On October 12, 2000, suicide bombers, part of the al-Qaeda terrorist organization, exploded a small boat alongside the U.S. Navy destroyer USS Cole as it was refueling in the Yemeni port of Aden.

The blast ripped a 40-foot-wide hole near the waterline of the Cole killing 17 American sailors and injuring 37 more. The crew valiantly fought the fires on the ship and was able to save it from sinking. The Cole was then towed out to sea, where it was eventually returned to the United States. Its repairs took nearly three years. 


A Cowardly Attack

On August 8, 2000, the USS Cole, commanded by Kirk S. Lippold, was deployed with the guided-missile frigate USS Simpson (FFG-56) and Military Sealift Command (MSC)-manned oiler USNS John Lenthall (T-AO-189) from Norfolk to the Mediterranean, Red Sea, Gulf of Aden, and the Indian Ocean.

On the morning of Thursday, October 12, the Cole docked in Aden harbor for a routine fuel stop. Around 11:18 local time, a small fiberglass boat carrying C4 explosives and two suicide bombers approached the port side of the destroyer and detonated its explosives ripping a huge 40-by-60-foot gash in the ship’s port side. 

USS Cole
The USS Cole at sea. (U.S. Navy)

Between 400 to 700 pounds of C4 plastic explosives were used. They had been molded into a shaped charge to create maximum damage against the ship’s hull, according to former CIA intelligence officer Robert Finke.

At the time of the bombing, the Cole’s crew was lining up for lunch in the ship’s galley directly above the blast site. The impact of the boat and the resultant explosion occurred in the mechanical space under the galley. The explosion violently pushed up the deck, killing and wounding many of the sailors inside the galley. 

The attack killed 17 Sailors: 31-year-old Lt. j.g. Andrew Triplett; 35-year-old ETC Richard D. Costelow; 30-year-old EW1 Kevin S. Rux; 21-year-old HT2 Kenneth E. Clodfelter; 24-year-old EN2 Mark I. Nieto; 24-year-old EW2 Ronald S. Owens; 32-year-old OS2 Timothy L. Saunders; 22-year-old MS3 Ronchester M. Santiago; 19-year-old MSSN Lakeina M. Francis; 21-year-old ISSN Timothy L. Gauna; 22-year-old SMSN Cherone L. Gunn; 19-year-old ISSN James R. McDaniels; 22-year-old SN Lakiba N. Palmer; 19-year-old ENFN Joshua L. Parlett; 19-year-old FN Patrick H. Roy; 26-year-old FN Gary Swenchonis Jr.; and 19-year-old SN Craig B. Wibberley. In addition, 37 of their shipmates sustained wounds.


The Fast Reaction of Crew Saves Lives

In the aftermath of the explosion, the crew of USS Cole fought to free shipmates trapped by the twisted wreckage and limit the flooding that threatened to sink the ship. The crew’s quick damage-control procedures to isolate damaged electrical systems and contain fuel oil ruptures prevented any additional fire that could have engulfed the ship and cost more lives. The crew then conducted 96 hours of sustained damage control in conditions of extreme heat and stress. 

The first ship on the scene was the British Royal Navy frigate HMS Marlborough, commanded by Captain Anthony Rix. The Marlborough was en route to the U.K. after a six-month deployment in the Persian Gulf. 

The Marlborough provided medical and damage control teams to the Cole. The French Air Force provided MEDEVAC aircraft to transport 11 of the worst injured sailors to a French military hospital in Djibouti where they underwent emergency surgery before being sent to Landstuhl, Germany.

USS Cole towed
USS Cole being towed out of Aden. (U.S. Navy)

The Navy then conducted Operation Determined Response from October 12 to 31 to save the Cole, get her out to sea, and back to the United States for repairs. Seven American and two British ships participated in the operation.

Following emergency repairs on October 29, the Cole was tugged out of Aden. The following day, the Cole was hauled aboard the Dutch semi-submersible heavy lift salvage ship MV Blue Marlin. The trip to Pascagoula, Mississippi, took until December 13. After heavy repairs, the Cole finally set sail again on November 29, 2003.


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Rules of Engagement 

The Cole’s sailors had their hands tied because of the ridiculous rules of engagement of the time.

Petty Officer Jennifer Kudrick said that if the sentries had fired on the suicide craft “…we would have gotten in more trouble for shooting two foreigners than losing 17 American sailors.”

Petty Officer John Washak said that in the moments immediately after the explosion, a senior chief petty officer ordered him to turn an M-60 machine gun on Cole’s fantail away from a second small boat quickly approaching.

“With blood still on my face [I was told] that’s the rules of engagement: no shooting unless we’re shot at.”

Washak added, “In the military, it’s like we’re trained to hesitate now. If somebody had seen something wrong and shot, he probably would have been court-martialed.”

A year later, the rules of engagement were changed and allowed sailors to fire on approaching aircraft or boats if they refused to obey calls to turn away. 

The news of the attack against the USS Cole were a boon for al-Qaeda’s recruiting. According to an al-Qaeda propaganda post, recruits flooded into Afghanistan with plenty of petrodollars. 

FBI agents attempting to investigate the bombing were met in Yemen by Yemeni Special Forces pointing AK-47s at them. Yemeni Parliament officials called for a jihad against America. Most of the al-Qaeda operatives were either released or escaped from prison in Yemen. Two of the masterminds of the attack were killed in a drone attack in November 2002. 

The U.S. also froze $13 million in Sudanese assets after it found that the two terrorists had been trained in Sudan. In 2009, U.S. federal judge Kimba Wood released the frozen assets belonging to Sudan and awarded those to the 33 spouses, parents, and children of the sailors killed in the attack.