National Press Club

USS Cole commander gives gripping account of Al Qaeda suicide attack

July 11, 2012 | By Gregory Page |

Kirk Lippold, former commander of the USS Cole, speaks at the National Press Club on July 10, 2012

Kirk Lippold, former commander of the USS Cole, speaks at the National Press Club on July 10, 2012

Photo/Image: Marshall H. Cohen

"Before 9/11, there was 10/12," U.S. Navy Commander (ret.) Kirk Lippold told a National Press Club audience at a July 10 discussion of his book, "Front Burner: Al Qaeda's Attack on the USS Cole."

Lippold, former commander of the guided missile destroyer USS Cole, gave a gripping account of of Al Qaeda’s Oct. 12, 2000 suicide attack on his ship, 11 months before Al Qaeda attacked New York and Washington.

The suicide attack from a barge that approached the ship blew a 40-foot by 40-foot hole in its port side. Lippold says he remembers grabbing his anchored desk to avoid being hurled through his quarters, struggling to see through a billowing cloud of gray smoke, and smelling burning metals and petroleum.

The mess hall was unfit to serve as a makeshift hospital because it was a mass of “mangled metal," bent into a 60-degree angle, Lippold said. Communications wires hung from the ceiling, and he heard the buzzing sounds of live electrical wires interacting with water and, potentially, leaking fuel. The explosion had ripped the deck into four fragments that had penetrated much of the ship.

For 17 days, Lippold said, his crew showed courage and ingenuity to keep their ship afloat as they waited for help. Using World War II tactics, his men attempted to abate and reduce the flooding by driving wooden wedges into existing containment areas.

In the immediate aftermath, Lippold listened to the “communications chatter,” which provided him with critical intelligence of what had just happened. Against the advice of some crew and officers, he also decided to maintain “unity of command and attachment to the ship” keeping all his sailors aboard ship, where they slept above deck under the stars. One sailor who had reacted angrily to Lippold's decision later thanked him, saying the order "showed us that you had more confidence in us than we had in ourselves.”

Lippold, after a decade analyzing and coming to grips with the attack, said he concluded that the U.S. Navy's historic contraction from 4,000 World War II ships to 312 active ships today has left the fleet vulnerable. The USS Cole had to refuel in Aden, Yemen, a potentially hostile port, because there was no available Navy ship to refuel it within 1,000 miles, he said. An overly centralized intelligence-gathering operation sent intelligence only up the chain, when it should have been moving throughout the chain of command to officers deployed in the theaters.

U.S. and Yemeni intelligence later confirmed that Al Qaeda had been studying barge movements around the large ships in this port for over a year. Two of the three barges contracted to remove garbage from the ship were legitimate. Al Qaeda operatives manned the third

Lippold was introduced by Book and Author Committee member Donna Leinwand Leger.