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CRISES IN THE MIDEAST

Skilled Terrorists, Financing Believed Behind Ship Blast

Investigation: U.S. officials say the attack suggests a sophisticated operation, and a worldwide search for clues begins. The death toll is 7, with 10 still counted as missing.

October 14, 2000|BOB DROGIN | TIMES STAFF WRITER

WASHINGTON — U.S. officials said Friday that evidence increasingly suggests a highly sophisticated terrorist operation caused the powerful blast that killed as many as 17 American sailors in Yemen and crippled one of the Navy's most advanced combat ships.

With dozens of additional FBI, Pentagon and other anti-terrorism investigators due to arrive today in the Yemeni port of Aden, U.S. law enforcement and intelligence agencies launched a worldwide search for likely sponsors and accomplices of the apparent suicide bombers.

Although no suspects have been ruled out, officials said they doubt that the apparent bombing of the $1-billion guided missile destroyer Cole was the work of Yemeni militants or a handful of freelance extremists. It is far more likely, they said, that the attack was carefully planned and carried out by a large, well-financed organization, and perhaps even a hostile government.

The search for perpetrators ensued as Pentagon officials increased the official U.S. death count to seven sailors, up from six on Thursday, and predicted that the toll would rise to 17 after investigators complete a gruesome search for missing crew members.

The Pentagon released the names of the dead and missing crew members. The victims include two women, apparently the first ever killed in an attack on a Navy ship. One was from San Diego.

The Defense Department said it would launch a comprehensive review of the security procedures followed by the Cole during its stop in Yemen. The study will encompass the use of local contractors to assist with refueling and other ship services.

Officially, State Department and White House spokesmen continued to refer to Thursday's explosion as an "apparent act of terrorism," citing a lack of conclusive evidence.

But investigators are working under the assumption that it was caused by terrorists who successfully infiltrated harbor operations in Aden to gather crucial intelligence on the approaching U.S. warship, to smuggle crates of high explosives onto a port service boat and to join a work crew that was hauling mooring lines from the destroyer as it prepared for refueling.

The explosion rocked the Cole after two men motored alongside in a 20-foot wooden tender, a vessel large enough to carry several thousand pounds of explosives. The blast ripped a gaping hole--about 30 feet high and 40 feet wide--amidships on the gray steel hull.

"This wasn't just two guys with a dream," said a U.S. counter-terrorism expert who asked not to be identified. "This was carefully planned. You need people with explosives expertise, with logistics expertise, who know how to put together a cell, know how to do surveillance. . . . This isn't the work of a bunch of amateurs."

The United States has spent more than $1.5 billion to upgrade security at U.S. diplomatic facilities overseas since the August 1998 terrorist bombings of American embassies in Kenya and Tanzania, which killed more than 220 people. The apparent attack on a 4-year-old warship, sheathed with half-inch armor and bristling with the latest high-tech weaponry and radar, suggests a deliberate attempt to humiliate those efforts.

"What makes me think this is a professional terrorist attack is it's so audacious," said Rep. Porter J. Goss (R-Fla.), chairman of the House Select Committee on Intelligence. Taking out a sophisticated U.S. warship "gives them real bragging rights."

Mansoor Ijaz, a counter-terrorism expert in New York, concurred that the choice of target seems to suggest an ambitious agenda. "They have shown they can still strike us where it hurts," he said.

So far, only a small, Aden-based militant group has claimed responsibility. But a U.S. intelligence official warned that the group, believed to be an offshoot of the Islamic Army of Aden, has never displayed the kind of intricate infrastructure, planning and logistics required for the apparent attack on the Cole.

"Something like this is much more complicated than anything they've done before," the official said. "And people have been known to claim responsibility on their behalf before for things we know they didn't do. No one is ruling anything out yet, but I'd take their claim with a grain of salt."

One working theory, so far without proof, is that Iraq's intelligence service helped with the planning and logistics required for an attack. Iraqi President Saddam Hussein has intensified his threats against the United States, Israel and Arab states such as Kuwait and Saudi Arabia in recent weeks, and the Cole was en route to a six-month deployment in the Persian Gulf to help enforce the U.S. and U.N. embargo against the Baghdad regime.

Although President Clinton has vowed to hold accountable those responsible for the apparent attack on the Cole, other officials warned that the perpetrators might never be found. "We're going to have a very difficult time identifying and bringing these people to justice," Goss said.

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