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Forensics experts plan to scour every corner of the Cole and the surrounding port area, collecting unexploded fragments of explosive material left by the bomb. Those fragments will then undergo field tests to divine their molecular composition. Investigators will be particularly interested in anything they can learn about the bomb's detonator. Since every assailant has a favored method of wiring a bomb, the detonator's construction could help experts zero in on the bomb's provenance.
In coming days the onshore investigators will look at violent indigenous Yemeni groups, like the Aden-Abyan Islamic Army, a terrorist organization whose former leader was executed last year for the kidnapping of 16 Western tourists in 1998. But the more likely suspects, experts say, are international troublemakers operating in Yemen. Bin Laden, who attempted to blow up an Aden hotel housing U.S. service members in 1992, has helped recruit and support several fanatically anti-American terrorist cells, including the Egyptian Islamic Jihad and the Islamic Army of Yemen, which is headed by Bin Laden's brother.
Beyond the sheer number of possible suspects, the investigation may be bedeviled by uncooperative Yemeni authorities. After the Khobar Towers bombing, Saudi police allowed FBI agents neither to examine the physical evidence nor to apprehend suspects, making retaliation against Iran, which Administration officials believe ordered the attack, politically impossible. The signs from the Yemeni government last week were not encouraging. President Ali Abdullah Saleh not only refused to acknowledge that the Cole bombing, and a Thursday-night grenade attack on the British embassy in San'a, might be the work of terrorists; he went so far as to declare, "Yemen does not have any terrorist elements."
Even if the U.S. succeeds in finding and punishing those responsible for last week's tragedy, the superpower's struggle against terrorism is only bound to widen. The escalating conflict in Israel, while perhaps not directly linked to the Cole bombing, has emboldened Islamic extremists and hardened resentment toward the U.S. "What the violence in Israel did," says an Administration official, "is to accelerate plans...among these groups."
Terrorism experts in recent months have noted an even more worrisome trend: attempts by cells linked to Bin Laden to create closer networks with Middle East peace rejectionists. The virulent anti-Americanism of militant crusaders like Bin Laden stems in part from their hostility to the U.S.'s global dominance and the modern, secular world it represents. The irony is that those same groups appear to be turning globalization into a weapon of their own, using it to gain access to more deadly technology and to more closely coordinate their efforts. Says former National Security Council counterterrorism expert Daniel Benjamin: "We're still in the boost phase for this kind of fusion." The attack on the Cole may signal the beginning of the blowback.