Attack on the USS Cole

The attack

HOW COULD two men in a small boat wreak so much damage on a $1 billion guided-missile destroyer equipped with all the latest defensive systems? Seventeen sailors died in the blast and the US Navy’s latest estimate of the cost of repairs is $240 million - $70 million more than at first thought. That is a quarter of the original construction cost, and it is conceivable that the ship may eventually be written off.

The attack appears to have succeeded through a mis-match of technologies. American warships are well protected against the most sophisticated weapons that other countries might hurl against them, but they are far less well protected against a more basic kind of attack from an unexpected quarter.

The USS Cole left Norfolk Naval Station in the United States on August 8, 2000, for a five-month deployment which was to have included a port visit in Bahrain.

It passed through the Suez Canal and the Red Sea before arriving in Aden to refuel on October 12. According to Admiral Vern Clark, chief of Naval Operations, refuelling arrangements had been made 10 to 12 days earlier through the US embassy in Yemen - a standard procedure.

In Aden harbour, the ship did not dock at the quayside: refuelling takes place at a water-borne 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 offshore, west of the historic Prince of Wales pier and about 100 metres east of CalTex island. The fuel contractor is Arab Investment and Trading, which is owned by a millionaire Yemeni living in London but also has heavy Saudi investment.

The mooring operation was completed at 9.30 a.m. and, according to the US Navy, the ship began taking on fuel at 10:30 a.m. The ship’s records show that the explosion occurred at 11:18 a.m. - 47 minutes into the refuelling process, which takes four or five hours to complete.

There are some discrepancies in American accounts of the event, in particular timings. The US Navy initially said the explosion occurred at 12:15 p.m., while the ship was mooring. In this early version, the bombers’ boat was said to have aroused no suspicion because it seemed to be involved in the mooring operation, in which small boats are used to secure lines to the dolphin.

There may be a simple reason for these discrepancies. Naval sources suggest that since the explosion cut off the ship’s power and disabled its communications, the initial information reached the US second-hand and may have become garbled. However, a week elapsed before the navy issued its "corrected" version.

An important question for the US Navy is why lookouts on the USS Cole took no action to warn off the explosives-laden inflatable as it approached their ship. Depending on the precise rules of engagement, this may become a disciplinary matter, but it is worth noting that the early (now "corrected") version of events included a plausible excuse for the lack of action by the ship’s crew - i.e. the attackers’ boat was mistaken for a harbour craft assisting with the mooring. Early reports also mentioned that the two bombers stood to attention on their boat and saluted the USS Cole immediately before the explosion.

It later emerged that the guards on board USS Cole had instructions not to open fire unless fired upon, and that the weapons they carried were not loaded (AP, 14 November). Further internal investigations by the US Navy (AP, Reuters, ABC, 9 December) suggest that the crew - contrary to instructions - had failed to implement several basic precautions designed to protect the ship during refuelling:

  • There was no co-ordinated effort to track the movement of small boats in the harbour;

  • Fire hoses were not "at the ready" to drive away any small craft that came too close;

  • The Cole's own small boat, which should have been used to investigate the approach of any suspicious craft, was not ready for launching.

Why these simple, obvious precautions were overlooked remains a mystery - especially in the light of previous threats and attempts to attack American interests in Yemen.

THE CLAIM that the ship was attacked during the mooring process also gave rise to suspicions that the bombers must have had inside information about its impending arrival. But if the revised timings are correct, at least two hours would have elapsed between the USS Cole’s entry into the harbour and the moment of the attack.

If the bombers had already prepared the inflatable with its explosives and stored it somewhere in Aden, that should have been ample time to transport it to the sea, launch it and carry out the attack.

If more time were needed, then accomplices could easily have spotted the ship’s approach through the Suez Canal or at various points in the Red Sea. But there was probably no need even for that. Between three and six US naval ships were refuelling in Aden each month, so once the explosives were prepared it would only be a matter of waiting a few days for a target.

Aden’s natural harbour is large and the port facilities occupy only a small part of it. There are numerous places around the city from which shipping movements could be easily observed. Nor would there be any need for the bombers to sneak through port security: they could simply launch their craft elsewhere along the bay, outside the port area.

Yemen's initial reaction was that the explosion was probably not a bomb. The state-run television said that President Ali Abdullah Salih had spoken by telephone to US Secretary of State Madeleine Albright and had "clarified to Albright that present information indicates that it was not a deliberate act."

Some Yemeni witnesses claimed there had been a fire on the warship before it exploded, and there were suggestions that it might have been caused by an accident during refuelling.

However, the Yemeni authorities moved swiftly to demonstrate their concern and an angry-looking President Salih was shown on television visiting the injured in hospital.

Once the Americans announced that the damage indicated an explosion from outside the warship, not from inside, the Yemeni authorities quickly accepted that it was a bomb.

LESS THAN 24 hours after the attack on the USS Cole, a bomb hit the British Embassy in the capital, Sana’a. The blast, which occurred just after 6 am on October 13, appeared to have been timed to minimise casualties - and in fact there were none.

The bomb, apparently 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 and the bombers had either struck lucky or had done some homework beforehand.

Windows of the Chancery building - which includes the ambassador’s office - were smashed and an outer wall was blackened by smoke. Officials would not comment on the internal damage, beyond describing it as "considerable". Windows of an adjacent school were also broken.

A few weeks after the attack, the British Foreign Office said it did not know if there was any connection with the Aden bombing. Scotland Yard officers were still investigating, an official said. Some Yemenis continued to maintain (wrongly) that it was not a bomb at all, but an accident with the generator.

On December 12, in an interview with the Emirates newspaper, al-Bayan, Yemen's interior minister, Hussein Mohammed Arab, said one person was in custody in conncetion with the embassy bombing. "He belongs to the same elements [involved in the Cole attack] and I believe that the two cases ... are linked because those who carried them out are the same members of the fundamentalist trend."