It was a family affair. In the wilds of southern Afghanistan, Osama bin Laden was throwing a lavish wedding celebration for his son Mohammed. Relatives flew in from all over the world for last month's banquet. But when Bin Laden stood up to address his guests, it wasn't to toast the happy bride and groom. Instead, the accused terrorist mastermind broke into poetry, delivering an ode to the bombers of the USS Cole. Flanked by Afghan fighters and members of the ruling Taliban militia, Bin Laden belittled the U.S. destroyer as a ship of "arrogance and haughtiness... sailing to its doom." To shouts of Allahu akbar--"God is great"--Bin Laden spoke wistfully of the conspirators' "dinghy bobbing in the waves, disappearing and reappearing in view."
To U.S. investigators probing the deadly blast, Bin Laden's musings are no flight of poetic fancy. Since the attack last fall, the FBI has strongly suspected Bin Laden's involvement. For years he has railed against the presence of American forces in the Persian Gulf. And the FBI believes several of the suspects detained by Yemeni authorities shortly after the attack belong to Bin Laden's Al Qaeda organization.
Though connecting the evidence directly to Bin Laden has always been difficult, FBI documents obtained by NEWSWEEK suggest the Feds may be close. In interviews conducted by Yemeni police, Jamal Al-Badawi, a key suspect in the Cole plot, paints a portrait of a terrorist cell in Yemen with long ties to Bin Laden's terrorist network. According to the FBI's account of those interviews, Al-Badawi himself traveled in 1997 to Afghanistan, where he trained in a Bin Laden-run camp. He swore allegiance to Bin Laden and met his future alleged co-conspirators there. The most important relationship he developed was with a man named Tawfiq Al-Atash, identified in the FBI documents by his code name, Khallad. A native of Yemen and a veteran of the Afghan and Chechnyan wars, Khallad is a top security adviser to Bin Laden. In the FBI's classified report, Khallad, who is believed to be hiding in Afghanistan, is identified as "the intermediary between Bin Laden himself and the attack planners."
Khallad's connection to the Cole attack remains sketchy. But according to the FBI account, he entered the picture in June 1999. Two of Khallad's operatives visited Al-Badawi at his home in Yemen. They delivered a letter from Khallad soliciting Al-Badawi's help in obtaining a boat needed for an attack on a U.S. naval vessel. Badawi traveled to Saudi Arabia and bought the boat, and, after a complex series of fraudulent transactions to conceal the true identity of the owner, it wound up in the hands of the two suicide bombers who allegedly blew up the Cole on Oct. 12, 2000.
FBI sources tell NEWSWEEK they are still missing the key piece of evidence to conclusively link Bin Laden to the crime. And Yemeni authorities haven't helped matters by refusing to let the FBI examine crucial telephone records. But every day the Feds are getting closer and closer to proving that Bin Laden's wedding-day poem was a grim example of art imitating life.