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Robert Draper

The OnesThat Got Away

from GQ

The little white boat meant nothing to them. Out here in the Gulf of Aden on this soupy October morning, what first came to mind was, How the hell do they live in this heat? That, and How much farther to freaking Bahrain? Somewhere along the way-during the great ship's two-month voyage from Norfolk, Virginia, across the Atlantic, into the Mediterranean, and at last through the Suez Canal toward the northern Arabian Gulf-the whiff of danger had settled into the crew's nostrils. It would not be fair to say that they were unready. But you would have to say that they were, in the end, unprepared.

There were 293 of them, male and female, twenty-two-year-old doe-eyed peacetime recruits from flyspeck towns in Wisconsin and North Dakota and Texas. They were trained for a kind of warfare that, after today, would become virtually obsolete. For at their disposal aboard the 505-foot-long ship were all the tools for superpower combat. Tomahawk and Harpoon cruise missiles. SM-2 surface-to-air missiles, Spy-1 multifunction radar. A Phalanx close-in weapons system. Torpedoes and rapid-fire multibarrel cannons.

They were girded, it would seem, for Armageddon. Shielded by all this high-tech weaponry, the ship's crew lined up outside the galleys for an early lunch of fajitas; and when they observed the puttering approach of the little white boat, they responded, as any giant would, with serene obliviousness. Trusting its puniness, they dropped their guard.

The two men aboard the little white boat looked happy. They were waving and saluting-or was that a salute? And calling out in greeting-or was that a Muslim prayer? It was hard to tell from the destroyer's great height, looming 148 feet above the water. The crew believed the two men to be harbor garbage collectors, though they could just as easily have been selling trinkets and snacks like so many other vendors bobbing across the water. Or they could have been fish merchants, which was what the two men had told neighbors they were, though no one had ever seen them at the Aden fish market, just as no one had ever seen them at the mosques, the qat-vending stands, the bakeries, the beaches…Only a few furtive appearances from behind the wall they had erected around their cinder-block house overlooking the harbor. Elsewhere-Bangkok, Nairobi, Afghanistan-the two men had been seen plenty. But those in the intelligence community who were paid to track their whereabouts had failed to follow them here, to the shabby district of Madinat ash Sha'b on the southern coast of Yemen. And now, on the morning of October 12, 2000, the two men had taken leave of the neighborhood that never knew them, slid their little white boat down a ramp and into the water, revved the outboard motor, and commenced an unhurried path eastward across the bay, toward the

USS Cole.

And the little white boat? There was nothing unusual about it, nothing at all. In fact, it had plied these waters just a month earlier-from the inlet to the harbor and back-without incident, seemingly without purpose, trolling right past the Yemeni naval base. There had been another time before that, too: January 3, 2000, when another man launched the little white boat toward another

American destroyer, only to see it sink within minutes because the bomb it was carrying was too heavy. No one aboard that particular American ship, The Sullivans, ever saw the skiff submerge, or saw it being retrieved the next day, or saw it being subsequently reinforced with fiberglass while the C-4 plastic explosives were compacted into a neat five hundred-pound bundle. No, the little white boat gave away nothing. Not then, not now, nine months later, with its two bearded passengers coming ever closer to the Cole,rounding the hull toward the rear of the ship, calling out and waving.

Was that a wave? Was that a prayer? Was it garbage they were looking for? All unasked. But the answer came anyway as the little white boat and the two happy men detonated into a million pieces, and the massive American destroyer roared in pain.

In that instant, the world went asymmetric. Seventeen sailors lay dead, another thirty-nine wounded, and America suddenly needed Yemen to explain what had gone wrong. Yemen? What did we know of Yemen? Where did it stand, this dog-poor Muslim country that had been driven from our herd when it sided with Saddam Hussein in the 1991 Gulf War and only after a decade's worth of economic sanctions had been brought to heel? We would, alas, soon find out-beginning with Yemen's president, Ali Abdullah Saleh, who immediately blamed the explosion on a technical mishap inside the Cole, and later on the Egyptians, and later still on the Israelis. Still, to show the Americans that his government would leave no stone unturned, President Saleh dispatched his Political Security Organization-the thuggish plainclothes domestic intelligence unit that reports directly to Saleh-to rampage through Aden and collar "every man with a beard," as one Yemeni government official would say.

