2000: Terrorist Attack on the USS Summary

  • Last updated on November 11, 2022

On October 12, 2000, while the U.S. Navy destroyer Cole was refueling in the port of Aden in Yemen, it was attacked by two men who pulled alongside the ship in a small boat and caused an explosion that blew a large hole in the hull of the ship, killing seventeen people. Although Yemen was officially a friend of the United States and had been trying to promote good relations, it also was home to terrorists and Islamic extremists who considered the United States a major enemy.

On October 12, 2000, while the U.S. Navy destroyer Cole was refueling in the port of Aden in Yemen, it was attacked by two men who pulled alongside the ship in a small boat and caused an explosion that blew a large hole in the hull of the ship, killing seventeen people. Although Yemen was officially a friend of the United States and had been trying to promote good relations, it also was home to terrorists and Islamic extremists who considered the United States a major enemy.

The Cole entered the harbor on the morning of October 12, planning to stay only a few hours. The destroyer was on threat condition bravo, a moderate level of security alert. The mooring of the Cole was complete about 9:30 a.m. local time, and refueling began soon thereafter. Shortly after 11:00, a small boat with two men in it approached the ship. No one recognized the small boat that pulled alongside as a danger because it blended in with the boats that were servicing the ship. At 11:18 as the two men in the small boat stood at attention, about 400 to 500 pounds (181 to 226 kilograms) of military type explosives went off, blowing a 40-by-40-foot (12-by-12-meter) hole in the hull of the Cole. The attack was a suicide mission; the men on the small boat knew they would die in the explosion but believed it was their duty to do so in order to carry out their mission.

Sailors were thrown into the air, and thick, black smoke was everywhere. Hatches were blown open, doorways bent, and parts of the upper deck buckled. Entire lower compartments were blown upward, trapping some crew members. The floor of the mess galley was pushed up against the ceiling. The Cole lost electrical power, and all onboard communication equipment was disabled.

The hole was near engine rooms and eating and living quarters, and if it had come minutes earlier, it might have caught many more crew members in the ship’s mess area just above where the explosion took place. The ship listed at a four-degree angle, but the keel was not damaged, no fires started, and the ship did not take on water. It was later found that seventeen crew members had been killed in the blast, and thirty-nine were injured, but the captain, Kirk S. Lippold, was not hurt, and he and the remaining crew acted decisively and quickly to help the injured and keep the ship from sinking.

The Aftermath

The injured were taken to a local hospital, then to a military hospital in Germany, and finally home to the United States. The crew and U.S. investigators had to cut through the wreckage to retrieve all the bodies of the victims, but they tried to disturb as little as possible so as to preserve evidence. It took a week to recover all the bodies.

The crew then worked to make the ship seaworthy enough to be towed into deeper water, where it could be loaded onto a special Norwegian ship built to transport offshore oil rigs. This ship, the Blue Marlin, was a floating dock, and once the Cole had been towed out of the harbor into deeper water, the Blue Marlin took on ballast, or extra water, which sank its upper deck under the sea. The Cole was towed onto its deck, and the ballast was removed, lifting the deck back above water. The Cole was then secured for the trip home. The ship arrived in the United States on December 13, where it was to be repaired and returned to service.

Consequences

In the United States, two investigations were carried out soon after the incident, one by the U.S. Navy into what happened aboard the ship, and the other by the Pentagon into what could have been done overall to prevent such an attack. Neither investigation cast blame on any individual, although the Navy investigation found that the captain and crew of the Cole were lax about following a number of security procedures. The Pentagon report recommended better methods all along the chain of command for preventing terrorist attacks.

In May, 2001, congressional hearings were held regarding the incident, and lawmakers criticized the apparent relaxation of the accountability standards to which the Cole’s commander was held. Admiral Vern Clark, chief of naval operations, said the Navy declined to punish Lippold because even if Lippold had carried out the security procedures he ignored, he would have been unable to prevent the attack. William S. Cohen, defense secretary at the time of the attack, supported Clark’s decision.

The Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) sent investigators to Yemen, but initially, they were not allowed to directly question suspects or witnesses. Later they were given permission to question suspects, but Yemen refused to allow the suspects to be taken to the United States for trial. Finally it was decided that suspects found outside Yemen could be tried in the United States, although those found and charged by the Yemeni government were to be tried in Yemen.

The United States suspected from the beginning that Osama bin Laden was behind the attack. Bin Laden was a fugitive from Saudi Arabia, a millionaire who had fought in the Afghan War against the Soviets in 1980, and who afterward organized a worldwide terrorist network focused on the United States. No direct evidence immediately linked him to the attack, but reports from suspects showed that he could have been behind it.

Six men were arrested and prepared for trial in Yemen; other suspects remained at large. The chief suspect was Jamal al-Bedawi, who said he received his orders from Muhammad Omar al-Hazari, a man who may have links to bin Laden.

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