by Brian Whitaker
Originally published in Middle East
International, 27 October, 2000
Laden dunnit, probably with help from Saddam Hussein. The American
media have already reached their conclusions about the attack on
the guided-missile destroyer, USS Cole, in Aden harbour on October
It would certainly be an affront
to the prestige of the US Navy to suggest that anyone other than
America’s two leading hate figures, working hand in hand, could
inflict such devastating damage on a $1 billion high-technology
warship, killing 17 sailors, injuring 39 and blowing a 40-ft gash
in vessel’s side.
This explanation also suits the
authorities in Sana’a, since it spares them the embarrassment
that would ensue if the attackers were run-of-the-mill Yemeni
The American account of events is
that as the warship made a brief refuelling stop, some way off
shore, an inflatable dinghy came alongside and exploded. The two
occupants of the dinghy are presumed to have died.
A few hours later, a bomb caused
"considerable" damage to the British embassy in Sana’a,
including the ambassador’s office. The two attacks may or may
not be related.
The bombing of the USS Cole has
been described – for no obvious reason other than salvaging
American pride – as "sophisticated".
But it seems more likely that the
attack succeeded because it was of such an old-fashioned kind that
naval architects, concerned only with high-technology warfare,
never considered it a possibility.
According to Paul Beaver, of
Jane's Defence Weekly, the ship was "designed to withstand
saturation attacks by Russian aircraft and all sorts of
things," but "not designed for asymmetrical warfare …
it's not what people expect these days."
Americans also suggest that the
bombers must have gained secret knowledge of the warship’s
unannounced arrival. But its approach would not have been
difficult to spot in the narrow waters of the Suez Canal and Red
Even without advance warning, the
attackers would not have had to wait many days for a target, since
between three and six US naval ships refuel in Aden each month.
The embassy bombing, in contrast,
has been presented as an unplanned, opportunistic attack. This
may, however, be wrong. Either the bombers were remarkably lucky
or they had done their homework.
The bomb, which is thought to have
been thrown over a wall on the least-protected side of the embassy
compound, maximised damage by hitting an outdoor fuel tank
supplying an emergency generator. The fuel tank was not visible
from the street.
So far, no specific evidence
pointing to Bin Laden has been disclosed, but three groups have
claimed responsibility for the Aden attack - the Islamic Army of
Aden-Abyan and two groups previously unknown in Yemen: the Army of
Mohammed and the Islamic Defence Force.
Army achieved notoriety in December 1998, when it
kidnapped 16 mainly British tourists in southern Yemen. Four of
the tourists died during a rescue by Yemeni security forces, and
the leader of the Islamic Army at the time – Abu al-Hassan
al-Mihdar - was later executed.
The group – one of three
offshoots of the Jihad organisation which carried out numerous
attacks in Yemen in the early 1990s - included veterans of the
Afghan war and Islamists from various countries, though many
Yemenis doubt that it still exists.
Readers will recall the Islamic
Army’s links with Abu Hamza al-Masri, the imam of Finsbury Park
mosque in London, and the Britons – still serving jail sentences
in Yemen – for plotting to attack American and British targets
In common with many Islamist
terrorist groups, the Islamic Army also had links with bin Laden.
At one point, when the Yemeni government tried to close the
Islamic Army’s training camp, a bin Laden representative
attempted to mediate.
In Yemen, the developing military
relationship with the United States has aroused the wrath of
various – but mainly Islamist – opposition groups.
In 1998, Yemen and the US held
their first joint military exercises, and the US provided help in
clearing mines left behind by the 1994 north-south war. There have
been persistent rumours –officially denied - that the US would
like to establish a military base in the country.
Over the last couple of years
there have been occasional visits to Yemen by both ships and
senior US officers. Yemeni officers have been invited to visit the
US, and the American military also helped to remove land mines
around Aden which were left over from the 1994 civil war.
Last year, the Defense Department
transferred its Red Sea strategic fuel storage depot from Djbouti
There were several reasons for the
move. One was political, because the US wanted, as it put it, to
"re-engage" with Yemen which in 1990 had offended the
west by its ambivalent attitude towards Iraq.
General Anthony Zinni, head of US
Central Command, regarded Yemen as a useful country to cultivate
in case any of America’s other allies in the Arabian Peninsula
and Gulf region "went south" (i.e. turned against the
US). In addition, the military noted that Yemen is beyond the
reach of existing medium-range ballistic missiles.
There were also practical and
economic factors for the move to Aden. Djibouti harbour was very
cramped, and refuelling there could take up to 48 hours, compared
with 4-5 hours in Aden. Aden is only about five miles off the main
sea lane, which again saves time. Fuel storage charges in Aden are
said to be lower than anywhere else in the region.
Refuelling takes place at a
water-borne refuelling platform known as a dolphin. According to a
US military source, the dolphin used by USS Cole is
commercially-run and lies about 600 metres out in the sea west of
the historic Prince of Wales pier and about 100 metres east of
The fuel contractor is Arab
Investment and Trading, which is owned by a millionaire Yemeni
living in London but also has heavy Saudi investment.
So far, Yemen’s efforts to track
down the attackers have found favour with the US. President Ali
Abdullah Salih, recognising the potential for damage to relations,
appeared quickly in Aden, visiting the injured in hospital.
A couple of days later, the
government-run newspaper, al-Thawra, showed the president chairing
a security committee and interviewing officials in his