When FBI agents arrived in Aden two days later and requested that those behind bars be extradited to the United States for prosecution, President Saleh informed them that the Yemeni constitution forbade this. When the FBI demanded to join the interrogations, the PSO refused on the grounds of national sovereignty. When the

FBI agents asked for interview transcripts, they were handed pages that read like Dadaist poetry. And when the FBI suggested that certain Islamic extremists in the Yemeni government be investigated in connection with the crime, the PSO agents smiled and did nothing.

In late November 2000, the Yemeni government suddenly announced that the case of the USS Cole bombing had been solved, that all ten perpetrators were in custody. The investigation was shut down, and a trial was set for the following January. The Americans protested that this was lunacy: the plot's two alleged overseers, after all, men with direct ties to Osama bin Laden, were still at large. So the Yemeni government agreed to delay the trial for a year. Then it delayed the trial for another year. By that time, it was November 2002; one of the two alleged Cole masterminds was in American hands, and the United States was strongly urging Yemen to proceed with trial. As of April 10, 2003, the ten Cole suspects were still in prison, awaiting formal charges.

As of the next morning, they were not.

Here, now, grinning for the cameras, stands America with Yemen-a marriage not quite from hell, but ever so far from heaven. It would be unfair to cast all blame on the war bride. After all, no sitting American president has ever deigned to set foot on Yemeni sand-though in 1986, then vice president George H. W. Bush briefly touched down to commemorate the opening of an oil refinery there by a Texas petroleum firm.

As it has turned out, the deserts of Yemen are largely petro-barren, and its government has been known to meddle in corporate profits; and so since there is no point in Americans trying to make any money there, there has seemed little point in paying it much mind at all. Except, of course, when we have no choice. In the two years since President George W Bush proclaimed "either you are with us or you are with the terrorists" and President Saleh dashed off to Washington to pledge his country's allegiance to the war on terror, the United States has supplied Yemen with Special Forces training, Coast Guard patrol boats, an FBI office and a fraction of the economic aid it gives to the far tinier nation of Jordan. About its new ally, the U.S. State Department offers only this: "Any counter-terrorism cooperation will be judged on its continuing results." Though far more American travelers have been killed in, say, Mexico than in Yemen in recent years, the State Department warns Americans not to go there.

Then again, Yemen is bin Laden country. Osama's father hailed from the southeastern tribal stronghold of Hadhramawt, and Osama himself plucked his fifth and favorite wife from the town of Ibb. "Even when bin Laden was in Afghanistan," says Edmund Hull, the U.S. ambassador to Yemen, "he always imagined Yemen as a fallback." And after the routing of the Taliban last year, the worry was so great that Al Qaeda would regroup in bin Laden's ancestral homeland that, in the words of one U.S. official, "we began looking around Yemen for a tall guy with a cane."

Bin Laden would be at home in Yemen in more ways than one. Though President Saleh has denounced Al Qaeda almost as strongly as he has Israel-"I am for jihad, for resistance, for arms and money to be sent to fight the Jews," he once declared by way of supporting a Palestinian homeland-his "instinctive tendency," as one U.S. official puts it, "is to seek accommodation" with Islamic extremists and with the tribal leaders who have long harbored terrorists in the lawless Empty Quarter that covers a vast swath of the country. Once upon a time, travel writers spoke of Yemen as a cradle of civilization, the nexus of the frankincense trade, the land of Noah's son and the dominion of the Queen of Sheba. No longer. To talk about Yemen today is to talk about terrorism.

But that is America doing the talking. "You've been here for a while," a Yemeni acquaintance said to me while I was there. "Do we seem like a nation of terrorists to you?" And the only honest reply was no, Yemen did not seem that way. On the night of my arrival, I could hear the chattering of automatic gunfire somewhere below the window of my heavily guarded hotel in Sanaa. But this was only the revelry of a wedding party, which I caught up to the next morning, in the Wadi Dhahr valley, where grapes and pomegranates and qat flourish. On a peak overlooking a former sultan's winter palace, the bridegroom and his tribal brethren staged an elaborate jambiya sword fight to the furious rhythm of a tasa drumbeat. Several men standing around the dancers still toted their Kalashnikovs from the night before. When I told one of them I was an American, he hesitated for only a moment before replying with the word I heard more often than any other during my two weeks in Yemen: "Welcome."

