Oct. 12, 2000 -- Six U.S. sailors are dead, 36 injured and 11 missing after two terrorists on a suicide mission attacked a U.S. Navy destroyer today in the Middle Eastern port city of Aden.
The explosion that tore a hole in the side of the USS Cole during a refueling stop at a facility in Aden, Yemen, was the result of a well-planned terrorist attack, U.S. officials said.
The incident may be linked to alleged terrorist mastermind Osama bin Laden’s organization, U.S. officials have told ABCNEWS.
At the White House, President Clinton pledged action. “If, as it now appears, this was an act of terrorism, it was a despicable and cowardly act. We will find out who was responsible and hold them accountable,” Clinton told reporters.
“If their intention was to deter us from our mission of promoting peace and security in the Middle East, they will fail utterly,” he said.
Defense Secretary William Cohen said no one had claimed responsibility for the attack, but said he ordered an increased alert level for all U.S. forces around the world, including those in the United States.
The State Department today also warned that U.S. citizens should avoid travel to Yemen and urged all U.S. citizens abroad to “maintain a high level of vigilance.”
Small Boat Assisted Refueling
U.S. officials said the explosion occurred when a small boat assisting in the refueling of the USS Cole pulled alongside the destroyer, which was carrying about 350 crew members. The officials confirmed six sailors were dead and 11 others still missing.
Two individuals on board the small boat were helping to gather up the mooring lines of the Cole, officials said. The individuals took one line out to an anchor buoy and were coming back for a second line when the explosion tore a 20-foot by 40-foot gash in the mid-hull section at around 12:15 local time, or 5:15 a.m. ET.
The blast was strong enough to blow out windows hundreds of yards away. The damage was concentrated in one of the engine rooms and flooding has been controlled.
The refueling stop was only scheduled to last between four and six hours and was not well-publicized.
“A boat that was involved in mooring would not be expected to be a threat,” said Navy Adm. Vern Clark, chief of naval operations.
Looking for Suspects
Clark said the Cole had notified local authorities 10 to 12 days earlier that it would dock in Yemen.
“I have no reason to think that this was anything but a senseless act of terrorism,” Clark told reporters at a Pentagon briefing.
Although U.S. intelligence sources have no specific information bin Laden is responsible, they say he could be a suspect because his is one of the few groups capable of such an attack.
The perpetrators must have had knowledge of the few hours the ship would be in port and the ability to infiltrate the harbor at that time, the ability to assemble strong explosives on the small boat; and they also had to know what part of the ship to target.
Bin Laden is said to have strong ties to Yemen, as his father came from that country.
Intelligence sources tell ABCNEWS that six days ago, the United States received information that bin Laden signaled one of his hit squads to “move out,” but there were no details on where it was headed.
Clark said the destroyer was on Bravo alert, a moderate security alert level that requires posting guards, controlling entry and other security measures. The Cole was in compliance, he said. “That included armed personnel” on deck as it entered the port, he said.
At today’s briefing, Clark presented photos showing a gaping hole in the mid-section of the destroyer, where steel runs a half-inch thick. “Obviously this was a significant explosion,” he said.
Navy officials said 36 sailors were injured and 12 were still missing in the aftermath of the blast. The Cole’s captain was alive and well, officials said.
The injured were taken to a local hospital, and U.S. medical personnel were en route from Bahrain to the site of the explosion.
The Cole is the only Navy warship currently tasked to patrol the Red Sea, officials said. The Navy has ordered all other ships now in the Middle East put out to sea.
Clinton ‘Horrified’ by Attack
U.S. officials said they would take appropriate action.
At a State Department news conference, Secretary of State Madeleine Albright declared: “We will hold those who committed it accountable and take appropriate steps.”
She said this is no time for the United States to “retreat from our responsibilities” in the region.
“We are operating in a world that is filled with a variety of threats. But that doesn’t mean that we can crawl into an ostrichlike mode. We are eagles,” Albright said.
President Clinton, who said he was horrified by the attack, has issued orders to do everything possible to find out who is responsible. He was informed of the explosion at 7:18 a.m. ET. Clinton notified Cohen at 7:30 a.m. ET.
Members of Congress expressed their sadness and outrage.
“We will find those people,” said Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., “There will be a heavy price to pay. We cannot allow these kinds of acts of terror to take place.”
The FBI has already dispatched local agents to the scene, Attorney General Janet Reno said today and is sending investigators, explosive experts and an evidence response team. A Marine Corps anti-terrorism team is also en route.
The FBI’s legal attaché from Riyadh, Saudi Arabia, is also being dispatched to the scene.
Families Gather in Norfolk
The Cole, a Norfolk, Va.-based destroyer armed with conventional missiles and torpedoes, was in Aden while on a refueling stop as it traveled from the Red Sea to Bahrain.
It is assigned to the USS George Washington carrier battle group now operating in the Persian Gulf region. The Cole left Norfolk in June for a six-month deployment to the Persian Gulf. The Navy has issued an information line, 1-800-368-3202, for the families of the sailors.
The Navy also has established a gathering place for the families at the Norfolk base, said Adm. John Foley, where they can receive information updates, legal assistance and counseling.
ABCNEWS’ Barbara Starr and John McWethy at the Pentagon, ABCNEWS.com’s Michael James, The Associated Press and Reuters contributed to this report.