The USS Cole bombing was a suicide attack against the United States Navy guided-missile destroyer USS Cole (DDG-67) on 12 October 2000, while it was harbored and being refueled in the Yemen port of Aden. Seventeen American sailors were killed, and 39 were injured.This event was the deadliest attack against a United States Naval vessel since 1987.
The terrorist organization al-Qaeda claimed responsibility for the attack. A U.S. judge has held Sudan liable for the attack, while another has released over $13 million in Sudanese frozen assets to the relatives of those killed. The American Navy has reconsidered their rules of engagement in response to this attack.
On the morning of Thursday, 12 October 2000, USS Cole, under the command of Commander Kirk Lippold, docked in Aden harbor for a routine fuel stop. Cole completed mooring at 09:30. Refueling started at 10:30. Around 11:18 local time (08:18 UTC), a small craft approached the port side of the destroyer, and an explosion occurred, creating a 40-by-40-foot gash in the ship’s port side, according to the memorial plate to those who lost their lives. According to former CIA intelligence officer Robert Finke, the blast appeared to be caused by explosives molded into a shaped charge against the hull of the boat. Around 400 to 700 pounds (200–300 kg) of explosive were used.The blast hit the ship’s galley, where crew were lining up for lunch.The crew fought flooding in the engineering spaces and had the damage under control after 3 days. Divers inspected the hull and determined that the keel was not damaged.
17 sailors were killed and 39 were injured in the blast. The injured sailors were taken to the United States Army’s Landstuhl Regional Medical Center near Ramstein, Germany, and later, back to the United States. The attack was the deadliest against a U.S. Naval vessel since the Iraqi attack on the USS Stark on 17 May 1987. The asymmetric warfare attack was organized and directed by the terrorist organization al-Qaeda. In June 2001, an al-Qaeda recruitment video featuring Osama bin Laden boasted about the attack and encouraged similar attacks.
Al-Qaeda had previously attempted a similar but less publicized attack on the U.S. Navy destroyer USS The Sullivans while in port at Aden on 3 January 2000, as a part of the 2000 millennium attack plots. The plan was to load a boat full of explosives and explode it near The Sullivans. However the boat was so overladen that it sank, forcing the attack to be abandoned.
Planning for the attack was discussed at the Kuala Lumpur al-Qaeda Summit shortly after the attempt, which was held from 5 to 8 January 2000. Along with other plotters, it was attended by future 11 September hijacker Khalid al-Mihdhar, who then traveled to San Diego where he established a close relationship with “9/11 imam” Anwar al-Awlaki, who was later linked to numerous plots and attacks, including the Fort Hood shootings and the “underwear bomber” of 2009 and put on a targeted killing list by President Obama as a terrorist threat. On 10 June 2000, Mihdhar left San Diego to visit his wife in Yemen at a house also used as a communications hub for al-Qaeda.After the bombing, Yemeni Prime Minister Abdul Karim al-Iryani reported that Mihdhar had been one of the key planners of the attack and had been in the country at the time of the attacks.He would later return to the US to participate in 9/11 on American Airlines Flight 77, which flew into the Pentagon, killing 184 people.
The first naval ship on the scene to assist the stricken Cole was the Royal Navy Type 23 frigate, HMS Marlborough, under the command of Capt Anthony Rix, RN. She was on passage to the UK after a six-month deployment in the Gulf. Marlborough had full medical and damage control teams on board and when her offer of assistance was accepted she immediately diverted to Aden. Eleven of the most badly injured sailors were sent via MEDEVAC to a French military hospital in Djibouti and underwent surgery before being sent to Germany.
The first U.S. military support to arrive was a Quick Response Force from the United States Air Force Security Forces, transported by C-130. They were followed by another small group of United States Marines from the Interim Marine Corps Security Force Company, Bahrain flown in by P-3. Both forces landed within a few hours after the ship was struck and were reinforced by a U.S Marine platoon with the 2nd Fleet Antiterrorism Security Team Company (FAST), based out of Yorktown, Virginia. The Marines from 4th Platoon, 2nd FAST arrived on the 13th from a security mission in Doha, Qatar. The FAST platoon secured the USS Cole and a nearby hotel that was housing the U.S. Ambassador to Yemen.
