By Sam Cox, Director, Naval History and Heritage Command, Rear Admiral (Retired)
Editor’s note: While currently Navy’s curator, at the time of attack on USS Cole, Retired Admiral Sam Cox was the U.S. 5th Fleet Intelligence Officer. He was a principal advisor to the commander on intelligence matters and remained in the position well after the attack and into Operation Enduring Freedom.
Since the dawn of recorded history, city-states and nations that expected to survive would station troops or send patrols to their farthest frontiers to provide early warning of enemy invasions and buy time to mobilize to meet the threat. On Oct. 12, 2000, the guided missile destroyer USS Cole (DDG 67), in a port on the far side of the globe, did exactly that. Seventeen Sailors died, 39 were wounded, and the ship was grievously damaged as a result of a determined surprise enemy attack in Aden, Yemen.
“Others may debate whether that warning was properly heeded, but that in no way reflects on the valor and heroism of the crew who saved that ship from damage that would have sunk any other warship of that size in any other navy of the world…”
But in their sacrifice, the crew of the Cole gave our nation eleven months of unambiguous warning that we were at war with Osama bin Laden and al-Qaida, or certainly that they were at war with us. Others may debate whether that warning was properly heeded, but that in no way reflects on the valor and heroism of the crew who saved that ship from damage that would have sunk any other warship of that size in any other navy of the world, and who brought Cole out of Aden harbor with the massive battle flag of the United States flying high. The crew of USS Cole who made the ultimate sacrifice must never be forgotten.
Hull Maintenance Technician 2nd Class Kenneth Eugene Clodfelter, 21 MECHANICSVILLE, VIRGINIA
Chief Electronics Technician Richard Costelow, 35 MORRISVILLE, PENNSYLVANIA
Mess Management Specialist Seaman Lakeina Monique Francis, 19 WOODLEAF, NORTH CAROLINA
Information Systems Technician Seaman Timothy Lee Gauna, 21 RICE, TEXAS
Signalman Seaman Cherone Louis Gunn, 22 REX, GEORGIA
Seaman James Rodrick McDaniels, 19 NORFOLK, VIRGINIA
Engineman 2nd Class Marc Ian Nieto, 24 FOND DU LAC, WISCONSIN
Electronics Warfare Technician 2nd Class Ronald Scott Owens, 24 VERO BEACH, FLORIDA
Seaman Lakiba Nicole Palmer, 22 SAN DIEGO, CALIFORNIA
Fireman Joshua Langdon Parlett, 19 CHURCHVILLE, MARYLAND
Fireman Patrick Howard Roy, 19 CORNWALL ON HUDSON, NEW YORK
Electronic Warfare Technician 1st Class Kevin Shawn Rux, 30 PORTLAND, NORTH DAKOTA
Mess Management Specialist 3rd Class Ronchester Manangan Santiago, 22 KINGSVILLE, TEXAS
Operations Specialist 2nd Class Timothy Lamont Saunders, 32 RINGGOLD, VIRGINIA
Fireman Gary Graham Swenchonis Jr., 26 ROCKPORT, TEXAS
Ensign Andrew Triplett, 31 MACON, MISSISSIPPI
Seaman Craig Bryan Wibberley, 19 WILLIAMSPORT, MARYLAND
On this date, it is entirely appropriate to take time to reflect in silence on these lives cut short in the service of our country and the defense of our freedom.
USS Cole Was Not A Random Target
al-Qaida chose to attack a warship flying the flag of the United States precisely because of the symbolism of such an attack. Previously, bin Laden had issued two declarations of war against the United States (in 1996 and 1998) that, from his perspective, had been ignored. His attacks against the U.S. embassies in Kenya and Tanzania resulted in intense criticism even in extremist circles due to the extremely high death and injury toll amongst innocent civilians, many of them Muslims. The American response to the embassy bombings came in the form of a limited Tomahawk cruise missile strike against al-Qaida training camps in Afghanistan (and a suspected chemical weapons precursor plant in Sudan), launched from U.S. navy warships similar to USS Cole. The physical damage from the strikes was minimal, but the psychological impact was much more profound as al-Qaida’s leadership understood just how close they came to being hit. Nevertheless, the strike fell well short of bin Laden’s intent, which was to provoke such a grossly disproportionate over-reaction by the United States that it would galvanize the Muslim world to the final Jihad against the United States and the infidel world.
