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Breaking News

USS Cole Attacked in Yemeni Port of Aden

Aired October 12, 2000 - 8:29 a.m. ET

THIS IS A RUSH TRANSCRIPT. THIS COPY MAY NOT BE IN ITS FINAL FORM AND MAY BE UPDATED.

LEON HARRIS, CNN ANCHOR: We have gotten reports that USS Cole, which is burk-class (ph) destroyer, was attacked in an apparent terrorist attack in Yemen, in the Port of Aden there. We understand that a rubber boat, described as a Zodiac boat, which apparently contains some explosives, ran into the ship, into the Cole, and blew up, resulting in a 20-40 foot hole in the side of that ship. We understand that four American sailors are now reported dead. Some 30 at least, we understand, are injured. We are trying to get some more information on that and whether or not there were any missing. We will have that for you, as soon as we get that information.

Right now, we want to get some more for you. We are joined now on the telephone by Daniel Benjamin, who is a former counterterrorism expert with the NSC -- actually Daniel Benjamin, is that correct?

DANIEL BENJAMIN, FMR. NSC OFFICIAL: That is correct.

HARRIS: Thank you very much. Now we understand that you have had some experience looking at matters like, what does this incident tell you and why this particular location?

BENJAMIN: Well, the reports are sketchy. The location is interesting because Yemen is a country with a very high penetration of extremist -- anti-American extremist terrorists. There have been a lot of problems there in the past, and they have fairly free reign in terms of operating there. Only the big cities, and a small area around the big cities are under central control, which makes it very difficult to ensure security. I am not surprised that if something like this happened, it happened in Yemen. I am also not surprised that it happened at this particular time, when there is enormous anti- American feeling the region because of the violence in Israel and the area under Palestinian Authority control.

HARRIS: That is the easiest conclusion to jump to. We have not, ourselves, learned of any information that would link those two situations. But what would you look for in trying to find whether or not there is a link between what is happening right now in the Middle East and this incident?

BENJAMIN: Well, of course, the first thing we will look for is whether is there is any claim of responsibility. There hasn't been one so far as I know, and there may not be one. I imagine that the administration will be working very closely with the Yemeni authorities to ascertain who the perpetrators were, and it is entirely possible that this could be opportunistic on the part of some of the Jihadist terrorists who are operation particularly in that area, people affiliated with the Afghan network and bin Laden. We have seen more connections between those terrorists and people operating in the Middle east itself, that is to say in Israel and Palestinian Authorities, Jordan, Lebanon and Syria. All of those countries have reported activities by the Afghan network.

So there is a fusion going on and there is a possibility this is an effort by them to make their mark in the midst of all of this turmoil.

HARRIS: Is there any particular group amongst those you are thinking about that may have this particular type of attack, loaded Zodiac boat as the typical M.O.

BENJAMIN: Well, I have to say, as I search my mental files, I can't remember anyone doing anything quite like this in quite a while. I do believe that some of the Palestinian groups in years gone by used Zodiacs in the Mediterranean. I don't remember anyone using them in the area around Yemen, and so it is hard to say. However, Zodiacs are probably not very hard to get a hold of, and most of those groups do not have a history of attacking American targets. But, you know, it is very interesting, and of course, we will be watching carefully to see what kind of investigative reports come in.

HARRIS: Let's draw up on some of your expertise in counter- terrorism. What is the next step for the U.S., in terms of protecting itself now in that region, or actually looking for these -- the perpetrators of this particular explosion?

BENJAMIN: Well, I think the first step of course will be in the intelligence channels, and we will be working hard to find out if there's any informants know anything about this operation. I'm sure that -- that there will be an effort to -- well review all port calls in the region, to increase forces security for all U.S. forces. And there will probably be a very rigorous examination of all the measures that are taken for the security of official Americans who are not military, that is to say diplomatic personnel, and also there will I'm sure be some kind of warning for travelers in the region.

