(CNSNews.com) – The long arm of the United States finally caught up on New Year’s Day with an al-Qaeda terrorist centrally involved in the suicide bombing in 2000 of the guided-missile destroyer USS Cole. The attack killed of 17 American sailors.
Jamal al-Badawi, a Yemeni national in his mid-50s who was sentenced to death 15 years ago for his role in the attack in Aden port, twice escaped from custody in Yemen before the U.S. military killed him in a “precision strike” on January 1.
U.S. Central Command confirmed that al-Badawi was killed in Marib governorate, a region northeast of Yemen’s capital, Sana’a.
“Jamal al-Badawi was a legacy al Qaeda operative in Yemen involved in the USS Cole bombing,” said CENTCOM spokesman Capt. Bill Urban. “U.S. forces confirmed the results of the strike following a deliberate assessment process.”
President Trump added his congratulations on Twitter.
“Our GREAT MILITARY has delivered justice for the heroes lost and wounded in the cowardly attack on the USS Cole,” he said. “We have just killed the leader of that attack, Jamal al-Badawi.”
“Our work against al Qaeda continues,” Trump added. “We will never stop in our fight against Radical Islamic Terrorism!”
Seventeen sailors were killed and 39 more were wounded when an explosives-laden small boat detonated alongside the USS Cole during a refueling stopover in Aden on October 12, 2000, blowing a gaping hole in the hull's midsection, just above the waterline.
Al-Badawi was later captured by Yemeni authorities and was being held in connection with the attack when he escaped from prison in April 2003.
He was recaptured 11 months later, and in September 2004 a Yemeni court sentenced him and another man, Abd al-Rahim al-Nashri, to death for planning the attack. Four other men were jailed for periods of five to 10 years for lesser roles in the bombing.
In February 2006, al-Badawi was one of 23 prisoners – including 12 convicted al-Qaeda terrorists – who escaped from their Yemeni prison, fleeing through what Interpol at the time described as a 460 foot-long tunnel “dug by the prisoners and co-conspirators outside.”
(Another of the escapees was Nasir al-Wuhayshi, who in 2009 would become the emir of al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula and in 2013 was appointed by al-Qaeda leader Ayman al-Zawahiri as the number two overall of al-Qaeda’s global terrorist network. Al-Wuhayshi was killed in a U.S. drone strike in mid-2015.)
Al-Badawi has for years featured on the FBI’s list of most-wanted terrorists, with a reward of up to $5 million on his head.
Aborted earlier attack
Although characterized by the president as “the leader” of the USS Cole attack, al-Badawi is one of several terrorists who have been described over the years as having masterminded it, including Abd al-Rahim al-Nashiri, the man who was sentenced to death with al-Badawi in 2004.
(The Yemeni court sentenced Al-Nashri, a Saudi national, in absentia as he was already in U.S. custody at a then-undisclosed location, later discovered to be a clandestine CIA facility in Romania. In 2006 he was transferred to Guantanamo Bay, where he remains. 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.”)
Al-Badawi did, however, play a very significant role in the attack, based on a 50-count U.S. indictment unsealed one month after his first escape. It said his involvement included leasing safehouses in Aden for the terrorist team; traveling to Saudi Arabia to buy the attack boat; and buying a truck and trailer used to tow the boat to Aden port.
The indictment also revealed that the attack on the USS Cole came nine months after an earlier attempt failed. The terrorists tried to bomb another U.S. Navy destroyer, the USS The Sullivans, but the attack was aborted after the small boat sank under the weight of the explosives.
According to the indictment, the terrorists regrouped, salvaged the explosives, strengthened the boat’s hull and added extra fuel tanks, completing the work by the time the USS Cole arrived.
The Cole bombing was the most serious Islamist attack against U.S. forces abroad since the Khobar Towers bombing in Saudi Arabia in 1996.
Both 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 of the bombing, the USS Cole had been on its way to join the multinational operation enforcing U.N. sanctions against Saddam Hussein’s Iraq.
The bombing prompted an overhaul of U.S. Navy security measures abroad, and the Arleigh Burke-class destroyer underwent 14 months of repairs and upgrades before returning to active service in late 2003.