It was early morning on October 12, 2000, when I received word from the Naval Criminal Investigative Service (NCIS) anti-terrorism alert center that there had been an accident off the coast of Aden, Yemen, involving a Navy ship, the USS Cole. I was the director of NCIS at the time.
Initial reports indicated an explosion of some type had occurred during the ship’s offshore refueling process. The USS Cole did not refuel in port in Aden because of security concerns. As bits and pieces of information started to become available during the next several hours, it became apparent that the explosion was not an accident. Tragically 17 sailors died and 39 more were injured in what ultimately was determined to be an unprecedented al-Qaida terrorist attack on a U.S. Navy warship.
Jurisdictionally, NCIS is responsible for criminal investigative, counterintelligence, counterterrorism, and security support to the Department of the Navy and Department of Defense. NCIS Special Agents are federal agents with similar training and backgrounds to other federal law enforcement agencies (FBI, Secret Service, DEA, ATF, etc.). The FBI has investigative jurisdiction over any terrorist act involving U.S. personnel wherever in the world that act occurs. NCIS personnel assigned to the Middle East Field Office in Manama, Bahrain, were closest to Yemen.
With concurrence from the FBI, I sent six NCIS Special Agents and forensic specialists to Yemen. The team arrived in Aden within 24 hours and immediately went to work. They were the first investigators to arrive and began the incredibly difficult job of securing the scene and recovering evidence. They quickly focused on a small boat with two Yemenis on board that had been near the ship as it was being refueled. Investigators later determined the two Yemenis had been on a suicide bomb mission when they approached the ship. Both attackers died in the bomb blast, which ripped a huge hole through the hull of the USS Cole. Four days after the attack, a Norwegian transport ship brought the USS Cole back to the United States.
The FBI took the lead on the investigation and worked side by side with NCIS and several other agencies for years. It was an incredibly complex, taxing, and difficult investigation. It was a delicate balance between on the ground security concerns, investigative priorities, and maintaining relationships with the government of Yemen.
In early January 2001, the Department of Defense issued a report on the attack which outlined several shortcomings in security. Less than two weeks later, the Navy released its own investigation results which concluded that despite security measures in place, the attack could not have been prevented.
Today we know the USS Cole attackers were linked to al-Qaida, the same terrorist group responsible for the 9/11 attacks on the World Trade Center and Pentagon which took the lives of close to 3,000 people. These tragic attacks dramatically changed the way we as a nation think about and address the threat of terrorism.
Today there is stronger coordination and communication between agencies, and technological advances have been significant. We have had tremendous success mitigating the terrorist threat, and we are safer as a nation. But I, like many others, still find myself asking “what else can we do?”
The Museum is hosting a Witness event ‘Attack On The USS Cole: Precursor To 9/11‘. Buy your tickets here.