TERRORIST ATTACK ON USS COLE: BACKGROUND AND ISSUES FOR CONGRESS
CRS Report for Congress
Received through the CRS Web
Terrorist Attack on USS Cole: Background
and Issues for Congress
Raphael Perl, Specialist in International Affairs
Ronald O’Rourke, Specialist in National Defense
Foreign Affairs, Defense, and Trade Division
On October 12, 2000, the U.S. Navy destroyer Cole was attacked by a small boat
laden with explosives during a brief refueling stop in the harbor of Aden, Yemen. The
suicide terrorist attack killed 17 members of the ship’s crew, wounded 39 others, and
seriously damaged the ship. Evidence developed to date suggests that it may have been
carried out by Islamic militants with possible connections to the terrorist network led by
Usama bin Ladin.
The FBI, Defense Department, and Navy launched investigations to determine
culpability for the attack and to review procedures. A broad DoD review of
accountability was conducted by a special panel. On January 9, 2001, the panel issued
its report which avoided assigning blame but found significant shortcomings in security
against terrorist attacks, including inadequate training and intelligence. On January 23,
2001, Senate Armed Services Committee Chairman, John Warner, announced intentions
for the Committee to hold its own investigation. Issues for Congress include the
adequacy of (1) procedures by U.S. forces to protect against terrorist attacks; (2)
intelligence related to potential terrorist attacks; and (3) U.S. anti-terrorism policy and
response. This report will be updated if major new developments warrant.
On October 12, 2000, the U.S. Navy destroyer Cole1 was attacked by a small boat
laden with explosives during a brief refueling stop in the harbor of Aden, Yemen.2 The
suicide terrorist attack killed 17 members of the ship’s crew, wounded 39 others, and
1 The Cole (DDG-67) is an Aegis-equipped Arleigh Burke (DDG-51) class destroyer. It was one
of four DDG-51s procured in FY1991 at an average cost of about $789 million per ship. This is
equivalent to about $924 million in FY2001 dollars. The ship entered service in 1996.
2 For background information on Yemen and a discussion of U.S.-Yemeni relations, see CRS
Report RS20334, Yemen: Democratic Development and U.S. Relations, by Alfred B. Prados.
Washington, 2000. 6 p.
Congressional Research Service The Library of Congress
seriously damaged the ship.3 The attack has been widely characterized as a “boat bomb”
adaptation of the truck-bomb tactic used to attack the U.S. Marine Corps barracks in
Beirut in 1983 and the Khobar Towers U.S. military residence in Saudi Arabia in 1996.
The FBI, in conjunction with Yemeni law-enforcement officials, is leading an
investigation to determine who is responsible for the attack. At least six suspects are in
custody in Yemen. Evidence developed to date suggests that it may have been carried out
by Islamic militants with possible connections to the terrorist network led by Usama bin4
Ladin. In addition to the FBI-led investigation, Secretary of Defense William Cohen has
formed a special panel headed by retired General William W. Crouch, former Vice Chief
of Staff of the Army, and retired Admiral Harold W. Gehman, Jr, former commander-in-
chief of U.S. Joint Forces Command. The panel, in a report released January 9, 2001,
avoided assigning blame but found significant shortcomings in security throughout the
region and recommend improvements in training and intelligence designed to thwart
terrorist attacks. A Navy investigation, the results of which were released by the
Commander of the Atlantic Fleet on January 19, 2001, concluded that many of the
procedures in the ship’s security plan had not been followed, but that even if they had been
followed, the incident could not have been prevented. Consequently, no single individual
should be disciplined for the incident, i.e. blame must be distributed at a number of
administrative levels. Members and staff have also held classified meetings on the attack
with Administration officials.
Issues for Congress
The attack on the Cole raises potential issues for Congress concerning (1) procedures
used by the Cole and other U.S. forces overseas to protect against terrorist attacks; (2)
intelligence collection, analysis, and dissemination as it relates to potential terrorist attacks;
and (3) U.S. anti-terrorism policy and how the U.S. should respond to this attack. These
issues are discussed below.
