and he liked to assume a pious air. What seemed to be an involuntary smirk often appeared on his face when he spoke. It gave the impression that he thought he was the most intelligent person in the room and that he was secretly laughing at everyone else.
“After reviewing the evidence,” Ansi began, “we believe that the attack on the Cole was in fact a terrorist attack.” I translated. Everyone nodded. “However—” He began again, and then he paused, and the smirk appeared for a few seconds. “The people responsible for the attack are dead, they blew themselves up, and so there is nothing to investigate. The case is closed.” I was initially too stunned to translate. I couldn’t believe my ears. Was he serious? I started arguing back without pausing to translate for the others. It was a struggle for me to mask the anger I felt.
“As you know, if a terrorist attack occurs, there are not only those who conducted the attack. There are also the people who facilitated the attack. Then there are the bomb makers, the providers of the safe houses, and the people who helped them buy the boat and the explosives. There is therefore still a lot to investigate. The case is far from closed.”
John and the others didn’t know what was happening. I was the only Arabic speaker among our team in the room. But my colleagues knew me well enough to realize from my tone of voice and facial expressions that whatever was being said, it wasn’t good.
After I replied to Ansi, I translated the exchange for the others. There was anger on our side and John especially was agitated. “Now look here,” John said, “We are here to work as a team with you. But you should know that this is something we are very serious about. We are not messing around. We want to get to the bottom of this. And we won’t leave until we figure it out. We would, however, like to work with you.” I translated. Ansi nodded but said nothing. The meeting was adjourned.
As I was leaving the room, Naji approached me. “Can I speak to you?” he said. I stepped to the side with him. “Don’t worry,” he said, touching my arm, as if trying to calm and reassure me. “Everything will get done, just have patience.” I felt relieved. As the head of Saleh’s security detail, he was the president’s personal envoy to the meeting. If he said things would get done, they would.
Naji remained true to his word. That night General Ghalib al-Qamish, the head of the PSO and Ansi’s superior, came to Aden from Sanaa. John and I went straight to meet him. Qamish is a small, skinny, bald man who looks like a Yemeni version of Gandhi.
“We can work together,” were Qamish’s first words to us. He then said: “I understand why you are in Yemen and the importance of your investigation. At the same time, you have to understand the sensitivities of Yemenis.” He explained that some viewed our presence as an invasion, and that there was anger toward the United States for its support of Israel against the Palestinians. He made it clear that he didn’t agree with this hostility to us but was just explaining the situation.
Qamish was knowledgeable about al-Qaeda. When the PSO was responsible for utilizing Islamists against the South during the civil war, he was one of the key players. Yemen was a country where things couldn’t be viewed in black and white but shades of gray. Whatever Qamish’s role in the past in dealing with Islamists, during the Cole investigation, with us, he was one of the good guys, and we were glad he was at the top. We agreed that we would primarily deal with him rather than Ansi.
With the Yemenis, when negotiating for access to evidence and witnesses, it was often a question of persistence. We had experienced similar problems when working elsewhere overseas, so we knew how to handle it: we needed to remain polite but be firm. And we needed to make it clear that we would not back down.
One of the first things we had done on arriving in Yemen was to ask the Yemenis for their harbor surveillance video from the time of the attack. As we watched the tape it was clear that the Yemenis had tampered with it—the time stamp and certain frames were cut out. I told Qamish that we’d been given a doctored tape and that we would like the original; he got it for us. The full tape didn’t show us much more, so it didn’t make sense that the Yemenis had edited it. We deduced that they were trying to waste our time or test us in some way.
FBI director Louis Freeh was aware of the problems we were having in Yemen and decided to fly to the country to help move the investigation forward. At the airport and again at the Mövenpick, we briefed him and the senior officials accompanying him. We then took the director to see President Saleh.
For security purposes, the presidential palace is up in the hills overlooking Aden, far from the general population. As we drove up the winding road to the palace, we saw down below us beautiful virgin beaches and bays. Great for scuba diving, I thought to myself.
