It was a hot midmorning in October 2000 when two men aboard a small fishing boat pulled alongside a US destroyer refueling off the coast of Aden. The men waved, smiled - and then blew themselves up. Seventeen American sailors were killed that day and 39 others were wounded.
Osama bin Laden praised the attacks, and US intelligence sources say they have hard evidence that he financed the operation. But bringing those responsible for the attack to justice has been fraught with difficulties from the start. Few concrete answers have emerged, partly because of a less-than-cooperative early relationship between US and Yemeni officials assigned to the Cole investigation.
The Yemeni government, however, is now beginning to help, which is part of a broader newfound antiterror cooperation with the US. With incoming information from Al Qaeda captives in Afghanistan, US officials cautiously confide that they may finally be on their way to reaching some conclusion on the case.
"Sept. 11 was when [Yemeni President Ali Abdulla] Saleh decided he wanted to be on the right side," says one Western official who asked not to be named. "He chose the wrong side in the Gulf War," the official says, referring to the president's decision to stand by Iraq at that time, "...and now, when it [is] time to take sides again he did not want to repeat that mistake." Since September, change has been felt, with the Yemenis passing along significant documentation to the US, which were previously withheld. Specific information about the investigation, however, is not being officially released to the media.
At least two terror suspects believed to be in Yemen, Qaed Salim Sunian al-Harethi and Mohammed Hamdi al-Ahdal, are wanted by the US for the attack.
The spotlight shining on US-Yemen relations was intensified yesterday with the FBI announcement that a planned attack "may occur in the United States or against US interests in the country or in Yemen."
In response to the threat, security at the US Embassy in Sana has been increased, and the US is distributing a memo to Americans in Yemen to "be more cautious than usual now."
The United States and Britain warned Yemen that Fawaz Yahya al-Rabeei, a Yemeni born in Saudi Arabia, might enter the country from Afghanistan to carry out attacks, an unidentified official was quoted as saying by the Yemen News Agency, Saba.
Information relating to the Cole case has also begun trickling in from another source - captured Al Qaeda members in Afghanistan. Ibn al Shaykh al-Libi, former head of Al Qaeda training camps and an associate of Osama bin Laden, provided valuable information during an interrogation in Kandahar last month. He revealed plans to bomb the US Embassy in Sana.
Possible links between that plan and the USS Cole plan are being looked into. Other Al Qaeda interrogations have provided information regarding a suspect believed to be in Yemen named Muhammad Hamdi al Ahdal, linking him to Al Qaeda and the Cole bombing. Saleh continues to assert that there is not enough evidence to link Mr. bin Laden to the Cole attack, however, he has promised to follow up on all leads.
Late last month, FBI Director Robert Mueller stressed that the US and Yemen were working as partners. "We have uncovered a great deal of important information and many new leads," he said. "Fighting terrorism is in Yemen's interest. The US stands ready to help."
Things were not always like this. The initial reaction of the Yemeni government to the US's charges of terrorism in the Cole case was simply denial; they claimed the explosion had come from inside of the ship. "Then they readjusted. It was clear the explosion had pushed the plate inwards," said one US diplomat, speaking on condition of anonymity.
From the start of the investigation, cooperation was shaky between Yemen and the US. The FBI team which flew into Aden, headed by John O'Neill, reported that it was never given the help needed to carry out proper detective work. As the FBI tells it, the team was not allowed to gather its own eyewitness testimony, or to privately interrogate suspects picked up by the Yemenis. They were also denied access to important files. They spent, according to Yemeni security personnel whose job it was to shadow the FBI members during their stay, more time than they wanted stuck at the Gold Mohur hotel playing volleyball.
Yemenis see it differently, with officials here claiming that the FBI acted arrogantly - coming into town with 300 mostly nonArabic speaking operatives and support staff who plowed through the airport without visas and then barricaded themselves in their hotel, where they positioned dogs at the front door and refused to share any information.
"There was a disconnect of styles," explains one Yemeni government official, speaking on condition of anonymity. "They came in like cowboys, but this is not the Wild West, and it doesn't work like that. It felt like they were about to fight a war against Yemen. There was no sensitivity. But we are a sovereign country with a Constitution .... you can't just barge in without consulting the government properly."
One week before Sept 11th, in an interview on Al Jazeera TV, Saleh admitted that he had refused to allow the FBI to be based in Yemen or "take control" of the investigation.
It did not help the American efforts that internal disputes were also at hand, with tensions between Mr. O'Neill and Barbara Bodine then ambassador to Yemen. The ambassador, say observers, was, like the Yemenis themselves, upset with the FBI's heavy-handed style, and worried that it might offend Yemenis and further hamper the investigation. The US has since asked Yemen not to go ahead with any trials as yet, for lack of evidence.
Now it seems that critical time was lost in those early months. It's believed that at least two of the suspected cell members involved in the Cole attack were also involved in the Sept. 11 attacks. One source said Yemen had some information on these terrorists that they did not share with the Americans - information that could have proved valuable. "We cannot turn the clock back," said a US official. "But we are moving forward - and we can expect results."