“We’re Stubborn, but We’re Not Crazy”
The initial leads we followed with the Yemenis came to nothing, and as days passed, frustration mounted on our side. One day Ambassador Bodine came from a meeting with President Saleh with some evidence for us. It turned out that a few days earlier the Yemenis had brought in a twelve-year-old boy named Hani for questioning. His older brothers reported to the police that Hani had seen men they believed to be the bombers come with a Nissan truck and a boat on a trailer. From under a bridge nearby, Hani saw them park close to the water and bring a crane to lower the boat into the water.
Out of curiosity Hani had moved closer to watch. As he watched them, the men spotted him. They motioned for him to come over and offered him 100 Yemeni rials to guard their truck. While the sum is worth less than a dollar, to Hani it was a significant amount, and he agreed. After the Cole exploded, he waited for their return. He got increasingly nervous as time passed and they didn’t show up. After a while he left, too scared to remain. He then went to his older brothers and told them what had happened, and they thought it best to tell the police.
Hani led the police to the truck. It was a beige Nissan 4x4 with a wooden trailer. In the truck there were a few objects, including ownership papers for the boat in the name of Abdullah Ahmed Khalid Sa’id Musawa, with a black-and-white passport-sized photo attached, a pair of Ray-Ban sunglasses, and what seemed to be pills for hepatitis.
After the Yemenis finished examining the evidence, President Saleh offered it to Ambassador Bodine, and she accepted it and brought it to us at the hotel. We were surprised to see the ambassador turn up with evidence, as it was contrary to protocol for her to accept it. Most ambassadors would have said that the evidence should be given directly to the FBI or the regional security officer (RSO), the Department of State law enforcement officer of the embassy.
According to chain of custody protocol, since Ambassador Bodine had handled the evidence, she could be called as a witness in the trial and could be questioned about her handling of the evidence and whether she had tampered with it. It is considered unusual for an ambassador to handle evidence or appear in court. In my 302, I had to explain how we had come to get the evidence through this unusual channel.
After we had examined the evidence, we asked the Yemenis to take us to where the truck had been found. When we arrived at the site, the truck and the trailer were gone. The Yemenis told us that they were impounded at police headquarters. They saw no need to leave the evidence where it was found. They didn’t understand the importance of leaving a crime scene untouched until investigators finished with it. Forensics appeared to be a foreign science to them.
In the United States the area would have been sealed. Nothing would have been moved until investigators had finished combing the area. Instead, the Yemenis stomped all over the place and removed the vehicle. We explained our protocol to the Yemenis and asked them to be more careful with future evidence. In the meantime, our forensic experts worked on analyzing what was left at the scene.
We asked the Yemenis if we could question Hani. Our gut instinct was that more information could be gained from him. We didn’t know if the Yemenis had information they weren’t passing on or if they just hadn’t gotten anything else. Either way, we wanted to speak to the boy. At first they refused. So we pushed up the chain of command and asked Qamish. Eventually he agreed, and Bob went to speak to Hani.
Hani was being held in jail, which was surprising. “If this is how they treat innocent children who are helpful witnesses, no wonder people don’t cooperate,” Bob later said to me. At first Hani wouldn’t say anything: speaking had landed him in jail. It didn’t help, either, that white-skinned Bob was clearly not a Yemeni or a native Arabic speaker. He was probably the first Westerner the boy ever met. But Bob wouldn’t give up. He spoke gently to Hani and said he was a friend. He gave him some candy and chatted about football (soccer) and fishing—Hani’s passion, according to his father.
Hani gave Bob more details about the men and what had happened. He told Bob that his family lived in Little Aden, a small, impoverished neighborhood. He spent his free time watching ships and playing around the bay. He had been fishing on the morning of October 12 when he saw the scene that he had already described to the Yemeni investigators. Bob extracted from him additional details about the boat, and Hani confirmed that the deck was covered in a red carpet. Much of what he told Bob about the crane and the offer of the 100 rials corroborated what we had been told by the Yemenis. Hani also said that one of the men had put on a life vest. It might seem strange that someone about to blow himself up would be concerned with not drowning. The reasoning behind this, however twisted, is similar to the reasoning that spared Owhali’s life during the East African embassy bombing: suicide is explicitly forbidden in Islam.
The terrorists view martyrdom as the one exception to that rule. If their death is a product of martyrdom, it’s permissible. Otherwise they have to stay alive. In the event of the failure of the operation, the terrorists would not be allowed to let themselves drown, just as Owhali couldn’t blow himself up after he had carried out his role in the embassy bombing.
Bob, a seasoned interrogator, sensed that Hani knew more about the men than he was telling. Going with his instinct, Bob asked, “When did you see these men before?” Surprised that Bob knew to ask, Hani first nodded. He then told Bob that he had seen two of the men, with a third man, a couple of months earlier, in August. He couldn’t remember the exact date. The men took their boat to the water, but rather than using a crane they simply pushed it in. They then invited Hani and his family to take a ride around the bay, saying that they had just bought a new boat and were testing it.
I guessed that the purpose to be served in taking the boy’s family for a ride was to test how much weight the boat could take, so the terrorists could calculate how much explosive power they could use without sinking it. I assumed, too, that because the boat was empty the first time, they could just slide it into the water, whereas the second time—for the bombing—they needed a crane because it was heavy with explosives.