Force-protection procedures. Before it arrived at Aden for its brief refueling
stop, the Cole, like all visiting U.S. ships, was required to file a force-protection plan for
the visit. This plan was approved by higher U.S. military authorities, and was implemented
during the ship’s visit. In accordance with the plan, the Cole at the time of the attack was
operating under threat condition Bravo, which is a heightened state of readiness against
potential terrorist attack. (The lowest condition of heightened readiness is Alpha; Bravo
is higher; Charlie is higher still, and Delta is the highest.) This threat condition includes
steps that are specifically intended to provide protection against attack by small boats.
Members of the House and Senate Armed Services committees and other observers
have raised several issues concerning the force-protection procedures being used by the
Cole and by other U.S. military forces and bases in the region, including the following:
!What were the elements of the Cole’s force-protection plan and how were
these elements determined?
3 The cost to repair the ship has been preliminarily estimated at about $243 million.
4 See CRS Report RL30643, Terrorism, Near Eastern Groups and State Sponsors, by Kenneth
Katzman for information on Bin Ladin’s network and links to Yemen.
!Did the Cole effectively implement all the elements of this plan? If not,
why not? If so, does this indicate that the plan was not adequate for
defending against this type of attack?
!Was the force-protection plan, including the use of threat condition
Bravo, appropriate in light of the terrorist threat information that was
available to military officials in the days leading up to the ship’s visit?
Was the ship’s threat condition consistent with the very high threat
condition being maintained at that time by the U.S. embassy in Yemen?
!What changes, if any, should be made in force-protection policies for
ships and other U.S. military forces and bases overseas, particularly in the
Middle East and Persian Gulf region? Given the need for Navy ships to
periodically refuel and receive other services from local sources, as well
as the potential difficulty of identifying hostile craft in often-crowded
harbors, how much can be done to reduce the risk of future attacks like
this one? What can be done to protect against more sophisticated terrorist
tactics for attacking ships, such as using midget or personal submarines,
scuba divers with limpet mines, or command-detonated harbor mines?
Should the Navy reduce its use of ports for refueling stops and instead
rely more on at-sea tanker refuelings? How many additional tankers, at
what cost, might be needed to implement such a change, and how would
this affect the Navy’s ability to use such stops to contribute to U.S.
engagement with other countries?
In addition to these issues, members of the House and Senate Armed Services
committees at the hearings also raised an underlying question on whether the Cole’s
refueling stop was necessary from an operational (as opposed to political/diplomatic) point
Intelligence collection, analysis, and dissemination. Members of the
Armed Services and Intelligence committees as well as other observers have raised several
questions relating to the role of intelligence collection, analysis and dissemination in the
Cole attack and in preventing other terrorist attacks against the United States. In some
cases, these questions have been spurred by press reports about the existence of
information and analyses from the U.S. Intelligence Community that, some argue, might
have helped prevent the attack had it been given greater consideration or been
5 Defense Department officials testified that the refueling stop was necessary operationally because
the Cole was making a 3,300-mile transit from the Mediterranean (where it previously refueled)
to the Persian Gulf. Defense Department officials argue that it would be impractical to have
enough tankers so that one could always be assigned to combat ships engaged in solitary transits.
Since the end of the Cold War, though, the Navy has become more comfortable with the idea of
breaking forward-deployed battle groups into small sub-formations, including solitary ships, to take
better advantage of the modular flexibility of naval forces for responding to specific needs overseas.
The policy issue might thus be as follows: Are the refueling-related risks created by (possibly-
more-frequent) solitary transits combined with the 50-percent fuel policy properly balanced against
the benefits of moving ships in this manner and preserving their projected tactical mobility upon
arrival at the intended area of operation?
disseminated more quickly.6 The details of these claims are currently under investigation
by the Executive Branch and Committees in Congress. Questions include the following:
!Does the United States have sufficient intelligence collection capacity,
particularly in the form of human intelligence (as opposed to intelligence
gathering by satellites or other technical means), for learning about
potential terrorist attacks, particularly in the Middle East or Persian Gulf?
Does the attack on the Cole represent a U.S. intelligence failure, or does
it instead reflect the significant challenges of learning about all such
attacks soon enough to head them off?
