WASHINGTON, May 20 -- New evidence indicates that the organization of Saudi exile terrorist, Osama bin Laden, used experts from the Lebanon-based terrorist organization Hezbollah, to build the huge bomb that badly damaged the U.S.S. Cole in Yemen last October, killing 12 Americans, former CIA officials said.
According to these sources, an earlier planned attack scheduled for Jan. 3, 2000,on another American ship as it refueled in Aden, the U.S.S. Sullivans, was timed to go off simultaneously with strikes at other targets that included American tourists in Jordan and famous sites in the continental United States, including the Seattle Space Needle, Los Angeles airport, and Disneyland.
Other targets included the Transamerica Pyramid in San Francisco, they said.
The attack on the USS Sullivans fizzled, thanks to discovery and arrest by Yemeni security forces.
But Richard Clarke, then President Clinton's top adviser in charge of counterterrorism, blamed bin Laden for the attempted plot on the U.S.S. Sullivans and asked: "What if in January (of 2000) had started with 1,000 Americans dead at six or seven locations around the world?"
Clarke also said that bin Laden had targeted West Coast and Jordanian sites.
But the attack on the U.S.S. Sullivans "was pretty poorly run" which was what led to its being uncovered, the former CIA official said. Thanks to intelligence exchange among several countries, Jordanian authorities arrested suspects who confessed to planning attacks on the Radisson SAS Hotel in Amman and two Christian pilgrimage sites, all aimed Americans on Jan 3.
The former CIA official then said: "The question we had to ask ourselves was, what did the bin Laden organization do in a matter of months to go from something amateurish to something so lethal?"
Only skillful damage control by the Cole's crew kept the ship from sinking, U.S. Navy officials said. According to the former CIA official the answer is to be found in the use by bin Laden of expert bombers from the Hezbollah.
According to several U.S. government sources, one of the reasons the attack on the Cole succeeded was involvement by the "highest levels" of the Yemen government of President Ali Abdallah Saleh, although Saleh himself personally was not, one said.
A former administration official from the previous Bush administration, who asked not to be named, described the attack on the Cole in the port of Aden "as very, very, very professional" involving months of reconnaissance, the use of a more damaging type of explosive, safe houses, courier routes and other "hallmarks' of a "well-run operation."
The attack occurred when two suicide bombers detonated their boat, packed with explosives, during the Cole's refueling stop at Aden, Yemen's chief port.
A U.S. government official told United Press International that the blast was a "cone-shaped charge" that used "moldable high explosives such as SEMTEX H," shaped to create a high-speed, high temperature blast wave. The blast took place in two stages over a fraction of a second, he said.
During the first stage, the blast "forces all the air out with tremendous force," creating a vacuum, but as air rushes back in, it creates another tremendous force that causes further damage.
"It's a trademark of bombs made by Hezbollah and raises the question of the involvement of Iran," he said.
A former CIA official agreed: "We have to start looking at Iran's involvement in the incident. The evidence warrants this."
U.S. intelligence sources insisted that the terrorism situation in Yemen is serious, and that Iran- and Sudan-backed groups have a strategic alliance whose aim is to consolidate control by Islamic militants over the area around the Horn of Africa and drive the United States. not only from the area of the Red Sea, but the Persian Gulf.
A U.S. counterterrorism expert said that this is still the goal, and the explosive attack on the Cole and the threats against U.S forces "in the region" still show "how dicey this situation is."
Les Campbell, regional director for the Middle East and Africa, for the Washington, D.C.-based National Democracy Institute said that in addition to the Islamic fundamentalists like bin Laden: "There may well be (other) terrorist elements" in the country. He spoke of "a latent Iraqi and anti-American influence" in the upper echelons of Yemen's ruling General People's Congress Party. Yemen backed Iraqi in the Persian Gulf War, and Iraqi sympathizers are a "drag" on Yemen's efforts at reform, currently being financed by the United States, he said.
According to U.S. government officials, the Hezbollah consists of an umbrella organization of radical Shi'ite groups that closely follow the revolutionary aims and philosophy of Iran's Ayatollah Khomeini. The organization was established following the 1982 Peace for Galilee War launched by Israel when it invaded Lebanon.
Iran's response was to send in trained terrorists from its Revolutionary Guards to help build up Hezbollah forces that would engage in "jihad" or holy war against American and Israeli targets.
The spiritual leader of the Hezbollah, Shiekh Muhammed Hussein Fadallah, is the chief interpreter of Islamic law for the group.
An attempt was made on Fadlallah's life on March 8, 1985, when an explosive-packed car was driven into a Beirut suburb about 50 yards from Fadlallah's residence. The car disappeared in a blinding blue flash that killed 80 people and wounded 200 more.
A former State Department official told UPI that the group behind the bombing had been trained in the United States, but denied there was any American involvement in the assassination attempt. "We trained them in self-defense. So they got a bit out of hand? What can I say?"
The United States discovered the first "hard evidence" of a connection between the Hezbollah and bin Laden last Oct. 20, when a bin Laden operative, a former U.S. Army Sgt. Ali Mohamed, confessed in Federal District Court in New York that he and senior bin Laden operatives had met with mysterious Hezbollah security chief Imad Mughniyah, who is believed to have carried out the bombings of the U.S. Embassy in Beirut and the Marine barracks in 1983.
When a former State Department counterterrorism official Larry Johnson joined with former CIA official Milt Bearden to write about this for The New York Times, they met with outrage from the White House's Richard Clarke, who at that time was part of the Clinton policy of re-establishing good relations with Iran.
In the meantime, the probe into the Cole attack is continuing, with Yemen President Saleh "cooperating fully," a U.S. government official said, prompting Johnson to observe that back in the 1960s, when the area around Aden was a Marxist haven for East German and other terrorists, Saleh had personally ordered the assassination of American personnel.
"It's amazing how times change," Johnson said.