It was not just Hani who had problems remembering dates. We found this to be common among many Yemenis we encountered. Linear thinking is less important to them than it is to those in many other cultures. In particular, they are not used to paying attention to ages, dates (especially birthdays), and times. Many of our questions confused the Yemenis—and their answers frustrated us. When Bob asked Hani’s father how old Hani was, he replied, “He is between ten and twelve, closer to ten.” One witness I spoke to said of a suspect, “He was born about twenty years ago.”
“How old is he?” I asked.
“Oh, twenty-five years old.”
Many of the suspects we questioned said that they were born on January 1. We first thought that perhaps it was a joke they were playing on us, but we learned that in Yemen, January 1 is commonly given as a birthday so that people won’t have trouble “remembering” their birthday if asked.
Other potential witnesses besides Hani who lived around the harbor had seen a third man, known to the locals as Abdu, participate in what we continued to assume was the test run. The neighborhood is small; people know each other, and outsiders are easily spotted. In addition, two of the three men, known as Abdullah and Khalid, had been seen by several people on the day of the Cole bombing. They were the suicide bombers, we guessed. The description of Abdullah that was provided by these witnesses matched the picture of the man, presumably named Abdullah Ahmed Khalid Sa’id Musawa, whose vehicle ownership papers we had found with the sunglasses and hepatitis pills in the abandoned truck. Khalid was referred to by locals as the “handsome one.” Witnesses reported that Abdu appeared to be the leader of the two other men. We also located the crane operators. They confirmed that they had rented a crane to two men for 10,000 rials.
An FBI artist worked on creating sketches of the men. He was the same artist who had drawn the Wanted sketch of Timothy McVeigh, the Oklahoma City bomber. It was a tortuous process, as he didn’t speak Arabic and had to work through a translator. Despite the difficulty, the witnesses said that the final sketches were realistic likenesses.
Days after we arrived in Yemen, one of my Yemeni friends told me confidentially that some pieces of the USS Cole, including parts of the protective fiberglass cover on the outer surface of the radar, had washed ashore. He said that Yemeni officials from the ministry of the interior had taken them. My friend was one of those Yemenis who sympathized with the United States and was firmly committed to getting justice. We had not heard anything about the boat parts from the Yemenis.
Under our agreement with them, they were to notify us of any new evidence that came in. Any and all parts of the Cole were U.S. property. I asked Ansi about the wreckage and he denied knowing that anything had washed ashore. Still other Yemeni friends, however, confirmed that parts had been found and told me how to find the lab in which the wreckage was being kept.
One afternoon, while our convoy was traveling from one location to another, I directed our drivers to take a detour and head to the lab. I hadn’t wanted to give the Yemenis advance warning that we were coming. The lab was simply a fenced-in house with a courtyard and a gate; inside, there were a few rooms. We surprised the Yemenis at lunch, and they cautiously welcomed us in.
“What can we do for you?” the lab supervisor asked.
“As you know, we are working together on the Cole investigation.” He nodded. “So we’ve come to see whether there is anything here that we can work on together.”
“We don’t have anything,” he replied.
“There is nothing here from the Cole?”
“Okay, then.” I walked past him to look into the next room.
“What are you doing?” he asked, his face showing confusion.
“We have approval to look here, and we’re going to see what you have,” I said, and signaled to my colleagues to start looking around. The official protested but seemed unsure what to do. I offered him my phone and said, “Do you want to call someone to confirm what you should already know?” He was hesitant. It was just after lunchtime; most senior officials would be taking their midday nap, and he didn’t want to wake them unnecessarily. We went on with our search as he followed us nervously.
Within a couple of minutes of searching the rooms we found parts of the Cole’s radar cover along with other pieces of wreckage from the destroyer. I told my team to load them into our trucks. “What are you doing?” he asked, running up to me. “Stop! You can’t take that!”
“Now you listen to me,” I told him. “When we came you told us you didn’t have anything from the USS Cole here. This is from the Cole and this belongs to the United States, and I’m taking it with me.”
“Wait a second,” he said, “let me speak to someone first.” He started dialing a number on his phone.
“Let’s go!” I told my team. I didn’t want to hang around. We jumped into the cars and drove off.
“Keep your heads down,” George shouted. We didn’t know if they would start shooting. We made it safely out and back to our hotel. No Yemeni official ever mentioned the incident to me.
From Hani’s family and local fishermen we learned that the men with the boat had been seen coming from Madinat al-Sha’ab, another impoverished area of Aden. We spoke to Aql al-Hara—a Yemeni term for the unofficial mayor of the neighborhood—and he said that a couple of Saudis had been spotted going into and out of a certain house with a boat. They were identifiable as Saudis because of their dialect. Ansi and a few other Yemenis took us to the house. As we approached, we saw that it was one story high, surrounded by a wall, with a courtyard in the back. One of the surrounding walls also served as a wall of the house, and another of the outside walls had a gate in it wide enough to let a truck in and out.
Ansi and the Yemenis told us that we had to wait outside, and they went in first. After a few minutes they came out and told us, “There is nothing in the house. We can move on.”
“Can we look?”
“You’ll be wasting your time,” they told us, “but if you insist, sure, go ahead.”
