The USS Cole Bombing: A Seven Year Perspective
On October 12, 2000 two Yemeni suicide bombers rammed an explosives-laden dingy into an American destroyer, the USS Cole. Seventeen US service members were killed and forty-nine injured. The destroyer had been invited by the Yemeni government to refuel in the port of Aden.
In the light of historical perspective, several facts have become clear. Intelligence warnings generated prior to the attack were never forwarded to the commander of the Cole. The investigation afterwards was marred by turf wars within the US government, leaving links between the Cole bombing and the attacks of 9/11 unexplored. The Yemeni government worked diligently to limit the scope of the US investigation. Almost all the Yemenis involved in the Cole bombing are walking free. The involvement of some Yemeni officials in the bombing is documented; however, the scope of that involvement is not.
THE YEMEN SIDE
Military commander and presidential half brother, Ali Mohsen al-Ahmar recruited fighters for bin Laden in the 1980’s and set up training camps in Yemen. Thousands of Yemenis at all levels were active in the Afghan conflict. After the withdrawal of the Soviet Union from Afghanistan, the Yemeni regime welcomed thousands of both Yemeni and non-Yemeni “Afghan Arabs” back to Yemen. Many of these hard core Islamists were militarily deployed in defense of the regime during its civil war in 1994 against Southern Socialists. As a result, many Afghan Arabs and other Islamic militants who fought in 1994 against “apostate” socialists are today ensconced in high level government positions. Others were absorbed into the military and security forces.
Through the 1990’s, both Osama bin Laden and Aiman Zawaheri traveled in and out and around Yemen on many occasions, often meeting religious leaders and prominent persons. Bin Laden delivered sermons in Yemeni mosques and purportedly held a six hour meeting with Ali Mohsen al-Ahmar in Sana’a airport in 1996.
Bin Laden made a deal with the Yemeni government in 1999, according to the 9/11 Commission Report. After A l-Qaeda operative Khallad bin Attash was arrested in Yemen, Bin Laden contacted a Yemeni official and bargained for Attash’s release. The Yemeni regime released Attash and promised not to confront al-Qaeda. In exchange, Bin Laden pledged not to attack Yemen. This pattern of negotiation continues today.
In 1999, Attash returned to Afghanistan. In January 2000 Attash along with Yemeni Fahd al-Quso attended a high level al-Qaeda meeting in Malaysia at which the attacks on the USS Cole and the World Trade Center were discussed and planned. Attash, who was captured by US forces in Pakistan in 2003, confessed to organizing the Cole attack according to a military transcripts released at his hearing held at Guantanamo Bay. Al-Quso who helped prepared the bombing of the USS Cole was found guilty in a Yemeni court.
Were the Bombers Tipped Off?
In 2000, security concerns in Dijoubouti made Aden port only a slightly more attractive choice for refueling the Cole. Refueling at sea was also certainly an option. However, the US was concerned with rebuilding relations with Yemen. Relations had cooled significantly after the first Gulf War when Yemen, holding a Security Council seat, supported long time ally Saddam Hussein against the US.
One lingering question about the Cole bombing is whether the bombers had advance knowledge about the arrival of the USS Cole. Oddly, the Yemeni government denied receiving information about the impending arrival of the USS Cole. Yemeni President Saleh said, “The Americans made a mistake when they entered the port with such a large size and greatly valuable destroyer without guarding or notifying the Yemeni side to provide such protection,” the Yemen Times reported in November 2000. However, General Anthony Zinni, former Centcom commander, noted in his 2000 congressional testimony that, “The force protection in the port is the responsibility of the Yemeni government.” He noted that specific arrangements for the visit are, “done with the port authority, and the government of Yemeni officials; their security forces.” He also indicated that such notice is normally issued by the United States to a foreign government about two weeks prior to the arrival of a US vessel.
