Yemen says it has identified Cole suicide bombers

The New York Times

SAN’A, Yemen — Yemen’s prime minister said Wednesday that the investigation into the attack on the American destroyer USS Cole last month has identified the suicide bombers as two Saudi Arabian citizens with Yemeni family roots who fought Soviet forces in Afghanistan.

The two men have personal profiles so closely parallel to that of Osama bin Laden, whom the FBI is seeking on terrorism charges, that Yemeni investigators have repeatedly asserted that they believe bin Laden was indirectly involved. So far, though, they have no proof.

The Yemeni official, Abdul-Karim al-Iryani, said in a telephone interview that a group of Yemenis who helped carry out the Oct. 12 attack on the destroyer Cole, which killed 17 sailors, would go on trial as early as January in Aden, where the ship was attacked.

He also said that many of these suspects were so-called "Arab Afghans," a widely used label by Middle East governments to refer to Arabs recruited to fight in Afghanistan in the 1980s. Thousands of such recruits were later transferred to Yemen and established Islamic terror groups that have been linked to previous attacks on U.S. targets.

If the Yemeni authorities go ahead and try suspects in the Cole bombing, Yemen will be courting a major dispute with the FBI, which favors a wider-ranging inquiry that looks at the possibility of high-level Yemeni involvement in the bombing before any trial takes place.

Yemeni officials have told the FBI that Yemeni investigations have shown that official Yemeni involvement in the bombing was largely limited to about six Arab Afghans in low-level government posts in and around Aden who helped the bombers obtain false Yemeni identity documents, a four-wheel-drive vehicle, a boat, a large quantity of a plastic explosive usually used by the military, and three safe houses in Aden.

In the six weeks since the Cole attack, the FBI has been engaged in a sometimes bitter tug of war with the Yemenis over the tight constraints imposed on FBI agents by Yemen in the Cole inquiry. It has been two weeks since al-Iryani spoke of an imminent policy change that would allow broader rights to the FBI here, including the right to monitor Yemeni interrogations through a two-way mirror or via a live video relay. But details are still being thrashed out.

This has left about 20 FBI agents denied the right to nominate witnesses or suspects, or to talk to them. They have been instructed by the Yemenis that the probe will not "ascend the ladder" from the low-level Yemenis arrested so far to senior officials in San’a, the capital, who have had strong ties to bin Laden in the past.

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