To the Yemenis, unskilled in forensics, a house with no obvious clues (IDs, papers, weapons) is useless. But to FBI forensic investigators, the house was a treasure chest: we found hairs, what later proved to be RDX and TNT residue, and other pieces of evidence. (RDX, or cyclotrimethylenetrinitramine, is a nitromine that forms the basis for a number of explosives.) We made no effort to hide the fact that what we found was important. Realizing that he and his team had made a mistake, Ansi tried telling us that we needed to leave the house and return later. We weren’t going to risk losing all these clues, and we insisted on staying.
Ansi didn’t have sufficient cause to make us leave, so he and the other Yemenis watched in surprise as we began collecting bits of what we hoped would prove to be evidence. Some of them chuckled as we collected dirt from the floor to check for DNA and other evidence; later, however, they came to appreciate our methods. When the terrorists were eventually prosecuted in Yemeni courts, our lab reports were used in the trial. I briefed the Yemeni prosecutor general on the lab reports beforehand so that he could explain their importance to the judge in court.
Next we tracked down the owner of the house. He said that he had rented it to a man he was introduced to as Abdu in 1999; the description he gave matched the description given at the harbor. Beyond that, the owner denied knowing anything about the men and said he was simply looking to rent the house and make some money. The name on the rental agreement was Abda Hussein Muhammad. We didn’t think we had heard it before. The Yemenis said that it didn’t mean anything to them, either, and the trail seemed to stop cold.
I kept mulling over the name Abda Hussein Muhammad. On second thought, it sounded somewhat familiar, but initially I couldn’t remember why. I returned to our command center, went to the storage room, and took out the photo-book from the 1998 East African embassy bombings, which at the time was still the FBI’s main al-Qaeda photo-book. The first two pages contained a list of names of everyone in the book, and as I looked through, it hit me: Abdul Rahim Hussein Muhammad Abda al-Nashiri could be Abda Hussein Muhammad. It was just the three middle names in a different order.
During the Nairobi bombing investigation, the failed suicide bomber, Owhali, had told us about overhearing another terrorist, Abdul Rahim Hussein Muhammad Abda al-Nashiri, discussing a plan to attack U.S. vessels in Aden using missiles. Nashiri’s name had also come up because he was a cousin of one of the Nairobi bombers, Jihad Ali. As we knew, it was Nashiri who had helped prepare Jihad Ali for the operation; and the phone call to his aunt, Jihad Ali’s mother, informing her that her son had been martyred, had actually been placed by Nashiri a day before the bombing: he had wanted to avoid his cousin’s being linked directly to the East African incident, so he had announced his death in advance. We were also aware that Nashiri had played a role in attempting to smuggle Sagger antitank missiles into Saudi Arabia.
My instinct was that this was one and the same person, and I pointed out the inversion of the name to others. They were skeptical, however, as Nashiri wasn’t known to be an important al-Qaeda figure, and only a few people had even heard of him. I was insistent; to me, it fit together. I explained my theory to John O’Neill. “It could be him,” he said, “but your suspicion is not enough. You need more proof.”
We went to General Qamish, and I shared my theory about Nashiri with him. “I guess you’re on to something,” he said. The Yemenis had found car registration papers for Abdul Rahim Hussein Muhammad Abda al-Nashr in the Nissan truck, along with the boat papers. In Yemen, car registration IDs contain a photo of the owner and resemble driver’s licenses. “It’s the same name, but spelled Nashr,” Qamish said, producing the ID. The photo, however, did not match the picture of Nashiri in the photo-book. Either my theory was wrong or someone was trying to mislead us as to Nashiri’s appearance. We theorized that perhaps Nashiri had deliberately left the fraudulent photo ID in the truck so that we would think he was dead. It was also strange that the Yemenis were only now mentioning that they had found the ID. Why hadn’t they given it to us with everything else they had found in the truck, or at least mentioned it? There were no immediate answers.
We showed the 1998 picture of Nashiri to the fishermen and to Hani, all of whom confirmed that he was Abdu. The Abda Hussein Muhammad who had leased the house was in fact Nashiri. Returning to the landlord, we asked how he’d come to know Nashiri, and he explained that a man named Jamal al-Badawi had introduced them. Witnesses we questioned said that Badawi had been spotted in the neighborhood, as had Musawa. The Yemenis told us that Badawi was a known local al-Qaeda operative and that they would try to track him down. The landlord added that he had found the house deserted at the beginning of January. Nashiri hadn’t notified him that he and the other tenants were leaving. They didn’t even leave the keys, and he never heard from them again.
We thought that perhaps the person pictured in the Nashr ID was the second suicide bomber and that the other was Musawa. That would fit with our smokescreen theory. Hani and the fishermen didn’t recognize the Nashr photo, however, so we sent it around to all the intelligence community and embassies to see if anyone knew anything about him.
A few weeks later, in January 2001, the man pictured on the Nashr ID walked into the U.S. Embassy in Sanaa. He waited in line and, when he got to the head of the line, told the clerk that he wanted a U.S. visa. The clerk looked at him, and his eyes widened: the man’s face matched the Wanted picture that was circulating around the embassy. The clerk alerted security and the message was passed to us.