HARRIS: Now if you -- if there were some sort of connection between this explosion and the events we have seen unfolding in Israel and the West Bank, wouldn't you think that any sort of action taken again even Americans would happen closer to that arena?

BENJAMIN: No, we live in an era in which terrorists are increasingly eager to show their ability to operate far from the places you would expect them to because in the places you would expect them to -- you know significant security measures have been taken.

It's part of the new terrorism to establish your ability to operate out of theater. This is what the East Africa bombings were really all about. I think that the interesting thing will be whether or not there is a claim of responsibility. I don't think that that is necessarily going to happen, because sometimes these groups are also trying to work, as it were, for a different audience, that is for their own supporters and people who are inclined to be their supporters.

We will looking very hard I am sure to find out whether there's any connection between this and what's going on in Israel.

HARRIS: No doubt, that's probably the first question that pops in many minds. Daniel Benjamin, former counterterrorism expert with the National Security Council. We thank you very much for your expertise this morning -- Carol.

CAROL LIN, CNN ANCHOR: The commander of the Fifth Fleet a few minutes ago from Bahrain said that the last count is four dead, 30 -- at least 30, one injured, and at least one sailor missing.

Right now Jamie McIntyre, Pentagon correspondent for CNN, has an update live this morning.

Jamie, what have you learned?

JAMIE MCINTYRE, CNN PENTAGON CORRESPONDENT: Well, Carol, you know, U.S. intelligence officials have been warning now for the last year or so that they felt a terrorist attack against U.S. interests somewhere in the world was inevitable. That it was a question of not if it would happen, but when it would happen. Earlier this year they said they had thwarted several attempts of terrorist attacks against U.S. interests. But they warn that this is the kind of thing that can't be defended against indefinitely.

This incident this morning does in fact have all the earmarks of a terrorist attack. It happened about midday in the port of Aden in Yemen. The USS Cole, and aegis-class destroyer, was in port for a refueling stop when the crew noticed a rubber-sided craft called a Zodiac. It is not exactly a rubber boat, but it is marked by an inflatable pontoon that surrounds the outside, heading toward the stern of the ship.

When the rubber craft hit the stern of the USS Cole, there was a large explosion, a hole at the water line was put into the hull, about 30 or 40 feet in diameter. Four U.S. sailors were killed immediately. A dozens more were injured. As you said the latest toll, as many as 30 injured. One sailor, perhaps, still missing.

And at this point, it does appear that this was a terrorist attack directed against a U.S. interests in the region.

The USS Cole is an aegis-class destroyer that was part of the U.S. Fifth Fleet engaged in enforcing the oil embargo in the Persian Gulf. And it appears that it was the -- it was deliberately attacked.

And, at this point, the U.S. forces in the region are on very high alert, but they've been on very high alert for terrorist attack for several years now because that's considered a very dangerous part of the world -- Carol.

LIN: Jamie, do you know yet whether anybody was in fact onboard that rubber craft when it struck the ship? MCINTYRE: The initial reports we got at the Pentagon did not make that clear, whether or not there was anybody onboard or whether it was directed at the ship and then people got off of it, or whether somebody you know jumped off at the last moment before it hit the ship. We just don't know at this point, the initial reports on that are just incomplete.

LIN: What strikes you, Jamie, about the nature of this attack?

MCINTYRE: Well, I think it goes to show you that, as I said, you just cannot defend against a determined terrorist who wants to -- wants to attack you no matter what level of security you're engaged in. Obviously, this was something that would be very hard to defend against, even if you knew that this rubber craft was carrying explosives, it would have been difficult for instance to -- to shoot at the ship and stop it from the ship. And there would be no way to know until the last moment whether, in fact, this was a hostile act or whether just somebody was troubled.

It's a very difficult situation to defend against, and these ships, which are hard to hide, are big targets. No doubt there will a review of the security procedures that were employed and perhaps even a tightening on perhaps keeping more secrets the movement of ships in the Persian Gulf region.

