London (CNSNews.com) - As US and Yemeni investigators continue efforts to piece together the puzzle surrounding the bombing of the USS Cole in the port of Aden, terrorism specialists - while wary of speculating - pointed to a well-planned operation possibly carried out by local militants with direction and support from outside the country.
The likeliest source of such guidance and logistical backing, they said, was the loose network of extremists associated with America's number one terror suspect, Osama bin Laden.
One week after an explosives-laden small boat detonated alongside the destroyer, blowing a gaping hole in the hull's midsection and killing 17 sailors, FBI director Louis Freeh visited Yemen Thursday to see how the probe was progressing.
Freeh said it was still too early to speculate on the perpetrators. Responding to a question, he conceded that the idea that militants returning from Afghanistan may have played a role was "a valid theory and also a valid point of inquiry."
bin Laden, a Saudi-born businessman with Yemeni origins, is the most prominent of the "Afghans," Muslim radicals who fought against the Russian occupation of Afghanistan during the 1980s before turning their attention onto the Western presence in the Persian Gulf.
Since then, the network of militants have been linked to anti-Western terror across the region, from Kashmir to Chechnya.
On Thursday, a London-based Arabic newspaper published a statement by a leader of an Egyptian Islamic Group, al-Gamaa al-Islamiya, that called for more attacks on American interests.
The leader of al-Gamaa al-Islamiya, Rifai Ahmed Taha, also known as Abu Yasser, is, according to terrorism experts, closely linked to bin Laden's al-Qaida network and may even now be based in Afghanistan with him.
In the statement attributed to him, Taha suggested that Egyptian supporters take similar action against American ships using the Suez Canal.
Two militant Muslim clerics based in London, who have welcomed the attack on the USS Cole, are also known sympathizers, and possibly associates, of bin Laden.
Meanwhile, Yemeni investigations are reportedly focusing on two non-Yemeni Arab men, who apparently arrived in the country shortly before the attack, and were based in an Aden flat where police discovered bomb-making materials on Monday.
Yemeni media said investigators had been sent Thursday to Saudi Arabia. Witnesses said one of the men under suspicion had a Saudi accent. Investigators also were dispatched to the remote and lawless eastern part of Yemen in a bid to firmly identify the two men.
A Yemeni official was quoted Thursday as saying the two men "appear to have links to one of the Muslim militant groups" but did not elaborate.
Outside Help Needed
Magnus Ranstorp, a specialist in Islamic terrorism, said Thursday that he doubted Yemeni groups would have been able to carry out the bombing without outside guidance and resources.
Because of the sheer scale and brazen nature of the attack, it would have required a level of planning outside the capability of a "ragtag" local group, especially as Yemeni militants have been under severe pressure from government security forces.
Far more likely would be local elements aided by highly skilled and experienced outside forces. bin Laden, or those associated with him, had to be the primary suspects, said Ranstorp, who is based at the Center for the Study of Terrorism and Political Violence at St. Andrew's University in Scotland.
He ruled out theories that the Palestinian group Hamas or the Lebanon-based Hizballah could be involved. Hamas had never been linked to operations outside Israel and the PA areas, and the attack on the USS Cole did not fit its modus operandi, while Hizballah's focus was on pressurizing Israel through border attacks and kidnappings.
Both Hamas and Hizballah were, in any case, concentrating at present on expanding their political role in Gaza and Lebanon, respectively.
Ranstorp warned against lending too great a weight to the names of groups claiming responsibility for terror attacks, saying it had long been a tactical ploy by Mideast terrorists to use cover names to confuse adversaries.
There was a great deal of "cross-fertilization" in the huge network of Islamic radicals operating in the Middle East. He differentiated between tightly knit groups like Hamas and Hizballah and the decentralized "loose network" of terrorists associated with bin Laden and "coming from the same environment as him."
The USS Cole attack was probably linked to the ongoing struggle of these terrorists against the US military presence in the Persian Gulf and against moderate Arab governments rather than to sympathy for the Palestinians.
"What better time to strike after there's been a vacuum of attacks? bin Laden's been pressured very heavily ... what better time to strike against the US in retribution for actions [like the US missile strike on Afghanistan in response to the 1998 bombing of the US embassies in East Africa]?" Ranstorp asked.
With regard to which local elements may be implicated, attention has fallen on the Aden-Abyan Islamic Army, which has made a claim of responsibility for the attack through their London-based contact, Abu Hamza al-Masri.
Reports cited by the Institute for Counter-Terrorism, based in Israel, point out that the group was founded with the help of bin Laden's brother and includes veterans of the Afghan war.
"The Islamic Army has loose ties to bin Laden and has made his cause its own. The group has demanded an end to the US military presence in Yemen and at the Muslim holy sites. However, the attack on the USS Cole would have required a level of sophistication far in excess of what has so far been displayed by the Islamic Army...
"Whether the attack was carried out by local people or not, most experts expect to find that bin Laden was somehow involved," the reports say.
The Institute for Counter-Terrorism also pointed to the possibility that the attack may have been carried out "by a local group, such as the Aden-Abyan Islamic Army, but with the help of another country," and the Institute said Iraq would be the most obvious suspect.
Ranstorp voiced skepticism about suspicion that Saddam Hussein had a hand in the bombing, pointing out that the Iraqi leader was not greatly loved by Muslim radicals - despite his anti-Israel rhetoric which fulfilled his "political purposes."
But Tim Ripley, a terrorism researcher at the Center for Defense and International Security Studies, was not as quick to rule out the possibility of Iraqi involvement.
Noting that the campaign of sanctions was crumbling, he said, the spilling of American blood in the Persian Gulf at this time benefits Saddam Hussein.
"He wants to make the Americans pay for imposing sanctions. If the Americans have to pay in blood for imposing sanctions, the great American public might not put up with it.
"The more the American public sees their forces in the Middle East are in battle, then they'll start saying, is it worth it [maintaining the sanctions]?"
Ripley acknowledged that there was "no smoking gun" to implicate Baghdad, and said that, while there were several possible scenarios circulating, "proving them is another thing."
A former CIA head of counter-terrorism, Vincent Cannistraro, has been quoted as saying the Iraqis have recently been in contact with bin Laden's al-Qaida network in Afghanistan.