sank the Cole?
by Brian Whitaker
Originally published in Middle East
International, 10 November, 2000
DAMAGE to the American destroyer, USS Cole - bombed in Aden
harbour on October 12 - has proved far more extensive than early
reports suggested, and the $1 billion warship may have to be
The force of the explosion thrust
the main deck upwards, squeezing it against the top deck.
"The eight feet in between is just not there any more,"
retired Admiral Harold Gehman told a Pentagon press conference on
November 2 after inspecting the ship.
Meanwhile, Osama bin Laden
(America’s chief suspect) is reported to be
"delighted" with the results - though denying any
involvement. According to al-Hayat newspaper, he "knelt and
thanked God for this operation which has shaken the American
So far, the most interesting clue
is the discovery of RDX, a major component of the military
explosive C-4, in the wreckage. Further analysis may indicate
where the explosive was manufactured.
To some experts, this suggests the
involvement of a state, or at least a well-organised group. C-4
was developed for the US in the Vietnam era and has no
non-military uses. Although not available on the open market, it
has been sold by the US to Saudi Arabia, Kuwait and Iran (under
the Shah), and several Nato countries possess it. The US also used
it in the 1991 Gulf war.
The formula is not secret, and
quantities have occasionally been stolen. About 20 years ago, a
former CIA agent was convicted of shipping 21 tons of C-4 to Libya
- allegedly for terrorist training.
C-4 does not deteriorate with age,
so the 400-700 pounds believed to have been used in the Aden bomb
could, conceivably, have been stolen at any time since the Vietnam
The 1998 bombings of the US
embassies in Tanzania and Kenya, for which bin Laden has been
blamed, did not use C-4 explosives, though they used detonators
containing the C-4 component, RDX.
At present, there is no reason to
suppose that the Aden bomb had any direct connection with the
Israeli-Palestinian conflict; indeed, there are indications that
planning for the attack began as long ago as last March. It
therefore seems likely that the attack was a more general protest
against US involvement in the Middle East.
It is highly probable that the
bombing was carried out by an Islamist group, and such groups
frequently have - or claim to have - some connection with bin
Laden. But the links are often quite tenuous and usually arise out
of contacts made during the Afghan war and do not necessarily
indicate bin Laden’s involvement in specific actions.
Another theory, advanced by the
pro-Saudi magazine, al-Watan al-Arabi, is that the attack was
masterminded by Iraq, possibly in collaboration with the Yemeni
authorities. This is highly speculative, and is not supported by
any hard evidence.
By far the most bizarre theory,
popular with some Islamist elements, is that the USS Cole was
attacked by Israel. The idea - again, unsupported by evidence - is
that it was intended to divert attention from the killing of
Palestinians, while stiffening American resolve. The Israeli
attack on USS Liberty in the Mediterranean in June 1967 is cited
as a previous example.
In Yemen, the authorities have
rounded up some 60 people associated with the Jihad organisation,
started by veterans of the Afghan war, but this seems to have been
mainly a trawl for information. The Islamic Army of Aden-Abyan,
one of the groups which has claimed responsibility, is an offshoot
More recently, four men living in
Aden were arrested after phone records showed that the suspected
suicide bombers had been in contact with them. There are claims
that some officials with Jihad sympathies provided government cars
for travel between Lahej and Aden.
It is also alleged that the
bombers took their boat for a test ride in Aden harbour about a
month before the attack, and that several fishermen helped them to
Collaboration between Yemeni and
American investigators is, however, becoming problematic. For the
sake of its relations with the US, Yemen must co-operate but,
especially in the current political climate, it also needs to
assert its own independence and sovereignty.
Yemeni detective methods - which
usually rely on catching people red-handed or persuading likely
suspects to confess - do not meet the more exacting standards
required by the US.
American detectives are not
allowed to take part in Yemeni interrogations, though they are
being given transcripts (sometimes badly translated) and can
suggest further questions. Negotiations on these and other
procedures are continuing.
More subtly, Yemen has offered to
provide the US with all its information from the inquiry if the US
reciprocates - which the Americans have refused to do.
The American investigators have
now left their hotel in Aden, following a bomb threat, and are
based offshore. This means they have to travel to Aden by
helicopter, and one recent flight was refused permission to land -
apparently for bureaucratic reasons.
The Yemenis have handed over a
video from a surveillance camera in the port area, but the
recording seems to have started after the attack, and the
Americans say it has been edited.
Unless these difficulties are
resolved, relations between the two countries could be soured to
the extent that American ships stop refuelling in Aden. That,
however, would be a clear sign that the bombers had achieved their
Accusing the Yemenis of hampering
the investigation also takes some of the heat off the US Navy, who
will, in the end, have to face questions about why their ship was
left virtually unguarded. Once the dust settles, it will not be
surprising to see a few resignations or even courts-martial.