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Cole Bomb Plotter, 12 Others Flee Yemen Prison

STEVE INSKEEP, host:

This is MORNING EDITION, from NPR News. I'm Steve Inskeep.

In this part of the program, we'll report on terrorism suspects at home and abroad, and we'll start with thirteen convicted al-Qaeda members who escaped from prison in Yemen. Interpol has issued a global security alert for the men. The suspects include Jamal al-Badawi, who was involved in the bombing of the USS Cole, in Yemen.

All together, 23 prisoners escaped last Friday through what's described as a 460-foot long tunnel. According to Interpol, it was dug by the inmates and, quote, "co-conspirators outside." We're going to learn more about this from Barbara Bodine. She was the U.S. Ambassador to Yemen when the Cole was attacked, and she's on the line. Good morning.

Ambassador BARBARA BODINE (Former United States Ambassador to Yemen): Good morning.

INSKEEP: How significant is this escape?

Ambassador BODINE: Well, I think any time that you have 23 convicted felons escaping from a prison, it is significant. It's significant to the local population, and, given that about half of those who did escape have some degree of affiliation with al-Qaeda, this is clearly a security threat and a major breach in the security situation in the prison in Yemen.

INSKEEP: What does this tell us about the cooperation of authorities in Yemen, which is a country of great interest to U.S. officials as they pursue the war on terror?

Ambassador BODINE: I wouldn't in any way say that this judges the security cooperation of the Yemeni authorities. You could even make a point that the fact that to get these people out, they had to dig an almost 500-foot tunnel. One would've thought, in many ways, that the easier way to get out would simply have been to bribe either low-level guards or high-level officials. So, in a sense, this actually says that, you know, the only way out of that prison was a fairly elaborate escape plan.

INSKEEP: Now, Jamal al-Badawi is a name that is not as familiar as some others, perhaps, to Americans, but was given a significant role in the Cole bombing. How significant is he?

Ambassador BODINE: He was, if you like, in many ways, the facilitator for the Cole bombing. He was not really the operational organizer, he wasn't the technical person. But he was in some ways the local facilitator, the local agent, the one who helped coordinate those people and things coming from the outside to do the attack.

He was the very first Cole suspect arrested, and he was arrested within a week or two of the bombing, entirely by the Yemeni authorities based on their own human intelligence information they were able to develop.

INSKEEP: As somebody who was in the government at the time, how frustrating is it now to learn that he's on the loose again.

Ambassador BODINE: It's very frustrating. He actually escaped a couple of years ago. This is actually the second, which is odd, because there really isn't a habit of jailbreaks in Yemen.

And interestingly, the Yemenis were able to pick him up again. So, it is very frustrating that he got out for a second time, and it does, of course, show that there is a level of organized support for, if not for him, for al-Qaeda fighters.

But I think the importance is not just simply that Badawi escaped; if he was the only high value person, again, there were much easier ways to get one person out. I would be very interested in the profiles of the other 13. A tunnel is a very elaborate way of getting one person out. That's something you do if you have a large number to get out.

INSKEEP: Ambassador Bodine, thanks very much.

Ambassador BODINE: You're welcome.

INSKEEP: Barbara Bodine was a United States Ambassador to Yemen at the time of the attack on the USS Cole. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.