Bin Laden chose to attack a warship to demonstrate to the world that he was not afraid of the United States and to provoke the United States by flagrantly attacking a symbol of America’s might and pride. He chose a military target to preclude Muslim civilian casualties. He chose a warship, because warships had attacked him, and because he found the presence of American warships in a port in his ancestral homeland of Yemen to be particularly offensive. He chose the method of attack, suicide bombing, to ensure the effectiveness of the attack and to demonstrate to the world the resolve of those committed to his cause, who would go willingly to their deaths to accomplish their mission. By attacking a U.S. Navy warship, bin Laden intended for there to be absolutely no ambiguity that when he “declared war” he meant it.
The first attempt to attack a US warship in Aden, the guided missile destroyer USS The Sullivans (DDG 68) in January 2000, failed because the attack boat, overloaded with explosives, got stuck in the mud, and had to be lifted out of the water by a crane; a highly visible event that Yemeni security services either missed, ignored or were complicit. The fact is this failed attack was not known by anyone in the United States until after the successful attack on Cole. That Aden was a very dangerous place was very well known, as was the entire U.S. Central Command region:
• the guided missile frigate USS Stark (FFG 31) stuck by an Iraqi missile in 1987
• the guided missile frigate USS Samuel B. Roberts (FFG 58) striking an Iranian mine in 1988
• the guided missile cruiser USS Princeton (CG 59) and the amphibious assault ship USS Tripoli (LPH 10) striking Iraqi mines in Desert Storm
• a string of terrorist bombings, including Khobar Towers in the 1990’s
By 2000, U.S. national intelligence agencies had published a series of warnings, all with a similar theme; al-Qaida operational planning is complete, attacks could occur anywhere in the region at any time with no additional warning. Although such warning was important, U.S. forces did not have the option to cower behind sand-bags, but had to accomplish their missions. Cole had a mission to ensure that the U.S. had a sufficient number of Tomahawk missiles in range of designated targets at all times, and in order to meet the timelines, she had to travel at a speed that required a refueling stop, either in Djibouti, where it was possible to get a truck bomb alongside, or Aden, where the only way to attack a ship was by boat or stand- off weapon. In the case of USS Cole and Aden, al-Qaida demonstrated that they were a determined and resourceful foe, and achieved tactical surprise.
Honoring Those Lost: Taking the Fight to the Enemy
“The point is that U.S. naval forces in the region were ready to attack, had they been called on to do so. And throughout the course of the campaign, every one of those naval forces did their utmost to ensure that the Sailors of USS Cole did not sacrifice in vain.”
It is appropriate to remember that just under a year later, Oct. 7, 2001, U.S. Navy ships launched Tomahawk land-attack missiles, and strike fighters from the aircraft carriers USS Carl Vinson (CVN 70) and USS Enterprise (CVN 65) bombed al-Qaida and Taliban targets in Afghanistan. Shortly joined by carriers USS Theodore Roosevelt (CVN 71) and USS Kitty Hawk (CV 63) (configured to host a special operations aviation force), U.S. Navy aircraft flew the great preponderance of tactical strike missions in the initial weeks of the campaign in Afghanistan, hitting targets identified by U.S. special operations teams on the
ground embedded with friendly Afghan tribes. U.S. Navy jets proved decisive in blunting determined Taliban counter-attacks in northern Afghanistan. Navy’s efforts led to a rapid cascading collapse of Taliban positions. Marines from U.S. Navy amphibious forces, put ashore in southern Afghanistan, ensured that the Taliban could not regroup in their ancestral southern strongholds after being routed from the North.
Vinson was arriving in the U.S. Central Command area of responsibility on 9/11. Enterprise was departing, but reversed course even before being ordered to do so. U.S. Navy surface ships were already in range of Afghanistan and could have launched Tomahawks immediately, and the carriers could have launched strikes within a couple days. Whether that would have been the right thing to do is debatable given the extensive diplomacy and logistics effort required to ensure the U.S. Air Force and special operations forces would have the things they needed (overflight permission, landing rights, enough tanker assets, combat and rescue capability, etc.) The point is that U.S. naval forces in the region were ready to attack, had they been called on to do so. And throughout the course of the campaign, every one of those naval forces did their utmost to ensure that the Sailors of USS Cole did not sacrifice in vain.