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Investigators face major challenges

©Washington Post

© St. Petersburg Times, published October 14, 2000


WASHINGTON -- Investigators dispatched to Yemen to probe the bombing of a U.S. Navy warship face many obstacles, including a weak and possibly uncooperative central government and powerful anti-American sentiment, Clinton administration officials and intelligence experts said Friday.

More than 160 Americans have been sent to Yemen as part of the investigation into Thursday's blast aboard the USS Cole. The team includes an FBI diving squad that can search the waters for debris, FBI lab experts and officials from the State Department and the Naval Criminal Investigative Service.

But all can operate only with the permission of the Yemeni government. And should they need to widen their inquiry from the port of Aden, where the Cole was refueling at the time of the blast, they will encounter a nation with fragmented tribal rule and frequent kidnappings, experts said.

Anti-American and anti-Israeli sentiment runs high. Yemeni President Ali Abdullah Saleh was cheered in the past week for saying that if Yemen bordered Israel, he would have sent troops to aid Palestinians in bloody clashes with Israeli security forces.

Saleh has pledged his government's cooperation. But while the U.S. State Department says there is a significant terrorist presence in Yemen, Saleh contends that his nation does not harbor terrorists and that Thursday's explosion was not their work. Instead, government officials described the explosion as an accident, according to the English-language Yemen Times.

Unlike the bombings at U.S. embassies in East Africa two years ago that killed more than 200 Tanzanians and Kenyans, Thursday's attack killed no Yemenis, giving local officials less incentive to cooperate in the investigation, said Bruce Hoffman, a terrorism expert with the Rand Corp.

Another factor adding complexity to the investigation is the possibility that some people connected to the Yemeni government may be linked to the bomb blast. Yemeni officials had advance information about the day and time that the Cole would be refueling in Aden harbor, information that someone involved in the attack also obtained, officials said.

The ship was damaged when powerful explosives were detonated from a 20-foot harbor vessel that aroused no suspicion because it was assisting with the Navy warship's refueling.

"That is a very big problem. That permeates everything," said Victoria Toensing, former head of terrorism investigations at the Justice Department. "There are a lot of snakes in the grass."

Toensing also said many Yemeni officials, especially government security forces, will not welcome a large contingent of FBI agents conducting a terrorism investigation in their country. "There is always the ego of the local law establishment," she said.

The Pentagon said more than 100 FBI investigators were flying into Yemen, along with Marines from a Fleet Anti-Terrorism Security Team and a Federal Emergency Security Team.

U.S. intelligence Friday continued looking at a Yemeni terrorist organization called the Islamic Army of Aden as a possible suspect in the bombing.

But intelligence officials questioned the group's sophistication and said they think the perpetrator most likely had links to Osama bin Laden, the Islamic fundamentalist who has been indicted in the U.S. embassy bombings.

Omar Bakri Mohammed, a leader of Al-Muhajiroun, a London-based Arab militant group, said Friday that he had received a call claiming responsibility for the attack on the American ship in the name of Mohammed's Army, a group previously known to be active only in the Russian republics of Chechnya and Dagestan.

Meanwhile, Ayman el Zawahri, a close associate of bin Laden urged Muslims worldwide to attack U.S. and Israeli targets to avenge the deaths of Palestinians killed in clashes with Israel.

- Information from the Associated Press was used in this report.

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