It was shocking to read those words, especially given the centrality of the Cole to the 9/11 attacks. I responded in an opinion piece: “In fact, our team included several Arab American agents who understood the culture and the region. Even so, such comments were irrelevant. The FBI left Yemen with the terrorists in jail. It is true that while tracking the terrorists we worked ‘on a New York minute.’ We owed that much to the sailors murdered on the Cole and to all innocent people who remained targets as long as the terrorists were free. It is also true that we did not trust some Yemeni officials. We had good reason not to.” The Yemenis themselves later reluctantly admitted that our distrust of some officials was merited: after Quso and Badawi “escaped” from jail in April 2003, we pressured the authorities to look into the matter, and Hussein Ansi was arrested, questioned, and sacked (but they never prosecuted him).
The difficult relationship we had with Ambassador Bodine was no secret to the Yemenis, who knew that if they had any problems with us they could turn to her. This often undermined progress. Many Yemeni officials were even sympathetic to us in this situation. One day, while I was interrogating a suspect, the head of President Saleh’s security team, Naji, came running into the room and said, “Can I talk to you outside?”
I stepped out, thinking it must be important. “Well,” he said with a grave look on his face. “I don’t know quite how to say this to you, but a plane has been hijacked.”
“Your ambassador is on the plane.”
“What’s the situation? Is she okay?”
“It’s all okay,” he replied. “It was some crazy guy. He didn’t even know the ambassador was on board. And while he was in the cockpit, all the passengers escaped via one of the emergency doors. The hijacker was then hit over the head with a fire extinguisher by a crew member.” Naji couldn’t contain a big smile at this point. He found it highly ironic that Ambassador Bodine had been hijacked when she downplayed our concerns about safety. Naji was also fond of John and knew he hadn’t returned because Bodine wouldn’t give him clearance.
We had seventeen main reasons for returning to Yemen and pressing ahead despite the death threats and all other complications. They were:
Hull Maintenance Technician 2nd Class Kenneth Eugene Clodfelter
Electronics Technician Chief Petty Officer Richard Costelow
Mess Management Specialist Seaman Lakeina Monique Francis
Information Systems Technician Seaman Timothy Lee Gauna
Signalman Seaman Cherone Louis Gunn
Seaman James Rodrick McDaniels
Engineman 2nd Class Marc Ian Nieto
Electronics Warfare Technician 2nd Class Ronald Scott Owens
Seaman Lakiba Nicole Palmer
Engineman Fireman Joshua Langdon Parlett
Fireman Patrick Howard Roy
Electronic Warfare Technician 1st Class Kevin Shawn Rux
Mess Management Specialist 3rd Class Ronchester Manangan Santiago
Operations Specialist 2nd Class Timothy Lamont Saunders
Fireman Gary Graham Swenchonis Jr.
Ensign Andrew Triplett
Seaman Craig Bryan Wibberley
Those are the seventeen U.S. sailors who were murdered on the USS Cole by al-Qaeda. Each of their names alone was justification enough for our being in Yemen. And until their murderers were tracked down and justice was served, we did not feel that we could rest. We owed it to each one of these sailors and their families to find their killers. Those of us from the FBI, the NCIS, the CIA, and the military who investigated the Cole bombing believed that no American death should go unpunished. America sitting idly by would be a message to future terrorists to strike without fear of reprisal.
To this day what keeps me awake at night is the disgraceful way that so many in the U.S. government treated the memory of the sailors. I cannot understand the lack of support for our investigation. For reasons unknown, both Democrats and Republicans in the White House and in senior government positions tried to ignore what had happened to the USS Cole. Families of the murdered sailors told me with sadness that President George W. Bush refused to meet with them.
13. Bin Laden’s Errand Boy
Walid bin Attash, or Khallad, was as close to being al-Qaeda royalty as possible. His father was friends with bin Laden, Abdullah Azzam, and Omar Abdul Rahman, the Blind Sheikh. His older brother, Muhannad, had been a trusted bin Laden lieutenant and pivotal in the recruitment of the Northern Group. Khallad himself had joined al-Qaeda in 1994, when he was only fifteen.
A defining moment in Khallad’s life had come in 1997, when he and Muhannad, along with other al-Qaeda fighters, had fought with the Taliban against the Northern Alliance at Murad Beg, north of Kabul. Muhannad had been killed in the battle, and Khallad had lost his left leg when a howitzer misfired, releasing shrapnel into it. He had been rushed from the battlefield to a hospital, but the leg could not be saved and was amputated below the knee.
He had received a prosthesis from an NGO, but it hadn’t fit properly and had left him in severe pain. Khallad had already been plunged into a state of depression over the death of Muhannad, and his leg pain had caused even more anguish. Al-Qaeda had sent him to Karachi for therapy, accompanied by his younger brother, al-Bara, who had fought with him at Murad Beg. They had spent the afternoons at the beach in Karachi, with al-Bara pushing Khallad in a wheelchair.
Khallad’s misery had been relieved by the arrival of a personal letter from bin Laden, praising both his dedication to the cause and Muhannad’s martyrdom. Khallad had resolved to take his brother’s place as a central al-Qaeda figure. He was inordinately proud of having received a personal letter from the emir, and he treasured it.
On his return to Afghanistan, Khallad had dedicated himself to al-Qaeda, picking up another alias, Silver, after Long John Silver, the infamous one-legged pirate. He had first worked as a bodyguard and had carried out administrative duties for bin Laden, Saif al-Adel, and other senior al-Qaeda leaders. Over time, he had been given more responsibilities, including personal missions for bin Laden, sometimes requiring months of travel. Bin Laden had come to value him; he was Muhannad’s brother in every way.
Khallad became known in al-Qaeda circles as a trusted bin Laden aide. When other members wanted to see the leader, they would often approach Khallad and ask him to arrange a meeting. Among those he helped secure a private audience was Nibras. Khallad was always pleasant to others and was well liked by the brothers, who appreciated his sense of humor. Their only criticism was that he didn’t offer much guidance to his own younger siblings, al-Bara and Omayer.
The two younger siblings were very close. As boys, they had been put on a plane by their father and sent to Afghanistan. Their father had not told them where they were going. Al-Bara had been involved in gangs in Saudi Arabia and had been sent to reform school. His family had worried that he would get into drugs and make life even worse for himself, and this had been their justification for shipping him off to Afghanistan to join bin Laden. They had feared the same would happen to Omayer.
When the young men had arrived in Afghanistan and had discovered where they were, they had become very upset. Al-Bara, especially, preferred to be in Saudi Arabia with his friends rather than within the strict confines of an al-Qaeda camp. In the guesthouse to which they were first taken, al-Bara had run to the bathroom and cried. Khallad and Muhannad had soon joined them in Afghanistan, however, and had helped convert them to the al-Qaeda way of life. And, like Muhannad and Khallad, al-Bara and Omayer had been accepted into the inner circles.