WASHINGTON — A veteran Al Qaeda operative has confessed to being the mastermind of the 2000 bombing of the U.S. destroyer Cole, as well as a key conduit between Osama bin Laden and a terrorist cell in East Africa, according to a transcript of a military tribunal hearing released Monday by the Pentagon.
Walid bin Attash has long been suspected of playing a key role in the bombing of the Cole as it refueled in Yemen. The attack killed 17 U.S. sailors and nearly sank the $1-billion guided-missile destroyer.
Bin Attash's brief disclosures during a March 12 hearing at the U.S. military base in Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, added new insight into his role in the group's overall operations.
He confirmed, for instance, that he played a role in another deadly Al Qaeda attack against U.S. targets overseas, the near-simultaneous bombings of two U.S. embassies in Kenya and Tanzania in August 1998 that killed at least 224 people.
At his Combatant Status Review Tribunal hearing, Bin Attash was asked by an undisclosed military official "what exactly" was his role in the Cole bombing and the embassy attacks.
"Many roles," Bin Attash replied.
In the Cole bombing, he said, "I participated in the buying or purchasing of the explosives. I put together the plan for the operation a year and a half prior to the operation. Buying the boat and recruiting the members that did the operation."
Bin Attash also described himself as "the link" between Bin Laden and a top deputy at Al Qaeda headquarters and Al Qaeda's cell chief in Nairobi, Kenya.
According to the summary of unclassified evidence presented at the hearing, in the summer of 1998 Bin Attash told a 21-year-old Saudi, Mohammed Rashed Daoud al-Owhali, that the young man was about to go on a martyrdom mission by driving an explosives-filled truck into a U.S. embassy in an undisclosed country somewhere in East Africa. Al-Owhali drove the truck to the embassy in Nairobi but fled before the bomb exploded; he was captured soon thereafter and is serving a life sentence at the federal Supermax prison in Colorado.
"I was the link that was available in Pakistan. I used to supply the cell with whatever documents they need from fake stamps to visas, whatever," Bin Attash told the military tribunal, also suggesting that he helped send African operatives to Pakistan and Afghanistan.
Bin Attash's role in two of Al Qaeda's major pre-Sept. 11 attacks -- the Cole and the embassies -- "demonstrates how interconnected the Al Qaeda operatives are in supporting multiple plots," said Roger W. Cressey, a former senior White House counterterrorism official in the Bush and Clinton administrations.
"With Khalid Shaikh Mohammed and now Bin Attash providing new details, what you're seeing is that senior Al Qaeda operatives were involved in multiple successful attacks against U.S. interests," Cressey said. "It also shows how, once they have proved themselves, senior Al Qaeda operatives are constantly returned for additional plots."
Monday's release of Bin Attash's transcript came five days after the Defense Department unveiled similar transcripts of hearings for three other high-value detainees held at Guantanamo Bay -- including Mohammed, who claimed responsibility for masterminding the Sept. 11 attacks and more than two dozen other Al Qaeda plots.
Both Mohammed and Bin Attash could be sentenced to death.
In 2003, federal prosecutors in New York indicted numerous Al Qaeda operatives for their roles in the Cole bombing. Bin Attash was not among them, said Rebekah Carmichael, a spokeswoman for the U.S. attorney's office.
Bin Attash, a Yemeni who was born and raised in Saudi Arabia, is also known as Tawfiq bin Attash and by several nicknames, including Khallad and Silver. He lost one of his legs, officials think, either in combat in Afghanistan sometime in the late 1990s or in an explosives accident at an Al Qaeda camp, where he worked as a trainer and a bodyguard for Bin Laden.
He was captured during a raid in Karachi, Pakistan, in April 2003, just as he and other Al Qaeda operatives were plotting attacks against U.S. interests in Pakistan, authorities said.
A senior U.S. counterterrorism official recently told The Times that authorities were still concerned that a financial and operational conduit existed between Al Qaeda leaders in Pakistan and an active cell of the organization in East Africa.
Officials say the cell is run by an associate of Bin Attash, Fazul Abdullah Mohammed, who is suspected in the planning and execution of the embassy bombings and is at large.