I was welcome here, but so was the Palestinian organization Hamas, which maintains an office in Sanaa. To the U.S. government, Hamas is a terrorist organization; to most Yemenis, it is a resistance movement. For that matter, to the Arab world, the honey produced in the Hadhramawt region is a peerless aphrodisiac. To the U.S. government, Yemeni honey merchants are terrorist money launderers. Which truth prevails? Teetering between the exotic and the horrific became my psychic tightrope walk. While shuffling through the spice-scented thousand-year-old alleyways of the Sanaa souk, tangled up in the foot traffic of beggars and silversmiths and qat procurers-a claustrophobic bustle not that different from the one that suddenly coalesced around the U.S. embassy last year, screaming, "Death to America!"-I clung to the admonition Sometimes, usually, nearly always, a little white boat is just a little white boat.

And they, no doubt, thought of me: Sometimes, after all, an American man in Yemen is not an FBI agent. In this uneasy way, we trusted each other-though relieved, if we were to be honest with ourselves, that our governments did not.

The prison was not a prison. It might have been helpful, from the American point of view, to know this-that the ten conspirators believed responsible for the deaths of seventeen American sailors were being held in a mere interrogation center, situated on the first floor of the Aden headquarters of the PSO, a sullen two-story building the British had constructed sometime before 1967, when the South Yemen socialists escorted the colonialists out of the country at gunpoint. Whatever the building had once been, it had since taken on the PSO's own shadowy personality. Individuals were brought there without charges and were detained for unspecified periods. Many were not treated kindly. Amnesty International had asked to inspect the building to determine whether torture took place there. Lawyers demanded to meet with jailed clients. Family members showed up in tears; all were turned away. No one could get into this prison unless the PSO had dragged him there. Getting out, by comparison, was a snap.

The ten men were not equal partners in crime. One of them, Jamal al-Badawi, the accused USS Cole-plot field coordinator, was a highly regarded sheik and, along with Fahd al-Quso, an Al Qaeda camp habitue. The eight others, however, were mere crooked cops and civil servants who had supplied al-Badawi and al-Quso with phony identification and credit references. One prisoner's sole offense was that of preparing the Cole suicide bombers a farewell lunch the day before the attack. Though the FBI agents saw little sport in crucifying marginal offenders ("We're interested in quality, not quantity," said a top U.S. official), they saw no profit in quibbling. Justice of a kind would be served. All ten would be tried together. All were up for the death penalty. In the meantime, all ten occupied the same cell. And it was a lucky thing for the rest that one of them was good friends with a certain uniformed man named Hussein al-Ansi. Around Aden, al-Ansi was described as a mustachioed lout who enjoyed crashing diplomatic parties. Among the FBI, he was believed to be the foremost obstructionist in the USS Cole investigation. Here in the PSO building, he was chief.

And he was all they needed. For this prison had no surveillance cameras. No motion detectors. No electric fences. No watch-towers. What it did have was a hole, dug by hand through a concrete bathroom wall. And so through this hole, out into the coastal air, across a vacant lot and over the low perimeter fence, down the street, beyond the forbidding gates of the PSO headquarters and into a waiting taxicab galloped ten men with a plan, with one good friend and with only the moon smiling down on them-unless it, too, turned away.

Later that afternoon of Friday, April 11, 2003, while the Yemeni government was denying that any prisoners had escaped, roadblocks barricaded every major road in Aden while the PSO reprised its every-man-with-a-beard burlesque. But the USS Cole Ten-the only suspects Yemeni authorities had ever apprehended in connection with the bombing-had already disappeared into the creases of the southern Arabian desert, much as the two happy suicide bombers had scattered themselves over the Gulf of Aden three years before. Disappeared, to this day, they all remain.

The qat leaves I had been chewing for the past half hour began to achieve the expected effect. My extremities trembled, my stomach performed somersaults, and I jawed like a jackass about matters of which I was extravagantly ignorant. "You have to understand," I was saying. "Very few Americans can even find Yemen on a map. They only hear about Yemen when there's an incident like the USS Cole bombing."