LIN: Jamie, just a few minutes ago, Leon was speaking with Daniel Benjamin, a former NSC adviser. And he was not discounting any connection between what happened here with the U.S. ship and the unrest in Israel and the West Bank. What do you think?

MCINTYRE: Of course, it's too early to draw any conclusion. I don't think the United States at this point would be ruling anything out. Certainly that would be one possibility. Another possibility would be some connection with Osama bin Laden, who the United States says they have thwarted several attempts in the past year, they believe forces backed by bin Laden to attack U.S. interests around the world. So that would be another possibility.

Of course, first indication will be if anybody makes a claim of responsibility, and the U.S. will be exploring all intelligence channels to try to get a handle on who was behind this attack.

LIN: All right, thank you very much, Jamie McIntyre, from the Pentagon.

Once again, four U.S. sailors killed, 31 injured at least, and one missing. According to commander of the Fifth Fleet, they've been able to contain the flooding on the ship, some 350 personnel onboard the USS Cole -- Leon.

HARRIS: We are joined now on the telephone by George Terwilliger. He is a counter-terrorism expert.

I hope you were able to hear the comments that we got from Daniel Benjamin a few moments ago. Were you able to hear those? GEORGE TERWILLIGER, COUNTERTERRORISM EXPERT: I was, Leon. And while I'm not sure I'm an expert on counterterrorism as deputy attorney general during the Bush administration I spent a lot of time dealing with counterterrorism issues arising from the Gulf crisis. But it is good to be with you.

HARRIS: OK, well, listen, thank you for straightening out the credentials, we appreciate the ones you have got anyway.

Let me ask you about that. What strikes you about what you have seen and heard so far?

TERWILLIGER: Well, I think, as both Jamie and Mr. Benjamin said, it's too early to draw conclusions. But you know I think one has two immediate reactions. We're reminded of how indebted we are to our service people who go in harm's way and .U.S. interests and our interests on a regular basis; and two, that we live in a dangerous world where vigilance is important. And the Middle East right now seems to be in an especially precarious state.

I don't know, as no one does, whether there's a connection, but it seems to me that it is in everyone's best interest to try and turn down the heat, rather than turn up the heat. So my guess is that the reaction of our government will be a strong effort to try to determine who is responsible for this, but at the same time, to not take any precipitous action, which might have the consequences of turning up the level of tension in the Middle East.

HARRIS: If you have any instincts on this, I would like to know whether or not where you think you might see the first claim of responsibility come from?

TERWILLIGER: Well, there's a couple of things to keep in mind. Usually, in a state-sponsored terrorist event, there is not a claim of responsibility. And oftentimes, the lack of a claim of responsibility is an indication of some potential state sponsorship. That rule is a little bit more difficult to apply today than it might have been in times past, because we now have organizations, which while not states, act and otherwise behave as states.

My guess is that I'll be surprised if there was a claim of responsibility for this. It is a truly dastardly act. A claim of responsibility would necessitate a strong U.S. response. I just doubt that we will see it.

I think it's more likely, Leon, that we will see an intensive effort involving the FBI, intelligence assets, as well as I hope help from our foreign friends, to find out who is responsible for this and a conclusion that it is in nobody's best interest to not fully defend against these kinds of acts to the maximum of our ability.

HARRIS: Is it frustrating that such a low-tech tactic could actually have such a big effect?

TERWILLIGER: Yes, and you know, that's an excellent point, and it's something that I think is another reminder of how vigilant we need to be, whether we talk about bioterrorism, cyberterrorism, or just this kind of plain violent act. We live in a world where we are very vulnerable. The best defense is good intelligence, knowing what is going on so that you can anticipate and thwart there kinds of activities.

HARRIS: We thank you for sharing your intelligence with us this morning. George Terwilliger, thank you very much.

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