Lawrence Wright in The Looming Tower notes, “The FBI was convinced that the bombers had been tipped off about the arrival of the Cole, and they wanted to expand the investigation to include a member of the president’s own family and a colonel in the PSO.” The Yemeni government denied these requests while blaming the US for bombing its own ship. In July 2001, a top Yemeni official told the Egyptian governmental weekly, Al-Ahram Al-Arabi, that the Yemeni investigation indicated that the US intentionally blew up the Cole as a pretext for invasion. He said the US planned on turning the port of Aden into a US naval base. In December 2005, President Saleh repeated these claims on national TV, stating, “there was a plan to occupy Aden” after the Cole bombing. However notorious the Yemeni regime may be for duplicity, and many within the US administration excuse these statements as understandable domestic posturing, the fact remains there are many indications of regime complicity in the bombing of the USS Cole.
As noted by a 2007 US Congressional Research Service report, ” Yemeni authorities did not fully cooperate in the investigation of the Cole bombing.” US investigators were prevented from directly interrogating Yemeni suspects, and were forced to submit their questions on paper. The Yemeni officials also hid evidence. According to Lawrence Wright, “The Yemenis finally produced a videotape taken by a harborside security camera, but it appeared to have been edited to delete the crucial moment of explosionâ€¦” T he Yemeni government’s lack of cooperation with federal investigators was most like designed to protect upper level officials complicit in the attack.
One document admitted by the Yemeni court in the 2003 trial of five accused Cole plotters was an official letter from Yemen’s then interior minister, Hussain Arab, which instructed Yemeni security forces to give safe passage and cooperation to Muhammed Omar al-Harazi a/k/a Abd al-Rahman Al-Nashiri from April to December 2000. Other documents used by the bombers included arms permits normally issued by the Ministry of the Interior which were said to be a forgery, the Yemen Times reported in 2005.
The Yemeni Opposition Group, the Southern Democratic Assembly based in the UK, issued a statement in November 2006 prior to a London Donors Conference on Yemen which reads in part, ” Both the evidence and information indicate that who carried out the bombing attack on the American Warship USS Cole in Aden port in October 2000 are well-known bodies to the Yemeni regime and some of who were involved still in their jobs.”
In May 2001, UPI reported, “According to several US government sources, one of the reasons the attack on the Cole succeeded was involvement by the ‘highest levels’ of the Yemen government of President Ali Abdallah Saleh, although Saleh himself personally was not.” However this is not a view shared by the former commander of the Yemeni Navy at the time of the Cole bombing. In an interview after he defected to the UK, Commander Ahmed Al-Hassani said that President Saleh knew in advance of the bombing. Al-Hassani pointed out that the night before the bombing, President Saleh sent his Interior Minister and Political Security Minister from the capital Sana’a to Aden where the USS Cole was bombed hours later.
The Cole Bombers
The Yemeni justice system is highly corrupt, politicized and irregular. Thus it is unsurprising that with few exceptions, the Cole plotters and their co-conspirators were given light sentences, were released early, were never charged or escaped jail multiple times. Some convicted terrorists were later given government jobs, money, land and a car in order to facilitate their reintegration into society, the Yemeni government says. The regime defends these actions as a practical way to diminish the threat of future terror attacks. Others see these accommodations as a reward.
The Yemeni government named Jamal Muhammad al-Badawi as the leader of the group, Abdu al-Rahim al-Nashiri as the financier and several others as involved, including two policemen who provided false documents. However shortly after, Mohammed Hamdi al-Ahdal was listed as one of the main operatives and financiers of the plot.
Six convicted Cole conspirators’ appeal verdict was rendered in March of 2005 wherein the Yemeni court reduced Mamoon Amswah’s sentence from eight to five years. The court upheld the death penalty for Abdu al-Rahim al-Nashiri, who is in US custody. Fahd Al-Quso who helped prepare the bombing and was supposed to videotape the explosion had his ten year prison sentence upheld. Ali Mohamed Murakab and Morad al-Sorori both retained five year sentences for forging identification documents.