The five young Yemeni journalists I was talking to passed more leaves my way. "Why is it," one of them asked, "that America is so preoccupied with hunting down people who it thinks are terrorists while it allows Israel to pursue blatant acts of terrorism against the Palestinian people?"

"America's never going to view Israel the way you do," I said. "It's the only reliable democracy in the Middle East, and it's one of the most loyal allies we have."

"What do you think about the fact that no Jews were killed when the World Trade Center was attacked?"

It was Friday, the holy day. The five of them-and almost everyone else in Yemen-had been chewing qat leaves for hours. Golf ball-size convexities formed in their right cheeks. The qat was of very high quality, I was told. No DDT or other pesticides. We sat cross-legged and barefoot on a carpeted floor in a room whose only adornments were photographs of assassinated former leaders of Yemen. I had fallen into the journalists' company while pursuing the mystery of the USS Cole escapees. The young reporters were eager to help, but in truth they knew less than I did. None of them had been to the prison, and no Yemeni official would speak to them about the investigation. As the sunlight ebbed, the sounds of traffic in the disordered streets of Sanaa gave way to the muezzin's final call to prayer. "Let's take a fifteen-minute break," said the lean-faced Yemen Observer writer as he stood up and brushed the qat remnants off his traditional Yemeni blazer, skirt, and ornamental belt.

As soon as they returned from their prayer session in the hallway, I took the offensive. I wanted to know why Yemen-which the United Nations had recently ranked as 148th out of 174 nations in terms of economic development-did not throw out President Saleh after twenty-five years in power. I wanted to know what it suggested about Yemen's supposed free press that journalists who impugned the president or Islam were summarily hauled off to underground prisons by the PSO. As the qat buzz shivered through me like an electric eel, I concluded my discourse with a rousing, "The government's not going to hand you more rights-you've got to fight for them!"

The journalists nodded listlessly. Then one of them asked, "Do you think it's right that the CIA launches Predator drone missiles into Yemen and murders suspected terrorists extrajudicially, the way the Israeli army does?"

So it went for hours, a congenial impasse, until the best we could do was rhapsodize about qat, the opiate of the Yemeni masses- how it spurred a man to perform like a gladiator in the bedroom, weep for the absence of his mother, or produce seamless poetry on deadline. What qat could not do was make a Yemeni and an American see the world in remotely the same way.

No, no, no, I was constantly assured by both United States and Yemeni officials, there has been much progress. Things are changing. Al Qaeda is on the run here and cannot regroup. Jailed extremists are renouncing jihad in exchange for probation. The Imams are toning down their oratory. American aid is trickling in. And so why focus on the prison? Bring it up and everyone gets nasty again. Like interior minister Rashad al-Alimi, Yemen's top law-enforcement official. "It's our negligence," he said, "but the Americans have their fingerprints on this, too. We wanted to put [the ten suspects] through the legal system. Try them in the courts and then move them from the interrogation center to a maximum-security prison. But who was delaying this? The Americans. They said no, leave them there, leave them there."

To which an official at the U.S. embassy replied, "Frankly, we weren't aware they'd been transferred there to begin with."

And so we arrive where we began, blown back into the Gulf of Aden, staring out at the little white boat. To trust or not to trust? So the PSO chief in Aden and all the prison's guards were sacked immediately following the jailbreak. So the taxi driver who drove the ten men away was interrogated. So a government commission was assembled to straighten the whole mess out. Where were the indictments? Why had the entire matter become classified? And why had none of the fugitives been apprehended?

"We have sources saying they're at a certain location," the interior minister assured me. "My people are on the ground, and they're trailing them."

That was in July. Sound familiar? To Clint Guenther, the FBI's logistical coordinator for the USS Cole investigation, the jailbreak episode "didn't surprise me one bit, considering that the cooperation we'd always gotten from the Yemen government was shoddy at best. I truly believe that they didn't want us to know everything."

And that was the way it was going to be. Just as America would see bin Laden's ghost behind every beard, just as it would browbeat with its Predator bombings and extort with its foreign-aid budget, so too would Yemen insist that its extremists are a dying breed, and chafe at the slightest accusation to the contrary. Better, then, to stand together for the cameras, grin our grins-enemies kept closer, terrorized into friendship-and say nothing, absolutely nothing, about the prison.

