WASHINGTON – An alleged key al-Qaida operative with close ties to Osama bin Laden told a military hearing in Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, that he is responsible for organizing the attack on the USS Cole that killed 17 U.S. sailors in 2000, according to Defense Department transcripts released Monday.
Walid Muhammad bin Attash, also known as Tawfiq bin Attash, became the second high-value detainee in recent days to stand before U.S. military officers and confess to major attacks against U.S. interests, barely challenging allegations against him. In a brief hearing March 12 that was closed to the public, Bin Attash also was said to claim responsibility for an al-Qaida operation that led to the nearly simultaneous detonation of two truck bombs at U.S. embassies in Kenya and Tanzania in 1998, killing more than 200 people and injuring thousands.
Joining the extensive claims of al-Qaida leader Khalid Sheik Mohammed – who told a tribunal at Guantanamo on March 10 that he was the mastermind of the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks – bin Attash linked himself to major attacks that came at the behest of bin Laden. U.S. intelligence officials also believe bin Attash, who lost his right leg during a battlefield accident in 1997, helped select about two dozen operatives for special training in 1999, training that ultimately led some to participate in the suicide bombing of the Cole, the Sept. 11 attacks and other events.
Though the Pentagon transcripts cannot be independently verified, Mohammed’s tribunal transcript matched the accounts of two U.S. senators who watched from an adjoining room. It is impossible to know whether the suspects were exaggerating their claims or taking responsibility because of prior abuse. Both were in secret CIA custody for years, and Mohammed has alleged mistreatment. Bin Attash, according to his transcript, did not allege wrongdoing by his captors.
Department of Justice officials named bin Attash, a Yemeni national, as an unindicted co-conspirator in the Cole attack in May 2003, about two weeks after he was captured in Pakistan. He was later secreted to a CIA prison.
U.S. authorities had long alleged Walid Muhammad bin Attash’s role in al-Qaida’s training camps in Afghanistan, but his claim of responsibility for the USS Cole bombing was the first time he had asserted such close involvement in the Oct. 12, 2000, attack on the U.S. warship while it refueled in the Yemeni port of Aden. Bombers on a small boat filled with explosives waved at U.S. sailors, feigning an attempt to help the ship dock, before they detonated their vessel. The blast tore a massive hole in the side of the ship’s steel-plated hull, killing 17 sailors and injuring dozens more.
All Guantanamo detainees are entitled to a tribunal that determines whether they are enemy combatants. A panel of three military officers will rule on bin Attash’s status over the coming weeks, and military prosecutors could charge him with crimes at a future military commission.