Twenty Years after the USS Cole Attack: The Search for Justice.

AuthorErickson, Pete

On October 12, 2000, two al-Qaida suicide bombers attacked the USS Cole, a U.S. warship refueling in the port of Aden, Yemen. The suicide bombers had placed nearly 500 pounds of explosives inside a small fishing vessel and maneuvered it alongside the Cole, blasting a large hole near the ship's galley. (1) The attack killed 17 American sailors, injured dozens more, and nearly sunk the Cole. (2) Less than 11 months afterward, the attacks of 9/11 occurred, ushering the United States and its allies into the "Global War on Terrorism."

After 20 years and efforts spanning four presidential administrations, the question of whether the United States achieved justice for those killed in the attack on the Cole remains. It is a vital question because the nation's response to the Cole reveals many of the difficulties the country has experienced during the past 20 years of counterterrorism operations. Ultimately, an examination of the U.S. response to the attack on the Cole shows that, at best, only a sense of partial justice has been achieved for the victims and their families.

This article proceeds in three parts. First, using a variety of government reports and memoirs of senior civilian officials, it summarizes the initial efforts of the U.S. response to the attack, outlining some of the major bureaucratic difficulties that hindered the government from mounting a swift and effective response. Second, relying on open-source data, it examines in detail the fates of 10 individuals operationally connected to the attack. Third, it examines the degree to which there has been accountability and justice for the Cole attack--a difficult endeavor in any setting but even more difficult in the context of the war on terrorism. The article ultimately argues that the pursuit ofjustice in the case of the Cole has been complex, challenging, and remains incomplete. For this reason, even as the nation and the U.S. military prepares to encounter evolving threats, to include those posed by near-peer competitors, the United States must continue to focus on achieving justice for the perpetrators of terrorist attacks such as that against the USS Cole.

Lost in Transition

Speaking the day after the attack, President Bill Clinton vowed to bring the perpetrators to justice, stating "we will find out who was responsible and hold them accountable." (3) However, turbulent domestic politics and bureaucratic indifference within the U.S. government with respect to terrorism prevented the United States from forming and delivering a coherent response in the immediate months after the attack on the Cole. Though the U.S. government suspected early on that al-Qaida was responsible, U.S. intelligence agencies did not confirm that the terrorist group was behind the attack until December 2000. (4) In the intervening period between October and December, moreover, the United States experienced a bitter and ultimately contested presidential election that went undecided until December 12, 2000, when the Supreme Court ruled in favor of George W. Bush. (5) Key personnel working within the Clinton administration, such as President Clinton's National Coordinator for Security, Infrastructure Protection, and Counter-Terrorism Richard Clarke, vigorously fought to ensure that there would be no momentum lost between the transitioning administrations with respect to terrorism and, in particular, delivering a response to al-Qaida for the attack on the Cole. But the combination of-less-than-certain intelligence and handover among key personnel within the administrations meant that the perceived degree of urgency in responding to the attack on the Cole weakened. (a)

Moreover, in the pre-9/11 era, terrorism was not viewed as a significant threat by many Americans. (6) Consider that during the final presidential debate between George W. Bush and Al Gore, which occurred just five days after the attack on the Cole, the topics of terrorism, al-Qa"ida, and the attack itself were hardly mentioned. The debate moderator asked the audience to observe a moment of silence before the debate began, but not for those killed in the Cole bombing, but rather in memory of Missouri Governor Mel Carnahan, who died the night prior in a plane crash. (7) Of the two candidates, Vice President Gore later mentioned the victims of the Cole attack during one of his responses, but neither candidate was asked to elaborate on a potential military response against, or on a government strategy for dealing with, al-Qaida. At the time of the attack on the Cole, most Americans simply did not perceive terrorism as a serious threat.