It sounded too good to be true; no suspect had ever been served up this easily. A decision was made by Ambassador Bodine not to arrest him. He had come in for a service, and an arrest could be viewed, she felt, as kidnapping, leading to a diplomatic incident—an understandable concern. Instead we notified the Yemenis, and we instructed the embassy staff to tell the man to return in the afternoon for an answer. As he walked out, the Yemenis arrested him. The man was questioned for hours and denied knowing anything about the Cole. He said that he didn’t know why his picture was on an ID for “Nashr.” He seemed confused and shocked by the accusations, and his reactions were so obviously genuine that we eventually determined that he was telling the truth. We guessed that he had probably gone to get his passport picture taken in a store, and that someone had swiped a copy to use on a fake ID. It was an unfortunate coincidence for him, but in any case he was not given a U.S. visa. (He was the one person whom the Yemeni authorities had no problem with us questioning as much as we wanted.)
At this point, given all the evidence we had discovered so far, including the role of Nashiri, it was clear that al-Qaeda was behind the bombing. The Washington field office began making preparations to leave Aden and to hand over the case fully to the NYO. Everyone—the White House, the military, the CIA, CENTCOM—were all briefed on the fact that the bombing of the Cole had been an al-Qaeda operation. We waited for an official U.S. response against al-Qaeda. And we waited.
Within a few days of Badawi’s name being mentioned by witnesses, the Yemenis found him in Sanaa and picked him up for questioning. We weren’t allowed to question him, however. The United States and Yemen were in the final stages of working out an interrogation agreement—it became known as the Joint Yemeni-American Investigative Committee—and Kelley and the judge were still negotiating terms. In the meantime, we kept pushing Qamish for more information on Nashiri. At one point, frustrated with all my queries, he said to me, “Look, Nashiri doesn’t matter. Badawi told us that a terrorist called Khallad introduced him to Nashiri. Khallad is the main guy, anyway.” Qamish folded his hands.
“Khallad?” I recognized the name from the conversation I had had months earlier with my source in Afghanistan, who had spoken of the one-legged al-Qaeda terrorist, and from reports of his mistaken arrest around the time of the Bayt Habra car thefts to finance Mihdhar’s escape. Rumor had it that, following Khallad’s arrest, bin Laden himself had written a letter to the Yemenis, addressed “To Whom It May Concern of the Brothers in Yemen,” asking for the “bin Attash son to be freed.” Khallad was not mentioned by name but the subject of the letter was clear. The letter reportedly went on to threaten the Yemenis with severe consequences if they didn’t release bin Laden’s errand boy.
This letter has never been found, and its existence was never confirmed by the Yemenis. However, it would not have been surprising for bin Laden to have written and sent such a letter: the al-Qaeda leader at that stage was viewed in Yemen not as an international terrorist but rather more as a respected mujahid from the first Afghan war, and he was known, feared, and respected. Al-Bara, however, was still in a Yemeni jail, ostensibly for his involvement in the Bayt Habra car theft plot. My source in Afghanistan had told me that al-Bara and Khallad looked like each other, a fact confirmed by other al-Qaeda operatives I questioned: when I showed them pictures of al-Bara, at least one identified the man in the photo as “Khallad when he was younger,” and almost all were in agreement about the likeness.
All this information from my source was classified, and I wasn’t permitted to tell Qamish that we knew about Khallad and al-Bara. I pulled John aside and told him what Qamish had said and asked for permission to reveal what I knew. John quickly got approval from Washington.
We went back to Qamish. “My friend,” John said to him, “given that you said Nashiri doesn’t matter and that Khallad is the key person, we’d like to ask you for pictures of both Khallad and al-Bara. Al-Bara is still in your custody, right?”
Qamish was surprised. “Yes, al-Bara is still in jail,” he replied matter-of-factly.
“We understand you’ve had him in custody since the Bayt Habra incident. You also arrested Khallad around that time. I’d like their photos and files,” John continued.
Qamish appeared unsure of how to respond. He had never mentioned al-Bara to us and was not expecting that we would know much, if anything, about him, let alone that the Yemenis had him in custody. John asked me to brief Qamish about Khallad and al-Bara, which I did. Qamish told us what they knew about the two men, giving us some new information.
It was, of course, difficult to get information from him in this way, but the slow back-and-forth wasn’t unusual. No intelligence agency (even that of an ally) readily gives up information unless its officials know that the other party has much of it already, or knows something about it, or unless their officials believe that it is in their own interests to share it. In that case, they don’t want to be seen as being noncooperative. If an agency thinks that we don’t know much about a suspect or a subject, however, they’re less likely to give up what information they themselves have.
The next time I met with Qamish, on November 22, he handed me an envelope. Inside, he told me, was a picture that Khallad had submitted when he had applied for a commercial license to open a shop in Sadah. (The business was a cover; Khallad planned to use the place to store explosives.) The name on the license was Tawfiq Muhammad Salih bin Rashid. “Over to you,” Qamish said with a smile.
In the picture, Khallad looked to be in his early thirties, with a long face, a mustache, and black hair. He had a faraway look in his black eyes. When you are tracking someone, before you know what he looks like, you form an image of him in your mind. It’s always surprising when you see an actual picture. Khallad was not how I had imagined him.
When I returned to the hotel that evening, I circulated Khallad’s picture within the U.S. intelligence community. A colleague at the FBI office in Islamabad showed it to my source in Afghanistan when he saw him a few days later, and the source confirmed that it was the same Khallad. All U.S. intelligence agencies received this confirmation.
