On 12 October 2000, while sitting in the port of Aden, Yemen, the USS Cole was allegedly attacked by some guy called al-Badawi and his accomplices. A small boat was allegedly loaded with approximately 500lbs of explosives and some ready-made suicide bombers, who then drove it alongside the Cole and… kaboom. Below is a photo of the damage to the ship.
Media reports initially claimed that “conventional explosives” were used. That was generally understood to mean something like a ‘fertilizer bomb’ sufficiently unsophisticated for non-state actors, and in keeping with attacks by others groups. Here’s an image of the damage caused by a typical 500lb ‘fertilizer bomb’. The bomb explodes outwards and upwards in all directions and the damage is widespread.
As you have probably realized already, the damage to the Cole didn’t fit the profile of such a bomb, so soon after the attack the narrative changed:
Officials said examination of the Cole indicated that the explosive used was even more sophisticated than initially thought. The penetrating force and the damage deep in the interior strongly suggested that the bomb was a “shaped charge,” designed to focus the explosion rather than allow it to spread in all directions, as with a typical truck bomb, officials said.
“With every piece of information, it becomes a more sophisticated operation,” one official said.
The officials have not disclosed the specific type of device used, though the use of a directed explosive led to speculation that the device operated like a warhead. Such a device is a more sophisticated weapon than those used by most terrorist organizations, and possibly came from a military stockpile.
”I can’t think of a major terrorist operation that has involved, essentially, hardware of that magnitude,” said Daniel Benjamin, a former terrorism analyst on the National Security Council and now a senior fellow at the United States Institute of Peace in Washington.
At the time, the BBC reported that: “the [Yemeni] president said samples of explosives taken from the destroyer had been identified by US investigators as a type available only in Israel, the USA, and two Arab countries” (two Arab countries that get it from the US or Israel). He further stated: “we believe Israel might be involved in such incidents.”
As noted by US officials above, it is beyond doubt that a sophisticated military-grade shaped charge explosive was used against the Cole, but the idea some jihadis could have made such a device at home is highly implausible. To do so, they would have had to first procure and then mold up to 500 x 1.25lb bars of military-grade C-4 explosive into a fairly complex shaped charge device, complete with a PETN-based detonating cord, and then successfully direct it at the side of the Cole from a ‘small boat’ in the port of Aden.
The question of how said jihadis could have sidled up to the Cole undetected is equally perplexing. Adm. Vernon Clark, the chief of naval operations at the time, argued that because the small boat was involved in the mooring, the crew of the Cole had no reason to suspect anything was amiss. “The reason that a ship, a small boat like this, could get in this proximity to the USS Cole is that it was part of the party, the support party that was assisting the ship in tying up to their berthing position,” Clark said in an interview with CBS News.
Later however, other Navy officials disputed the Admiral’s claim by stating that the Cole had been berthed for more than 90 minutes before the explosion occurred, leaving unexplained how the alleged boat bombers could have approached the ship undetected. That is, if there were any boat bombers at all. Indeed, there were no reports of anyone seeing a ‘small boat’ approach the Cole at any time after it had berthed. This was a narrative added after the fact to explain what happened.
The dingy bomber theory has persisted to this day however, and while it is true that 400-700lbs of military explosive would have been needed to create the 40×20 feet hole in the Cole, note that at least half of the damage was below the waterline.
Here are two images of torpedo damage to ships for comparison (the USS Maryland and West Bridge respectively)
It is much more likely that either a torpedo or mine caused the damage to the Cole, which rules out jihadis as the culprits. But the ‘jihadis in a dingy’ narrative was necessary for obvious reasons. This was, after all, just 11 months in advance of the 9/11 attacks, and a pattern had to be established. Indeed, then Defense Secretary William S. Cohen used the bombing to further establish Bin Laden’s credentials as an arch terror chief. Cohen stated: “investigators were looking at anti-Western guerrilla groups, including exiled Saudi dissident Osama bin Laden.”
Further investigations into the Cole attack eventually turned up a group of likely suspects, many of whom were veteran Muslim fighters of the war in Afghanistan and Bosnia where they had essentially been recruits of the CIA.
“Six Yemeni suspects in the bombing of the USS Cole have been identified by sources close to the investigation, who say they share a background as fighters in the anti-Soviet