USS Donald Cook and USS Hawes made best speed to arrive in the vicinity of Aden that afternoon providing repair and logistical support. USNS Catawba, USS Camden, Anchorage, Duluth and Tarawa arrived in Aden some days later, providing watch relief crews, harbor security, damage control equipment, billeting, and food service for the crew of the Cole. LCU 1666 provided daily runs from the Tarawa with hot food and supplies and ferrying personnel to and from all other Naval vessels supporting USS Cole. In the remaining days LCU 1632 and various personnel from LCU 1666 teamed up to patrol around the Cole while the MV Blue Marlin was preparing to take up station to receive the Cole.
In a form of transport pioneered in 1988 by the USS Samuel B. Roberts aboard the Mighty Servant 2, Cole was hauled from Aden aboard the Norwegian semi-submersible heavy lift salvage ship MV Blue Marlin. She arrived in Pascagoula, Mississippi, on 24 December 2000, where she was rebuilt.
U.S. FBI agents sent to Yemen to investigate the bombing in the days following the blast worked in an extremely hostile environment. They were met at the airport by Yemen special forces, “each soldier pointing an AK-47 at the plane.” Speakers in the Yemeni parliament “calling for jihad against America,” were broadcast on local television each night. After some delay, Yemenis produced a CCTV video from a harborside security camera, but with the crucial moment of the explosion deleted.”There were so many perceived threats that the agents often slept in their clothes and with their weapons at their sides.” At one point, the hotel where the agents stayed “was surrounded with men in traditional dress, some in jeeps, all carrying guns.” Finally the agents abandoned their hotel to stay at a Navy vessel in the Bay of Aden, but even that was not safe. After being granted “permission from the Yemeni government to fly back to shore,” their helicopter “was painted by an SA-7 missile” and “had to take evasive maneuvers”.
On 14 March 2007, a federal judge in the United States, Robert G. Doumar, ruled that the Sudanese government was liable for the bombing.
The ruling was issued in response to a lawsuit filed against the Sudanese government by relatives of the victims, who claim that al-Qaeda could not have carried out the attacks without the support of Sudanese officials. The judge stated “There is substantial evidence in this case presented by the expert testimony that the government of Sudan induced the particular bombing of the Cole by virtue of prior actions of the government of Sudan.” On 25 July 2007, Doumar ordered the Sudanese government to pay $8 million to the families of the 17 sailors who died. He calculated the amount they should receive by multiplying the salary of the sailors by the number of years they would have continued to work.Sudan’s Justice Minister Mohammed al-Mard has stated that Sudan intends to appeal the ruling.
By May 2008, all defendants convicted in the attack had escaped from prison or been freed by Yemeni officials.However, on 30 June 2008, Brig. Gen. Thomas W. Hartmann, legal advisor to the U.S. Military tribunal system, announced charges are being sworn against Abd al-Rahim al-Nashiri, a Saudi Arabian citizen of Yemeni descent, who has been held at the military prison in Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, since 2006. According to the Pentagon, the charges have been defined as “organizing and directing” the bombing of the USS Cole. The charges still must be approved by a Department of Defense official who oversees military commissions set up for terrorism suspects. The Pentagon will seek the death penalty.
Several individuals have been described as the USS Cole bombing mastermind.
Among the allegations leveled by a Guantanamo Military Commission against Abd al-Rahim al-Nashiri,captured in late 2002, was that he was the mastermind of the USS Cole bombing.Al-Nashiri was one of the three “high-value detainees” the George W. Bush Presidency was to acknowledge had been subjected to waterboarding and other “extended interrogation techniques”.
Abu Ali al-Harithi was one of the first suspected terrorists to be targeted by a missile armed predator drone.He too was described as the mastermind of the USS Cole bombing. In 2003, the US Justice Department indicted two people who were believed to been the last main co-conspirators who were still at large, Jamal Mohammad Ahmad Al Badawi and Fahd al-Quso.
Jamal Mohammad Ahmad Al Badawi was convicted in Yemen, and sentenced to death. Fox News called Al-Badawi a “mastermind” of the Cole bombing. Al-Badawi was one of seventeen captives who escaped through a tunnel from a Yemeni jail in 2006.