!In the days and weeks prior to the attack on the Cole, was all the available
intelligence information about potential terrorist attacks in the Middle
East and Persian Gulf given proper weight in U.S. assessments of the
terrorist threat in that region? Were reports providing information and
analyses of potential terrorist attacks in the region disseminated on a
timely basis to U.S. military and civilian officials in the region who have
responsibility for providing advice or making decisions about ship
refueling stops or other military operations?
!Was there adequate coordination, prior to the attack on the Cole, between
the Defense Department [including the National Security Agency], the
State Department, and the U.S. Central Command (the regional U.S.
military command for the Middle East and Persian Gulf) in sharing and
using available intelligence information and analyses on potential terrorist
!What actions, if any, should be taken to improve U.S. intelligence
collection and analysis, particularly as it relates to potential terrorist
attacks on U.S. assets in the Middle East and Persian Gulf or elsewhere?
U.S. anti-terrorism policy and potential response. Beyond these more
specific issues, the attack on the Cole poses several additional potential issues relating to
U.S. anti-terrorism policy in general. Some of these issues highlight dilemmas and
concerns inherent in policies designed to prevent or mitigate terrorist acts. These issues
include the following:
Why was Yemen chosen for refueling? U.S. Navy ships began making
refueling stops in Aden in January 1999. Since then, Navy ships have stopped there 27
times to refuel, twice to make port visits, and once to take on supplies. Members of the
Armed Services Committees and other observers have asked why the U.S. Central
Command decided in 1998 to begin using Yemen for refueling stops rather than continuing
6 See for example, Scarborough, Rowan. Pentagon Analyst Resigns Over Ignored Warnings.
Washington Times, October 26, 2000: A1; Becker, Elizabeth, and Steven Lee Myers. Pentagon
Aide Quits, Warnings Ignored, He Says. New York Times, October 26, 2000; Suro, Roberto, and
Vernon Loeb. U.S. Had Hints Of Possible Attack. Washington Post, October 26, 2000: A 32;
Gertz, Bill. NSA’s Warning Arrived Too Late To Save The Cole. Washington Times, October
to use nearby Djibouti on the Horn of Africa (which U.S. Navy ships had used for
refueling for several years) – and why Central Command continued to use Yemen this year
for refuelings when an April 2000 State Department report on worldwide terrorism
characterized Yemen as a haven for terrorists but did not mention Djibouti. Members and
others have asked whether the risk of a terrorist attack against a U.S. ship in Yemen was
properly balanced against the political/diplomatic goals of improving relations with Yemen
and encouraging its development toward a stable, pro-Western, democratic country that
does not support terrorism and cooperates with U.S. efforts to contain Iraq. In response,
General Tommy R. Franks, the current Commander-in-Chief of U.S. Central Command,
stated the following regarding the process that led his predecessor, General Anthony C.
Zinni, to the decision to use Yemen for refueling stops:
The decision to go into Aden for refueling was based on operational as well as geo-
strategic factors and included an assessment of the terrorist and conventional threats in
the region. As you know, the Horn of Africa was in great turmoil in 1998. We had
continuing instability in Somalia, the embassy bombings in Kenya and Tanzania, an
ongoing war between Ethiopia and Eritrea, and an internal war in Sudan....As of
December 1998, 14 of the 20 countries in the USCENTCOM AOR [U.S. Central
Command area of responsibility] were characterized as “High Threat” countries.
Djibouti, which had been the Navy refueling stop in the Southern Red Sea for over a
decade, began to deteriorate as a useful port because of the Eritrea-Ethiopia war. This
war caused increased force-protection concerns for our ships, as well as congestion in
the port resulting in operational delays. The judgment at this time was that
USCENTCOM needed to look for more refueling options, and Aden, Yemen was seen
as a viable alternative. At the time the refueling contract was signed, the addition
brought the number of ports available in the USCENTCOM AOR to 13. Selection of
which of these ports to use for a specific refueling operation involves careful evaluation
of the threat and operational requirements.