Jamal al-Badawi was originally sentenced to death by a Yemeni court for his involvement in the attack. The sentence was commuted upon appeal to fifteen years in prison. However, al-Badawi managed to escape from jail twice and is currently at large. Ten prisoners linked to the USS Cole bombing, including Jamal al-Badawi and Fahd al-Quso, escaped from an Aden jail in 2003. Other 2003 Aden escapees included Khaldoun Al-Hukaimi and Saleh Mana. The pair was reported to have committed suicide attacks in Iraq in 2005, RayNews reported.
After their escape from prison, in May 2003 Jamal Al-Badawi and Fahd al-Quso were indicted on over fifty terror related offenses by a federal grand jury in Manhattan, New York for plotting the attack on the Cole. Both al-Quso and al-Badawi were recaptured in March 2004. Jamal Al-Badawi escaped from prison again in 2006 along with 17 others involved in the USS Cole bombing. Shortly after the escape, Yemen’s Specialized Penal Court ordered the release of Hadi Saleh Al-Waeli suspected of selling arms, ammunition and explosives to the terrorists who bombed the USS Cole Destroyer at Aden Port in 2000.
In 2003, Yemen arrested Mohammed Hamdi al-Ahdal. On the US list of most wanted terrorists in Yemen. Al-Ahdal is believed to be one of the masterminds of the Cole bombing. Yemen refused to allow US federal investigators access to Al-Ahdal, insisting instead that the FBI submit questions for al-Ahdal in writing. Sources indicated to the Yemen Times that al-Ahdal had confessed to “being in charge of technical and financial preparations” for both the Cole and Limburg attacks. Al-Ahdal was tried and convicted in 2006 on charges of distributing money for al-Qaeda. No charges were brought relating to the Cole bombing. He was sentenced to 37 months in prison, and with time served, was released shortly thereafter. In 2006, Ghalib Al-Zaidi was also charged with harboring al-Ahdal for a month following the Cole bombing; al-Zaidi was sentenced to three years time served and released.
THE US SIDE
Turf Wars Hamper Investigation
The FBI’s ability to investigate the bombing was curtailed not only by the Yemeni government but also by the US State Department, which was interested in maintaining good relation with Yemen. Lead FBI investigator and one of the US’s foremost al-Qaeda experts, John O’Neill ” had come to believe that some Yemeni officials were not being forthcoming about information from (Fahd) al Quso and other suspects,” Frontline reported. However, the US ambassador to Yemen clashed with O’Neill, hampering the FBI’s investigations . Tensions between O’Neill and Ambassador to Yemen, Barbara Bodine, escalated to the point where Bodine actively lobbied to have O’Neill taken off the case. According to Barry Mawn, O’Neill’s boss who was called in to investigated the dispute, “it was clear that she simply hated his guts.” Bodine was O’Neill’s only detractor, Mawn found. Bodine prohibited O’Neill’s re-entry into Yemen after he withdrew his team in response to a threat against his agents. According to Cooperative Research, “without (O’Neill’s) influential presence, the Yemeni government will not allow an interrogation.”
Similarly, the CIA failed to share intelligence with the FBI after the Cole bombing, and connections between the USS Cole bombing and 9/11 were left unexplored. The CIA did not forward information about Tawfiq bin-Attash (a/k/a Khallad) when requested by the FBI. The FBI had growing suspicions of a second attack when it was discovered that prior to the Cole bombing, money was taken out of Yemen by al-Quso and given to Attash. The CIA was aware of the 2000 Malaysia meeting among several high level al-Qaeda operatives, including calls between Malaysia and Yemen. The CIA had photos of both Attash and al-Quso at the Malysia meeting; however it withheld the photos and other information about the meeting from the FBI.
Warnings Before Not Circulated
The failure of the US embassy and the CIA to support the FBI’s investigation after the Cole bombing was preceded by a lack of US intelligence coordination before the bombing. Richard Clarke, the National Security Council adviser stated to CNN shortly after the bombing that there was “no basis” for saying that the USS Cole bombing was an intelligence failure on the part of the US intelligence community. However, a secret Pentagon intelligence unit known as Able Danger identified increased al-Qaeda activity in Aden prior to the Cole attack two weeks before the attack and again two days before the terrorist attack.