According to CNN, Tawfiq bin Attash, who was captured in Pakistan 2003 and is currently being held in US custody at the Guantanamo Bay detention camp, was “considered the mastermind” of the bombing.An Al Qaeda commander in Yemen also confirmed that another co-conspirator in the bombing, Abdul Mun’im Salim al-Fatahani, was killed in a US drone strike on 31 January 2012.On 6 May 2012, officials from the Yemen government reported that al-Quso was killed in an airstrike earlier in the day in southern Yemen. The report was later confirmed by US officials and Al Qaeda’s media network As-Sahab.
The destroyer’s rules of engagement, as approved by the Pentagon, kept its guards from firing upon the small boat (which was not known to be loaded with explosives) as it neared them without first obtaining permission from the Cole‘s captain or another officer.
Petty Officer John Washak said that right after the blast, a senior chief petty officer ordered him to turn an M-60 machine gun on the Cole‘s fantail away from a second small boat approaching. “With blood still on my face,” he said, he was told: “That’s the rules of engagement: no shooting unless we’re shot at.” He added, “In the military, it’s like we’re trained to hesitate now. If somebody had seen something wrong and shot, he probably would have been court-martialed.” Petty Officer Jennifer Kudrick said that if the sentries had fired on the suicide craft “we would have gotten in more trouble for shooting two foreigners than losing seventeen American sailors.”
President Bill Clinton declared, “If, as it now appears, this was an act of terrorism, it was a despicable and cowardly act. We will find out who was responsible and hold them accountable”. Some critics have pointed out that, under U.S. law, an attack against a military target does not meet the legal definition of terrorism.
On 19 January 2001, the U.S. Navy completed and released its Judge Advocate General Manual (JAGMAN) investigation of the incident, concluding that Cole‘s commanding officer Commander Kirk Lippold “acted reasonably in adjusting his force protection posture based on his assessment of the situation that presented itself” when Cole arrived in Aden to refuel. The JAGMAN also concluded that “the commanding officer of Cole did not have the specific intelligence, focused training, appropriate equipment or on-scene security support to effectively prevent or deter such a determined, preplanned assault on his ship” and recommended significant changes in Navy procedures. In spite of this finding, Lippold was subsequently denied promotion and retired at the same rank of commander in 2007.
In Afghanistan the bombing was a “great victory for bin Laden. Al-Qaeda camps … filled with new recruits, and contributors from the Gulf States arrived … with petrodollars.”
Both the Clinton Administration and the Bush Administration have been criticized for failing to respond militarily to the attack on the USS Cole before 11 September 2001. The 9/11 Commission Report cites one source who said in February 2001, “[bin Laden] complained frequently that the United States had not yet attacked [in response to the Cole]… Bin Laden wanted the United States to attack, and if it did not he would launch something bigger.”
Evidence of al-Qaeda’s involvement was inconclusive for months after the attack. The staff of the 9/11 Commission found that al-Qaeda’s direction of the bombing was under investigation but “increasingly clear” on 11 November 2000. It was an “unproven assumption” in late November. By 21 December the CIA had made a “preliminary judgment” that “al Qaeda appeared to have supported the attack,” with no “definitive conclusion.”
Accounts thereafter are varied and somewhat contradictory. Then-National Security Advisor Condoleezza Rice told the Commission that when the administration took office on 20 January 2001, “We knew that there was speculation that the 2000 Cole attack was al Qaeda… We received, I think, on January 25 the same assessment [of al-Qaeda responsibility]. It was preliminary. It was not clear.”
The Washington Post reported that, on 9 February, Vice President Dick Cheney was briefed on bin Laden’s responsibility “without hedge.”
Newsweek reported that on the following day, “six days after Bush took office,” the FBI “believed they had clear evidence tying the bombers to Al Qaeda.”
These conclusions are contrasted by testimony of key figures before the 9/11 Commission, summarized in the 9/11 Commission Report. Former CIA Director George Tenet testified (page 196) that he “believed he laid out what was knowable early in the investigation, and that this evidence never really changed until after 9/11.” The report suggests (pages 201–202) that the official assessment was similarly vague until at least March 2001:
On January 25, Tenet briefed the President on the Cole investigation. The written briefing repeated for top officials of the new administration what the CIA had told the Clinton White House in November. This included the “preliminary judgment” that al Qaeda was responsible, with the caveat that no evidence had yet been found that Bin Ladin himself ordered the attack… in March 2001, the CIA’s briefing slides for Rice were still describing the CIA’s “preliminary judgment” that a “strong circumstantial case” could be made against al Qaeda but noting that the CIA continued to lack “conclusive information on external command and control” of the attack.
