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Pentagon says planner of USS Cole and U.S. Embassy bombings confesses

WASHINGTON — A Yemeni portrayed as an al-Qaida operative and a member of a terrorist family confessed to plotting the bombings of the USS Cole and two U.S. embassies in Africa, killing hundreds, according to a Pentagon transcript of a Guantanamo Bay hearing.
    The transcript released Monday was the fourth from the hearings the military is holding in private for 14 ‘‘high-value’’ terror suspects who were kept in secret CIA prisons before they were sent to the U.S. facility in Cuba last fall.
    Last week, Waleed bin Attash said he helped plan the 1998 embassy bombings in Kenya and Tanzania that killed more than 200, according to the transcript. He also said he helped organize the 2000 attack on the USS Cole in which suicide bombers steered an explosives-laden boat into the guided-missile destroyer, killing 17 sailors.
    ‘‘I participated in the buying or purchasing of the explosives,’’ bin Attash said when asked what his role was in the attacks. ‘‘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.’’
    Also alleged to have been Osama bin Laden’s bodyguard at one time, bin Attash is in his late 20s and is a Yemeni who was born and raised in Saudi Arabia, authorities have said. Said to be an al-Qaida operational chief, bin Attash is known as Tawfiq bin Attash or Tawfiq Attash Khallada or simply Khallad. He was captured in 2003.
    U.S. intelligence documents allege that bin Attash is a ‘‘scion of a prominent terrorist family’’ that includes his father, Mohammed, who was close to bin Laden, and younger brother Hassan, who has been held at Guantanamo since 2004, arriving at the age of 17.
    Several brothers attended al-Qaida training camps in Afghanistan in the 1990s and two have been killed, one in a 2001 U.S. airstrike in Afghanistan, the U.S. says.
    Bin Attash told a March 12 hearing that he met with the man who did the embassy bombings just a few hours before the operation took place, according to the transcript released by the Defense Department
    ‘‘I was the link between Osama bin Laden and his deputy Sheikh Abu Hafsd Al Masri,’’ who took over the leadership of al-Qaida in Iraq after its leader, Abu Musab al-Zarqawi, was killed in a U.S. airstrike last June.
    Bin Attash also said he was with bin Laden when the Cole was attacked while refueling in Yemen’s port of Aden.
    Legal experts have criticized the U.S. decision to bar independent observers from the hearings, called combatant status review tribunals. Carl Tobias, a University of Richmond law professor, said ‘‘legitimate criticisms can be raised’’ about the confessions coming out of the hearings.
    ‘‘Of course, no one’s there to know, other than what we see from the transcripts and what the hearing officers hear,’’ Tobias said.
    ‘‘The claim has been that some of the confessions were extracted by torture or other activities that are inappropriate, and (there are) doubts about whether the detainees are telling the truth,’’ he said.
    Many have questioned the confession of Khalid Sheikh Mohammed, also known as KSM, who claimed responsibility or partial responsibility for nearly three dozen plots including the 9/11 attacks on the U.S., according to transcripts of his March 10 hearing released last week.
    Bruce Hoffman, a terrorism expert at Georgetown University, said he has been surprised by the skepticism over the transcripts released so far.
    ‘‘It dovetails with what we know,’’ Hoffman said of the reported confessions. ‘‘With KSM, this guy was the evil genius he describes. ... In terrorism, it’s a matter of keeping lots of irons in the fire and it’s whichever ones are coming to fruition that you go with.’’
    The hearings are being held to determine whether the suspects should be declared ‘‘enemy combatants’’ who can be held indefinitely and prosecuted by military tribunals. If, as expected, the 14 are declared enemy combatants, they could then be charged and tried under the military commissions law signed by President Bush in October.
    A federal judge in Virginia last Wednesday found the government of Sudan liable for the attack on the Cole in a lawsuit in which the sailors’ relatives argued that al-Qaida could not have succeeded without the African nation providing a safe haven for bin Laden and financial support. No damage amount has yet been awarded.
    Lorrie Triplett of Suffolk, Va., whose husband, Andrew, died in the Cole attack, said the confession is helpful to the families of the Cole sailors because it bolsters the case they made in court.
    ‘‘In some ways, it could have been coerced, you know, they just want to just blame anybody, but it’s the tip of the iceberg. It is more than just him,’’ she said.
    ‘‘The thing is, we want accountability from all levels, not just the foreign nationals who pulled off the attack, who masterminded the attack, but those who let it happen within our government as well,’’ said Jamal Gunn, 26, of Virginia Beach, Va., whose brother, Cherone Gunn, was killed aboard the Cole. Gunn said the Cole should not have stopped in Yemen because that country was on a terrorist watch list.
    In the late 1990s, bin Attash allegedly alternated between serving as bin Laden’s bodyguard and fighting Afghanistan’s Northern Alliance force. He lost his right leg in a battlefield accident in 1997, U.S. intelligence says.
    Bin Attash helped choose the Sept. 11 hijackers and made two flights on U.S. airlines to assess in-flight security procedures, authorities allege. Bin Laden wanted bin Attash to be one of the hijackers on Sept. 11, but that plan was foiled when bin Attash was arrested in Yemen in April of that year and briefly imprisoned after attempting to get a U.S. visa.
    Intelligence officials say that in the months before his 2003 arrest, he and others were close to executing a plot to simultaneously attack the U.S. consulate in Karachi, westerners at the airport and westerners living in the area.
    The U.S. military prison at Guantanamo Bay opened five years ago, mostly with men captured from the war in Afghanistan. Roughly 385 prisoners are still held there and about 80 detainees are designated for release or transfer.
    ———
    Associated Press reporter Sonja Barisic in Norfolk, Va., contributed to this report.

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