The New York Post reported that Lt. Col. Anthony Shaffer, the Defense Intelligence Agency’s former liaison to Able Danger said Capt. Scott Phillpott, Able Danger’s leader, briefed Gen. Peter Schoomaker, former head of Special Operations Command about the findings on Yemen “two or three weeks” before the Cole attack. ” Yemen was elevated by Able Danger to be one of the top three hot spots for al Qaeda in the entire world,” Shaffer said.
Congressman Kurt Weldon in a 2005 Congressional floor speech said, “They (Able Danger) also identified the threat to the USS Cole two weeks before the attack, and two days before the attack were screaming not to let the USS Cole come into the harbor at Yemen because they knew something was about to happen.” The Scramento Bee reported that “Two Able Danger analysts briefed Gen. Peter Schoomaker, then head of U.S. Special Operations Command, on their findingsâ€¦two days before the attack on the Cole.” The commander of the USS Cole, Kirk Lippold, never received the warning.
Another intelligence analyst, Kie Fallis, at the Defense Intelligence Agency also advised several of his superiors of the heightened risk in Yemen and indications of terror activities in Aden prior to the attack. An official warning was not generated. As Senator Pat Roberts noted during Congress’ Joint Inquiry into the 9/11 attacks, “(Fallis) attempted in vain — in vain, to convince his superiors to issue a threat warning in August of 2000â€¦His warnings were considered — I think they were called anomalies, not connections. And we now know different. The NSA issued the warning the day after the attack.”
Tommy Franks, commander of Centcom at the time of the Cole bombing testified before Congress that he never received any warning regarding Aden, nor did he review the decision of his predecessor General Zinni to refuel at Aden port. Naval Commander Lippold has been blocked from promotion and, as a result of the US Navy’s “up or out policy”, is being forced into retirement. Able Danger’s Anthony Shaeffer had his security clearance was revoked in 2006 and his family’s health insurance cancelled, apparently in retribution for speaking out. Kie Fallis quit DIA in protest the day after the bombings.
Back to the future
The bombing of the USS Cole was one incident in a pattern of escalating al-Qaeda attacks on the US that began with the 1993 World Trade Center bombing and culminated in 2001 with the deaths of nearly 3000 US citizens. In the wake of 9/11, structural procedures and adjustments have been instituted to break down the wall between US intelligence agencies. However, the tension caused by maintaining the semi-cooperation of “allies” in counter-terror efforts remains a vital issue, and no better example exists than US-Yemeni relations.
In 2007, international cooperation is essential in uncovering terrorists’ plans, networks and operatives. However, many find the US focus on counter-terror both myopic and counter-productive in dealing with its allies. This view is widely held by Yemeni reformers who pay the price for their advocacy in blood. The US is perceived as tacitly approving of civil and human rights abuses as long as the regime is forth coming with counter-terror cooperation. Yemen’s progressives have a message that undermines the dictatorship, regressive forces and the terrorists. Consequently, reformists are targeted by the regime and labeled un-Islamic and Western stooges in the public media.
Yemen uses and exports Islamic fanatics as a tool of domestic and foreign policy. After the empowerment of Hamas in a democratic election, the idealistic US push for democratization and reform in the Middle East was met by the real-politik fears of radical Islamists gaining political power. In Yemen, radical Islamists already have political power and government jobs, as evidenced by the state’s failure to thwart terrorist financing, media incitement, mosque incitement, material support and moral support for terrorism. With or without official political status, elections or recognition, Yemeni Islamist militants are capable of influencing the regime and deploying state resources. And these political players are more dangerous when they are playing the game underground, while an enormous game of charades takes place in the media.
The days of “with us or against us” are certainly over as the intertwined structure between dictatorships and terrorists becomes clearer. To undermine one is to undermine the other, to support one supports the other. The natural alliance between indigenous reformists and the United States is dysfunctional in the current climate, leaving both more vulnerable. However, there are many in the Yemeni administration and some in the opposition who are quite patriotic and in favor of reform and modernization. Somehow the US must become as good at playing both sides of the fence as the Yemeni regime is.