London (CNSNews.com) - Another radical Muslim cleric has linked last Thursday's bombing of the USS Cole in Aden port to a Yemeni group called the Aden-Abyan Islamic Army - and this time the militant concerned has direct links to the terrorists.
Abu Hamza al-Masri, the Egyptian-born imam at a mosque in North London, made the assertion in a telephone interview Tuesday.
He voiced doubts that Osama bin Laden, the Islamic terror chief wanted by the U.S., had anything to do with the attack, which cost the lives of 17 American sailors.
Abu Hamza told CNSNews.com the Aden-Abyan Army had carried out the attack at this time for two reasons - because of the "Al-Aqsa intifada," or uprising in the Palestinian Authority self-rule areas, and to mark the anniversary of the execution of one of its leaders, Abu al-Hassan al Mehdar.
Mehdar was shot by a Yemeni firing squad a year ago for his part in the kidnapping 16 Western tourists, including two Americans, in December 1988. Four of the hostages, three Britons and an Australian, were killed in a rescue attempt.
Abu Hamza is closely linked to the Aden-Abyan Army. He confirmed Tuesday that he was a spokesman for the group "a couple of years ago." Last year Yemen tried without success to have Britain extradite him to face charges relating to the kidnapping.
Two of his sons, Mohammed and Mohssen, are serving a seven-year prison term in Yemen for plotting bombing attacks in that country on behalf of the Aden-Abyan Army.
Aden-Abyan is a district in Yemen. The organization identifying itself by that name was formed in 1997 and, according to U.S. Mideast specialist Kenneth Katzman, "advocates the imposition of Islamic law in Yemen and the lifting of international sanctions against Iraq, and opposes the use of Yemeni ports and bases by U.S. other Western countries."
Abu Hamza said that after Mehdar's execution last October, he had made a public prediction: "I said I expect some weak operations to happen until the Army gets stronger and stronger and then there will be some suicide or martyrdom attacks coming after that."
Abu Hamza's is the second claim to link the Aden-Abyan Army to the attack on the U.S. Navy destroyer.
Last Friday Sheikh Omar Bakri Mohammed, the outspoken leader of a UK-based Islamic organization, said he had received a claim of responsibility for the USS Cole attack and a bombing on the British Embassy in Yemen hours later, from the same organization.
The U.S. has accused bin Laden of planning the 1998 bombings of American embassies in Kenya and Tanzania that killed 224 people. Following the embassy bombing, the U.S. launched punitive missile strikes against targets it suspected were linked to him, in Sudan and Afghanistan.
An article in the Yemen Times last month which discussed the Aden-Abyan Army, said bin Laden was "considered to be the supporter as well as the supervisor" of the jihad movement in Yemen.
Reports in recent days have also noted that bin Laden has denounced Yemen for allowing American warships to refuel at Aden, a deep-water port on the southern tip of the Arabian Peninsula.
But asked whether he thought bin Laden was involved in the USS Cole bombing, Abu Hamza said: "I don't think so."
"He's never done an operation in Yemen before ...Yemen is not one of his places of priority."
For its part, the Aden-Abyan Army has been openly supportive of bin Laden. Following the U.S. air strikes in 1998, it issued a statement saying it "declares its support and backing for Sheikh Osama bin Laden ... and appeals to all sectors of the Yemeni people, the descendents of the mujahideen conquerors, to kill the Americans and seize their possessions."
Terrorism researchers have identified Abu Hamza, who heads an organization called Supporters of Shari'a, as a close associate of bin Laden. One biography calls him a "lieutenant" of the Saudi-born militant.
In response to queries Abu Hamza said Tuesday that he had never met bin Laden, although he would "consider it an honor" to be associated with him.
Although he supported bin Laden's "struggle," he was involved in a different one, he said.
Bin Laden's main target was "Jews and Christians in the [Arabian] peninsula," while his own struggle was against "our rulers" - the leaders of the Arab-Muslim world - and to have shari'a (Islamic law) imposed.
Bin Laden is sheltering in Afghanistan, whose Taliban rulers have refused to extradite him to face trial.
Amid fears in Afghanistan that the U.S. may launch air strikes against suspected terrorist bases to avenge the attack, the Taliban Monday denied any involvement by their guest.
Bin Laden himself issued a statement, published in the Pakistani newspaper The Jang Tuesday, warning the U.S. not to attack Afghanistan and promising to continue his struggle.
"The dream to kill me will never be completed," bin Laden was quoted as saying.
"I am not afraid of the American threats against me. As long as I am alive there will be no rest for the enemies of Islam. I will continue my mission against them."
He did not refer directly to the Yemen bombing.