Before there was 9/11, there was 10/12. A decade ago this week, al Qaeda operatives staged a spectacular suicide attack on the USS Cole while it was refueling in Aden, Yemen. The terrorists puttered up to the destroyer’s port side, waving at the U.S. sailors working on deck. Once aside the Cole, the two assailants shaped a 1,000-pound charge to the ship’s hull. On the other side of the hull was the galley, where many of the crew were lining up for lunch. The subsequent explosion killed 17 sailors, injured another 39, and ripped a 40-foot gash in the Cole. By any historical standard, the attack was an act of war. Its purpose was political, its logic was strategic, its operational design was bold, and its tactical execution was flawless.
Yet it was hard for the United States to see it that way. President Clinton denounced the attack as a “despicable and cowardly act” of terrorism: “We will find out,” he said, “who was responsible and hold them accountable.” As he did after the 1996 Khobar Towers attack in Saudi Arabia and the 1998 bombings of U.S. embassies in Tanzania and Kenya, Clinton turned the matter over to Attorney General Janet Reno and the FBI. The Yemenis were not impressed. They greeted the arriving G-men with AK-47s leveled and, in their parliament, calls for jihad against America. They withheld evidence, producing a security camera video of the attack but with the moment of the explosion deleted. The American agents slept in their clothes and with their weapons at their sides.
When their hotel was surrounded by gun-toting Yemenis in traditional dress, they retreated to a Navy vessel in the Bay of Aden. The Clinton administration concluded that the Cole plot originated in Sudan, where Osama bin Laden had taken refuge after he was expelled from Saudi Arabia in 1991. But, in contrast to the cruise missile strikes conducted in Sudan and against camps in Afghanistan after the 1998 embassy bombings, no significant military action was taken after the Cole.
Ten years on, our confusion lingers. The Pentagon’s senior judge overseeing terrorist trials dropped all charges against the mastermind of the Cole attack, Abd al-Rahim al-Nashiri. But the controversy over this decision largely misses the point: The wartime purpose of detaining terrorist operatives and capturing or killing their commanders is not to prosecute them—either by military commission or in federal court—but to defeat them. It matters less that a war criminal is brought to justice than that an enemy is removed from the battlefield or becomes a source of intelligence.
As our weariness with the “Long War”—the war not just against al Qaeda but to secure the long-term interests of the United States in the greater Middle East—grows, the temptation to return to a 10/12 mentality grows as well. In the prolonged debate over strategy for the war in Afghanistan, for example, President Obama made plain that what he most wanted was an approach that limited his commitment. It’s a short step from a “narrow counterterrorism” military strategy to a narrower counterterrorism law-enforcement strategy.
Yet, as happened after the attack on the Cole, the limits of law enforcement would be soon apparent. The logic of war would reassert itself. The enemy gets a vote, including about whether the war is over. In accepting, at least for now, the argument for a larger military effort in Afghanistan, our commander in chief wasn’t “boxed in” by his generals. He was boxed in by reality—the reality of war.