22 July 2004: Osama bin Laden personally intervened with a Yemeni government official in 1999 to secure the release of one of his followers, a man who later assisted in both the Sept. 11 attacks and the bombing of the USS Cole, the Sept. 11 commission reported.
The al-Qaida operative was Tawfiq bin Attash, also known as Khallad. He was arrested in early 1999 because he was driving the car of another militant who was wanted by the Yemeni government.
But in 1999, Khallad’s ties to al-Qaida apparently were not known, although he was working on the plot that would eventually lead to the bombing of the USS Cole in the port of Aden, Yemen. The Sept. 11 report called Yemen’s arrest of him a case of mistaken identity.
In summer 1999, bin Laden himself - by then a wanted man for the August 1998 bombings of two U.S. embassies in Africa - contacted a Yemeni government official to secure Khallad’s release. Khallad’s father, a Yemeni associate of bin Laden who was expelled from the country for his militant views, also contacted the Yemeni government.
Bin Laden’s tone was threatening when he spoke to a Yemeni official. He suggested he “would not confront the Yemenis if they did not confront him.”
The Yemeni is not identified in the Sept. 11 report.
Khallad was freed.
The authors of the report, which the commission released Thursday, suggest bin Laden was worried Khallad would reveal information on the USS Cole plot.
Interrogations of Khallad, who was arrested by Pakistan’s paramilitary Rangers force in Karachi in April 2003, are cited as the primary source of this information, but the report’s authors said the account was confirmed by other sources. Khallad is now at an undisclosed location.
The report underscores the influence bin Laden had in parts of the Arab world, even when he was one of the U.S. government’s most-wanted men. Still, a U.S. counterterrorism official, speaking on the condition of anonymity, said Khallad’s release was more a matter of bin Laden taking advantage of personal relationships than it was his ability to bully an Arab government.
Yemen’s cooperation with the U.S. government in opposing al-Qaida has improved since 1999. After the Cole bombing in October 2000, Yemeni authorities refused to provide U.S. officials access to some suspects. But since the Sept. 11 attacks, the two countries appear to be working much more closely together. In November 2002, a CIA drone aircraft launched missiles that killed a senior al-Qaida operative on Yemeni soil.
Khallad, meanwhile, went on to some notoriety in al-Qaida. He worked with the organization’s Persian Gulf operations chief in an attempt to bomb a U.S. destroyer at the harbor in Aden in January 2000.
The bomb did not go off because the suicide boat sank under the weight of the explosives, but the bombers were not detected. They salvaged the boat and used it to bomb the Cole the following autumn. Seventeen U.S. sailors were killed.
Khallad was initially part of the Sept. 11 plot, but could not get a visa to enter the United States. He attended a January 2000 meeting in Malaysia with two eventual Sept. 11 hijackers.
It was his presence at the meeting, discovered some time later, that some suggested was a key missed clue as U.S. authorities tried to track those two hijackers once they were in the United States.