As for Khallad’s false arrest, we later learned that he had been picked up in a car belonging to a well-known Yemeni weapons and explosives dealer named Hadi Muhammad Salih al-Wirsh (known as Hadi Dilkum), from whom he had been buying matériel. The pickup occurred around the time of the Bayt Habra incident. After taking the car late at night, Khallad had stopped at a phone booth to make a call, and when he returned to the car he found himself surrounded by Yemeni domestic intelligence officers.
When I asked about Hadi Dilkum, the Yemeni officials initially refused to acknowledge his existence and said that there was no one by that name for us to question. One of the few pieces of information we had been able to learn about Hadi Dilkum was that he had a close relationship with many influential Yemenis, and at the time I had to assume that this had spared him jail time. Later, we learned that the authorities had used him (and others like him) to supply the mujahideen with weapons for use against South Yemen during the civil war. After the North’s victory in the war, Dilkum had been unofficially allowed to operate freely in the country as long as his actions didn’t harm Yemeni interests.
The circumstances of Khallad’s arrest and release were never made clear. The Yemenis were secretive about the episode, and I believe they were embarrassed as well. We learned from sources that when Khallad was brought in, the local Yemeni officials had accused him of being Hadi Dilkum. Based on this, some members of our team speculated that when the Yemenis arrested Khallad, they really intended to arrest Dilkum. It was Khallad’s bad luck to have been borrowing Dilkum’s car at that point. This explanation tallied with the account that Khallad, when released, took his explosives with him. They were in the trunk of his car, which the Yemeni intelligence officials apparently never searched.
An alternative explanation was that Hadi Dilkum had tipped them off that Khallad seemed to be up to no good. Hadi Dilkum may have been worried that an operation in Yemen using his explosives would get him in trouble with the authorities—hence the tip-off. This, we reasoned, would explain why the Yemenis didn’t want us questioning Hadi Dilkum.
When we showed the picture of Nashiri from the East African embassy photo-book to the fishermen, besides confirming that he was Abdu, they told us about an incident that had occurred ten months earlier: on January 4, 2000, a group of local shabab (young men) went down, as usual, to the bay before daybreak. They described themselves as fishermen, and their daily routine was to hang out by the water in a fishing shack. There were five of them, aged between seventeen and the early twenties, and we nicknamed them the Beachboy Five.
When they came down that morning, they spotted a boat with a top-of-the-line Yahama engine near the water. They waited to see if the owner of the engine would return to claim it. When no one came, they cautiously went over to the boat, each encouraging the other. The boat had a red carpet, and when they lifted up the carpet and the plywood below, they saw lots of compartments. They were confused to find what seemed to be extra batteries with wires hanging out. Below that were what they termed “bricks,” with Russian writing on them. The bricks had a hole through them, and a cord running through the hole. They thought, at first, that the bricks might be hashish, and that the boat belonged to smugglers, who often operated out of the area. They tried cutting into the bricks to see if they tasted like hashish. They didn’t, but they assumed, still, that they had found something of value.
The first thing they wanted to take was the motor, which they knew was valuable. They estimated that it was worth five thousand dollars. The five young men weren’t big or strong—Yemenis are often quite small, by Western standards—and when they removed the motor they ended up dropping in into the water. Eventually they managed to get it to their shack. They then formed a chain and started removing the “bricks” from the boat, throwing them to each other and piling them in the shack. The young men never realized that the bricks were explosives, that the cord was a detonation cord, and that the batteries were detonation devices that had been disconnected.
At daybreak, while the young men were still passing the bricks, a truck pulled up and three men ran out, one of whom they later identified as Abdu, the second as Musawa; the third went away and never reappeared, and they never learned his name. Abdu stepped forward; he was clearly the leader, and he had a look of horror on his face, presumably because the boys were happily tossing explosives. He asked them to put down the bricks, telling them that he owned the boat. They replied that they had found it abandoned and that it was theirs. He told them that it had gotten stuck in the water and that he was now collecting it, and he demanded that they give him the motor and the explosives back.
They refused. They began negotiating with Abdu, whom they described as a savvy businessman. At one point the five huddled together and decided to try to drive a harder bargain. Abdu replied with fury: “I’m Za’im”—a term denoting a well-connected or important person—“don’t fool with me.” Intimidated, the young men conferred with one another again and soon reached a deal with Abdu.
With the young men watching, Abdu and Musawa set about working to remove the boat from the water. First they brought in a front loader. They tried a few times to remove the boat with it but couldn’t. Frustrated, they gave up for the day. Before they left, however, they removed the boat’s steering wheel and throttle, along with wires that were to be used with the explosives. They carried off all of these items, as well as the motor and the explosives, and they returned the front loader. They told the young men that they’d be back to collect the boat.
They returned the next day, Musawa having obtained a crane. Once they started using it, however, it got stuck in the sand ten meters from the boat. Abdu flagged a passing Yemeni military truck and told the driver that he would pay him to help them drag the crane out. The driver agreed, but after examining the crane, he said that his truck couldn’t take the weight. Still, he agreed to remain at the site to lend a hand. A decision was made to engage another front loader—to get the crane out of the sand. Eventually this was accomplished and the boat was lifted out of the water and put into the military truck. The convoy—the front loader, the crane, and the military truck holding the boat—then headed off.