President Saleh greeted us at the palace. He was shorter than I had expected and very reserved. The visit was mostly a matter of protocol: Director Freeh was coming to show President Saleh that the United States was serious about the investigation, and Saleh, in turn, was meeting him to show that Yemen would cooperate. The meeting started with a statement from President Saleh in which he said that it had yet to be determined who was responsible for the terrorist attack. He added that the weapons used in the attack were made in the United States or Israel. (The Yemenis were still keen at that point to blame Mossad.) And then, in a bizarre shift, Saleh added Libya’s Muammar al-Gaddafi to the mix, claiming that he was getting involved in Yemen’s affairs. Freeh politely sidestepped Saleh’s comments, saying it was too early to determine where the weapons had come from and that the United States was eager to work alongside the Yemenis and investigate the attack. He added that the United States would be the “junior partner” and that the Yemenis would take the lead. This pleased President Saleh because Yemen’s competence was acknowledged. President Saleh responded by saying that the Yemenis would fully cooperate with us, and he confirmed that John O’Neill should deal directly with Qamish.
Freeh went next to visit the Cole. He spoke to the sailors, listened to what they had to say, and promised to track down those responsible. We returned to the Mövenpick to discuss the investigation, gathering in John’s room. Director Freeh sat on a chair, John and I on the bed, and a couple of FBI officials on the desk, while everyone else leaned against the walls. The first question the director had was whether he should hold a press conference. A few people worried that it would upset the Yemenis by suggesting that the United States was taking charge. After everyone gave their views, the director turned to me and said, “Ali, what do you think?”
I was surprised to be asked—there were far more senior FBI officials for him to consult. I told him that because he had already had a successful meeting with President Saleh, there could be no harm in holding a press conference to announce that progress had been made. If anything, it would make the Yemenis look good. He agreed.
Immediately after Director Freeh’s visit, we met again with Qamish to discuss practical issues. We agreed that a joint committee with U.S. and Yemeni officials would be formed to run the investigation. We agreed to establish rules that both U.S. and Yemeni investigation teams would abide by. As always, this was crucial: we needed the rules of engagement to be binding by U.S. law if we ever wanted to prosecute anyone using evidence and statements collected in Yemen. The main negotiation for these rules took place between David Kelley and a Yemeni judge. Naji represented the Yemeni intelligence community and President Saleh; Ambassador Bodine represented the State Department; and John O’Neill, the FBI. Kelley had negotiated a similar agreement with the East African governments in 1998.
The judge was unfriendly from the start. He looked at things from a political perspective that was tainted by his negative views of the United States rather than from a legal perspective. We repeatedly had to explain to him that we had legal requirements to be met. The idea that people being questioned needed to be read the Miranda warning was a foreign concept to the Yemenis.
Kelley was clearly surprised by some of the things the judge said. He expected higher standards from someone representing the Yemeni judiciary. He shot me surprised looks as I translated what the judge was saying. Most of the pressure during the negotiation was on me. As a case agent who was also translating, I found myself required to mediate between the two sides.
The judge at times got annoyed with me, thinking that I was creating difficulties for him. He didn’t seem to understand that Kelley’s demands were U.S. legal requirements. At one point he angrily said to me, “You’re working with them,” as if I were not an American, and was inventing problems for Yemen. Other times, he tried to insult me, and I sensed that he was hoping I would get angry so that new problems—distractions from the main issues being discussed—would arise. I refused to engage him.
Our major success in the negotiation was securing an agreement that all suspects we questioned jointly would be read an Arabic version of the Miranda warning. This meant that any testimony gained would be admissible in U.S. court. We also established procedures for obtaining access to any leads the Yemenis found. A point that was problematic for us, and which the Yemenis refused to back down on, was their demand that no one be extradited from Yemen to the United States. Any trials or sentencing would take place in Yemen, they insisted, claiming that that was in the Yemeni constitution. Only suspects we caught outside Yemen could be taken back to the United States.