Bureaucratic disunity and a lack of focus were also present within and among multiple governmental agencies and organizations at the time, further complicating governmental efforts to form a sound response against al-Qaida after the attack on the Cole. For instance, in at least two investigations undertaken by the U.S. Navy and the Department of Defense regarding the attack, key findings and recommendations ultimately centered on issues related to force protection. (8) At his final press conference on January 19, 2001, President Clinton's Secretary of Defense, William Cohen, explained several of the conclusions reached by these investigations, stating, "we must constantly search for and find the so-called 'seams' in our force protection plans before our enemies do. In the case of the Cole, we did not do so ... we need force protection measures that are more imaginative, more flexible, and less predictable." (9) While the issue of force protection is certainly important and was rightly included as a topic of the investigations, in retrospect it seems as though the government made the issue of force protection the primary concern, while other topics, including the growing threat posed by al-Qaida and how to respond to the attack, received secondary status.

Michael Sheehan, who served as Ambassador-at-Large for Counterterrorism at the State Department at the time, later recalled that in the months immediately following the attack on the Cole, the government writ large lacked a sense of outrage and anger. (10) To Sheehan, it seemed that many within the government had come to view an occasional terrorist attack--even one that killed Americans--as simply "the cost of doing business in a dangerous world." (11) Richard Clarke further recalls in his memoirs that following a meeting in the days after the attack on the Cole in which several leaders from the Defense Department were present, Michael Sheehan was disgusted at what he perceived to be a general sense of apathy among several of the Defense officials regarding a potential military response against al-Qa"ida. (12) In what is now a somewhat infamous recounting of that incident, Clarke recalls that Sheehan vented his frustration by exclaiming, "What's it going to take, Dick (Richard Clarke)? ... Does al Qaeda have to attack the Pentagon to get their attention?" (13)

Sheehan's frustration also reveals a sense that in the pre-9/11 era among governmental organizations, to include the military, law enforcement, and intelligence agencies, there was not only disagreement about if and how the United States should respond against terrorism, but also concerning who should take the lead in responding and whether at its root terrorism fell under the jurisdiction of the legal, military, or intelligence communities. After leading a team to investigate the attacks on the Khobar Towers in 1996, which resulted in the deaths of 19 U.S. Airmen, General Wayne A. Downing, the former head of U.S. Special Operations Command, recalled that though he "emphasized people were at war with us [the United States] ... no one [in government] wanted to address terrorism as war." (14) Further, in a lengthy interview with one of this article's authors in 2015, Sheehan described how after the Cole attack, the government continued to "punt the issue of terrorism" despite a very clear record of al-Qaida attacking Americans in the years before the Cole bombing. (15)

Indeed, al-Qaida had been involved in several incidents involving actual or attempted attacks on Americans. In August 1998, al-Qaida struck the U.S. embassies in Kenya and Tanzania, killing 257 people, among them 12 Americans. (16) A little more than a year later, toward the close of 1999, terrorists linked to al-Qaida planned a series of attacks that became known as the "Millennium Plots." In one, Jordanian al-Qaida operatives attempted to attack Americans staying at hotels in Jordan, but the cell was broken up in December 1999. (17) In another, an Algerian named Ahmed Rassam, who had trained in Afghanistan and had ties to al-Qa"ida, was arrested, also in December 1999, after attempting to smuggle his explosive-laden vehicle into the United States from Canada with the goal of attacking Los Angeles International Airport. (18)

Still, despite these many incidents in which al-Qa"ida clearly made both its intent and capabilities to kill Americans known, the attack on the Cole did not galvanize the nation, nor American leaders, to swiftly and firmly respond to the terrorist group. The timing of the attack, and in particular, its simultaneity with a spirited presidential campaign and the subsequent turnover between presidential administrations, combined with an imprecise accounting of the true threat posed by al-Qa"ida, prevented the formation of a timely and direct response to the attack. It would not be until 11 months after the Cole attack, on September 11, 2001, when any doubts about the threat posed by al-Qa"ida, or any sense of apathy about what to do about the group, would disappear.

The Fate of the USS Cole Attackers Explored

In order to assess the degree to which justice has been attained in the Cole case, it is important to first identify those individuals associated with the attack and their levels of culpability. The authors were able to compile a list of 12 individuals who were reported in the...

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