- The Washington Times - Friday, October 13, 2000

Suicide bombers in a small boat pulled aside a U.S. Navy warship yesterday at a refueling stop off the Yemen coast and detonated a huge explosion, killing at least six sailors in what the Pentagon is unofficially calling a terrorist attack.
The blast blew a huge hole in the hull of the guided-missile destroyer USS Cole, wounding 35 sailors. Another 11, many of whom were eating in a mess area of the ship, are missing and presumed dead.
"The guided-missile destroyer Cole was apparently attacked by terrorists in a small boat," said Adm. Vern Clark, the chief of naval operations, who described his view of the incident as a "senseless act of terrorism."
The boat carrying the explosives had sailed around the bow of the ship to the middle of its port side, and according to Pentagon officials, two men on the vessel stood at attention shortly before the blast went off. The action appeared to have been a suicide bombing, a tactic used in the past by Islamic fundamentalists who have declared "holy war" on the United States.
"If … we determine that terrorists attacked our ship and killed our sailors, then we will not rest until we have tracked down those who are responsible for this vicious and cowardly act," Defense Secretary William S. Cohen told reporters at the Pentagon.
Yemeni President Ali Abdullah Saleh was quoted on the official Saba news agency as saying he doubted terrorism was the cause of the blast.
It is the third time an explosion killed U.S. servicemen in the Middle East since 1995. A truck bomb blew up a U.S. military residence in Dharan, Saudi Arabia, in 1996 and a car bomb killed five Americans at a U.S. military headquarters in Riyadh, Saudi Arabia, in November 1995.
The incident in the Aden harbor on the Arabian Peninsula raises new questions about whether the Pentagon is doing enough to make sure that U.S. forces abroad take steps to defend against terrorist attacks, so-called "force protection" that was made a high priority after earlier bombings.
No terrorist group has claimed responsibility for the blast, said Mr. Cohen. However, ABC News reported last night that U.S. intelligence agencies had information that several days ago Saudi terrorist Osama bin Laden had dispatched a terrorist attack team.
The explosion occurred around 5:15 a.m. EST as several small work boats were assisting the Cole as it tried to moor at a refueling buoy in Aden harbor.
Pentagon officials suspect terrorists infiltrated the port authority harbor service in Aden and planned the attack after the U.S. government notified Yemeni authorities about the ship's visit 10 to 12 days ago.
The explosion tore a hole into the half-inch steel hull that measured about 20 feet high and 40 feet long and prompted a desperate effort by the ship's crew to prevent it from sinking. The ship was eventually stabilized and is listing only slightly, the officials said.
An official said that if the blast had occurred closer to the ends of the ships it could have set off larger explosions from stored weapons or fuel.
The wounded sailors, including several women, were evacuated to a local hospital.
After meeting with his national security advisers at the White House, President Clinton said those on the ship were "simply doing their duty."
"If, as it now appears, this was an act of terrorism, it was a despicable and cowardly act," said Mr. Clinton. "We will find out who was responsible and hold them accountable. If their intention was to deter us from our mission of promoting peace and security in the Middle East, they will fail utterly."
The presidential hopefuls also addressed the incident.
"If this turns out to be a terrorist attack," said Vice President Al Gore, "then I want to make it clear on behalf of all of us that it will be met with a full and forceful and retaliatory attack from the United States. We will defend our country."
Said Texas Gov. George W. Bush: "I am saddened and angered by the cowardly attack on this naval vessel in Yemen. First, our prayers go to the families. It is a constant reminder that people wearing uniforms make sacrifices."
The incident occurred amid heightened tensions in the Middle East and Israeli military attacks on Palestinians sites in the West Bank and Gaza Strip. The raids followed a mob lynching of three Israeli soldiers by Palestinians.
At the Justice Department, Attorney General Janet Reno said the FBI was working with the Defense Department and other agencies to investigate the incident, adding that the bureau had already "dispatched local resources to the scene, and it is sending investigators, explosive experts and an evidence-response team."
The nearest FBI legal attaches are stationed in Riyadh, Saudi Arabia.
"Our hearts go out to all those who survived, to those who were injured, to the families of those who were killed," she said in an opening statement at her weekly press briefing. "We will do everything we can to find out what caused this tragedy."
Miss Reno declined to comment on whether the United States had received any warnings about a possible attack, saying only, "I can't comment further at this time." She also would not say if there had been any credible claims of responsibility after the blast.
The attorney general noted that the FBI was not the lead agency in the investigation that task falls to the State Department but "will work with everybody and provide whatever support we can and conduct such investigation as is appropriate."
Secretary of State Madeleine K. Albright told reporters that the United States would be relentless in its pursuit of those responsible.
"Rest assured that the United States will seek with all our resources to determine the facts surrounding this tragedy," she told reporters at the State Department yesterday.
Yemen is not on the list of nations the United States regards as sponsors of terrorists acts. Still, according to the State Department's report on terrorism released in April, Yemen is a "safe haven for terrorist groups."
A U.S. intelligence official said recent threat assessments for Yemen show the area poses a fairly low risk for terrorist attack. The only recent incidents were several kidnappings of foreign citizens.
Mr. Cohen said protecting U.S. forces "is my top priority" and that of every military commander. "But we know that our vigilance cannot eliminate all risk," he said, noting that the alert level of all U.S. forces around the world has been increased.
The secretary said the United States will not be deterred from acting around the world by the incident. "In the wake of this tragedy, I want to be very clear about one point," he said. "We will continue to protect our national interests around the world, in the Middle East, and elsewhere. No one should doubt our resolve to remain a force for peace and for stability, and no one should assume that they can force us to retreat. No one should assume they can attack us with impunity."
Adm. Clark said the use of local boats to assist with mooring lines is "standard" for refueling activities and as a result there was no suspicion about one of them carrying explosives.
"Let me just say that the ability to deal with this kind of attack is limited by this circumstance," Adm. Clark said. "This small boat, by report, was involved in the mooring evolution" as the navy calls refueling.
Mr. Cohen said he views the attack as an example of "asymmetric warfare" the United States can expect from weaker enemies. "This is precisely the kinds of threats that we face where countries are unwilling to take us on head to head, but will resort to acts of terrorism in order to achieve their goal," he said.
The Norfolk-based ship was on its way to the Persian Gulf where it was to join the aircraft carrier battle group led by the carrier USS George Washington.
All ships that deploy are trained in "the specifics of force protection," Adm. Clark said and when they arrive in a region must present a plan on how they will protect themselves against attack.
"Such was the case here. The planning was done; it was approved by the immediate superior in command, and they executed the plan as it was specified," he said.
The security measures include posting guards with rifles during the refueling visit.
"In the scenario that I have described to you, any commanding officer that was working in a situation in a port like this has to assess the threat and the movement of ships and boats and so forth in the harbor," said Adm. Clark. "And a boat that was involved in the mooring [action] … and was currently involved in it, he would not expect to be a threat. And I believe that to be the circumstance."
Mr. Cohen said it is "premature" to say there is any link to the explosion and the Saudi terrorist bin Laden or other groups.
Bin Laden has been linked to the Saudi Arabian blasts and to the explosions at U.S. embassies in Africa in 1998.
He was targeted during a U.S. cruise missile attack that year on Afghanistan that did not succeed in hitting him.
The Palestinian Hamas (Islamic Resistance Movement) and the Palestinian Islamic Jihad, both have official representatives in Yemen, and both have conducted suicide bombings in the past. In addition, Egyptian Islamic Jihad and the Algerian Armed Islamic Group also have members and sympathizers in Yemen.
Jerry Seper and Tom Carter contributed to this report.

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