WASHINGTON – Two fugitive Al Qaeda suspects were charged Thursday with helping carry out the 2000 bombing attack on the USS Cole (search), which killed 17 sailors.
The unsealing of the federal indictment in New York against the two Yemeni men, Fahd al-Quso and Jamal Ahmed Mohammed Ali al-Badawi, was an important step toward extraditing them once they are captured abroad, Attorney General John Ashcroft (search) said. They could face the death penalty if convicted in the United States.
The attorney general, whose son is in the Navy, called the attack on the Cole "still a fresh wound."
Al-Quso had planned to videotape the blast from a nearby apartment overlooking the Yemeni port city of Aden "to encourage other would-be terrorists to engage in similar attacks," Ashcroft said.
The existence of a videotape showing the Cole attack was hinted at during interviews with terrorism suspects arrested last fall in Lackawanna, N.Y. In a 20-page plea agreement, Sahim Alwan -- one of the six men accused -- acknowledged transporting two videotapes about the Cole bombing from Afghanistan to Pakistan.
U.S. Attorney James B. Comey declined Thursday to speculate whether a tape of the bombing attack still might exist, saying that Al Qaeda (search) members might have destroyed it to prevent U.S. prosecutors using it as evidence.
Ashcroft said al-Badawi had also participated in an unsuccessful plot to bomb another Navy ship 10 months earlier. That effort to destroy the USS The Sullivans, a destroyer, failed in January 2000 when the terrorists' small boat sank under the weight of the explosives it carried, Ashcroft said.
The men recovered the explosives, strengthened the boat's hull and installed additional fuel tanks before they rammed the USS Cole, a guided-missile destroyer, on Oct. 12, 2000, Ashcroft said. About 40 sailors were hurt and 17 died.
The 48-page indictment disclosed new details about the Cole bombing and indirectly tied some of its organizers to the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks on New York and Washington.
The court papers said al-Quso traveled with one of the Cole bombers, Ibrahim "Nibrass" al-Thawar, to Bangkok, Thailand, in January 2000 to deliver $36,000 to a senior Al Qaeda official, Tafiq "Khallad" bin Attash.
Two of the Sept. 11 hijackers, Khalid al-Mihdhar and Nawaf al-Hazmi, flew from Bangkok to Los Angeles that same month. CIA Director George Tenet said last summer that Nibrass, who died in the Cole bombing, received special terror training in late 1999 in Afghanistan with the same Sept. 11 hijackers.
U.S. investigators believe Khallad, who was caught last month in Pakistan, participated in planning the Sept. 11 attacks. President Bush has described him as "one of the top Al Qaeda operatives" -- just below Khalid Shaikh Mohammed, the captured No. 3 figure in the terror network.
Al-Quso and al-Badawi were among 10 suspects who escaped last month through a hole in a bathroom wall in their jail cell in Yemen, which traditionally does not extradite its citizens to face criminal charges in the United States. They remain at large.
Ashcroft said it was important to unseal the U.S. indictment so that if al-Quso and al-Badawi were captured overseas, American prosecutors could already have justification to ask for their extradition.
"It may well be that they'll be apprehended outside of Yemen and in a third country where they will be far more likely to be subject to extradition," Ashcroft said.
Authorities in Yemen believe the men traveled either to Al Qaeda strongholds in the country's northern provinces or to the Red Sea port of Al-Hudaydah. Yemen has offered a reward of $8,300, a sizable sum in that country, for information leading to the arrest of the 10 escaped suspects.
The attorney general said the men were "trained in Al Qaeda terrorist camps in Afghanistan in the 1990s, schooled in Osama bin Laden's hate and vowed to attack Americans whenever and wherever they could, especially American nationals on the Arabian peninsula."
Few other details about the men were available except that al-Badawi was born in either 1960 or 1963 and was issued a Yemeni passport in 1997.
Before the news conference, Ashcroft, FBI Director Robert Mueller and other officials met at FBI headquarters with about two dozen family members of Cole victims, who were flown to Washington for the announcement. They were told about the indictments and assured that the government has not forgotten about the bombing in the aftermath of the Sept. 11 attacks.
"It was good for all of us," said James B. Comey, U.S. attorney in New York.