October 12th, 2012
10:56 AM ET

Lessons from the USS Cole incident

By Mitchell Silber, Special to CNN

Mitchell D. Silber is the author of ‘The Al Qaeda Factor: Plots Against the West,’ a former director of intelligence analysis at the New York City Police Department and an executive managing director at K2 Intelligence, a risk analytics consulting firm. The views expressed are his own.

Twelve years ago today, 17 Americans were killed in a deadly attack in the Middle East. Then, as now, the U.S. government struggled to define what had occurred and to determine who was responsible for the tragic loss of life. It, too, was an election year and both the attack itself and the lack of a forceful response left the administration exposed on foreign policy in what was a historically close election. A meaningful American response fell in between the cracks of a change of administrations and 11 months later, al-Qaeda conducted its catastrophic attacks of September 2001. This cannot happen again.

The success of the al-Qaeda operation against the USS Cole in Aden, Yemen in October of 2000 “galvanized-al Qaeda’s recruitment efforts” and the lack of a retaliatory American strike against al-Qaeda in its safe haven of Afghanistan motivated Osama bin Laden to “launch something bigger” according to the 9/11 Commission Report.

What happened in Benghazi last month?  Was it a terrorist act or spontaneous mob violence triggered by a film clip on YouTube? Who was responsible? Was it a Benghazi-based Islamist militia acting autonomously or was it an al-Qaeda attack timed for the anniversary of September 11?

Not only does this tragic loss of American lives overseas demand answers to these questions, but sound counterterrorism policy requires it. And, for all the right reasons, policy makers, politicians, journalists and most importantly, the American public want and deserve to know more.

Unfortunately, in the wake of the attack, and depending on who was commenting – the State Department, White House, National Terrorism Center or Libyan government – the assessments ranged from a “spontaneous protest turned violent” to a “preplanned act of terrorism.” Similarly, assigning responsibility has been equally muddled and confused between an attack carried out by an autonomous local Islamist militia or “Al-Qaeda or [an] al-Qaeda-affiliated group that had a very specific target in mind.”

Yet, while deadly violence against a U.S. diplomatic post abroad evokes a natural instinct to categorize it as terrorism, the label shouldn’t be automatic. Terrorism is a tactic, which although it lacks a universal definition, is defined by the U.S. legal code as “premeditated, politically motivated violence perpetrated against noncombatant targets by subnational groups or clandestine agents, usually intended to influence an audience.”

So, this raises immediate questions about what is known about events in Benghazi. We know that violence was perpetrated against noncombatant targets (the consulate and its employees) and it appears to have been conducted by a subnational group (Ansar al Sharia or the Omar Abdul Rahman Brigades and/or an al-Qaeda affiliate), but was it politically motivated? Was it premeditated? And, was it intended to influence an audience?

An al-Qaeda affiliate in Yemen, probably unlikely to have been involved in the actual attack, suggested that the motive was revenge for the June killing of an alleged top Libyan member of al-Qaeda core by a drone strike in Pakistan. “Whoever comes across America’s ambassadors or emissaries should follow the example of Omar al-Mukhtar’s descendants, who killed the American ambassador,” it said. “Let the step of kicking out the embassies be a step towards liberating Muslim countries from the American hegemony.”

If this claim is taken seriously, then the political motive was both revenge and the desire to coerce the United States to remove its diplomatic presence from Muslim countries, with the audience being American policymakers and the American public.

The only missing piece is evidence of premeditation – and this is precisely one of the issues that garnered the most attention. Understandably, U.S. policymakers have asked this question in the context of whether there was an intelligence failure and whether adequate precautions were taken to protect the consulate facility and its personnel.

In fact, National Counterterrorism Center Director Matthew Olsen noted two weeks ago in Senate hearings that, “What we don’t have at this point is specific intelligence that there was a significant advanced planning or coordination for this attack.”  However, given the presence of men armed with rocket propelled grenades, a secondary attack on what was supposed to be a covert American annex, combined with the sophistication of the attack, U.S. Senators such as Susan Collins and Libyan President Megarief have suggested that the attack was premeditated. Nevertheless, this issue remains unresolved.

Then there is the issue of responsibility – was it al-Qaeda? Representative Mike Rogers, a Michigan Republican who heads the House Intelligence Committee, has stated that there was “a high degree of probability that it is an al-Qaeda or al-Qaeda-affiliated group.” Secretary of State Hillary Clinton noted that involvement by an al-Qaeda franchise, al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb, has not been ruled out.

These comments stand in stark contrast to initial reports that lay responsibility for the attack with a) a mob b) Ansar al-Sharia – an autonomous local Islamist militia sympathetic to al-Qaeda goals c) Omar Abdul Rahman Brigades – a small group who claimed responsibility for detonating an explosive device outside the U.S. Consulate in Benghazi just this past June and later released a video of that very attack.

More recently, the Director of National Intelligence's Office has noted, the intelligence community now believes it was “a deliberate and organized terrorist assault carried out by extremists” affiliated or sympathetic with al-Qaeda.

Establishing whether al-Qaeda core or an al-Qaeda affiliate was involved, and the nature of its relationship to a smaller local group who may have been the primary actor, are vital as the U.S. plans its response to the attack. At the most basic level, the “return address” of the attack is required so that the U.S. can retaliate accurately.

Intelligence collection and analysis takes time, and in the fall of 2000 investigators encountered significant hurdles operating in Yemen. Nevertheless, within about six weeks of the October 12, attack, the FBI and CIA knew that most men involved had trained in al-Qaeda camps and believed the investigation would soon conclude that the leaders of the terrorist cell belonged to al-Qaeda. Yet, by late December, “indicators of al-Qaeda direction of the plot” were still ambiguous, thus complicating a robust military response.

The U.S. investigative team has encountered its own challenges in deploying and collecting information in Libya, and U.S. policymakers must make the rapid collection and analysis of intelligence an absolute imperative. If al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb had a significant role in commanding and controlling or suggesting/endorsing this attack (which would be a departure from its general strategy of kidnapping and ransoming of Westerners) immediate efforts must be made to work to eliminate its safe haven in the ungoverned spaces of the Sahara before the potential threat metastasizes and grows in its capabilities and intentions. That is what we should have learned the hard way in between Aden and Benghazi.

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Topics: Terrorism • United States • Yemen

soundoff (2 Responses)
  1. Marine5484

    The lesson that we should have learned is not to send ships into places where they have no business in the first place. Unfortunately, those idiots in Washington never got it which is a first class exercise in stupidity! Like someone said, there is no cure for sheer ignorance!

    October 12, 2012 at 7:07 pm | Reply
  2. j. von hettlingen

    Who was responsible for the attack on the US consulate in Benghazi? Some 1,700 different armed groups had emerged from the disparate rebel forces which fought to topple Gaddafi. After the killing of Chris Stevens, the Libyan government said it would disarm the militias. In the east, Benghazi has several militias which were placed under the ministry of defence's control by the National Transitional Council (NTC). However, these grouping didn't include some of the more powerful militias, such as the now disbanded Ansar al-Sharia. There might be hope that Islamists would not be able to take over the region, as the central government in Tripoli is determined to get rid of them. So Libya would not be another Yemen.

    October 15, 2012 at 6:20 am | Reply

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