Sneak Attack

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The 300 men and women aboard the U.S.S. Cole had been at sea for two uneventful months when their vessel arrived in the Yemen harbor of Aden last Thursday. Unrest in the region and the Cole's upcoming six-month mission with the Navy's Fifth Fleet in the Persian Gulf, where it would enforce the international oil embargo against Iraq, had upgraded the ship's Threatcon to "bravo," the Navy's second-highest state of alert. So as the Cole steamed into Aden harbor just before noon, maneuvering close to an offshore mooring station where it would refuel, crew members were on deck, armed and at attention. But they missed the threat. Several small boats approached to assist in attaching the Cole's thick 5-in. lines to fixed buoys. At 12:15, a small harbor boat mingling among the moorers pulled alongside. Two men stood upright, and the boat exploded.

The blast tore a 40-ft. by 40-ft. hole in the port side of the Cole, shoving one of the ship's decks upward and destroying an engine room and an adjoining mess area. Sailors not maimed by the explosion and flying shrapnel had only an instant to scramble to safety before water rushed into the gaping hole and engulfed them. The attack killed 17 sailors and injured 38 more. As the Cole, a $1 billion destroyer armed with an assortment of high-caliber machine guns, surface-to-air missiles and advanced radar equipment, listed sickeningly to port, crew members worked furiously to keep it afloat. On Friday the Navy said the Cole would be repaired to seaworthiness and then towed home.

The attack came within hours of the lynching of two Israeli soldiers in Ramallah, and the message it seemed to carry--that America might face a reckoning of its own for the collapse of Middle East peace--echoed nearly as loudly as the blast itself. On Thursday President Clinton appeared in the Rose Garden and vowed to "find out who was responsible and hold them accountable." Though the U.S. may eventually launch military reprisals, the numbing familiarity of Clinton's statements betrayed a sense of dread about America's exposure to terrorist attacks and the country's apparent inability to prevent them. The Cole disaster ranks as the most deadly terrorist assault on U.S. forces since the 1996 bombing of the Air Force barracks in Saudi Arabia--a crime for which the U.S. has been unable to bring anyone to justice.

The Pentagon's moves to stabilize the Cole were swift, but efforts to explain how last week's attack could have taken place offered little cause for comfort. The size of the blast, the perpetrators' ability to conceal the bomb and their advance knowledge of the arrival of the Cole--the ship's commanders notified Yemeni authorities 10 days before last Thursday that it would refuel in Aden--suggest that the attack was plotted weeks, even months, in advance. Once it pulled into Aden, the ship was highly vulnerable--to the bevy of small craft mingling around it, to the port authorities who had dispatched the moorers, to anyone with the cleverness and forethought to plan carefully for such a moment. If the commanders noticed anything suspicious as the Cole was moored, it was already too late. Said Admiral Vernon Clark, the Navy's chief of operations: "It would be extraordinarily do anything about this kind of situation and to have stopped it."

But the fact is, Pentagon brass have received warnings about the vulnerability of Fifth Fleet warships since at least 1996, following the Khobar Towers bombing in Saudi Arabia. More damaging fallout may emerge from probes into why the Cole was refueling in Aden in the first place. An Administration official said the U.S. was aware of "a general uptick in activity" in the past month among rogue groups hoping to use Arab-Israeli tensions as a justification for mischief. Yemen is a fertile staging ground for such mischief; the country is one of the world's poorest, and the government wields little control over the feuding tribes that roam through the hinterland.

Indeed, Yemen has made little progress in cracking down on terrorist cells working within its borders. One of America's chief nemeses, Osama bin Laden, has ancestral roots there and boasts a following. Earlier this year, a cabal of 28 suspected Bin Laden loyalists who met initially in Yemen was indicted by Jordan for plotting New Year's attacks on American and Israeli tourists. The country has also become a crossroads for veterans of the war in Afghanistan, some of whom later made their way to conflicts in Bosnia and Chechnya.

In recent years the U.S. has sought to improve ties with Yemen, hoping to pressure the government to defuse terrorist cells, draw the country away from its sometime ally Saddam Hussein and gain a foothold at the tip of the Saudi peninsula. Sending Navy ships to refuel in Yemen ports made strategic sense in that regard. "[Diplomacy] was at the heart of the motivation," Admiral Clark said last week. But the diplomacy outstripped the security. Crawling with terrorists who see the U.S. as invaders on the peninsula and protected only by a weak central government located 200 miles to the north, Aden was no place for Yankees, especially at a time of unrest.

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