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The Cole attack — more than 9/11 — predicted America’s challenges in the 21st century
Air Force Times
by Justin Conrad
Al-Qaida’s attack against the U.S. Navy guided-missile destroyer USS Cole occurred 20 years ago, but the powerful lessons of the tragedy reverberate today. The attack was unprecedented: a major U.S. warship targeted in peacetime by an extremist organization. Seventeen sailors dead and 39 injured.
For those of us who have served in the U.S. Navy since that time, the attack is frequently invoked to warn young sailors about the dangers of complacency. The incident and its aftermath led to many important changes in how the Navy conducts business, and how it protects its forces. It also predicted America’s larger struggles with terrorism, extremism and indeed, its own place in the world. In many ways, the USS Cole foreshadowed the future more accurately than the attacks of Sept. 11 the following year.
In the short period of time between the two attacks, the country learned a painful and lasting lesson about the failure to take swift retaliatory action. America’s limited experience with transnational terrorism over the decades had led to experimentation with various counterterrorism responses. An overt military strike against Libya followed the Berlin discotheque bombing of 1986. An aggressive criminal justice response was launched after the 1993 World Trade Center bombing. So the lack of any high-profile response in the days after the USS Cole attack was notable.
Even in the case of the US embassy bombings in Kenya and Tanzania just two years earlier, President Clinton had authorized cruise missile strikes on several suspected al-Qaida facilities. But some have argued that a military strike was a non-starter in 2000 as Clinton prepared to leave office and intended to avoid any more foreign entanglements that could threaten his vice president’s chances in the upcoming presidential election.
Clinton’s successor, George W. Bush, was also presented with an opportunity to retaliate against al-Qaida, shortly after taking office. But his administration was reportedly concerned that “too much time had passed” since the attack, and a military response would have been counterproductive. The practical effect of this series of decisions? One of the planners of the attack, Khalid al-Mihdhar, subsequently traveled to the U.S., hijacked American Airlines Flight 77, and crashed it into the Pentagon.