Survivors, Family Members of USS Cole Bombing Find Justice in Killing of Al-Qaida Terrorist

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Damaged hull of the USS Cole at the Yemeni port of Aden.
In this Oct. 15, 2000 photo, experts in a speed boat examine the damaged hull of the USS Cole at the Yemeni port of Aden after an al-Qaida attack that killed 17 sailors. (AP Photo/Dimitri Messinis, File)

For victims whose lives were forever changed by the evil deeds of Ayman al-Zawahiri, the drone strike last weekend that killed the 71-year-old terrorist meant their suffering hasn't been forgotten.

Retired Navy Cmdr. Kirk Lippold, commander of the guided-missile destroyer Cole when the ship was attacked during a resupply operation in Aden, Yemen, in 2000, killing 17 sailors and wounding 39, said he felt gratified after news broke Monday of the successful U.S. operation that resulted in Zawahiri's death.

"I get no happiness or joy out of it. What I do get is a sense of satisfaction that the United States government is resolute in holding terrorists accountable for killing Americans," Lippold said in an interview with Military.com on Wednesday.

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The White House announced Monday that Zawahiri was killed in Kabul, Afghanistan, early Sunday morning local time, taken out as he stood on his balcony by Hellfire missiles dispatched from an unmanned aerial system.

Zawahiri was one of the world's most wanted terrorists, an Egyptian surgeon and current leader of al-Qaida who, with group founder Osama bin Laden, planned terrorist attacks that killed more than 3,200 people and wounded 10,500 more. Those include attacks on American embassies in Tanzania and Kenya in 1998; the Cole; and the World Trade Center, Pentagon and Somerset County, Pennsylvania, on Sept. 11, 2001.

The strike was the first U.S. operation inside Afghanistan since American troops withdrew last August, ending more than 20 years of war that killed 2,455 U.S. troops, including 13 in the final egress.

President Joe Biden said Monday during a televised speech that Zawahiri had made videos in recent weeks calling for attacks on the United States and allied nations.

"Now justice has been delivered and this terrorist leader is no more," Biden said.

On Oct. 12, 2000, the Cole had docked in Aden for a refueling operation when operatives maneuvered a small boat alongside the ship and detonated more than 400 pounds of explosives. The blast tore a 40- by 45-foot hole in the vessel at its waterline, sparking a valiant effort to save the ship.

Among the 17 sailors who died was Signalman Apprentice Cherone Gunn, 22, of Virginia Beach, Virginia. Gunn's brother, Jamal, who still lives in Virginia Beach, told local news station WTKR that his brother was a "great man."

"[Zawahiri] didn't just have a major part of my brother's death. He had a major part in al-Qaida overall, so I'm glad to see him brought to justice," Gunn said.

The Zawahiri strike marked the fourth time over two decades Cole personnel and families have learned that those responsible for the attack have paid for their actions with their lives.

In 2002, a 25-year-old suspect in the bombing, Sameer Mohammed al-Hada, blew himself up with a grenade as security forces closed in to arrest him in Aden. He and two sisters had deep ties to al-Qaida, with one sister married to one of the 9/11 hijackers on American Airlines Flight 77, which crashed into the Pentagon, and another sister married to a known Yemeni terrorist.

In 2011, in the pre-dawn hours of May 2, U.S. forces raided the compound of Osama bin Laden in Abbottabad, Pakistan and killed the al-Qaida leader, shooting him in his third-floor bedroom. His body was buried at sea by U.S. sailors from the carrier Carl Vinson.

In January 2019, al-Qaida operative Jamel Ahmed Mohammed Ali Al-Badawi, one of the terrorists involved in the Cole planning, was killed in a U.S. airstrike in Yemen.

And now, Zawahiri.

"It's very gratifying to see that we have some very dedicated professionals still serving our government who are willing to invest the time and the resources over years to develop the solution that allows us to carry out very effective strikes like we did against al-Zawahiri," Lippold said.

An additional suspect, Saudi Abd al-Rahim al-Nashiri, has been incarcerated at the military detention facility at Guantanamo, Cuba, where he has been held since 2006. His case has remained in pre-trial proceedings since 2011.

Lippold's Navy career was derailed by the attack, but the service later concluded he had taken reasonable precautions to protect and save his ship. He said he stays in touch with the former Cole crew as well as family members and, like them, experiences "a lot of painful memories" when something like the Zawahiri strike occurs.

"By the same token though, they, like me, get a sense of gratification that our government has not forgotten and that we will hold these people accountable, even if it's delivered decades after their act," Lippold said.

-- Patricia Kime can be reached at Patricia.Kime@Military.com. Follow her on Twitter @patriciakime

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