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Attack on USS Cole

Last year we featured a couple of articles on terrorism by Alan Cain, pictured, the head of security at the University of Leeds. Here’s another one; this time about the suicide bombing of the USS Cole.

On October 12, 2000 two suicide bombers in a small boat loaded with explosives blasted a 40 foot wide hole near the waterline of the US Navy guided missile destroyer the USS Cole. Seventeen American sailors were killed, 39 others were injured and the ship was heavily damaged by the blast. An extensive FBI investigation ultimately determined that members of the Al Qaeda terrorist network planned and carried out the bombing. According to START (Study of Terrorism And Responses to Terrorism),

“Al-Qaeda (“The Base” in English) is a radical Sunni Muslim organization led by Osama bin Laden. In addition to its own members, al-Qaeda’s network includes groups operating in as many as 65 countries throughout the world.”

Bin Laden was a Saudi Arabian, a member of the wealthy bin Laden family, and an ethnic Yemeni Kindite. At the time of the attack on the USS Cole Al Qaeda’s strength in Yemen was estimated to be between 500 and 600 persons.

The two suicide bombers themselves were identified as Hassan Awadh al-Khamri and Ibrahim al-Thawar. Yemeni officials quickly arrested suspects Jamal Ahmed Mohammed Ali al-Badawi and Fahd Mohammed al-Quso and identified Abdul al-Rahim al-Nashiri and Tawfiq (Khallad) bin Attash as the two masterminds behind the bombing. Al-Nashiri was captured in November 2002 and held by the US at a secret location, where he was subjected to waterboarding and other extended interrogation techniques, prior to his transfer to Guantanamo Bay. Bin Attash was captured in Pakistan in 2003 and is also incarcerated at the Guantanamo Bay detention camp.

In April 2003 both al-Quso and al-Badawi escaped from prison in Yemen, only to be recaptured in March 2004 by the Yemeni security forces. On 29th September 2004 a Yemeni judge sentenced both Abdul al-Rahim al-Nashiri and Jamal Ahmed Mohammed Ali al-Badawi to death for their roles in the bombing. Al-Nashiri was sentenced in absentia due to his being in US custody. Fahd Mohammed al-Quso received a ten year jail sentence for his role in the attacks.

Event map

Abdul al-Rahim al-Nashiri joined Al Qaeda in 1998 and was promptly tasked by Bin Laden to attack US or Western oil tankers of the coast of Yemen. After al-Nashiri reported difficulties finding appropriate targets along the western coast of Yemen, Bin Laden instructed him to shift his operational area to the port of Aden and towards US Navy vessels. Lorenz (2007) states that,

“Realising that the average refuelling stop of US military vessels 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.”

In the spring of 1999 al-Nashiri became the operational commander for Al Qaeda’s maritme terrorism plot in Yemen. Using a letter of introduction from Tawfiq Muhammed Salah bin Roshayd bin Attash he enlisted locals Jamal Ahmed Mohammed Ali al-Badawi and Fahd Mohammed al-Quso and identified Hassan Awadh al-Khamri and Ibrahim al-Thawar, both Saudis with Yemeni backgrounds, as potential suicide bombers.

In the summer of 1999 al-Badawi leased a safe house in Aden for six months, The group ensured privacy by installing a gate and increasing the height of the fence. Al-Badawi then travelled to Saudi Arabia and purchased a boat large enough to carry the C4.

On 3rd January 2000 the suicide boat was bought to the harbour after informers reported the arrival of the USS The Sullivans. However shortly after launch the boat, steered by Hassan Awadh al-Khamri and Ibrahim al-Thawar, sank in shallow water due to it being overladen with C4, forcing the plan to be abandoned. Both the boat and the C4 were later salvaged.

After the failed attack on the USS The Sullivans Fahd Mohammed al-Quso and Ibrahim al-Thawar travelled to Bangkok, where they met with Tawfiq Muhammed Salah bin Roshayd bin Attash. Bin Attash reportedly provided the pair with $36,000 to finance a second attack.

In the summer of 2000 al-Khamri leased a new safe house in Aden. As before, the height of the fence was increased for privacy. Al-Khamri also leased an apartment overlooking the harbour to serve as an observation post for carrying out operational surveillance on Aden harbour. Al-Nashiri and his team spent the summer refitting the boat and replacing the C4. The USS Cole, under the command of Commander Kirk Lippold, docked in the Yemeni port of Aden for a routine fuel stop. The USS Cole completed its mooring operation at around 09.30 hours and commenced refuelling at 10.30 hours.

