Search Continues for Al Qaeda Prison Escapees
ROBERT SIEGEL, host:
This is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED From NPR News. I'm Robert Siegel.
MELISSA BLOCK, host:
And I'm Melissa Block. The FBI says it will hunt down al Qaeda suspects who broke free from a jail in Yemen on Friday. Interpol has issued alerts describing the men as a clear danger not just to Yemen but to the world. Among the escaped convicts, is a man who played a key role in the bombing of the USS Cole in 2000, and another responsible for attacking a French oil tanker in 2002. NPR's Michele Kelemen has the story.
MICHELE KELEMEN (Correspondent, Foreign Desk): According to Interpol Jamal al-Badawi and 12 other al Qaeda convicted terrorists escaped through a massive tunnel and are now on the loose. FBI Special Agent Richard Kolko says Badawi was integral in planning the bombing of the USS Cole.
Mr. RICHARD KOLKO (FBI Special Agent): We view this as very critical. There's certainly a danger or hazard to the U.S. and its interest both in Yemen and abroad. And with our working relationship, the FBI will do what it can to assist both our domestic and international partners to help track down these terrorists and put them back into jail.
KELEMEN: He says the FBI does have agents on the ground who can help.
Mr. KOLKO: The FBI maintains a legal attaché office, which means we have FBI employees that work right in the embassy in Sona(ph) Yemen. And they have a working relationship established through the embassy with the government of Yemen.
KELEMEN: It's a relationship that has been key in the war on terrorism. Yemen is Osama bin Laden's ancestral homeland and its mountainous terrain was once known as a haven for al Qaeda suspects. Kenneth Katzman of the Congressional Research Service says the prison break raises questions in his mind about Yemen's ability to be a partner in the war on terrorism.
Mr. KENNETH KATZMAN (Congressional Research Service): The U.S. sort of has to walk on eggshells with Yemen because of this fear that the population does not like crackdowns on al Qaeda, or has some sympathy for al Qaeda.
KELEMEN: The U.S. has always had to play a behind-the-scenes role. Rand Beers is a former terrorism advisor to Presidents Bush and Clinton describes a rocky counter terrorism relationship with Yemen.
Mr. RAND BEERS (Former U.S. Terrorism Advisor): There wasn't a uniformly onward and upward kind of process. It was, to some degree, fits and starts but the starts were more prevalent.
KELEMEN: While the government of Yemen has been an ally in the U.S. led war on terrorism, it's a weak state. And Beers acknowledges there are plenty of places for the escapees to hide.
Mr. BEERS: It's an easy place to hide but it's not impossible to be able to track them down. We have, together with the Yemeni Government been able to track down individuals in that country before, so its not an impossible task.
KELEMEN: In fact says another terrorism expert, Bruce Hoffman, there's a good track record.
Mr. BRUCE HOFFMAN (Terrorism Expert, Rand Corporation): A couple of years ago the Yemen authorities allowed the United States to deploy an unmanned predator which eliminated one of the brains behind the USS Cole attack, Alna Sasheri(ph). So you know that's actually quite rare.
KELEMEN: As for the main figure in the prison break, Jamal al-Badawi, he's well known among terrorism experts. Barbara Bodine, who was Ambassador to Yemen at the time of the Cole Bombing, described Badawi as a facilitator of the attack. He's believed to have traveled to Saudi Arabia to buy a boat for the attack, and rented safe houses. Hoffman of the Rand Corporation says Badawi is someone with knowledge of the terrorist tradecraft. Someone you don't want to see back out on the streets.
Mr. HOFFMAN: Let's face it, terrorism wouldn't occur unless you had these key link people or known people who perform an enormously important facilitating role. They are essentially, the, you know the local brains behind the operation that make it possible because they know the terrain, they know how to rent safe houses without attracting attention. They know how to navigate through not just physically through the target area, but also to navigate and avoid the authorities, for example, in surveillance.
KELEMEN: And he says if you measure progress in the war on terrorism in terms of al Qaeda figures captured or killed, every time one escapes, that' a clear setback. Michele Kelemen, NPR News, Washington.