Except that I wanted to visit it. And so one evening I flew from Sanaa with my translator, Khaled al-Hammadi, to the port town of Aden.

The flight attendant's mascara began to drip the moment she stepped onto the runway. At eight in the evening, the temperature exceeded ninety, and the air leeched itself to our pores. Khaled haggled with a cabdriver before we stepped into his vehicle-which, like most Yemeni taxis, resembled an oil spill. I hung my head out the window, pretending there was a cool breeze and that I was in my swimsuit, prostrate before the waves.

When we checked into our beachside hotel, the clerk politely explained that, as a foreigner, I would be assessed a higher room rate than would Khaled. (This informal "visitor's tax" in Yemen applies not only to hotels but also to plane tickets and restaurant meals. It's the country's small contribution to global-wealth redistribution.) Having endured an alcohol-free week in conservative Sanaa, I made for the hotel bar, where I drank Heineken from a can and watched an episode of Arabic-subtitled Friends in the company of several Jordanian businessmen.

When I knocked on Khaled's hotel door later that evening, I found another man in the room. He introduced himself as Haydar and showed me his PSO identification card. Haydar was short, with a trim mustache and intense eyes-a sort of Arabian Errol Flynn, except that he was pronouncedly duck-footed and had sweated completely through his olive silk shirt. He explained that foreign journalists were not to be wandering around Aden without a "minder" from the Ministry of Information. I suggested that this was ridiculous, that I had been interviewing cabinet officials unfettered all week long in Sanaa and that President Saleh's aides had given me their blessings to travel to Aden. Did I have documentation of this, Haydar wanted to know. No, I confessed, I did not, but he was free to call them. Haydar told us not to leave the hotel grounds that evening, shook our hands, and said good night.

The next morning, Haydar was already making himself comfortable in the lobby when I showed up for breakfast. "Hello, Robert!" he called out in English and sprang to his feet to shake my hand. I had people to see that morning, and Haydar informed me that he would escort me in his pickup truck. The interview subject, a powerful newspaper publisher, was not daunted by Haydar. He closed the door on the PSO agent's nose. When I finished my interview, Haydar was dutifully standing outside, having sweated through his natty blue long-sleeve shirt. He was waiting to hear from the new Aden PSO chief about my visiting the prison. In the meantime, he offered with a shrug, would I like a tour of Aden?

We killed time by driving through the old market in Crater, bumping along the old British-built boulevards past sagging and blistered storefronts and then finally around an immense cistern that had been dug perhaps two thousand years ago and now was dry. At one point, Haydar's pickup truck broke down, and he fretted over the carburetor in the 110-degree heat while Khaled and I tried to control our laughter. He was actually a decent sort, not one of the PSO's musclemen, and though he said he was from the mountains in the north and ill-suited to Aden's stifling humidity, he maintained a kind of futile dignity in his neatly trimmed mustache and his fine sweat-stained clothes.

There wasn't much to see in the raggedy old coastal city, so Hay-dar ferried us back to the hotel. We sat in deck chairs at the water's edge, watching a procession of young Yemeni women stride slowly through the waves in their head-to-toe sharshafs like ebony apparitions. At last Haydar's cell phone rang. He strode off for some privacy, kicking up sand and mopping his brow.

When he returned, I could tell by his face that the news was not good. Khaled translated: The new Aden chief was irate at Haydar. What was this American journalist doing in Aden anyway? And you took him on a tour? No, he cannot see the prison. Do not let him leave the hotel grounds. Escort him to the airport tomorrow morning.

"I am sorry, Robert," Haydar said. Then he bent down, reached for my neck, and kissed me on both cheeks with his sweaty lips.

The next morning, a few minutes after the mascara-stained Yemen Airways flight attendant welcomed me aboard, I lay my forehead against the aircraft window-a portrait of stupefaction, gaping at the dunes, which swirled like caramel question marks in the almighty nothingness below. Thinking: The prison is not a prison. The little white boat is not just a little white boat. The alliance is not an alliance. Then the plane thrust heavenward, and the question marks melted under the Arabian sun.

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