Despite Yemeni Arrests, Authors of Attack on USS Cole May Remain Unknown

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The sad truth is that we may never know just who ordered the bombing of the USS Cole. Yemen announced Wednesday that it is to try at least three, and possibly six, of its citizens for the October bombing, which killed 17 U.S. personnel. But the Yemenis have also declared that their investigation is now complete, despite the fact that they acknowledge the involvement of unknown foreigners in planning the attack. Though Yemen's prime minister, Abdul Karim al-Iryani, told the AP that there was "no question" that the three men were involved in planning the attack, he gave no details of the specific charges they'll face when their trial begins at the end of the Muslim holy month of Ramadan. He did, however, concede that the three suspects were veterans of the "Afghan Arab" brigades who helped Afghanistan repel the invading Soviets. And that, of course, certainly goes into the pile of circumstantial evidence linking the attack to Osama Bin Laden, who was the key organizer of the "Afghan Arab" war effort and whose networks are composed primarily of its veterans.

But with the Yemenis in a hurry to finish the investigation, a Bin Laden connection may never be firmly established. Like their Saudi neighbors, the Yemenis are under strong domestic pressure to avoid being seen as doing the handiwork of the United States, whose Middle East policy has made it the target of considerable Arab anger. In the case of the Saudi investigation of the 1996 Khobar Towers bombing, that resulted in a quick trial and execution of local suspects without U.S. investigators ever having access to them, leaving the question of that attack's ultimate authorship unresolved. And observers suspect the USS Cole investigation may be destined to go the same way.

A coup for Jordanian intelligence operatives

Reports earlier this week that a Jordanian-American arrested in Syria was connected with the bombing remain speculative. Although NBC reported an unnamed U.S. intelligence source as claiming that Raed Hijazi was a Bin Laden associate and had trained the Cole bombers, Jordanian officials and U.S. sources in Jordan could not confirm either claim. Hijazi was extradited from Syria to Jordan, where he was convicted in absentia for his role in a plot to attack American and Israeli targets in Jordan last New Year. That plot was foiled by Jordanian intelligence officials, and six of the 28 accused — including Hijazi — were sentenced to hang. (Following his extradition, Hijazi must now be retried, according to Jordanian law.) But the Islamist militant group planning the attacks was cleared by a Jordanian military court of any organizational links with Bin Laden, although some of them were said to have sought financing from the Saudi financier's associates.

The problem in finding a smoking gun may lie in the way Bin Laden is believed to work. Far from the tight vertical chain of command that media reports tend to imply when they tie diverse terror attacks to the alleged terrorist mastermind, observers and investigators believe that his networks may in fact be a lot more diffuse and autonomous, consisting instead of local Islamist underground armies — often linked by networks of Afghanistan vets — sharing resources and making common cause with Bin Laden's campaign against the U.S. Add to that the Yemeni haste to finish the investigation, and the suspects may once again be dead before we know where they got their orders.