One of the first big breakthroughs in the U.S. government's war against Al Qaeda came in January 2001, when a grimly determined FBI agent named Ali Soufan broke Jamal al-Badawi. A fanatic Yemeni follower of Osama bin Laden, Badawi had been arrested on suspicions that he was involved in the suicide bombing of the USS Cole—an attack that killed 17 American sailors, wounded 39 others and shocked counterterrorism officials in Washington. At first, as Yemeni security agents looked on in an austere interrogation room, Badawi swore on the Qur'an he had no role in the attack. But Soufan wore him down, confronting him with inconsistencies in his story. After a few days, Badawi cracked and confessed to planning virtually every detail of the bombing—under orders from two of bin Laden's senior lieutenants. "He was the guy who recruited the bombers," says Soufan, who was the case agent on the bombing. "He was the local mastermind."
Last week Soufan (now retired) and other FBI veterans of the Cole case were outraged to learn that the Cole killer is now a free man. Three years ago Badawi was sentenced to death by a Yemeni court for his role in the bombing. He later escaped from a Yemeni prison with 22 cohorts—a breakout that U.S. officials suspected was an inside job. Then, mysteriously, in early October he turned himself in and pledged allegiance to the country's president, Ali Abdullah Saleh. Last week Badawi was set free, and was reportedly receiving well-wishers at his home outside Aden. "This guy has the blood of 17 sailors on his hands—and they just let him go?" said Soufan. "Mark my words. This guy will kill again."
The news of Badawi's freedom was another setback for the Bush administration, whose inability to find Badawi's ultimate superiors—starting with bin Laden himself—has been a continuing source of embarrassment. Spokesman Tony Fratto said the White House was "dismayed and deeply disappointed" by the Yemeni government's decision. The timing couldn't have been more awkward. Only last month the Millennium Challenge Corporation—set up by the U.S. government to distribute aid to poor countries—had approved a $20.6 million funding package for Yemen, in part as a reward for its efforts to improve "the rule of law." John Danilovich, the MCC's president, was scheduled to fly to Aden this week to announce the aid package. But last week, after an inquiry from NEWSWEEK, a spokesman said Danilovich's trip had been canceled and that the aid package was "postponed."
White House aide Fratto said the administration still intends "to work with the Yemeni government to ensure al-Badawi is held accountable." (The Yemeni is under indictment in New York for the Cole bombing.) Yemen has often pledged cooperation, and last week a Yemeni official said Badawi remains "under close scrutiny." But veteran counterterror fighters like Soufan are skeptical: anti-U.S. sentiment is high in Yemen, and sympathy for Al Qaeda is widespread. Bin Laden hails from a Yemeni family; after the Cole bombing, he videotaped himself reciting a poem celebrating how the U.S. destroyer had gone down "to her doom." Whatever ultimately happens to Badawi, it is likely that bin Laden—wherever he is—is celebrating again.