Suspicion centers on Bin Laden

Friday, October 13th 2000, 12:00 am
By: News On 6

WASHINGTON (AP) — President Clinton is vowing to ``hold accountable'' those responsible for the bombing of the USS Cole in Yemen, but no one has claimed responsibility for what the administration says appears to be a terrorist act.

The attack Thursday was the first targeting of the U.S. military in Yemen since the Pentagon pulled out all 100 American military personnel based there in January 1993 following bombings outside the U.S. Embassy and at hotels where some Americans were staying.

In 1997, the Navy began using the port of Aden as a refueling stop for ships.

U.S. intelligence has blamed Osama bin Laden's Al-Qaida organization for some of the 1993 bombings against Americans.

The United States also accuses bin Laden of masterminding the bombings of the U.S. embassies in Kenya and Tanzania two years ago that killed 224 people. His network is believed to extend to Yemen and other parts of the Middle East.

Clinton retaliated by bombing bin Laden camps in Afghanistan and a pharmaceutical factory in Sudan believed run by supporters of the expatriate Saudi.

Clinton left no doubt Thursday that he again would strike a hard blow once a joint U.S.-Yemeni investigation determines who attacked the USS Cole on Thursday, killing or wounding dozens of sailors as it docked at the port of Aden.

``If, as it now appears, this was an act of terrorism, it was a despicable and cowardly act,'' the president said in the White House Rose Garden. ``We will find out who was responsible and hold them accountable.''

Known to operate in Yemen are two deadly groups: the Egyptian Islamic Jihad and the Islamic Army of Aden, whose leader, Zein al-Abidine al-Midhar was executed by firing squad two years ago in the hostage-taking of two Americans and 14 other Western tourists.

Two other terrorist organizations, the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine and the Abu Nidal organization, have been relatively quiet lately.

Hamas and the Iranian-backed Palestine Islamic Jihad group both have a presence in Yemen but are not known to have attacked Americans specifically.

While weighing eyewitness accounts and the kind of explosive used in the attack, investigators are considering motivation and capability, the groups' track record and how far afield they tend to operate.

Above all others, the bin Laden group is the one that comes to mind first in terms of method of operation and long-reach capability, said a U.S. official, speaking on condition of anonymity.

According to Vincent Cannistraro, former chief of counterterrorism at the CIA, the attack was a suicide operation that only a handful of groups in the Middle East carry out — Hezbollah, Hamas, the Palestinian Islamic Jihad and the bin Laden network.

And, Cannistraro said in an interview, the only one of the four that has targeted Americans and has issued a fatwa, or religious edict, against Americans is the bin Laden group.

``He has access in Yemen, his father comes from southern Yemen and he has close ties with the Islamic Army of Aden, a militant group set up by bin Laden's brother, Muhammad Khalifa,'' the ex-CIA official said.

Also, Cannistraro said, there are groups associated with bin Laden in Yemen that he funds and supports, and he has a camp inside the country.

``There are clear signs this was an inside job, and that those two suicide bombers were Yemeni themselves,'' he said. ``They carried high explosives. They had to be trained and prepared.''

Once the United States has convincing evidence, Cannistraro said, ``I suspect we will retaliate, but we have to find an address before we can bomb, and that's the hardest part.''

Yonah Alexander, director of the Washington-based International Center for Terrorism, said the Egyptian Islamic Jihad has ``the capability for maritime terrorism.''

The group has fought in Egypt, Sudan and Afghanistan, ``and there is no question it is one of the major legs of the bin Laden organization,'' Alexander said in an interview. It is vehemently anti-American because of American support of Egypt and Israel, he said.

Michael Sheehan, director of the State Department's counterterrorism office, stressed, however, that ``the U.S. government has not yet made a final determination about the incident and whether its cause was terrorism.''