The evidence that Al Qaeda’s branch in Yemen had a role in the failed Christmas Day bombing of an American passenger jet has led some to declare that Yemen is the new front in the war against the terrorist organization. But the truth is, Yemen has been a front in that war since at least Oct. 12, 2000, when Al Qaeda blew up the Navy destroyer Cole, killing 17 American sailors, in the port of Aden. The explosives for the bombing were bought in Yemen. And the attackers and their accomplices were predominantly Yemenis. Indeed, after the attack, terrorists in Qaeda camps in Afghanistan would march and chant, “We, the Yemenis, destroyed the Cole.”
As the F.B.I. case agent for the Cole investigation from 2000 to 2005, I spent years with colleagues in Yemen hunting down those responsible, and we unraveled an entire Qaeda network in the country.
Even before the Cole attack, Yemen was linked to terrorist acts. Most of the people who executed the 1998 East African embassy bombings either traveled through Yemen or used fraudulent Yemeni passports. Almost two years after the Cole, Qaeda terrorists based in Yemen struck the Limburg, a French oil tanker, off the coast of Yemen. Qaeda terrorists in Yemen also helped facilitate the attacks of 9/11. Fahd al-Quso, a Yemeni Qaeda member who confessed to me his role in the U.S.S. Cole bombing, also admitted to ferrying money to a Qaeda operative known as Khallad who was part of an important 9/11 planning meeting in Malaysia.
As recently as this past August, an assassination attempt against Prince Mohammed bin Nayef, Saudi Arabia’s deputy minister of interior in charge of security, was plotted in Yemen. The explosive mixture that the suicide bomber used in that attack was the same one that Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab tried to ignite on the passenger jet over Detroit — and in each case the terrorist hid the mixture in his underwear.
Yemen is a very appealing base for Al Qaeda for various reasons. From its position at the southern tip of the Arabian Peninsula, the country has convenient access to Al Qaeda’s main theaters of battle, including Saudi Arabia, Somalia, Iraq and Afghanistan. Its borders are unsecured, and tribal groups sympathetic to Al Qaeda control many regions, so terrorists can move freely into, out of and around the country. And guns and explosives are readily available from Yemen’s thriving arms market.
The country’s tribal nature also makes it a relatively easy place for Al Qaeda to operate. Yemen has a weak government and powerful regional tribes, which in many ways operate as mini-governments free of central control. In addition, the government is struggling to contain both a secessionist movement in the south and a rebellion in the north. Rampant poverty and illiteracy make it easy for Al Qaeda to buy local support and manipulate Yemenis into believing its propaganda.
When I was in Yemen, I found many extremely capable officials in law enforcement and intelligence who were dedicated to stopping Al Qaeda. With their help, and with support from American intelligence and military agencies, our F.B.I. team was able to arrest and prosecute in a Yemeni court people responsible for the Cole bombing and for planning other attacks. By the time we left Yemen, in 2005, those terrorists were in prison.
Later, however, some of them “escaped,” and others were given clemency. Jamal al-Badawi, for example, a Qaeda terrorist who confessed to me his role in the bombing of the U.S.S. Cole, was sentenced to death by a Yemeni judge in 2004. But in 2006, he “escaped” from jail, only to turn himself in the next year — in a deal that released him from prison on a promise of good behavior. Today, Mr. Quso, the confessed Cole bomber, is not only free, he’s giving interviews and re-establishing himself as a terrorist operative.
During the past year, in an ominous sign of Yemen’s rising importance to Al Qaeda, the Saudi branch of the organization merged with the Yemeni branch to form a single terrorist group for the entire peninsula. Known as Al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula, it is based in Yemen and headed by a Yemeni, Naser Abdel-Karim al-Wahishi, who served as a close aide to Osama bin Laden. Mr. Wahishi “escaped” from jail with Mr. Badawi.
Some Yemeni government officials highly value their relationship with the United States, which provides financial aid and military training. During our investigation of the Cole bombing, when the American government made it clear to the Yemenis that they expected full cooperation, the Yemenis who were dedicated to justice were given free rein and those with extremist ties were sidelined. After the trials were over and the terrorists made it out of jail, Robert S. Mueller III, the director of the F.B.I., flew to Yemen to complain, but there was little further protest by the United States. We dropped the ball.
A year and a half ago, when I briefed a bipartisan group of Senate staff members on Yemen, I warned that unless the American government sent a united message to the Yemenis to act against Al Qaeda, the terrorists responsible for the Cole would remain free and there would be future attacks against the United States connected to Yemen. Today, the terrorists behind the Cole are still free, and an attack connected to Yemen has been attempted.
It is possible to defeat Al Qaeda in Yemen without sending American troops. Now that the Yemenis are once again acting against Al Qaeda by striking the terrorist group’s bases and killing or apprehending many of its members, the United States must show that it has learned to stay focused and hold Yemeni officials accountable. This time, the terrorists must be permanently locked up, not allowed to escape or receive pardons. The most important sign of Yemen’s sincerity will be when those with the blood of 17 American sailors on their hands are all brought to justice in the way they deserve.
Ali H. Soufan, an F.B.I. special agent from 1997 to 2005.