USS Cole Plotter Escapes; Co-Conspirator Safe in US Hands

July 7, 2008 - 7:17 PM

(CNSNews.com) - The escape of a terrorist who plotted the deadly bombing of the U.S. Navy destroyer USS Cole has prompted an Interpol warning notice, but a man convicted at the same time on the same charge remains safely in custody, because the U.S. refused to extradite him to Yemen in 2004.

A Yemeni court in September 2004 sentenced Jamal Ahmed Badawi and Abd al-Rahim al-Nashri to death for planning the Oct. 2000 attack, which killed 17 sailors. Four others were jailed from five to 10 years for lesser roles in the bombing, which occurred during a refueling stopover in the port of Aden.

Badawi was one of 23 prisoners who escaped from their Yemeni jail late last week through a 140-meter-long tunnel "dug by the prisoners and co-conspirators," Interpol said. The escapees included 12 convicted members of al Qaeda.

The international police organization issued an "orange notice" global security alert, warning that the escape posed a danger to all countries, especially if they managed to get out of Yemen.

It also urged Yemeni authorities to provide necessary information including fingerprints on the escapees to enable Interpol to issue international wanted persons notices for each one.

Although the escape is a blow for anti-terror efforts, it also focuses attention again on the way the U.S. has handled the capture of terrorist suspects since 9/11, a policy that has been both praised and excoriated.

When Badawi and others were tried, the key figure in the bombing plot was on the charge sheet but not in the dock.

Al-Nashri, al Qaeda's regional chief of operations, was tried in absentia because he had been in American custody since November 2002, having been arrested by the United Arab Emirates and quietly passed on to the Americans.

President Bush at the time hailed the capture of "a killer" and the accomplishment is cited on the White House website under a list of achievements in "waging the war on terror."

The 9/11 commission described al-Nashri as "the mastermind of the Cole bombing and the eventual head of al-Qaeda operations in the Arabian Peninsula."

Apart from the Cole bombing, he has been linked to terror attacks including the August 1998 bombings of the U.S. embassies in Kenya and Tanzania and the attack on the French oil tanker Limburg in 2002. He is also believed to be a close associate of al-Qaeda chief Osama bin Laden.

Once in custody, at an "undisclosed location," al-Nashri was reported by the then Homeland Security director, Tom Ridge, to be providing useful information. The 9/11 Commission report cites numerous pieces of evidence to have been derived from al-Nashri interrogations between 2002 and 2004.

At the time of the Cole trial, Yemeni media said government officials had officially asked the U.S. to hand over al-Nashri.

He was not extradited, however, and the trial ended with him and his main co-accused Badawi handed the death penalty.

The Cole bombing, 11 months before 9/11, was the most serious Islamist attack against U.S. forces abroad since the Khobar Towers bombing in Saudi Arabia in 1996.

Two terrorists in a small boat laden with more than 200 kilograms of explosives rammed into the destroyer, leaving a gaping hole in the hull just above the waterline. Seventeen sailors aboard the vessel were killed and more than 30 others injured.

Al Qaeda and its Yemen-based affiliate Aden-Abyan Islamic Group claimed responsibility for the attack, which the 9/11 Commission said "galvanized al-Qaeda's recruitment efforts."

At the time it was targeted, the Cole was on its way to join the multinational operation enforcing U.N. sanctions against Saddam Hussein's Iraq.

The bombing prompted an overhaul of Navy security measures abroad, and the Arleigh Burke-class destroyer was repaired before returning to service.

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