Yemen Cautiously Admits Possible Bin Laden Ties To Cole Bombing

By Julie Stahl | July 7, 2008 | 8:08 PM EDT

Jerusalem ( - Conviction is growing in Yemen that Saudi billionaire Osama bin Laden may have been involved in the terrorist bombing of the USS Cole, which killed 17 American sailors. But investigators there say they still lack the hard evidence to tie bin Laden to the six suspects they have in custody.

Although the U.S. has suspected a link between bin Laden and the October 12 bombing in the port of Aden, Yemen has been reluctant to blame bin Laden.

However, Yemeni President Ali Abdullah Saleh said cautiously this week that bin Laden might be connected to the attack.

"So far, we are not blaming a specific party in the Cole bombing," Saleh was quoted by a news agency as saying.

"But the group which carried out the attack and those now under interrogation are elements who were in Afghanistan, therefore it is possible to link them with bin Laden."

Wanted by the U.S. for masterminding the bombings of two U.S. embassies in Africa in 1998, bin Laden is believed to be holed up in Afghanistan. He has denied any connection to the bombing of the navy destroyer.

A small boat was seen next to the Cole before the explosion, which also left 39 Navy men wounded. Yemeni investigators have said that two suicide bombers perished in the explosion.

Six alleged accomplices were identified earlier this week and all are said to be Islamic militants who fought to rid Afghanistan of the Soviets in the 1980s. A seventh suspect, Mohammed Omar al-Harazi, is still at large.

Al-Harazi, whose mother is Saudi Arabian and father is Yemeni, is believed to have given training, equipment, and money to the bombers. He, too, is said to be a former Afghani fighter.

The FBI has been after Al-Harazi for two years in connection with the 1998 African embassy bombings. He was said to be a cousin of the suicide bomber who drove the truck into the U.S. Embassy in Nairobi.

Investigators say that Al-Harizi connection could be the strongest clue, linking bin Laden to the Cole bombing.

Another possible link, the key suspect in custody, Jamal al-Badawi, reportedly told investigators that although al-Harazi never spoke of bin Laden to him, he indicated that he had received money and orders from him for the attack.

Among the other suspects were two Yemeni policemen, suspected of providing fake identification for the attackers. The trial of at least three of the suspects is due to open at the beginning of the year, after the Muslim month of Ramadan ends.

Meanwhile, the USS Cole arrived at the Litton Ingalls Shipbuilding shipyard in Mississippi this week, carried from the Gulf on a heavy-lift vessel.

The 40-foot hole in its side will cost about $150 million to repair, and some 500 workers will take about a year to do the job.

FBI investigators are able to search for additional evidence in those parts of the ship that had been submerged or flooded when the vessel was still in Yemen.