After nearly three years of investigation, the Justice Department has won its first indictments in the bombing of the U.S. destroyer Cole, charging two suspected Al Qaeda operatives with blowing up the $1-billion warship in the Yemeni port of Aden in 2000 and killing 17 sailors, officials said Wednesday.
Senior department officials were expected to announce the sealed indictments today, after flying the families of the 17 sailors and surviving victims of the Cole attack to Washington for the event.
“This is something that we have been working toward since Oct. 12,” a senior U.S. official said, referring to the day in 2000 when two men in an inflatable boat approached the Cole, saluted sailors on board and detonated enough high-grade explosives to nearly sink the ship.
“The investigation has been open since that day,” he said.
The two Yemeni nationals who were indicted, Fahd Mohammed Ahmed Quso and Jamal Mohammed Ahmad Ali Badawi, escaped from a Yemeni prison last month under mysterious circumstances with eight other suspected Al Qaeda members. Badawi is believed to have bought the boat that rammed the Cole.
The whereabouts of Quso and Badawi were unknown, authorities said Wednesday. The FBI described the men as being armed and extremely dangerous.
The indictment also names as unindicted co-conspirators in the case two senior Al Qaeda operatives, Tawfiq Attash, also known as Khallad, and Abd al Rahim al Nashiri. Both men, who are in U.S. custody, are considered to be even higher-ranking players in the Cole bombing than Quso and Badawi.
Law enforcement sources said the Justice Department considered seeking indictments against Attash and Al Nashiri but decided not to out of concern that criminal charges might disrupt their ongoing interrogations, which are occurring overseas in undisclosed locations.
The indictments were returned Monday by a federal grand jury in New York that has been hearing evidence in the case for years under extraordinarily tight security measures.
The indictments are considered a major victory for the Justice Department, which in recent months has wrestled with other U.S. government agencies over whether the men should be prosecuted through the federal court system or through military tribunals, in which details of the case could be withheld from public view.
“We are operating under a different rule of law now. There is a huge military operation and a huge intelligence operation out there and that has changed everything. We have taken a back seat, the prosecution side of things,” one senior federal law enforcement official said.
“I’ve accepted it,” the senior official said of the current emphasis on military tribunals for terrorism suspects, in an interview Monday just hours before the indictments were returned. “But this is one where we’d like to see an indictment.”
Indeed, the FBI has sent hundreds of agents around the globe in search of the Cole bombers and has pressed the government of Yemen to cooperate more in the investigation and the U.S. government to take a more aggressive approach to the case.
On the morning of Sept. 11, 2001, newly sworn-in FBI Director Robert S. Mueller III was receiving a briefing on suspects in the Cole bombing when the first hijacked plane rammed into the World Trade Center.
Since those attacks, even as the CIA and the Pentagon took on a more central role in the war on terrorism, FBI agents pursued the Cole bombing investigation.
It wasn’t until several weeks ago, FBI and Justice Department officials said, that the bureau and the department reached a decision to seek indictments against the two men.
“The return of these indictments is a significant achievement,” said Eric H. Holder Jr., who as deputy attorney general in the Clinton administration oversaw terrorism prosecutions. “When it comes to taking American lives, Al Qaeda is responsible for a number of heinous incidents; the bombing of the Cole is among them.”
Holder said a criminal trial in the Cole case would attract world attention and help swing the spotlight on the nation’s pursuit of Al Qaeda away from secret military tribunals and toward public trials in which Americans could see how their government has waged war on terrorism.
In addition to the Cole bombing, FBI officials said the two Yemenis are being investigated in connection with other Al Qaeda operations, including possible involvement in the Sept. 11 attacks and other terrorist plots in the Persian Gulf.
The Cole probe is also continuing.
“We are still trying to figure out what happened there,” said one FBI official. “Was the [Yemen] government involved? We have the known quantities, but there are still co-conspirators that we haven’t vetted out.”