Al-Qaeda Suspect Says He Planned Cole Attack

By Josh White
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, March 20, 2007

An alleged key al-Qaeda operative with close ties to Osama bin Laden told a military hearing at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, that he organized the attack on the USS Cole that killed 17 U.S. sailors in 2000, according to Defense Department transcripts released yesterday.

Walid Muhammad bin Attash, also known as Tawfiq bin Attash, became the second high-value detainee in recent days to stand before U.S. military officers and take responsibility for major attacks against U.S. interests, barely challenging allegations against him. In a brief hearing on March 12 that was closed to the public, bin Attash also was said to have claimed responsibility for an al-Qaeda operation that led to the nearly simultaneous detonation of two truck bombs at the U.S. embassies in Kenya and Tanzania in 1998, killing more than 200 people and injuring thousands.

Joining the extensive claims of al-Qaeda leader Khalid Sheik Mohammed -- who told a tribunal at Guantanamo Bay on March 10 that he was the mastermind of the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks -- bin Attash linked himself to major attacks that came at the behest of bin Laden. U.S. intelligence officials also believe that bin Attash, who lost his right leg during a battlefield accident in 1997, helped select about two dozen operatives for special training in 1999, training that ultimately led some to participate in the suicide bombing of the Cole, the Sept. 11 attacks and other events.

Though the Pentagon transcripts cannot be independently verified, Mohammed's tribunal transcript matched the accounts of two U.S. senators who watched from an adjoining room. It is impossible to know whether the suspects were exaggerating their claims or taking responsibility because of prior abuse. Both were in secret CIA custody for years, and Mohammed has alleged mistreatment. Bin Attash, according to his transcript, did not allege wrongdoing by his captors.

Department of Justice officials named bin Attash, a Yemeni national, as an unindicted Cole co-conspirator in May 2003, about two weeks after he was captured in Pakistan. He was later secreted to a CIA prison. His brother Hassan bin Attash has been detained at Guantanamo Bay since September 2004.

U.S. authorities had long alleged Walid Muhammad bin Attash's role in al-Qaeda's training camps in Afghanistan, but his claim of responsibility for the USS Cole bombing was the first time he had asserted such close involvement in the Oct. 12, 2000, attack on the U.S. warship while it refueled in the Yemeni port of Aden. Bombers on a small boat filled with explosives waved at U.S. sailors, feigning an attempt to help the ship dock, before they detonated their vessel.

The blast tore a huge hole in the side of the Cole's steel-plated hull, killing 17 sailors and injuring dozens more.

"I participated in the buying or purchasing of the explosives," bin Attash said with the help of an interpreter, claiming many roles in the attack, such as faking travel documents for the bombers. "I put together the plan for the operation a year and a half prior to the operation. Buying the boat and recruiting the members that did the operations. Buying the explosives."

Bin Attash told the Combatant Status Review Tribunal at Guantanamo Bay that he was with bin Laden in Kandahar, Afghanistan, at the time of the Cole attack and that he was in Karachi, Pakistan, meeting with the head of the African embassy bombing operation when those attacks took place. He said he was the link between bin Laden and the terrorism cell chief in Nairobi.

"I used to supply the cell with whatever documents they need from fake stamps to visas, whatever," bin Attash said, according to the Pentagon documents.

All Guantanamo Bay detainees are entitled to a tribunal that determines whether they are enemy combatants. A panel of three military officers will rule on bin Attash's status over the coming weeks, and military prosecutors could charge him with crimes at a future military commission.

Yesterday's release of bin Attash's transcript came just days after a civil trial against the government of Sudan. The families of the Cole victims had alleged that Sudan's support for the plotters -- allowing money, weapons and travel documents to flow through the country -- made the attacks possible. A federal judge ruled last week that Sudan was liable for the deaths of the 17 sailors but has yet to impose damages.

Mona Gunn, whose son, Seaman Cherone Gunn, 22, was killed in the Cole attack, said yesterday that she is pleased that bin Attash has taken responsibility for the bombing and that she believes he should face a death sentence.

"I think he needs to hear that he has torn 17 families apart, that 17 families continue to suffer every day as a result of losing a loved one," Gunn said. "My biggest concern now is what's the plan to get Osama bin Laden, to put an end to all of this."

Terrorism experts said the detainees may be claiming responsibility for attacks to shield al-Qaeda members who have not been captured or to increase their own standing in the jihadist community.

Paul Pillar, former deputy chief of the CIA's counterterrorist center and a professor at Georgetown University, said yesterday that bin Attash's transcript struck him as "mundane" and "about as plain and straightforward as possible."

"It shows that there are people who are genuinely guilty, and who genuinely deserve to be punished," Pillar said. "But it doesn't mean the books are closed on anything. For each of these operations we're talking about, there are a number of people who are certainly involved enough to deserve and warrant punishment."

Staff researcher Julie Tate contributed to this report.

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