News of the confession of an al-Qaida operative of involvement in the 1998 East Africa embassy bombings and the attack on the USS Cole in October, 2000 has surfaced this week in a newly released Pentagon transcript. During a March 12 hearing at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, Waleed bin Attash told American military investigators that he helped plot attacks on the US embassies in Kenya and Tanzania that killed more than 200 people.
Bin Attash testified that in Pakistan, he served as a link between al-Qaida founder Osama bin Laden and his deputy, Abu Ayyub al-Masri, the alleged architect of the Nairobi embassy attack, and met with al-Masri just hours before the Nairobi and Dar-es-Salaam bombings were carried out. He also admitted coordinating the suicide strike in Aden, Yemen on the USS Cole, which took the lives of 17 American sailors. Release of bin Attash’s testimony comes on the heels of a court verdict last week in the state of Virginia, which found the government of Sudan accountable for giving support to al-Qaida that enabled the group to carry out the Cole attack. Research associate Sara Moller at the Council on Foreign Relations says that the confessions add solid evidence of a strong terrorist presence in East Africa during the 1990’s.
“The Sudan link here in the Norfolk (Virginia) court case is also important because bin Laden himself lived in Khartoum for five years in the early nineties and had close relations there with (former Sudan National Assembly Speaker) Hassan Turabi, and we of course saw last week the transcript the government released of (alleged September 11, 2001 mastermind) Khalid Sheikh Mohammed – KSM. So I think that this timing is somewhat coincidental. But I would say that there is, going back more than a decade, a connection here, in that bin Attash and others of his ilk have been involved in plotting more than one attack at a time in Africa,” she said.
Some two years after the embassy bombings, the Yemeni-born bin Attash told examiners he moved on to Kandahar, Afghanistan, and was with bin Laden when a boat carrying explosives rammed the US guided missile destroyer Cole in a suicide mission at the Yemeni port of Aden. Sara Moller says it’s not clear if US intelligence sources viewed bin Attash as a prime suspect in the two years between the Kenya and Yemen incidents.
“We certainly had a number of suspects and individuals on our radar screen after the 1998 embassy bombings. Having said that, I’m not sure that we fully grasped the extent of that network, nor the extent to which the al-Qaida network was operating in the Horn of Africa, Yemen, and Sudan. The full picture has become clearer in the last couple of years, certainly after ‘Nine-Eleven’ (September 11, 2001), when the US government turned its full attention to this problem,” she said.
A panel of three officers at the US military prison at Guantanamo Bay is expected to rule in coming weeks on bin Attash’s status as an accused terrorist prisoner at Guantanamo. Moller says the process is part of a Combatant Status Review Tribunal set up for high-value terror suspects who were kept in secret CIA prisons before they were transferred to the Guantanamo facility last fall.
“As I understand it, it’s meant to determine whether the individuals being detained in Guantanamo are enemy combatants and whether or not they should be tried for their crimes. It comes down to the fact that the Bush Administration has struggled with the terminology and the legal grounds to hold some of these people,” she said.
Moller says there has been a push to get the US Justice Department to be more cooperative in its reports on the Guantanamo suspects. Two US senators, Carl Levin and Lindsey Graham of the Armed Services Committee, were on hand on Saturday, March 10, in Guantanamo to watch the questioning of Khalid Sheikh Mohammed, but Justice Department attorneys were reportedly not present. Researcher Moller says she has read accounts that two US senators were also among those permitted to witness bin Attash’s questioning from an adjacent room two days later.