In the serene waters of Yemen’s Aden harbor, on what appeared to be a regular morning in the year 2000, a brutal shockwave ripped through the core of America’s naval dominance.

The USS Cole (DDG 67), a guided-missile destroyer, had arrived at the port of Aden as part of a routine refueling stop. As the early sun cast a warm glow over the ship’s steel exterior, the sailors aboard went about their daily duties, blissfully unaware of the impending peril. The rhythmic hum of engines, the crisp snap of flags in the sea breeze, and the camaraderie that defined their close-knit community were shattered by an earth-shattering explosion. The force of the blast was unimaginable and had claimed the lives of 17 American sailors while injuring dozens more.

USNS Catawba tows USS Cole
USNS Catawba (T-ATF 168) towing USS Cole (DDG 67) away from the port city of Aden, Yemen, on October 29, 2000. (Image source: Wikimedia Commons)

A small boat laden with explosives had pulled up alongside the Cole had crippled one of America’s symbols of maritime supremacy. Driven by two men consumed to the brim by fanatical ideology, later investigations would reveal that the act was affiliated with the global terrorist network al-Qaeda. Nonetheless, in the moments that followed the explosion, the crew of the burning Cole bravely fought the fires on the ship and successfully saved it from sinking. The bombing left an indelible mark on the world’s consciousness, altering the course of international relations and shaping the subsequent global efforts to combat terrorism.

The Target: USS Cole

Bearing the namesake of Marine Sergeant Darrell S. Cole – a machine-gunner killed in action on Iwo Jima during World War II – USS Cole is one of the earliest Arleigh Burke-class guided-missile destroyers. It joined the naval service in 1996, and by the first half of 2000, the ship had completed its intermediate and advanced portions of the Inter-Deployment Training Cycle.

Under the command of Kirk S. Lippold, the USS Cole was deployed alongside the guided-missile frigate USS Simpson (FFG-56) and Military Sealift Command (MSC)-manned oiler USNS John Lenthall (T-AO-189) from its homeport in Norfolk to the Mediterranean, Red Sea, Gulf of Aden, and the Indian Ocean.

USS Cole 2014 deployment
USS Cole (DDG 67) departing Naval Station Norfolk, 2014 (Image source: DVIDS)

On that fateful morning of October 12, 2000, the USS Cole anchored in the Yemeni port of Aden for a routine fuel stop en route to the Persian Gulf. Little did they know that this momentary pause would become a tragic turning point in their voyage.

The Attack: A Chilling Act of Terror

Around 11:18 local time, a small fiberglass boat laden with C4 explosives approached the USS Cole. According to reports, the craft operated by two suicide bombers carried a substantial quantity of the high explosive, estimated to be around 400 to 700 pounds. Upon reaching the side of the destroyer, the assailants detonated the explosives, creating a massive blast that tore a gaping hole in the ship’s hull.

hole in uss cole
Hole in the USS Cole after the attack (Image source: Wikimedia Commons)

The force of the explosion was devastating. Seventeen American sailors lost their lives, and dozens more were wounded. Despite being saved from sinking, the ship’s structural integrity suffered, forcing it to be towed out to sea. Extensive repairs spanned nearly three years to restore its seaworthiness. The attack marked a new chapter in the tactics employed by terrorist organizations, highlighting their willingness to use suicide bombings and innovative methods to wreak havoc.