We didn’t trust the Yemeni justice system or its government to keep al-Qaeda terrorists locked up, and we also strongly believed that those with American blood on their hands should be prosecuted in the United States, but politically we had to accept these rules. Our fears about doing so were realized years later when, after the terrorists had been caught and prosecuted, they “escaped” from Yemeni jails, and were eventually pardoned by President Saleh.
Another sticking point was how the interrogation of suspects would work. The Yemenis said that only their officials could talk to Yemeni suspects and that we wouldn’t be allowed to question anyone directly. Given our early experience with Ansi, we didn’t have much faith in the types of questions detainees would be asked if someone from their domestic intelligence service conducted an interrogation. Once again, because of political pressure from our State Department, we had to accept the Yemenis’ terms. By the end of a single day, the initial terms of engagement were finalized. The rules for conducting joint interrogations would take many more weeks to establish.
We also decided that all our requests would go through Qamish—sweeping aside the problem of dealing with competing agencies. This didn’t mean it was a smooth ride. Qamish was a tough negotiator, but, unlike Ansi, he was pragmatic—and friendly. It was clear that he understood our perspective, which helped. Night was when deals were done in Yemen, and almost every night when Qamish was in Aden, we would spend hours talking and joking with him—cajoling him and bargaining with him to give us access to sites, witnesses, and evidence.
I first heard the name Bob McFadden at 3:00 one morning, the day after John O’Neill had arrived in Aden. I was in a room at the command center, exhausted but unwilling to go to sleep until I had finished following up on some leads and writing reports. John entered the room, spotted me in a corner, beckoned to me, and said he wanted to speak to me privately. I followed him into another room.
“Ali,” he began. In his voice was a tone he usually reserved for unpleasant tasks, and there was also a hint of stress. “Sometimes we have to work with others from outside the FBI. There is a guy here called Bob McFadden who is the case agent for the NCIS. He’s said to be one of the best operational people in the region. He’s an Arabic speaker, too.” John then made a self-deprecating joke about the quality of Arabic an Irishman could speak. “You need to try to work with him,” he added.
I was confused. “Boss, I don’t understand,” I said. “Why is Immigration working with us on this?” In my sleep-deprived state, NCIS had sounded like INS—the Immigration and Naturalization Service.
John smiled. “No, the NCIS. It’s the navy.”
“Sorry, it’s late,” I said, laughing. “That makes more sense. No problem. We’ll do our thing, and if he wants to contribute we’d be grateful for any help we can get.”
Many view it as an insult to be asked to work alongside officials from other agencies, and this antipathy is a recurring problem. I never shared the view. In fact, my first partner when I joined the JTTF was from the CIA. And when I was in charge of a squad, I made sure to partner every FBI agent with a non-FBI official. I believed it was a constructive process that helped improve relations and cooperation.
“Now, go to sleep—that’s an order,” John said. He had, I noticed, been studying my face. None of us were sleeping much. With the blood of sailors on the ground, we didn’t feel we had a right to sleep. John, however, was rightly concerned about the health of his team. Still, I had work to do.
“Let me just finish this report and I’ll go,” I told him.
An hour later John returned to the command center and found me working. He didn’t like being disobeyed, especially when he believed you were harming yourself. He pushed down the lid of my laptop. “That’s it,” he said. “Leave.” He stood there, his hand resting on the laptop as I walked out.
The next day Robert McFadden introduced himself. He had been in U.S. Air Force intelligence before joining NCIS, where he had learned Arabic and served in offices throughout the Arab world. We would become partners in the investigation, doing most of our traveling, interrogations, and interviews together. Bob is polite and gentle, with an acerbic wit. He has a penetrating mind and is hard to fool. Working almost twenty-two-hour days together, we were in sync on everything, from how to prioritize leads and plan investigative strategies to how to interrogate suspects. We became quite close, and consider each other best friends to this day.