The USS Cole bombing investigation was one of the largest FBI investigations for a crime occurring outside of the United States.
Soon after the bombing, Yemeni President Ali Abdullah Saleh said the attack was "a very well-planned operation, and it seems it was prepared a long while ago." Senior Navy personnel also suspected that the attackers had attained the ships layout and schedule, since the attack seemed to have been positioned and timed for maximum bloodshed.
al-Qaeda was immediately suspected as they had attempted a similar attack on the USS The Sullivans on Jan. 3, 2000. This attack had failed, but the boat and the explosives were salvaged, and officials believed they were then used in the attack on the USS Cole.
A team of FBI agents arrived in Aden the day after the bombing, soon followed by the Naval Criminal Investigative Service and the CIA. Despite initial friction between American agencies and the Yemeni authorities, U.S. and Yemeni investigators quickly succeeded in identifying the ringleader of the attack as Abd al-Rahim al-Nashiri, who acted as operations chief for al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula. He is also suspected of being involved in the 1998 bombings of U.S. embassies in Kenya and Tanzania. Arrested in 2002, al-Nashiri is now held in a Guantanamo Bay detention camp.
It eventually became clear that bin Laden was directly involved in the attack, having chosen the target and location, and providing necessary financial aid to his operatives, among them Fahd al-Quso, who was tasked with filming the attack. Fahd al-Quso and another operative, Jamal al Badawi, were arrested by Yemeni authorities in the first weeks after the attack.
The suicide bombers were identified as Yemeni nationals, Ibrahim al-Thawr and Abdullah al-Misawa. In total, six men were arrested and charged with aiding and planning the USS Cole bombing. The alleged mastermind, Abu Ali al-Harithi, was killed in November 2002, in a missile attack.
Everyone convicted in Yemen of the terrorist attack on the USS Cole has now escaped or was freed from prison by May 2008.
The bombing had a significant impact on America’s view of the threat of Islamist extremism. In response, officials recommended that counterterrorism take on a central role in the agenda of the Secretary of Defense and that an Assistant Secretary be named to focus on the implementation of counterterrorism strategies. However, many of the recommendations were not adopted until after 9/11, which occured less than a year later, too soon for significant changes to counterterrorism efforts to take effect.
Meanwhile, the bombing served to bolster al-Qaeda’s popularity among jihadist movements. According to the 9/11 Commission Report, al-Qaeda used images of the attack to rouse support and increase recruitment.
USS Cole Today
The damaged USS Cole was returned to the United States on Oct. 31, 2000, by way of the S.S. Blue Marlin, a Norwegian heavy lift ship, and arrived in December of that year at a facility in Pascagoula, Miss.
On Oct. 12, 2001, the USS Cole Memorial dedication ceremony was conducted at the Naval Station in Norfolk, Va. The Memorial was funded by the Navy-Marine Corps Relief Society, and designed in large part by USS Cole crew members. The USS Cole was recommissioned in Mississippi on April 19, 2002, and departed in November 2003 for its first six-month deployment since the bombing. The Cole is currently home ported in Norfolk, Va.