Updated at 2:47 p.m. EST
President Trump and U.S. Central Command on Sunday confirmed that a United States airstrike in Yemen has killed one of the militants believed to be behind the deadly USS Cole bombing in 2000.
Jamal al-Badawi, an al-Qaida commander, was on the FBI’s most wanted list for his part in the attack. Seventeen American sailors died in the bombing, which came when two suicide attackers in a small boat detonated explosives as the Navy destroyer was refueling in Yemen’s Aden harbor. The blast left a gaping hole in the side of the Cole. Nearly 40 others were injured in the attack.
“Our GREAT MILITARY has delivered justice for the heroes lost and wounded in the cowardly attack on the USS Cole,” President Trump tweeted on Sunday. “We have just killed the leader of that attack, Jamal al-Badawi. Our work against al Qaeda continues. We will never stop in our fight against Radical Islamic Terrorism!”
U.S. military officials had previously announced they targeted al-Badawi in a “precision strike” in Yemen on New Year’s Day. They said there was no collateral damage.
“Jamal al-Badawi was a legacy al Qaeda operative in Yemen,” said Navy Capt. Bill Urban, a spokesman for U.S. Central Command. “U.S. forces confirmed the results of the strike following a deliberate assessment process.”
Former FBI agent Ali Soufan was the lead investigator on the USS Cole attack. He told NPR that despite the president’s characterization of al-Badawi as the “leader” of the Cole attack, he was not actually the mastermind behind the bombing.
“He was the logistical guy on the ground,” said Soufan. “The coordinator and the main planner of the attack, Abd al-Nashiri, is still alive in Guantanamo Bay. Every time someone says Badawi was the mastermind, they’re hurting the case against Nashiri.”
Soufan, an outspoken critic of the use of torture against terrorism suspects, interrogated al-Badawi a number of times, and says he secured a confession out of him not through torture — but by fooling him.
“I told al-Badawi [my colleague] was a human polygrapher so we would know every time he was lying,” said Soufan. “That’s actually when the floodgates opened because he truly believed every time he lied he was gonna get caught. These guys are evil, but they’re not geniuses.”
Al-Badawi was indicted by a U.S. federal grand jury, but never extradited for prosecution. In Yemen, he was tried, convicted, and sentenced to death by a Yemeni judge, but managed to escape from prison multiple times.
“Now, I think justice has been served,” said Soufan. “Unfortunately it took a long time to do it, but let’s put it this way: the Yemeni judge’s order has been executed … The world is a better place without him.”