Eleven months before the September 11, 2001 terrorist attacks on the United States, al-Qaida suicide bombers blasted a hole in a U.S. Navy ship docked at the Yemeni port of Aden, killing 17 sailors and wounding dozens more. In a new book, the captain of that ship says America's response was terribly weak and the violence could have been a harbinger of the deadlier attacks to come.
On October 12, 2000, the USS Cole, with Commander Kirk Lippold at the helm, was refueling during what he thought would be a routine stop at the port of Aden.
Lippold says he was at his desk doing paperwork when the suicide bombers slammed their vessel into the side of the ship.
"When there was suddenly a thunderous explosion, you could feel all 505 feet and 8,400 tons of guided missile destroyer quickly and violently thrust up and to the right. We seemed to hang for a second in the air as the ship had this odd twisting and flexing motion, settled back down in the water as lights went out, ceiling tiles popped out. Everything on my desk had come up about a foot and slammed back down," said Lippold,
Lippold reported to his superiors the assault was "front burner," a military term meaning an attack on U.S. forces.
The now retired commander has written a first-hand account of the bombing called Front Burner: Al-Qaida’s Attack on the USS Cole.
It comes at a time when the alleged mastermind of the attack, Abd al-Rahim al-Nashiri, is facing charges of murder and terrorism before a military tribunal in Guantanamo Bay, Cuba.
Lippold does not think the case will be settled soon. "Do not expect the military commission on al-Nashiri to move forward at any quick speed," he said. "The defense has got over 100 motions in there and they are going to drag this out for as long as utterly possible."
The book contains a lengthy description of the damage caused by the explosion, the crew's heroic response to keep the ship from sinking, and the somber recovery of the dead sailors.
Lippold is critical of the fact that the United States did not respond militarily to the attack on the Cole.
"For me the key lesson learned from this as a nation is you cannot allow Americans to be killed overseas by terrorists and let it go unanswered," he said. "All that's going to indicate to whoever killed us, that we are weak and unwilling to defend our people and our national interests."
During a discussion of his book at The Heritage Foundation, Lippold says intelligence failures contributed to the tragedy.
He also says the U.S. failed to recognize the bombing of the Cole was a warning sign for the terrorist attacks to come less than a year later.
"People always ask the great unanswered question, if we had reacted to Cole would that have perchance detected what was going on with 9/11? We'll never be able to answer that question. But I can guarantee you doing nothing sealed our fate," said Lippold.
The bombing of the Cole was ultimately overshadowed by the September 11 attacks.
As the ship's former commander, Lippold hopes his book will highlight a critical event in America's war against al-Qaida.