According to Rice, the decision not to respond militarily to the Cole bombing was President Bush’s. She said he “made clear to us that he did not want to respond to al Qaeda one attack at a time. He told me he was ‘tired of swatting flies.’” The administration instead began work on a new strategy to eliminate al-Qaeda.
As a result of the USS Cole bombing, the U.S. Navy began to reassess its anti-terrorism and force protection methods, both at home and abroad. The Navy stepped up Random Anti-Terrorism Measures (RAM), which are meant to complicate the planning of a terrorist contemplating an attack by making it difficult to discern a predictable pattern to security posture.
In November 2001, the Navy opened an Anti-Terrorism and Force Protection Warfare Center at Naval Amphibious Base (NAB) Little Creek, in Virginia Beach, Virginia, with the objective of developing tactics, equipment and training to combat terrorists.
On 3 November 2002, the CIA fired an AGM-114 Hellfire missile from a Predator UAV at a vehicle in Yemen carrying Abu Ali al-Harithi, a suspected planner of the bombing plot. Also in the vehicle was Ahmed Hijazi, a U.S. citizen. Both were killed.
On 29 September 2004, a Yemeni judge sentenced Abd al-Rahim al-Nashiri and Jamal al-Badawi to death for their roles in the bombing. Al-Nashiri, believed to be the operation’s mastermind, was detained by the U.S. at Guantanamo Bay detention camp. Al-Badawi, in Yemeni custody, denounced the verdict as “an American one.” Four others were sentenced to prison terms of five to 10 years for their involvement, including one Yemeni who had videotaped the attack.
In October 2004 the Navy consolidated the forces it deploys for anti-terrorism and force protection under a single command at NAB Little Creek. The new Maritime Force Protection Command (MARFPCOM) was activated to oversee the administration and training of the expeditionary units the Navy deploys overseas to protect ships, aircraft and bases from terrorist attack. MARFPCOM aligned four existing components: the Mobile Security Forces, Naval Coastal Warfare, Explosive Ordnance Disposal (EOD), and Expeditionary Mobile Diving and Salvage Forces.
On 3 February 2006, 23 suspected or convicted Al-Qaeda members escaped from jail in Yemen. This number included 13 who were convicted of the bombings of USS Cole and the French tanker Limburg in 2002. Among those who reportedly escaped was Al-Badawi. Al-Qaeda’s Yemeni number two Abu Assem al-Ahdal may also have escaped.
On 17 October 2007, al-Badawi surrendered to Yemeni authorities as part of an agreement with al-Qaeda militants. Following his surrender, Yemeni authorities released him in return for a pledge not to engage in any violent or al-Qaeda-related activity, despite a US$5 million reward for his capture. Two other escapees remained at large.
In June 2008 the United States charged Abd al-Rahim al-Nashiri with planning and conducting the attack. The US planned to seek the death penalty in his case.On 5 February 2009, the United States dropped all charges against al-Nashiri “without prejudice” to comply with President Obama’s order to shut down the military prison at Guantanamo Bay, but reserved the right to file charges at a later date. Charges were reinstated in 2011.
In 2009 U.S. federal judge Kimba Wood released $13.4 million in frozen assets belonging to Sudan to be awarded to 33 spouses, parents, and children of the sailors killed in the attack. The money was awarded based on the Terrorism Risk Insurance Act of 2002. Previously, the court had found Sudan culpable in facilitating the attack on the destroyer. Said John Clodfelter, father of Kenneth Clodfelter who was killed in the bombing, “It’s about time something was done. It’s taken so much more time than we thought it should take.”
The USS Cole bombing plays a highly visible role in Navy damage-control training, which begins in boot camp with a pre-graduation Battle Stations event. “The Cole Scenario” launched in 2007 takes place aboard a realistic destroyer mock-up housed at Naval Station Great Lakes, Ill. The training focuses on preparing recruits for damage control challenges they may face in the fleet.