The Tunnel Rats of Terror

Hollywood loves to remake classic movies, and sooner or later it's sure to get around to "The Great Escape," the 1963 thriller based on a real tunnel breakout from a Nazi prison camp during World War II. But this time Al Qaeda's propaganda machine may get the jump on Tinseltown. Earlier this month, in an astonishing tale of life imitating art--albeit with good guys and bad reversing roles--a group of 23 suspected terrorists dug their way to freedom from a basement compound beneath the Political Security Office (PSO), Yemen's main intelligence service, in the capital of Sana. Leading them out--in the starring role, as it were--was one Jamal al-Badawi, the mastermind of the October 2000 attack on the USS Cole that killed 17 sailors. Another escapee was an American Muslim, Jaber Elbaneh, who was once part of an alleged cell in Buffalo, N.Y. None has been seen since.

Not all the details of the latest great escape are yet clear. But it is highly unlikely it could have succeeded without help from members of the Yemeni government, which has been an ally in the war on terror. Last Friday a U.S. Embassy cable sent from Sana, described to NEWSWEEK by a U.S. official who did not want to be identified discussing classified material, noted "the lack of obvious security measures on the streets" and concluded, "One thing is certain: PSO insiders must have been involved."

As described by Yemeni and U.S. officials, the prisoners, left to themselves in a locked basement, spent two months digging the 143-foot tunnel. For tools, they used a broomstick with a sharpened spoon lashed to the end as a spade, along with another jerry-built device: three pots tied together as a U-shaped scoop. The plotters also had a soccer ball that they kicked around indoors, apparently to make enough noise to drown out the digging.

At about 4:30 a.m. on Feb. 3, the prisoners crawled through the tunnel, broke through the floor of a nearby mosque, somehow emerging in the women's bathroom--the least frequented part of the mosque--and disappeared into the darkness. The escape occurred on a Friday, the Muslim holy day when prison authorities do not conduct head counts as rigorously. While it is unclear what kind of outside help the escapees might have had, officials found it particularly suspicious that they knew exactly where to dig.

The Bush administration has been generally happy with assistance from Yemen, Osama bin Laden's ancestral homeland. A draft of the State Department's forthcoming country survey of global terrorism, obtained by NEWSWEEK, notes that Yemen has acted against Islamist extremists involved in attacks on U.S. and Western targets. Once virtually a welcoming committee for Islamist agitators, the Yemeni government changed its attitude after the Cole attack, especially after 13 Yemeni soldiers were killed in a December 2001 shootout with Qaeda fugitives. President Ali Abdullah Saleh began to work more closely with U.S. investigators.

But privately, U.S. officials say the plotters must have had serious--possibly high-level--help at the Political Security Office. U.S. investigators say the PSO's rival agency, the National Security Board, is now leading the probe, detaining and questioning everyone who worked at the PSO. Saleh's security chief and the head of the PSO, Ali Mutahar al-Qamish, is said to be under suspicion, according to two U.S. officials. The U.S. and Dutch navies, meanwhile, have mounted an expensive search operation off the Arabian and Red seas. "We're blocking their southern escape route," says Dutch Lt. Cmdr. Willem Cosiy.

Al-Badawi escaped once before, in 2003, when several prisoners were being transferred to another Yemeni prison. After he was recaptured, some Yemeni officials tried unsuccessfully to claim a multimillion-dollar U.S. award, suggesting a scam. And at the time, al-Badawi apparently was friendly with Col. Hussein al-Anzi, then a top PSO official. Yemeni officials say al-Anzi was fired and no longer has any ties to the PSO.

The State Department cable also cited Yemeni sources who suggested alternative escape theories, including "that elements of the government liberated the prisoners to engage them in covert operations." American authorities are now offering rewards of up to $5 million for al-Badawi and Elbaneh, and wondering who in Yemen they can really trust.