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Maritime Risk and Safety: Preventing the USS Cole Attack

Maritime Risk and Safety: Preventing the USS Cole Attack

By Jeffrey T. Fowler, Ph.D.
Faculty Member, School of Security and Global Studies, American Military University

This is the first of two articles on maritime risk and safety.

Those who “go down to the sea in ships” have long been aware of maritime risks, both natural and manmade. Failure to identify and mitigate security and safety issues results in serious bodily harm or even death.

The sea is very unforgiving of mistakes. If those mistakes are made, there is nowhere to go but into the water.

USS Cole Attack: A Case Study in Maritime Risk

On October 12, 2000, the USS Cole was making a brief refueling stop in the port of Aden. Two Saudi nationals, using a small watercraft loaded with 270 kilograms of C-4 plastic explosive, rammed the ship’s hull approximately 47 minutes after the refueling process had begun.

The subsequent explosion resulted in the death of 17 American sailors and the wounding of an additional 37 seamen. The blast created a very large hole in the ship’s port side. It is to the crew’s credit that the ship did not sink.

An Al Qaeda terrorist cell, working in Yemen, planned and carried out the attack. But could it have been prevented?

To determine if the USS Cole attack could have been avoided, it is necessary to look at several factors:

  • Intelligence
  • Threat levels/conditions
  • Vulnerability assessments
  • Force protection issues

Intelligence Showed A Growing Anti-Western Sentiment

As a former radio traffic analyst for the now defunct Army Security Agency (ASA), I can attest to the fact that intelligence analysts have the difficult task of separating critical data from non-critical data. They must distinguish between what is reliable and unreliable in collected data.

In 2000, the situation in the Middle East had become increasingly volatile and anti-Western feelings had increased. However, this subtle but dangerous transition went largely unnoticed by intelligence analysts at the time.

It resulted in what a May 2001 report on the Cole attack by the House Armed Services Committee Staff called a “business as usual” attitude on the part of the Cole’s officers – a lack of tactical warning. While there was some indication that a terrorist operation was being planned, there were no specific data. That resulted in complacency and a false sense of security.

Threat Levels/Conditions Descriptions Changed before Cole Attack

A change in the threat level system in 2000 might have created confusion about the actual threat present in Yemen at the time of the Cole attack. The Defense Intelligence Agency (DIA) was responsible for regional threat category assessment.

Before October 2000, the threat level system in use consisted of five categories: negligible, low, medium, high and critical. After October 1, 2000, the system was modified to only four categories: low, moderate, significant and high.

The old system assessed the threat level in Yemen as “high,” while the new system classified it as “significant.” This change could have confused the commander of the USS Cole, who might have thought the threat level had decreased.

Vulnerability Assessment for Aden Harbor Was Outdated

Vulnerability assessments are a key element in any risk analysis and threat assessment process. After the Khobar Towers attack on the U.S. military compound in Saudi Arabia in 1996, it became mandatory to make vulnerability assessments for all U.S. facilities abroad.

Four vulnerability assessments were completed in Aden, Yemen. Two were conducted by the Naval Criminal Investigative Service (NCIS) and one by the U.S. Coast Guard, but they concentrated on land-based threats. The U.S. Central Command (USCENTCOM) conducted a vulnerability assessment of Aden Harbor in May 1998.

However, at the time of the attack on the USS Cole, that assessment was more than two years old. The lack of a more recent vulnerability assessment focusing on waterborne threats to U.S. Navy vessels was a definite failure of proper threat assessment protocol.

Force Protection Training Concentrated on Land Threats

At the time of the attack on the USS Cole, U.S. Navy force protection training for naval personnel concentrated on land-based threats. Because the U.S. Navy is a global force, waterborne threats should have been addressed as well.

Under Threat Condition (THREATCON) Bravo in 2000, 62 protection measures were prescribed. The commander of the USS Cole implied that he would implement all 62, but these protection measures were not put in place.

It is possible that there had been no previous attacks on U.S. Navy vessels in Aden contributed to a sense of complacency. This thinking, though quite common in human nature, is unacceptable in the military. In addition, there was no universal standard for force protection guidance across U.S. Navy commands.

In retrospect, it is possible that the attack on the USS Cole might have been prevented if there had been a more focused intelligence collection and analysis effort. That effort, in turn, might have prompted changes to the THREATCON level, a new vulnerability assessment and an increased emphasis on force protection and tactical awareness on the part of the commander and officers of the USS Cole.

About the Author

Dr. Jeffrey T. Fowler, Ph.D., is an Assistant Professor in the School of Security and Global Studies at American Military University. He holds a B.A. in law enforcement from Marshall University, an M.A. in military history from Vermont College of Norwich University and a Ph.D. in business administration with a concentration in criminal justice from Northcentral University. Jeffrey is also a published author, a former New York deputy sheriff and a retired Army Captain, having served over 20 years in the U.S. Army.






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