The Justice Department now believes that a mysterious Osama bin Laden operation in Yemen played a key role in the East Africa embassy bombings two years ago, using a telephone there to relay messages just before and after the bombings, according to court records and a U.S. indictment. The latest indictment in the bombing case, handed up in May of this year, details a series of 12 phone calls linking the bombers to a phone number in Yemen.
THE CALLS — including two using bin Laden’s own satellite phone — were placed by the bombing co-conspirators to a phone number in Yemen in the days immediately before and after the bombings on Aug. 7, 1998. The blasts at the U.S. embassies in Nairobi, Kenya, and Dar es Salaam, Tanzania, killed 224 people, including 12 Americans.
Two of the phone calls, the 146-page indictment maintains, were placed by one of the bombers in the minutes before he and others left a safe house in suburban Nairobi to blow up the embassy in Nairobi. Others were made from Afghanistan by “a co-conspirator using the bin Laden satellite telephone,” said the document, providing no further details.
In addition, one of the bombers was wired $1,000 by a Yemeni money exchange house four days after the bombing. The Justice Department alleges that same bomber was living in Yemen before being trained at bin Laden’s Afghanistan camp in the months before the bombing.
Although the indictment, titled “U.S. vs. bin Laden,” does not characterize the Yemen phone number, it suggests it was used as a terrorist switchboard to forward some of the most critical communications surrounding the bombings. Other Justice Department documents in the case claim bin Laden’s al-Qaeda network has used such “switchboards” in the past.
A spokesman for the U.S. Attorney’s Office in Manhattan declined any comment.
“I cannot help you on that,” said a senior U.S. intelligence official asked what the significance of the Yemen phone number. “I am familiar with what you’re talking about, but I can’t help you.”
Bin Laden’s name has surfaced in connection with the Oct. 12 bombing of the USS Cole, which was targeted while on a refueling stop in Yemen. Seventeen U.S. sailors were killed in the attack.
CALLS TO YEMEN
The indictment states that on 12 separate occasions between Aug. 5 and Aug. 11, 1998, co-conspirators in the Nairobi bombing called a phone number in Yemen, which the Justice Department describes as “Yemen Telephone One,” using a phone in the villa where the Nairobi embassy bomb was built, a pay phone in Nairobi and the satellite phone.
Most of the calls were placed by Mohamed Rashed Daoud Al-’Owhali, a bomber who planned to die in the Nairobi attack.
Al-’Owhali survived the blast but was arrested and taken to New York, where he will go on trial this January on murder charges. If convicted, he will face the death penalty.
Al-’Owhali made his first call to Yemen from the suburban Nairobi villa where the bomb was built on Aug. 5, two days before the bombing. The next day, he made two more calls. Then, on the day of the bombing — only minutes before he and others left for the embassy in the bomb truck — he called Yemen twice more, the implication being he was receiving final orders or encouragement.
Al-’Owhali survived the blast, received treatment at a local clinic and then on Aug. 8, the day after the bombing, made two calls to Yemen from a Nairobi pay phone. The next day, he placed two more calls to Yemen, again from a pay phone in Nairobi.
The indictment also says, without any further detail, that on Aug. 10 “a co-conspirator using the bin Laden satellite telephone contacted Yemen Telephone One from Afghanistan.”
On Aug. 11 — four days after the bombing — two more calls went from Afghanistan to Yemen. That same day, the Justice Department indictment charges, al-’Owhali “obtained $1,000 from a money exchange house in Nairobi, which also had a branch office in Yemen.”
Al-’Owhali arrived in Nairobi on Aug. 3 after spending three months in Afghanistan meeting with bin Laden and being trained at bin Laden’s camp. Prior to that, the Justice Department says in its indictment, al-’Owhali was living in Saan’a, the capital of Yemen.
The United States has indicted 17 people for their alleged role in the 1998 embassy bombings. Nine are still fugitives.
Robert Windrem is an investigative producer for NBC News.