The five young men told us that they initially saw the boat as a reward from heaven for their having fasted through Ramadan. Laylat al-Qadr, or the Night of Destiny—when the Prophet Mohammad is said to have received the first and the last of his divine revelations—had been widely celebrated on January 3 that year. The young men believed that their apparent good fortune was a reward from heaven for their piety. The Yemeni intelligence officers in the room during the questioning couldn’t contain smirks and giggled under their breath.
This was nine months before the Cole attack. It was clear al-Qaeda had been planning something else. What had we stumbled on, we wondered.
As the Nashiri and Khallad leads were being followed, our team was following another lead after witnesses reported having seen a boat matching the description of the one used by the bombers being towed from the al-Burayqah neighborhood. We put out an alert, asking if any law enforcement personnel in the area had seen anything suspicious, and a policeman who directed traffic between al-Burayqah and another neighborhood, Kud al-Namer, came forward.
He had noticed, coming from the direction of al-Burayqah, a truck and trailer that matched the description. The boat being towed was bigger than the typical Yemeni craft—the equivalent of a limousine. Its size reduced the number of places the bombers could have purchased it within the country; it might have been purchased outside of Yemen. Based on information gained at the harbor, a team of FBI and Yemeni investigators headed to al-Burayqah. Known by locals as “little Kandahar,” the neighborhood is an al-Qaeda recruitment hub (we were to learn that the organization even maintained a safe house there), sending ranks of youths to the Taliban capital to fight. We handed out pictures of the suspects, and over a period of a few days investigators knocked on doors, stopped in shops and restaurants, and asked pedestrians if they had seen the truck or the men.
Our involvement in the investigation occurred in fits and starts, with Ansi repeatedly coming up with reasons we couldn’t proceed on any given day. More and more locals told us that they had seen the boat, each one remarking on its size. A few construction workers remembered having seen the truck go over a speed bump and then stop; one of the passengers had hopped out to check that the trailer hadn’t become disconnected. They said that all the men were dressed in white. We were directed to a house that they had been seen entering and exiting. Its appearance gave me a chill across the back of my neck: it was eerily similar to the houses used by the bombers in the Kenyan and Tanzanian embassy bombings. A single-story detached white-brick villa, it was enclosed partly by wall and partly by fence; a gate controlled access. In the yard were engine parts, tools, and bomb-making materials.
In the master bedroom we found a prayer mat facing north, and the bathroom sink had some body hair in it, indicating that the bombers had performed the pre-suicide bombing rituals, “purifying” themselves. We collected hair samples and a razor they had left behind, giving the evidence to our forensic team for testing.
The Yemenis tracked down the landlord, who claimed not to know that the men were terrorists. According to the rental agreement, the lease had begun in the summer. It was made out to Abdullah Musawa. We showed the landlord the photo we had of Musawa, and he confirmed that it was the same man who had rented the house. He identified the two others seen at the harbor on the day of the bombing, Abdu and Khalid, as having been in the house.
After more questioning, we learned that the men had also visited a local mechanic, whom we tracked down. He admitted to having worked on their boat, although he claimed that he didn’t know what they were planning on using it for. The men had come in with an engine problem, which he had fixed. Then they had asked him to build a fiberglass floor for the boat, creating a compartment between the actual bottom and the fiberglass. They explained that they needed it for storage—presumably of explosives.
The USS Cole was towed out of Aden on October 29, 2000, on a Norwegian salvage ship, the Blue Marlin—to the strains of the “The Star-Spangled Banner” and Kid Rock’s “American Bad Ass” on a PA system. By that time we had what is known as the “intelligence case” that al-Qaeda was behind the attack. We had, in other words, enough evidence to remove any doubt among senior U.S. government officials, but it wouldn’t be enough to convict those responsible in a U.S. court of law. Our next step was to widen the search and get more evidence. It was possible, we reasoned, that the terrorists had been spotted elsewhere in the city. We sent investigators to other neighborhoods with photos and sketches of the suspects.
The men had also been seen in the Tawahi neighborhood. Using regular police methods—knocking on doors, stopping pedestrians, and checking rental offices—we eventually located an apartment they had used, and the landlord from whom they had rented it. Abdullah Musawa had rented the apartment for four months, with the rent paid in advance. Neighbors said that there had been other men in the house, and that they had claimed to be fishermen and had kept to themselves.
The apartment overlooked the harbor, a perfect location for the terrorists to watch boats coming and going and from which to record any attack, which al-Qaeda would then try to use in propaganda videos. The known local al-Qaeda member Fahd al-Quso was identified by neighbors as having been in the apartment, and the Yemenis said that they would try to track him down.
Throughout this part of the investigation—in all three neighborhoods and at the harbor—Ansi watched us closely. At times he seemed to be encouraging witnesses not to talk to us; he would glower at them when they gave us information. Sometimes he would smirk when we didn’t get the information we needed. He also invented excuses for getting annoyed with us. When we moved from site to site, we plugged each of the locations into our GPS devices so that other team members could locate them (by and large, the country does not use a system of formal addresses). Ansi protested, telling us in all sincerity that the devices could be used for marking targets we planned to bomb. He informed other Yemeni officials of his suspicions.
