Kevin Ryan
Posted on October 7, 2012

Twelve years ago, the American warship USS Cole was the target of a successful terrorist attack when it made a brief stop in the port of Aden, Yemen. This was one of only four attacks attributed to al Qaeda prior to 9/11, according to a 2004 U.S. government report.[1] Like 9/11, there are numerous unanswered questions about the Cole bombing and, as with 9/11, little or no justice has been done. This article examines a few of the unanswered questions in an attempt to make sense of the background story that was later used to produce and justify the official account of 9/11.

The al Qaeda attack that was said to precede the bombing of the Cole was the August 1998 bombing of two U.S. embassies in Africa. A year later, in 1999, the Washington Post described how people were not convinced by the case made by U.S. officials against al Qaeda.

“But for all its claims about a worldwide conspiracy to murder Americans, the government’s case is, at present, largely circumstantial. The indictment never explains how bin Laden runs al Qaeda or how he may have masterminded the embassy bombings.”[2]

Although the Washington Post and a U.S. government indictment could not, in 1999, convincingly explain how al Qaeda operated, today there is an enormous amount of historical “chatter” available to consider. Some of it is based on investigations into the year 2000 Cole bombing and details surrounding the al Qaeda “operations hub” in Yemen. Still, the government’s account of the Cole attack remains unconvincing and problematic.

According to the official account, the Cole, a nearly new, state-of-the-art destroyer, had just come into the Aden port for refueling when it was attacked in broad daylight by two men in a rubber dinghy filled with explosives. Seventeen sailors were killed and 49 others were wounded.

Much has been said about one of the two alleged “masterminds” of the Cole attack, Tawfiq (Khallad) Bin Attash, who has been incarcerated at Guantanomo Bay for nine years while awaiting a U.S. military trial related to the 9/11 attacks. Several points are often overlooked regarding Bin Attash and his devious plan, however. These include that he was a handicapped teenager at the time of his alleged involvement in the African bombings, and that the Cole plan he created a year later was, at best, a very simplistic scheme which required an extraordinary amount of luck to have any chance of success.

The evidence against Bin Attash centers on information obtained through his torture, and that of others, and communications intercepted by the National Security Agency. After being captured by U.S. forces in 2003, Bin Attash was said to have confessed to planning the Cole attack as well as that of the failed attempt on the USS The Sullivans in early January, 2000. Officials had not been aware of the attempt on the The Sullivans prior to the torture confession of Bin Attash.

The Sullivans was the target of a similar bombing plan in the port of Aden. It was not sunk, however, because the masterminds did not bother to calculate how much weight the rubber dinghy could hold and therefore they overloaded it with explosives and it sank as it began to move toward the ship. According to terrorism historian Dennis Piszkiewicz, one of the bombers then left in disgust but the rest stayed on and, when they went for help, their outboard motor was stolen from the sunken boat. Despite the insulting turn of events, they “took the next ten months to buy back their stolen motor, repair the water damage, and prepare for another attack, this time on the USS Cole.”[3] This historical description suggests an incredible lack of sophistication on the part of the terrorists — almost a Three Stooges scenario — and certainly nothing that would lead to the use of the word “mastermind.”

Regardless, it is important to understand that there was never a plan to attack the Cole specifically. Due to the very short period of time that the ship was in port for refueling, it would have been impossible for the attackers to have known in advance that it would be there without having gained some kind of official knowledge about the refueling plan. Although U.S. officials have suggested that perhaps Yemeni authorities tipped-off the terrorists to the incoming vessel, it is still difficult to believe that the suicide bombers and their appropriately packed rubber dinghy (with repossessed motor) could have been made ready on such short notice. A conspiracy of information sharing involving the private Yemeni refueling company is also possible but has been rule out by official reports.

Apparently the plan masterminded by the 20-year old Bin Attash was to have a pre-loaded rubber dinghy at the ready so that the next U.S. warship entering the port might provide an opportunity for success. Since January 1999, U.S. ships had come into the port to refuel 27 times, or approximately once per month. Because al Qaeda could not possibly know when that monthly visit might occur (barring the US government conspiracy theory that the Yemeni government was in on it too), the mastermind’s suicidal associates would need to be sitting in the dinghy full of explosives round the clock in order to have any real chance to respond.

In actuality, the plan required that the conspirators depend on a significant amount of luck as well. According to a Congressional Research Service report on the Cole attack, before the destroyer arrived at Aden “for its brief refueling stop” the Cole was “required to file a force-protection plan for the visit.” According to this plan, at the time of the attack the Cole was operating under a heightened state of readiness against a potential terrorist attack. This state of readiness (threat condition Bravo) included steps that were specifically intended to provide protection against attack by small boats.[4]

The captain of the Cole, Kirk Lippold, later recalled that his ship was moving quickly through the area and stopped for refueling at 9:30 am in Aden. Lippold described the situation in which the attack occurred by saying –

“We’d arranged for three garbage barges to come out. And by around 11 o’clock that morning, two boats had come out and the crew was unloading trash. I was turned back to my desk and doing routine paper work when at 11:18 in the morning, there was a thunderous explosion.”[5]

Lippold clarified –

“The first thing that went through my mind was one of these rafts clearly got alongside and has blown up. It turns out, it wasn’t. The two garbage barges that had been alongside the ship had left at about 11:15 transiting back across the harbor. What we didn’t know is Al-Qaeda had been in that port for a number of months observing us, observing Navy ships and the third barge that came out masqueraded as the garbage barge. We were operating under peace time rules of engagement. It didn’t exhibit what we call hostile intent like aiming guns at us or hostile act like shooting at us. So, people thought naturally, it was the third garbage barge, came down the side of the ship, two guys were in it, stood up and even waved to the crew. It came to the exact same spot in the middle of the ship where the previous barge have been and then initiated the explosion.”[6]

This is a very remarkable story. Lippold claims that he ordered three garbage barges to come out and pull alongside his destroyer so that his crew could put out the trash. Two such garbage barges came out and the trash was unloaded. Then a third came out but it was not a barge at all, it was a rubber dinghy filled with explosives. Of course, anyone who knows what a garbage barge looks like – a huge flat steel boat – knows that it looks nothing like a rubber dinghy. But since the two terrorists in the dinghy were waving as they prepared to commit suicide, and were not shooting at anyone, nobody thought twice about it. And despite the Cole’s force protection plan that ensured the crew would take every measure to prevent terrorist attacks, the dinghy was allowed to pull up right next to the ship and blow a huge hole in the port side.

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