The terrorism threat is endemic in the AOR, and USCENTCOM takes extensive
measures to protect our forces.... The threat situation was monitored regularly in
Yemen and throughout the AOR. The intelligence community and USCENTCOM
consider this AOR a High Threat environment, and our assessments of the regional
threat and the threat in Yemen were consistent in their evaluation. We had conducted
a number of threat assessments in the port, and throughout the area. However, leading
up to the attack on USS Cole on 12 October, we received no specific threat information
for Yemen or for the port of Aden that would cause us to change our assessment. Had
such warning been received, action would have been taken by the operating forces in7
response to the warning.
Anticipating new modes of terrorist attack. Truck bombs have been used
to attack U.S. targets for at least 17 years. Did U.S. intelligence and counter-terrorism
agencies anticipate or consider sufficiently plausible the possible use of the maritime
equivalent of a truck bomb against a U.S. Navy ship in a harbor? If not, what changes, if
any, should be made to improve the ability of U.S. intelligence and counter-terrorism
agencies to identify and give sufficient prominence to modes of terrorist attack that have
7 Opening Remarks of General Tommy R. Franks, Command In Chief, U.S. Central Command,
Before the United States Senate Armed Services Committee, 25 October 2000. This statement is
posted on the Web page of the Senate Armed Services Committee under the hearing in question.
not been previously used? Should U.S. officials reach out more to non-governmental
organizations and individuals for help in this regard?
Protecting against threats posed by persons with legitimate access.
What is the best way to defend against terrorist attacks by persons with legitimate access
to U.S. installations or forces? The Cole was refueled by a private Yemeni ship supply
company that had advance information on the ship’s itinerary. Although it now appears
that the attack may have been carried out by persons with no connection to this firm, the
attack still raises questions about the security implications of relying on private foreign
companies to refuel U.S. Navy ships. What steps can be taken to reduce the risk posed
by relying on such firms? Should, for example, the State Department’s Anti-Terrorism
Assistance program (ATA) be enhanced so that it can better assist foreign governments,
when needed, in personnel screening and security procedures?
The role of the FBI in overseas counter-terrorism investigations. Some
observers have asked whether (or under what circumstances) it is appropriate for the FBI,
traditionally a domestic U.S. law-enforcement agency, to take a de facto lead role in
overseas investigations of terrorist attacks. Although the FBI’s investigative skills are
critical to such investigations, some observers argue that other skills outside the FBI’s area
of specialization, including having an in-depth understanding of foreign countries and
cultures and the diplomatic ability to ensure host nation cooperation, are equally important
components of such investigations. Clearly, small nations may feel overwhelmed by large
numbers of FBI agents and the political sensitivities of their insistence on questioning local
witnesses/suspects. Conferees on the FY2001 Foreign Operations Appropriations bill
(H.R. 4811) made $4 million for counter-terrorism training in Yemen contingent on FBI
certification that Yemen is fully cooperating in the Cole investigation.
Insuring coordination of any retaliatory response. An important challenge
facing U.S. counter-terrorism officials is to ensure that U.S. actions for military/economic
retaliation for terrorist attacks are adequately planned. The need for maintaining secrecy
in planning military actions can discourage interagency coordination, which in turn can
create a potential for making a planning mistake. Some observers argue that the U.S.
cruise missile attack on what some believe was a legitimate pharmaceutical factory in
Sudan in response to the 1998 embassy bombings in East Africa was a mistake caused in
part by lack of interagency coordination that deprived decisionmakers of important data8
which might have influenced the target-selection process. If it is determined that the
attack was linked to Bin Ladin, a major issue is how the U.S. responds and prevents
further attacks from a network that is believed responsible for several anti-U.S. attacks
since 1992. The U.S. retaliatory attack on Afghanistan in August 1998, a response to the
East Africa Embassy bombings, did little to damage Bin Ladin’s network or his ability to
8 For a discussion of the bombing response and its policy implications, see CRS Report 98-733,
Terrorism: U.S. Response to Bombings in Kenya and Tanzania: A New Policy Direction? by
Raphael Perl. Washington, 1998. (September 1, 1998) 6 p.