Mark Hosenball & Michael Isikoff
The suspected mastermind of last week's assault on the U.S. Embassy in Yemen is a longtime Al Qaeda operative who escaped from a Yemeni prison more than two years ago, according to U.S. national-security officials.
Nasir al-Wahishi, a former bodyguard to Osama bin Laden, is believed to have organized the well-coordinated Sept. 17 attack, according to two U.S. national-security officials, who requested anonymity when discussing sensitive information. Two vehicles, one of them carrying militants armed with automatic weapons and grenade launchers, tried to breach the heavily fortified walls of the American Embassy in Sanaa, the Yemeni capital, according to news reports from the region.
Seventeen people—including an 18-year-old American citizen from Lackawanna, N.Y.—were killed in the assault, making it the most deadly terrorist attack on a U.S. government facility since September 11, 2001. This week, Yemeni security forces announced they had arrested six people for complicity in the attacks, including an Islamic militant who had claimed responsibility for the assault in an Internet posting.
But one of the U.S. officials who spoke to NEWSWEEK said information, gathered since the attack, suggests Wahishi directed or instigated the plot involving the six men who were arrested. The official declined to specify precisely what the evidence was but acknowledged it was not a "smoking gun." If Wahishi's role is confirmed, it is likely to significantly change the way U.S. officials view the attack and further exacerbate tensions between the Bush administration and the Yemeni government headed by President Ali Abudullah Saleh.
A veteran Al Qaeda fighter, trainer and bodyguard, Wahishi pledged bayat (a loyalty oath) to bin Laden and served with him in Afghanistan in the days before 9/11, according to current and former U.S. officials. He later is believed to have assumed command of Al Qaeda operations in Yemen after Qaed al-Harithi, Al Qaeda's previous chief in Yemen, was killed in 2002 by a CIA-operated drone. In June 2007, a tape was released announcing Wahishi as the leader of Al Qaeda in Yemen. Later that summer, the Yemeni government announced that it suspected him of being responsible in part for an attack that killed a group of Spanish tourists.
Wahishi "is very much part of the inner circle of Al Qaeda," said Ali Soufan, a former FBI agent who worked on terrorism investigations in Yemen. "He would never conduct an attack if he did not get approval from bin Laden or people appointed by bin Laden."
What's particularly galling to the Bush administration is that Wahishi is reported to be one of 23 Al Qaeda prisoners who, in February 2006, escaped from what was supposedly one of the most secure security facilities in Yemen. U.S. officials widely suspected it was an inside job. According to NEWSWEEK's account, the suspects were being held in a basement compound beneath the headquarters of the Political Security Office, Yemen's main intelligence service. Over a two-month period, using improvised tools, they managed to dig a tunnel to a nearby mosque and, eventually, make their escape via the womens' bathroom.
Among those who escaped was Jamal al-Badawi, another veteran Al Qaeda operative who has been indicted in the United States for his involvement in the bombing of the USS Cole in October 2000, an attack in the Yemeni port of Aden that killed 17 U.S. sailors. The Saleh government later announced that Badawi turned himself in, but Bush administration officials are livid that he has not been handed over to the United States to face trial and believe he is really being kept under "house arrest"—detained under less-than-onerous conditions.
While Badawi's precise status remains unclear, U.S. officials believe other escaped prisoners, including Wahishi, have since returned to terrorist activities and have been involved in current plotting or recent attacks in Yemen, which have been occurring at a regular, though sometimes little-noticed, pace for the last couple of years.
What makes the recent events in Yemen all the more unsettling is that this was once considered a bright spot in the U.S.'s Global War on Terror. Following the Cole attack, the United States leaned heavily on Yemen's government to crack down on Al Qaeda and other homegrown Islamic militants, and the Yemeni government pledged greater cooperation. But Al Qaeda spokesmen in Yemen began publicly reiterating threats of terrorism after the Great Escape in 2006, and militants subsequently launched a series of regular, if often low-level, attacks. Since then, the Yemeni government's counterterrorist efforts have begun to resemble a revolving door; suspects are captured or turn themselves in, then escape or are released and are implicated in subsequent attacks.
With Katie Paul