After receiving news about the USS Cole from informers the group transported the suicide boat to its launch site. At 11.08 hours local the suicide boat, loaded with “about 600 pounds of C4” (Martin, 2011) approached the port side of the guided missile destroyer, piloted by Ibrahim al-Thawr and Hassan Awadh al-Khamri. An explosion occurred blasting a 40 foot wide hole near the waterline. The blast hit the ships galley, where crew were lining up for lunch. Seventeen American sailors were killed, 39 others were injured and the ship was heavily damaged by the blast.

The first naval ship on the scene to assist the stricken Cole was the Royal Navy Type 23 frigate, HMS Marlborough, under the command of Captain Anthony Rix. Marlborough had full medical and damage control teams on board and when her offer of assistance was accepted she had immediately diverted to Aden.

The first US military support to arrive was a QRF (Quick Reaction Force) from the United States Air Force Security Forces, followed by a detachment of United States Marines from the Interim Marine Corps Security Force Company. Both forces landed a few hours after the USS Cole was struck.

Operational difficulties

The USS Cole belonged to the Arleigh Burke class of guided missile destroyers. Built around the Aegis Combat System it was a multi-role destroyer, capable of AAW (Anti-Aircraft Warfare), ASW (Anti-Submarine Warfare) and ASUW (Anti-Surface Warfare).

In his paper ‘Analysis of the Attack on the USS Cole’ Commodore RS Vasan (2005) asks,

“How is it that the ship was rendered so vulnerable in Aden despite the apparent invincibility built into the ship.”

As stated previously, al-Nashiri had attempted a similar attack against the USS The Sullivans on 3rd January 2000. However the boat was so overladen it sank, forcing the plan to be abandoned. This suicide boat was loaded with 600 pounds of C4, this representing the maximum amount which could safely be carried without running the risk of the boat sinking. The major operational difficulty faced by the attackers was therefore how to penetrate the hull of a heavily armoured destroyer whilst using a smaller quantity of explosives.

According to former CIA intelligence officer Robert Finke this problem was overcame by using explosives moulded into a shaped charge. There was some speculation in news reports at the time that this was carried out by a foreign explosives expert provided by the Sea Tigers, the naval wing of the Sri Lankan terrorist organisation the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE). However this is unlikely, since the LTTE were secular and expelled Moslem communities from territory under their control.

A quantity of 600 pounds of C4 would have been hard to hide in the boat and make it difficult for the boat to manoeuvre. A second operational difficulty would therefore have been manoeuvring the boat close enough to the hull of the USS Cole for the shaped charges to be effective without being engaged by the crew of the destroyer.

These operational difficulties were overcome not by the ingenuity of Al Qaeda but by deficiencies in both the Standard Operating Procedures (SOP’s) for unloading trash onto garbage boats and the Rules of Engagement (ROE) in place on the USS Cole at the time.

The USS Cole had arranged for three garbage barges to come out and by 11.00 hours two boats had come out and the crew were unloading trash. At 11.08 hours local the suicide boat approached and was mistakenly assumed to be the third garbage barge, despite the fact that a garbage barge is a large flat steel boat and looks nothing like a rubber dinghy. This assumption was no doubt aided by the fact that the suicide attackers stood to attention and saluted the duty crew as they approached.

Even had the realisation that the suicide boat was not the third garbage barge been made, it is unlikely that the suicide boat would have been engaged due to the Rules of Engagement (ROE) in place on the USS Cole at the time. These only permitted the sailors responsible for guarding the USS Cole to fire back if fired upon. Commander James Pelkofski (2004) states that,

“The attack on the Cole during a fuel stop in Aden reinforced for the U.S. Navy the painful lesson of controlling the water space around its ships, even in an ostensibly friendly or benign environment.”

The Rules of Engagement in place at the time were simply not fit for purpose with regards to the scenario of a rapidly approaching suicide boat.


The attack on the USS Cole on October 12th 2000 marked the first time Al Qaeda had succeeded in attacking a Western sea vessel of the coast of Yemen.

The first of Al Qaeda’s strategic objectives in carrying out such an attack were outlined by Abu Musab Al-Suri, recognised as Al Qaeda’s leading theoretician and strategic thinker prior to his arrest in November 2005. In his 1,064 page manifesto ‘Call to Global Islamic Resistance’ (2004) Al-Suri calls for the targeting of western sea vessels using the four main marine passages; the Hormuz Straits in the Persian Gulf, the Suez Canal in Egypt, Bab Al-Mandeb between Yemen and the Africa Horn and the Jabl Tariq Straits in Morocco.

