Amidst scenes of American dead being flown back from Yemen, critical
thinking seems distant amidst the bluster of government officials. The
families of the dead and wounded, as well as those military men and women
who continue to be placed in harms way, deserve better. Claims that the USS Cole incident was the result of an intelligence failure or logistical necessities are suspect. Gen. Anthony Zinni, former commander of U.S. forces in the Persian Gulf (also known as Central Command, or CENTCOM), assumed responsibility for moving refueling operations and testified before the Senate Armed Services Committee that the Yemeni port of Aden was the least vulnerable option--and thus essential to U.S. Persian Gulf operations. Nothing seems further from the truth.
What is stunningly obvious in reviewing the State Departments assessment of global terrorist threats, cited by Zinni, is that Yemen is a uniquely dangerous area, with multiple threats--including Palestinian, North African, and domestic terrorist groups--existing outside government-controlled areas.
Osama bin Laden claims involvement in bombings against U.S. forces moving through Aden en route to Somalia; incidents such as the December 1998 Mudiyah kidnapping and killing of Western tourists, as well as other threats against Western citizens in 1998 and 1999, highlighted the threat environment. Iraqi and pro-Palestinian sympathizers abound in Yemen, while
the potential for Iran to exploit heightened regional passions to disguise involvement in anti-U.S. operations is ever-present. These trends were conveyed to both CENTCOM and Embassy Sanaa long before the decision to use Aden as a refueling port was made.
Despite Zinnis testimony, the State Department assessment had not reported such a high level of risk for the port of Djibouti. Moreover, Djiboutis
French garrison provides a level of security unavailable in Aden, which is
likely one of the reasons the U.S. has used this African port for refueling since the Gulf War. The prospect of basing U.S. policy in the region on flawed and dangerous assumptions presages further unacceptable risks for U.S. forces and personnel.
The increased U.S. military presence in Yemen--characterized by refueling stops, publicized visits by American military leaders and involvement in the country's land-mine-removal program--coincided with an increased interest in portraying the government of President Ali Abdallah Saleh as an emerging democracy on the Arabian Peninsula. This was highlighted by the planned visit of Hillary Clinton to the Yemeni-hosted Emerging Democracies Forum in June 1999 (a visit that was later cancelled, possibly due to security reasons).
Yemen is far from being a democratic, liberal state, but moves towards better governance should be supported. However, shifting refueling operations from Djibouti to Aden was a classic case of misapplying military resources to a non-strategic, threat-intensive mission. The naval presence, if anything, actually complicated the situation. Unlike typical uses of the Navy in nation-building efforts, where sailors work with local communities to build infrastructure while injecting dollars into the local economy, in Yemen sailors were either restricted to ship or portside. The U.S. presence--involving the use of Adens port by combatants en route to conduct operations against Iraq--was seen by local extremists as an attempt to turn Aden and Socotra Island into an American base to support activities against a country they have long backed.
Our embassy in Yemen, CENTCOM and the intelligence community certainly saw the same threat information: a precedent of attacks combined with violently anti-American groups in a fluid environment wherein penetration of the government and local companies assisting the U.S. refueling operations was probable. The alleged tip-off by an Arab ally of possible anti-U.S. operations in the region, combined with the onset of Arab-Israeli violence and Baghdads renewed efforts to break out of the sanctions box, should have underscored the need for extra precautions.
Given the record, it seems that a decision was made to deemphasize the
threats in order to push a pro-Yemen policy agenda. If CENTCOM had visions of using Aden to support American troops in regional missions it shows a shortsightedness with respect to vulnerability, as well as a lack of understanding that such actions would
further open the Saleh government to criticism and increase the risk of anti-U.S. attacks. If the embassy relied on the host country to provide security and protection against terrorist threats, it was poor judgment.
No policy-maker likes to admit that his or her policy may be flawed, but de-emphasizing threat indicators is both irresponsible and arrogant. If such incidents are to be avoided in the future, there must be greater attention to the link between U.S. policy towards Israel and U.S. vulnerabilities in the region. There must also be a thorough review of the decision-making process--the rationale of CENTCOM and the embassy, the interface between intelligence and policy-makers and the needs of ship refueling and force protection measures. While a perfect policy of combating terrorism is impossible, unsubstantiated judgements and statements that it was bound to happen or a determined terrorist will succeed regardless are unacceptable excuses. Leaders learn from their mistakes and do not run from the heavy responsibilities entrusted in them.
Was the attack on the USS Cole tied to military and political negligence? Perhaps. Was it enabled by a lack of understanding ground realities, an unwillingness to listen to threat indicators, and policy-makers taking
unnecessary risks to make their mark?
John D. Moore is a former terrorism analyst with the U.S. State Department and political-military analyst with the Department of Defense covering Arabian Peninsula issues. He is currently pursuing graduate studies at the Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy.