Who sank the Cole?

Who 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 scrapped.

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 military reputation".

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 war.

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 of Jihad.

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 launch it.

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 objective.

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.