Today is the tenth anniversary of al Qaeda’s October 12, 2000 attack on the USS Cole. Three thoughts come immediately to mind.
First, the attack on the Cole demonstrates just how poor America’s intelligence on al Qaeda was prior to the September 11 attacks. The lack of human intelligence (HUMINT) really hampered the U.S. intelligence community’s understanding of the network behind the attack. In fact, even though al Qaeda was initially suspected as the main culprit, U.S. officials remained unsure about al Qaeda’s responsibility for months thereafter. As a result, there was no military response to an attack on the American military, either by the outgoing Clinton administration or, a few months later, the incoming Bush administration.
Incredibly, according to the 9/11 Commission, the U.S. “did not have evidence about [Osama] Bin Ladin’s personal involvement in the attacks until Nashiri and Khallad were captured in 2002 and 2003.” Nashiri is Abd al Rahman al Nashiri, al Qaeda’s point man for the operation. Khallad is Tawfiq bin Attash, an al Qaeda operative who was involved in both the Cole bombing and 9/11.
Both Nashiri and Khallad were placed in the CIA’s so-called enhanced interrogation program. It was not until the CIA interrogated them that we learned just how responsible Osama bin Laden was for the operation. The 9/11 Commission reported that bin Laden “chose the target and location of the attack, selected the suicide operatives, and provided the money needed to purchase the explosives and equipment.”
Think about that. The sprawling, multi-billion dollar U.S. intelligence bureaucracy did not know for sure that Osama bin Laden was directly responsible for the death of 17 Americans until more than two years after the fact. (Nashiri was captured in November 2002.)
Second, this helps explain why the CIA’s detention interrogation program came into existence in the first place. It is understandable that certain aspects of the program (like the fact that Nashiri was one of three al Qaeda terrorists who was waterboarded) are controversial. But the chief reason the Bush administration and the intelligence community resorted to such techniques is because America had a dangerously incomplete picture of the enemy. Only men such as Nashiri, Khallad, and other high-value al Qaeda detainees really knew what was going on.
In fact, Nashiri was working on his own new attacks at the time he was captured. After the Cole bombing, Nashiri became the head of al Qaeda’s operations in the Gulf. The DoD’s biography of Nashiri explains:
At the time of his arrest, Nashiri was arranging funding for a plot to crash a small plane into the bridge of a Western navy vessel in Port Rashid, UAE, an operation he had hoped to execute in November or December 2002. He also was orchestrating additional attacks, one targeting a US housing compound in Riyadh, Saudi Arabia, which he had planned for mid-2003. Nashiri abandoned a plot that he was involved in earlier in 2002 to attack warships in the Strait of Hormuz, but his operatives - on orders from Bin Laden - in October 2002 rammed the French tanker MV Limburg off the coast of Yemen with a small boat. Other plots Nashiri was involved in included a car bomb attack against a Saudi military installation at Tabuk aimed at killing US military personnel, attacks on oil tankers in the Strait of Gibraltar and Western warships passing through the Port of Dubani, and attacks against land-based targets in Morocco, Qatar, and Saudi Arabia.
When CIA inspector general John Helgerson (who is no apologist for the CIA’s detention and interrogation program) investigated the CIA’s use of “enhanced interrogation techniques” he found that “following the use of EITs, [Nashiri] provided information about his most current operational planning and [REDACTED] as opposed to the historical information he provided before the use of EITs.”
It is safe bet that at least some of the plots described in the DoD’s biography were disrupted.
Third, while the U.S. was slow to respond to al Qaeda, al Qaeda was quick to capitalize on its successful attack. Turning to the 9/11 Commission’s final report again we learn that the attack on the Cole “galvanized al Qaeda’s recruitment efforts.” Bin Laden ordered Khalid Sheikh Mohammed “to produce a propaganda video that included a reenactment of the attack along with images of the al Qaeda training camps and training methods.” The tape was widely disseminated and “caused many extremists to travel to Afghanistan for training and jihad.”
There is no better recruitment tool for al Qaeda than success. Much of the recent debate here in the U.S. has focused on how al Qaeda and like-minded extremists are supposedly capitalizing on American policies. We keep hearing that Guantanamo, etc. are major recruitment tools for our enemies, even though there is little empirical evidence to support this proposition. (You can read my take on this argument here and here.)
The truth is that successful attacks by al Qaeda are a far more effective tool for recruitment than U.S. policies, which are often portrayed in a distorted light. Indeed, to the extent that al Qaeda even uses Gitmo or any other American policies in its recruitment drives, the terror organization relies on a warped perception of these policies.
For instance, the 9/11 Commission noted that al Qaeda’s propaganda tape featuring the Cole attack also “highlighted Muslim suffering in Palestine, Kashmir, Indonesia, and Chechnya.” At least three of the four have little to do with American policy. The source of the conflict is something altogether beyond America’s direct control. America’s role in the fourth (Palestine), has been become the subject of much mythology as well.
Indeed, al Qaeda portrays all of America’s policies, and the world in general, through a conspiratorial lens. Al Qaeda’s leaders claim that the U.S. is part of a “Zionist-Crusader” conspiracy against Muslims. This is absurd, but it sells. The Cole attack, then, was portrayed as al Qaeda’s successful counterattack to this imagined conspiracy.
We should be thankful that men such as Nashiri were captured and prevented from launching another similar attack, thereby killing more Americans and creating another victory for al Qaeda to celebrate in its propaganda.
Thomas Joscelyn is a senior fellow at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies.