By Ali H. Soufan
Saturday, May 17, 2008
Seven years after al-Qaeda terrorists Jamal al-Badawi and Fahd al-Quso confessed to me their crucial involvement in the bombing of the USS Cole, and three years after they were convicted in a Yemeni court -- where a judge imposed a death sentence on Badawi -- they, along with many other al-Qaeda terrorists, are free. On Oct. 12, 2000, when I flew to Yemen to lead the FBI's Cole investigation, I had no idea how uncooperative the Yemeni government would initially be. Nor could I have imagined how disconnected from reality the U.S. ambassador to Yemen then, Barbara K. Bodine, would prove.
I have hesitated in the past to share my view of the conflict between Bodine and the FBI's counterterrorism leader, John O'Neill. I feel compelled, however, to respond to Bodine's recent comments, which slander the efforts of many dedicated counterterrorism agents and divert attention from the significant terrorist problem within Yemen, our "ally" in the "war on terror."
A recent Post report on Yemen allowing al-Qaeda operatives to go free offered insight into the challenges the FBI faced. Bodine was quoted in the article not urging the Yemeni government to rearrest the terrorists but, instead, denigrating the agents who investigated the attack. She faulted the FBI as being slow to trust Yemeni authorities and said agents were "dealing with a bureaucracy and a culture they didn't understand. . . . We had one group working on a New York minute, and another on a 4,000-year-old history."
In fact, our team included several Arab American agents who understood the culture and the region. Even so, such comments were irrelevant. The FBI left Yemen with the terrorists in jail.
It is true that while tracking the terrorists we worked "on a New York minute." We owed that much to the sailors murdered on the Cole and to all innocent people who remained targets as long as the terrorists were free.
It is also true that we did not trust some Yemeni officials. We had good reason not to:
When the FBI arrived in Yemen, some government officials tried to convince us that the explosion had been caused by a malfunction in the Cole's operating systems. Yemeni President Ali Abdullah Saleh even asked the U.S. government for money to clean up port damage the United States "caused."
After we took representatives from various security agencies aboard the Cole and proved to them that the explosion was caused by an external attack, some Yemeni officials claimed that those responsible had died in the attack and that there was no reason to keep investigating. Similar excuses and smoke screens were rampant.
We faced constant threats to our safety, not just from terrorists. Members of the Yemeni parliament, in fiery speeches broadcast on official television, called for "jihad" to be declared against us. The hotel where we stayed was shot at and received at least one bomb threat, prompting an evacuation.
Rather than supporting us, Bodine declared John O'Neill, a man greatly respected by his Yemeni counterparts, persona non grata.
Many American officials in Yemen, including members of Bodine's team, shared our frustration. Even victims of the Cole were offended by her. I'll never forget one sailor telling me that Bodine visited the ship soon after the attack and acted "as if we had just inconvenienced her country."
We had other reasons to be suspicious. For example, the State Department issued a "Search for Justice" poster offering a reward for information related to the bombing. After the poster was translated into Arabic, it ended up warning anyone against helping us. Was it a mistake, or calculated interference?
Ultimately, many Yemeni officials cooperated with us. We developed partnerships based on mutual respect and understanding -- thanks to the dedication of agents on the ground.
Using DNA, we eventually discovered the bombers' identities, and, through other forms of forensics, we were able to identify more terrorists, track them down and prosecute them in Yemeni courts. Working together, we disrupted further terrorist plots and protected U.S. interests. We were successful, and the release of al-Qaeda operatives cannot be blamed on the FBI.
FBI Director Robert Mueller was in Yemen last month demanding that the terrorists be held accountable for their crimes. It is difficult, however, for one hand to clap alone. The U.S. government needs a coordinated strategy on Yemen.
If Yemen is truly an ally, it should act as an ally. Until it does, U.S. aid to Yemen should be reevaluated. It will be impossible to defeat al-Qaeda if our "allies" are freeing the convicted murderers of U.S. citizens and terrorist masterminds while receiving direct U.S. financial aid.
The families of the victims of the USS Cole, and all Americans who want to see terrorists face justice, should be assured that this is not over. Many determined agents will not rest until justice is served. Their efforts, thankfully, receive unconditional support from Mueller. In the FBI, we believe that fidelity to our fallen heroes' bravery exemplifies true integrity and real patriotism.
The writer was an FBI supervisory special agent from 1997 to May 2005.