We explained to him how the GPS system worked and why it was useful. Curious, he asked if he could have a device. We ordered a box of top-quality GPS devices from Dubai for him and his team as a gift. Later he complained that they didn’t work: he didn’t understand that they needed to be programmed. When we left Aden, I noticed they that had been put back in their boxes. Similarly, when we dredged the sea floor below the Cole for evidence, Ansi didn’t understand what dredging was and claimed that we were trying to mess up their harbor. Everything to him was a conspiracy.
Ansi’s attitude and lack of cooperation were annoying and time-consuming, and sometimes our frustration boiled over. Once, John and I were in a conference room in PSO headquarters in Aden speaking to Naji and Ansi about some leads we wanted to follow, and Ansi was being his usual difficult self. John stared hard into his eyes and said, “With you it’s like pulling teeth.” Ansi took a step back, shocked. His English was very basic, and he thought that John was threatening to pull out his teeth. I quickly explained the saying. John often made references to teeth, although I never knew why. When we had problems with other Yemeni officials, he would sometimes ask, his face a study in seriousness, “Are you a dentist?” Surprised by the question, they’d reply, “No, why do you ask?”
“Because with you it’s like pulling teeth,” he’d tell them.
For all the problems we had with Ansi, our friendship with his boss, General Qamish, made up for it. Qamish knew that Ansi wasn’t keen on helping us, so he tried to stay in Aden as much as possible to help us out himself. Almost every night we met with him. We grew fond of each other, and he would call John “Brother John” and me “Brother Ali.” Often while I was translating Qamish’s words for John, he would slap my thigh—a sign of friendship in Yemen.
Once when I noticed that Qamish’s personal bodyguards were using the small AK-74s used by Soviet Spetsnaz, I joked with him that they were using bin Laden’s jeffreys. (The guns were referred to in Yemen as jeffreys.) The al-Qaeda leader was known to carry a small AK-74 that he claimed to have taken from a Russian soldier he had killed in Afghanistan during the May 1987 Battle of Jaji. A few days later Qamish told me he had a gift for me in his office in Sanaa. It was a jeffrey. I was touched by the gesture and also found it ironic that while Ambassador Bodine wouldn’t allow us to carry weapons, claiming that the Yemenis objected, the head of Yemeni intelligence wanted to give me one. I was never able to take it back with me to the United States; the paperwork was too complicated.
I was traveling from Aden to Sanaa one day to meet with PSO officials, and the embassy gave me a diplomatic pouch to carry. Under the 1961 Vienna Convention on Diplomatic Relations, diplomatic bags, which contain articles for official government use, have immunity from search or seizure, as does their courier. We’d had problems in the past with pouches being searched, and to try to minimize such problems, I had told the Yemenis in advance that I would have one. I was convinced, of course, that some agency would insist upon a search.
After I was dropped off by colleagues at the airport, a PSO official in civilian clothes—I had seen him in the airport on various occasions before—came running toward me shouting, “Ali Soufan, Ali Soufan, come with me.” Oh, no, I thought, here we go. He told me to follow him, and I braced myself for drama as he led us to the VIP lounge. Sitting there to greet me was Qamish, with a big smile on his face. “You weren’t expecting me?” he asked, half rhetorically, and I shook my head. “I’m going to travel with you to make sure you have no problems.” The trip was the smoothest of all my time in Yemen. We spent the journey discussing our lives. He told me about his time in the military academy, and about his family.
Earning Qamish’s friendship didn’t result in his anticipating everything we might want. He only gave us what we asked for, and often we had to push hard for it. But unlike Ansi, when we were on to information, he didn’t try to cripple our investigation. And he was always friendly, even when saying no.
One evening, John, Naji, and I were in a car, discussing the problems we were having and how hard it was to get information from some Yemenis. Naji spoke English well, so there was no need for me to translate from Arabic for John. Naji told us: “You have to remember we Arabs are stubborn people—that’s why we’re hitting a rock. You’ll have to back down, because eventually things will work out.”
“You’re dealing with another Arab, and I’m also stubborn,” I replied with a smile, reminding him of my childhood in Lebanon.
“The Irish are even more stubborn than the Arabs,” John interjected, and told us a story about his clan in Ireland. The O’Neills were known for their strength and bravery. “Every year in their village there was a boat race to a giant stone in the middle of the local lake, and every year the O’Neill clan won. One year, another clan’s boat took the lead, and it looked as if they would win. My great-grandfather took his sword, cut off his own hand, and threw it at the rock so that he would touch it first. You two got anything that can match that?”
“We’re stubborn,” I said with a smile, “but we’re not crazy.”
As the weeks passed, our morning meetings became increasingly upbeat. The focus shifted from problems with the Yemenis or Ambassador Bodine to progress that was being made on various fronts. There was a sense that we were getting closer and closer to nailing those responsible. And then a new problem arose.
Before we arrived in Yemen, there had been some confusion about what information could be shared between intelligence and criminal investigators. In 1995, Attorney General Janet Reno had instituted new rules concerning the division between criminal and intelligence investigations, partly because of alleged problems with the use of the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act (FISA) in past investigations. FISA governs the conduct and use of surveillance and physical searches of foreign powers and their agents inside the United States.
