The Associated Press
ADEN, Yemen - Yemeni investigators are ready to charge at least two people in the apparent terrorist attack on the USS Cole, a source said yeserday, six weeks after an explosion tore through the warship as it sat in Aden's harbor.
Charges are expected to be filed as soon as this week against the two suspects, the source said. They could be sentenced to death if convicted.
But any charges are unlikely to mean the end of the probe: U.S. investigators suspect an international conspiracy was behind the bombing.
Seventeen U.S. sailors were killed and 39 more injured on Oct. 12, when two suicide bombers steered a small boat laden with explosives alongside the Cole and detonated it while the destroyer was refueling. U.S. and Yemeni officials have said the attack appeared to be a carefully planned, well-financed operation, and the bomb materials were expertly prepared.
The Yemeni source close to the investigation would not identify the two men he described as main suspects about to be charged. But last week, other sources said authorities had detained six Yemeni men they believe were key accomplices - including one who was allegedly in charge of the operation in Yemen.
American officials have said they believe the operation was carried out by a network of small cells of two or three people, probably from one or more anti-American Islamist organizations, including Yemen's Islamic Jihad, Egypt's al-Gamaa al-Islamiya and Saudi dissident Osama bin Laden's followers.
Bin Laden, an exiled Saudi millionaire, lives in Afghanistan. U.S. officials believe he ordered the 1998 bombings of the U.S. embassies in Kenya and Tanzania that killed 224 people.
Officials have suggested that the Cole attackers were from various Arab countries, including Yemen, Egypt, and Saudi Arabia, and that they may be operating from both Afghanistan and Yemen.
Yemeni security official, also speaking on condition of anonymity yesterday, said investigations revealed that an Egyptian suspect whom he identified only as Hamdi fled Yemen a month before the bombing along with five others, including a Libyan man. He said all six men had links to Islamic Jihad, but he did not elaborate further.
The first Yemeni source said the charges planned against at least two suspects included carrying out the attack, threatening state security, forming an armed gang and possessing explosives.
Conviction on all four charges would carry a minimum sentence of 10 years in prison, the source said, adding that the suspects could be executed if convicted of threatening state security or carrying out the bombings. Most executions in Yemen are by firing squad and are performed in public to set an example.
The prosecution will review the case by Tuesday before filing charges, the source said on condition of anonymity. The prosecutor declined to comment yesterday.
In Yemen, a court generally sets a trial date within a few days of charges being filed. That date usually is within a week. According to Yemeni law, the trial will take place in Aden, where the attack took place, the source said.
In the weeks after the attack, Yemeni investigators rounded up scores of people for questioning, from known Islamic fundamentalists to people who lived near any of the Aden buildings the bombers used as staging grounds. Yemeni authorities also have detained lower- and midlevel Yemeni security officials - an embarrassing acknowledgment that some within their government sympathize with anti-American groups.
Terrorism expert Frank Cilluffo said in a recent interview that in preparing to charge their own citizens, the Yemenis have showed they are serious about the investigation. But tracing the plot from Yemen will be difficult because those involved were reportedly organized into small, autonomous cells and may be unable to provide investigators much information about the other plotters.
"You may have one person doing the bidding of another without even knowing it," said Cilluffo, director of the terrorism task force at the Washington-based Center for Strategic and International Studies.