Analyzing the USS Cole Bombing
By Akiva J. Lorenz | Maritime Terrorism
On October 12, 2000, the USS Cole, an Arleigh Burke class destroyer, was attacked by a small craft loaded with 270 kg of C-4 explosives while making a routine refill stop in the port of Aden, Yemen. Steered by two Saudi suicide terrorists, Hassan al Khamri and Ibrahim al-Thawar, the small craft exploded alongside the USS Cole 47 minutes after the refueling was initiated, killing 17 U. S. servicemen and injuring 37 more. The attack caused $250 million in damage to the warship taking 14 months to repair.The mastermind of maritime terrorist operations for Al Qaeda (until his capture in den in November 2002) was Abdul al-Rahim al-Nashiri, otherwise known as the Prince of the Sea. Al-Nashiri joint Al Qaedda in 1998 and was shortly thereafter tasked by Bin Laden to attack U.S. or Western oil tankers off the cost of Yemen. Having difficulties finding appropriate targets along the western coast of Yemen, Bin Laden reportedly instructed him to shift his operational arena to the port of Aden and towards U.S. navy vessels. Realizing that the average refueling stop of U.S military vessel in the port of Aden was just less than four hours (the window of opportunity) al-Nashiri highlighted the importance of a good intelligence system based on informers. These sources were working for the Aden harbor or were posted along the Dead Sea.
Soon after al-Nashiri became the operational commander for Al Qaeda’s maritime terrorism plot in Yemen (Spring 1999), Tawfiq Muhammed Salah Bin Roshayd Bin Attash (Khallad) wrote a recommendation letter to help al-Nashiri enlist local Jamal Ahmed Mohammed Ali Al-Badawi (facilitator), and Fahd Mohammed Ahmed al-Quso, to command logistics. Furthermore, al-Nashiri enlisted Saudis with Yemini background, Hassan Awadh al-Khamri (Hassan) and Ibrahim al-Thawar (Nibras), as potential future suicide bombers.
In early summer of 1999, Badawi leased, on behalf of al-Nashiri, a safe house for six months in a quiet neighborhood of Aden. To ensure privacy, the group installed a gate and increased the height of the fence surrounding the residence. Furthermore, on request of al-Nashiri, Badawi traveled to Saudi Arabia to purchase a boat large enough to carry explosives, and a trailer and truck to tow the boat from the safe house to the harbor. Then, the boat was filled with C-4 explosives and readied for transport.
On January 3, 2000, al-Nashiri and his team brought the boat to the harbor after receiving word of the arrival of the USS Sullivan. Shortly after the launch, the boat steered by Hassan and Nibras sank in shallow water due to the large amount of explosives on board. On January 4, 2000 the group returned in order to salvage the boat and its precious cargo. The accident, thought to be al-Nashiri’s most important lesson, was that a rehearsal is an essential part of the successful outcome of an operation. Rehearsal reveals logical problems (such as a boat being too heavy from too many explosives) and improves the speed, stealth, and the surprise factor in an attack.
After the failed attack on the USS Sullivan, Quso and Nibras traveled to Bangkok, Thailand to meet with Khallad. Because Bangkog was chosen (in Pakistan) in order not to arise the suspicion of intelligence services, Quso was directed to shave and wear western-style clothing. The men reportedly received approximately $36,000 from Khallad.
In the summer of 2000, Hassan leased a new safe house in Aden. As before, a fence was built to ensure privacy. Moreover, Hassan also leased an apartment overlooking the harbor to serve as an observation point. Al-Nashiri and Khallad traveled to Afghanistan to meet with Bin Laden and test explosives.
Over the summer, al-Nashiri and others refitted the boat and replaced the old explosives. In September 2000, Badawi trained Quso to operate a camera in order to film the attack. Khallad returned to Afghanistan while Bin Laden, in an interview with an Arabic language television station, called for jihad for the release of the “brothers in jail everywhere’.”
On October 12, 2000, after receiving news about the USS Cole, the group transports the ship to the launch site. Slowly approaching the USS Cole, Hassan and Nibras waved their hands in a friendly gesture. Shortly afterwards their explosion left a 40 foot hole on the side of the USS Cole and killed 17 U. S. servicemen. Quso overslept and did not make it in time to film the attack. This was a loss to Bin Laden because the film was meant to be distributed for propaganda purposes. In January 2001, Bin Laden celebrated the bombing of the USS Cole with a poem at his son’s wedding:
A destroyer: even the brave fear its might.
It inspires horror in the harbor and in the open sea.
She sails into the waves
Flanked by arrogance, haughtiness and false power.
To her doom she moves slowly
A dinghy awaits her, riding the waves.
By analyzing these time lines, it becomes evident that al-Nashiri was able to keep his activities below the radar screen of the Western and Yemeni security and intelligence agencies, but nevertheless emitted ominous indicators of the looming attack:
- Strategic Indicators, such as Bin Laden’s speech (September 2000) and the recruitment of activists indicated the motivation and capability of a terrorist organization.
- Operational Indicators, such as increased communication between cell members, influx of foreign elements, travel and increased fund raising.
- Tactical Indicators, such as the leasing of safe houses and the raising of fences around the residencies, and other suspicious behavior such as rehearsals,individual panic, or nervousness.
All of these indicators should raise the red flag of the security services analysts.
Thus, Al Qaeda was able to exploit the vulnerabilities of its adversaries (a tationary ship with a lax crew) while learning from its mistakes (USS Sullivan). The example with the USS Cole has shown that terrorist organization can, with even relatively miniscule funding of $40,000, create damages costing in the hundreds of millions of dollars. Moreover, the attacks showed that maritime attacks could take place from land to sea, in the port area, or near it.
Since the time spent out on sea during the duration of a maritime terror attack is only a few minutes, it makes it nearly impossible for maritime security services to successfully prevent an attack. Thus, the logical starting point in preventing future maritime attacks, as Dr. Rohan Gunaratna stated, is to disrupt the terrorist infrastructure on land where an identified terrorist can be much more effectively targeted by security services. The failure to detect the planning and preparations of a maritime terrorism attack will lead to an attack attempt by that terrorist organization.