There are some differences between intelligence and criminal investigations: in a criminal investigation, in order to listen in on someone’s conversation, you first need probable cause and a judge’s approval. For intelligence gathering, you need reasonable suspicion, a much lower bar. Attorney General Reno’s guidelines were meant to ensure that criminal investigators and prosecutors were not taking advantage of lax rules on the intelligence side to obtain information for their cases. But the rules never were designed to prevent FBI agents from cooperating when they were working on the criminal and intelligence sides—definitely not when the efforts were part of the same case. Yet that is how the guidelines came to be interpreted, despite objections from field agents.
When Steve Bongardt, the on-the-scene liaison with the CIA, initially asked the CIA for information, he was told, absurdly, that they would give it to him but that he couldn’t share it with the rest of us. The CIA team said that they couldn’t share intelligence with criminal agents. Steve refused to not pass on information. “What use is it,” he asked, “to have information and not share it with the agents on the ground who need it to apprehend the terrorists?” The CIA said that if he was going to pass it on, they wouldn’t share the intelligence.
For an investigation to proceed effectively, and for the United States to meet its national security goals and arrive at a successful outcome, the two sides need to work in tandem. After John O’Neill arrived on the ground, we briefed him on this “new issue” between criminal and intelligence that Steve and our team were facing. John made an agreement with a senior CIA official, Hank Crumpton, to let the CIA attend all our meetings, and vice versa. The agreement worked well initially. In the evenings we would meet with the CIA officers and analysts and update them on information we had gained during the day, and they, in turn, gave us the intelligence connected to our case.
While we were working with Hank and the CTC officials in Aden, Steve Bongardt moved to Sanaa to liaise with the embassy and the appropriate Yemeni agencies. Soon he began reporting problems with the [3 words redacted], which was withholding intelligence-related material. Absurdly, this included material we had shared with them in Aden, expecting them, in turn, to share it with Steve in Sanaa. We began to suspect something was afoot.
Part of the problem was that Steve was dealing with the [5 words redacted] Sanaa, whose rank within the agency was lower than Hank’s, and lower, too, than the members of the CTC team he had been dealing with in Aden. Because the Sanaa [1 word redacted] was further down the CIA chain of command, the CTC team in Aden bypassed their own man, instead sending information straight to CIA headquarters. To complicate matters, the [1 word redacted] fell under the agency’s Near East division rather than strictly under CTC jurisdiction.The state of affairs understandably left the [1 word redacted] upset, and he took it out on Steve and the FBI, claiming we wouldn’t give him information. And when we later moved to Sanaa, we no longer dealt with Hank and the CTC—they had left the country—but only with the [1 word redacted], from whom we got minimal information: apparently he was exacting his revenge. Information sharing began to be a one-way street. We didn’t retaliate; that would have been doubly absurd—punishing not the CIA but our country by making us less safe.
The idea of not sharing information with us because we were on the criminal side was nonsense. The FBI is also an intelligence agency. It deals with sensitive intelligence on a daily basis. The bureau respects and is fully aware of the differences between intelligence and law enforcement. We had been building cases against terrorist networks, foreign intelligence networks, and state sponsors of terrorism, and had never incurred any violations. The CIA had worked with us on many of these cases without dispute.
The claim that criminal agents could have no access to intelligence reports was a false reading of the FISA rules, especially as FISA rules don’t necessarily apply to intelligence gained overseas. The 9/11 Commission found that the guidelines had been misinterpreted, and not only by the CIA; many in FBI headquarters had done so, too, much to our frustration. This error was identified by the 9/11 Commission as one factor in the failure to stop the attacks on New York and Washington. The commission found that the procedures governing information sharing between intelligence and criminal sides “were almost immediately misunderstood and misapplied.” It also found that the Office of Intelligence Policy and Review (OIPR), the FBI leadership, and the United States Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court (FICA) built barriers, discouraging information sharing. At the time, we tried explaining that the rules were being misread, but to no avail.
Even after he left Yemen, right up till 9/11, Steve Bongardt was furiously battling “the wall,” as it came to be known. Often he would demand of people who were refusing him access to intelligence: “Show me where this is written that we can’t have access to intelligence.” They couldn’t, but they would insist it was the law. It was a widespread misconception that no one at the top ever refuted. These problems—the problems identified by the 9/11 Commission—started in Yemen. Day by day it got worse. At one point I got the Pink Floyd CD The Wall. And whenever an issue came up and we were told we couldn’t have information because we were on the criminal side, we would play it.
When I returned from Yemen I met with a delegation from the Department of Justice, led by Fran Townsend, to discuss intelligence-sharing problems. The meeting was convened in my supervisor Pat D’Amuro’s conference room. “Imagine an instance where one agent on a squad is handling intelligence,” I said to the delegates, “and another is handling the criminal investigation. It’s likely that one agent would have half of the plot, and the other would have the other half. And yet they won’t be allowed to piece it together. Imagine if someone wants to bomb the World Trade Center and our agents are unable to connect the dots since one half isn’t allowed to tell the other half what it knows.”
I said this not because I thought there was an attack coming, but because until 9/11, the previous major terrorist attack in the United States had been the 1993 bombing of the World Trade Center. The delegates were sympathetic and understood our problem, but in government it is very difficult to change anything, and nothing happened.