“Most of the world’s commercial and oil economy passes through these marine passages. Furthermore, fleets of ships pass through them, aircraft carriers and missiles of death destined for our children and wives. These passages must be closed down, so that these invasive voyages will disappear. This will be done by attacking the Americans’ ships, or through threats to perpetuate suicide attacks and acts of piracy against them and by the use of weapons whenever possible.”

The second of Al Qaeda’s strategic objectives in carrying out the attack on the USS Cole was to provoke the United States into an over-reaction. The 9/11 Commission Report cites one source who said in February 2001 that Osama bin Laden “complained frequently that the United States had not yet attacked (in response to the Cole)… Bin Laden wanted the United States to attack, and if it did not he would launch something better.”

The attack on the USS Cole may therefore be seen to have failed in terms of both of its strategic objectives. Abu Musab Al-Suri’s intention of disrupting sea trade by closing down one of the four main marine passages simply did not happen. Trade by US merchant ships continued unabated. Osama bin Laden’s intention of provoking an attack on Afghanistan was equally unsuccessful. Both the Clinton and the Bush Administrations failed to respond militarily to the attack on the USS Cole. It would take the subsequent 9/11 attacks on the US homeland to provoke the desired response.

Whilst ultimately unsuccessful at a strategic level, at a tactical level the attack on the USS Cole was a resounding success. Seventeen American sailors were killed and 39 others were injured. The attack caused $250 million in damage to the warship taking 14 months to repair.

The Judge Advocate General Manual (JAGMAN) investigating the attack on the USS Cole concluded that several factors contributed to the success of the attackers. In particular, “the commanding officer of the Cole did not have the specific intelligence, focused training, appropriate equipment or a scene security support to effectively prevent or deter such a determined pre-planned assault on his ship.”

Following the attack on the USS Cole the US Navy introduced significant changes in Anti-Terrorism / Force Protection procedures to put right these failings. Admiral Vern Clark, the chief of naval operations, told the Senate Armed Services Committee in May 2001,

“The Navy has taken action at home and abroad to meet this challenge, undergoing a sea change in the way we plan and execute self-defence. We have enhanced the manning, training, and equipping of naval forces to better realize a war fighter’s approach to physical security, with AT/FP serving as a primary focus of every mission, activity, and event. Additionally, we are dedicated to ensuring this mindset is instilled in every one of our sailors.”

In November 2001, the Navy opened up an Anti-Terrorism and Force Protection Warfare Centre at Naval Amphibious Base (NAB) Little Creek, in Virginia Beach, Virginia, with the objective of developing tactics, equipment and training to combat terrorists.


Since 9/11 the conflation of ‘piracy’ and ‘terrorism’ in the media has become common. Nelson (2012) states that,

“The vast and largely ungoverned maritime domain is an area that terrorists and pirates actively seek to exploit in pursuit of achieving their land-based goals and objectives. There is also growing concern within the international community that these actors are colluding with one another to achieve their separate aims. In order to formulate and implement effective countermeasures, policymakers must be able to distinguish maritime terrorism from piracy.”

Piracy is defined by the International Maritime Bureau (IMB) as “an act of boarding or attempting to board any ship with the apparent intent to commit theft or any other crime and with the apparent intent or capability to use force in furtherance of that act.” This definition thus covers actual or attempted attacks whether the ship is berthed, at anchor or at sea.

One way to separate maritime terrorists from pirates is through their motivation. Piracy involves a group of criminals who seek to make financial gain by stealing from a ship. Attacks by pirates may be divided into three different categories: i) Low Level Armed Robbery (LLAR), ii) Medium Level Armed Assault and Robbery (MLAAR) and iii) Major Criminal Hijack. What is common in each of these forms of piracy is that they all involve violence for the purpose of economic gain.

A second way to distinguish maritime terrorists from pirates is to look at the targets and methods that are chosen. There is much inconsistency within the available academic research over the preferred targets of piracy. Murphy (2008) argues that pirates attack small vessels rather than large ones. Shane and Lieberman (2009) argue that larger vessels are more at risk. Irrespective of whether the target is large all small, all researchers agree that pirates target those ships that are most vulnerable, either through lack of surveillance technologies, small crews, or ease of boarding.

The attack on the USS Cole was entirely political in both its aims and motives. There was no economic gain. The target chosen, a naval warship, was not chosen for its vulnerability. Rather it was chosen because it was iconic. These two factors allow us to conclude that this was an act of maritime terrorism, not piracy.


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