Attack on the USS Cole

The motive

THE ATTACK on the USS Cole appears to have been a generalised protest against American involvement in the Middle East; it was not directed at any particular aspect of US policy, such as Palestine or Iraq.

The use of suicide bombers suggests it was carried out by an armed Islamist group rather than a secular political organisation. Such groups often have international connections dating back to the Afghan war. It would therefore not be surprising to find that the group who carried out the Cole bombing contained a mixture of Yemenis and individuals from other Arab or Muslim countries.

Yemen has been plagued by generally low-level terrorism for many years. Following the Afghan war, many Muslim fighters took refuge there, taking advantage of lax security, the ready availability of weapons, and the rugged terrain to use it as a base for training and activities in other countries.

Southern Yemen, under Marxist rule, was classified by the US as a "rogue state". The Marxists provided Carlos the Jackal with a passport. But Yemen was removed from the US list when the south and north of Yemen were unified in 1990.

Usama bin Laden, whose family originally came from southern Yemen, has maintained links with the country, and he has a number of followers there.

Bin Laden was reported to be "delighted" by the attack on USS Cole - though denying any involvement. According to al-Hayat newspaper, he "knelt and thanked God for this operation which has shaken the American military reputation".

Armed Islamist groups frequently have - or claim to have - some connection with bin Laden. But the links are often tenuous and do not necessarily indicate bin Laden’s involvement in specific actions.

American and Yemeni officials say there is some evidence linking suspects in the Cole bombing to associates of bin Laden, though they have been careful not to claim any direct links to bin Laden himself (CNN, Reuters, 7 December).

The Americans are especially interested in a man provisionally identified as Abd al-Muhsin al-Taifi, a Yemeni national, possibly with Saudi connections, who was wanted for questioning about the 1998 bombing of the US embassy in Nairobi (which has been attributed to bin Laden’s organisation). Al-Taifi is believed to have been one of the two suicide bombers in the attack on USS Cole.

Bin Laden: aiming at the symptom, not the disease
Guardian Unlimited, 8 December, 2000

Yemen and the Aden-Abyan Islamic Army
by Sheila Carapico (Merip, 18 Oct, 2000)

Usama bin Laden and Yemen
Yemen Gateway, August 1998

The USS Cole bombing against the backdrop of Israeli "Black Propaganda" operations 
by Michael Gillespie, Media Monitors Network, 18 Dec 2000

Blood samples taken from people thought to be related to the Cole bombers were sent to the United States for checking these against the DNA in "confetti-sized" fragments of human tissue recovered from the scene (CNN, 22 November).

Establishing links between the Cole bombers and members of bin Laden’s organisation provides further evidence of the international terrorist network that developed as a result of the Afghan war. 

That network appears to be largely informal, consisting of people whose shared experiences during the war gave them a sense of common purpose (albeit a violent one) and created a pool of expertise which can be called upon to help in terrorist attacks around the world. While there is little doubt that bin Laden plays an important role in sustaining the network - through funding, training, contacts, and other things - it is not clear that he actually controls it.

Both Yemen and the US have a political interest in focusing on bin Laden as the "mastermind" or instigator behind the Cole bombing and similar attacks.

Yemen maintains that it is basically a victim of "imported terrorism", and the more it can highlight foreign involvement in the Cole affair, the better for its future relations with the United States.

For the US, the damage to American prestige is mitigated somewhat if it can be shown that the Cole was bombed by the world’s leading terrorist rather than a two-bit Yemeni organisation which happened to strike lucky after several failed attempts.

Blaming bin Laden also encourages the idea (comforting for many Americans) that such attacks have no real motive: bin Laden is mad or has some kind of grudge and pays people to do these things. It’s only his charisma, money and technical know-how that keeps them going. This avoids having to confront more disturbing questions about perceptions of the way America throws its weight around and the resentment that this arouses among many ordinary Muslims, not just terrorists.

THREE groups have so far claimed responsibility for the Aden attack - the Islamic Army of Aden-Abyan and two previously unknown in Yemen: the Army of Mohammed and the Islamic Deterrence Forces (IDF). The Army of Mohammed also claimed responsibility for bombing the British embassy in Sana’a the following day. The Islamic Army has previously claimed responsibility for several incidents in Yemen which turned out not to have been terrorist acts.

The IDF’s statement said the attack was in "defence of the honour and dignity of the Islamic nation and to avenge the blood of the oppressed Muslim nation in Palestine with the blessing of the American regime for that enemy … This operation will not be the last, as such attacks will continue against our enemy, and the enemy of our Arab and Muslim nation: America and its artificial Zionist entity in Palestine."

The Islamic 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.

The Islamic Army has also been linked to 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 Aden.

At one point, when the Yemeni government tried to close the Islamic Army’s training camp, a bin Laden representative attempted to mediate.

TWO alternative theories have been put forward to explain the Cole bombing. The most bizarre of these, popular with some Islamist elements, is that the USS Cole was attacked by Israel. The idea - 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. (See article by Michael Gillespie).

Another theory, advanced by the pro-Saudi magazine, al-Watan al-Arabi, is that the attack was masterminded by Iraq, and would have required collaboration with the Yemeni government. This is highly speculative, and is not supported by any hard evidence.

Although the Yemeni government has been highly critical of recent events in Palestine, it continues to seek to develop its relations with the United States. To give even tacit approval to the bombing would be to risk undoing its efforts in this area over the last four years. It is also doubtful whether Iraq, at a time when it is seeking international rehabilitation, would engage in such an action.