WASHINGTON -- A veteran al-Qaida operative has confessed to being the mastermind of the 2000 bombing of the USS Cole, as well as a key conduit between Osama bin Laden and a terrorist cell in East Africa, according to a transcript of a military tribunal hearing released yesterday by the Pentagon.
The transcript was the fourth from the hearings the military is holding in private for 14 high-value terror suspects who were kept in secret CIA prisons before they were sent last fall to the U.S. facility at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba.
Waleed bin Attash has long been suspected of playing a key role in the bombing of the Cole as it refueled in Yemen's port of Aden, killing 17 U.S. sailors. But his brief disclosures to a combatant status review tribunal on March 12 added insight into his role in al-Qaida's overall operations.
Bin Attash confirmed, for instance, that he played a role in another of al-Qaida's deadliest attacks against U.S. targets overseas, the near-simultaneous bombings of the U.S. embassies in Kenya and Tanzania in August 1998 that killed as many as 224 people.
The tribunal will determine whether bin Attash has been properly designated an enemy combatant, which would make him subject to indefinite military detention. He might also be charged with war crimes before a separate tribunal known as a military commission.
During the tribunal, bin Attash was asked by an undisclosed military official "what exactly was his role" in the Cole bombing and the embassy attacks.
"Many roles," he replied.
In the Cole bombing, he said, "I participated in the buying or purchasing of the explosives. I put together the plan for the operation a year and a half prior to the operation. Buying the boat and recruiting the members that did the operation."
Bin Attash also described himself as "the link" between bin Laden and a top deputy at al-Qaida headquarters and al-Qaida's cell chief in Nairobi, Kenya.
"I was the link that was available in Pakistan. I used to supply the cell with whatever documents they need from fake stamps to visas, whatever," bin Attash told the tribunal, also suggesting he helped send African operatives to Pakistan and Afghanistan.
Bin Attash's role in two of al-Qaida's major pre-Sept. 11 attacks "demonstrates how interconnected the al-Qaida operatives are in supporting multiple plots," said Roger Cressey, a former senior White House counterterrorism official in the Bush and Clinton administrations.
"With Khalid Sheikh Mohammed and now bin Attash providing new details, what you're seeing is that senior al-Qaida operatives were involved in multiple successful attacks against U.S. interests," Cressey said. "It also shows how, once they have proved themselves, senior al-Qaida operatives are constantly returned for additional plots."
On Wednesday, the Pentagon released transcripts for three other high-value Guantanamo detainees, including Mohammed, who claimed responsibility for masterminding the Sept. 11 attacks and more than two dozen other al-Qaida plots.
There was no indication in bin Attash's transcript that he was speaking under duress. In contrast to the hearing involving Mohammed, there was no indication that bin Attash claims he was mistreated while in CIA custody.
Bin Attash, a Yemeni who was born and raised in Saudi Arabia, is also known as Tawfiq bin Attash and by several nicknames, including Khallad and Silver. He lost a leg, officials believe, either in combat in Afghanistan sometime in the late 1990s or in an explosives accident at an al-Qaida camp, where he worked as a trainer and a bodyguard for bin Laden.
He was captured during a raid in Karachi, Pakistan, in April 2003, just as he and other al-Qaida operatives were plotting attacks against U.S. interests in Pakistan, authorities said.
Josh Meyer writes for the Los Angeles Times. Wire services contributed to this article.