Video: USS Cole plotter escapes

NBC News and news services
updated 2/8/2006 5:53:03 PM ET 2006-02-08T22:53:03

An American citizen accused of participating in a terrorist sleeper cell in New York was among the 23 prisoners who escaped from a jail in Yemen last week, federal authorities told NBC News on Wednesday.

At least 13 of the escapees were al-Qaida operatives, including one sentenced to death for plotting the USS Cole bombing that killed 17 American sailors in 2000.

NBC News' Pete Williams said federal officials had identified the American as Jaber Elbaneh, who was  indicted in September 2002 on charges he joined the “Lackawanna Six,” an alleged terrorist sleeper cell in Buffalo, N.Y., accused of attending terror training camp in Afghanistan in 2001.

The group’s six other members pleaded guilty to the charges. Elbaneh was charged but believed to be out of the country at the time, Williams reported. The State Department offered a $5 million reward for any information leading to his capture.

A Yemeni security official announced the escape of convicted al-Qaida members Friday.

Jamal al-Badawi — a man convicted of plotting, preparing and helping carry out the Cole bombing — was among the fugitives who escaped on , Interpol said. Al-Badawi was among those sentenced to death in September 2004 for plotting the attack, in which two suicide bombers blew up an explosives-laden boat next to the destroyer as it refueled in the Yemeni port of Aden on Oct. 12, 2000.

The convicts escaped via a 140-yard-long tunnel “dug by the prisoners and co-conspirators outside,” Interpol said. The Yemeni security official said the prison was at the central headquarters of the country’s military intelligence services in a building in the center of the capital.

United States 'very concerned'
Without claiming that Yemeni prison authorities were part of a conspiracy, a senior counterterrorism official told NBC News last week that “It’s a matter of concern that they were able to dig a 150-foot-long tunnel” that 23 men could move through. The official spoke on condition of anonymity because an investigation was under way.

He said several U.S. government law enforcement and intelligence officials are asking Yemeni officials for information on how the escaped happened. In fact, the official noted that al-Badawi had escaped before. 

The escape came a day before the expected start of a trial of 15 people charged with involvement in terrorism operations in Yemen, including Mohammed Hamdi al-Ahdal, another suspected plotter of the Cole blast.

The trial was postponed indefinitely.

Yemen was long a haven for Islamic militants. After the Sept. 11 attacks, the government aligned itself with the U.S.-led war on terrorism. But many diplomats and outside experts have raised questions about Yemen’s cooperation and inability to control tribal areas.

NBC News' Robert Windrem and The Associated Press contributed to this report .

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