In war against terror, 1983 Beirut bombing was a murderous milestone

Sunday 30/10/2016
October 1983 file photo showing scene around US Marine base near Beirut Airport

BEIRUT - At 6.22am on Sunday, Oc­tober 23rd, 1983, a lone bomber drove a yellow Mercedes truck packed with 9,500 kilograms of pentaerythritol tetranitrate high explosive enhanced by butane gas canisters through the 1.5-metre-high barbed-wire perimeter of the US Marine base in Beirut’s disused international airport.
Then he rammed the truck into the lobby of the four-storey build­ing known as the Battalion Landing Team headquarters (BLT) and deto­nated the bomb.
The bed of the truck was lined with concrete, intended to direct the blast upwards into the struc­ture, which was literally lifted off the ground before collapsing in on itself and the sleeping Americans inside.
The explosion, the largest non-nuclear blast on record at the time, flattened the concrete and steel-re­inforced building and killed 241 US service personnel.
A near-simultaneous suicide at­tack using a pick-up truck on the French military barracks in Ramlet al-Baida, 3km to the north, levelled the nine-storey building and killed 58 Foreign Legionnaires.
The US and French troops were part of a Multinational Force (MNF) deployed in Beirut in 1982 at the Lebanese government’s request in an attempt to stabilise the country, then in the eighth year of its 1975- 2000 civil war and invaded by Is­rael.
The two suicide attacks against the MNF, launched in apparent re­taliation for growing US support for the Christian-dominated Lebanese government, signalled a murderous milestone in international terror­ism.
The operation, universally blamed on the Iranian-backed Hezbollah, then in its infancy and pioneering the deadly new tactic of suicide bombing by vehicle, was unprecedented because of the mag­nitude of the destruction it caused.
The Marine barracks bombing was the deadliest terror attack on Americans before the 9/11 carnage. It inspired Osama bin Laden, then fighting the Soviet Army in Afghan­istan, who later formed al-Qaeda and took terrorist bombings to a fearsome new level.
That began with twin bombings of the US embassies in Nairobi and Dar es Salaam on August 7th, 1998, in which 244 people were killed and more than 5,000 wounded.
October 23rd, 1983, marked the end of decades of self-imposed re­straint by Palestinian and other ter­rorist groups in the Middle East and Europe by breaching a psychologi­cal barrier that ushered in an age of wholesale slaughter, which has become the trademark of al-Qaeda and its jihadist offspring, the Islam­ic State (ISIS).
The slaughter of that Sunday morning established Hezbollah as a major force in international terrorism through mass-casualty bombings, particularly against the Americans.
According to Colonel Timothy J. Geraghty, commander of the 24th Marine Amphibious Unit based at Beirut’s seaside airport, the twin at­tacks were part of a strategic cam­paign by Iran and Syria to drive Western powers out of Lebanon.
And they did. The slaughter of 299 prime fighting men for the loss of two suicide bombers was too high a cost for Western govern­ments to accept.
The psychological effects of the twin bombings, and especially the religious zealotry behind them, were overwhelming to Western minds. Here was a new and ruthless enemy beyond anything they had encountered in the Middle East.
“The world we live in and what we knew of the future security en­vironment was forever changed,” General James Amos, commandant of the US Marine Corps, said at a memorial ceremony in Washington on the 30th anniversary of the Bei­rut bombings. “It was a new way to attack the West,” he said.
In February 1984, in a major US policy shift, president Ronald Rea­gan and the Americans’ MNF allies — France, Britain and Italy — un­ceremoniously and ignominiously abandoned Lebanon — after Reagan had repeatedly pledged not to do so — and left the country to its fate and six more years of civil war bloodlet­ting.
Here was a template for a chain of disastrous US interventions in the greater Middle East, among them Somalia in 1993-95, Iraq in 2003- 11 and a 15-year-old conflict in Af­ghanistan, the United States’ long­est war in which Americans are still dying.
The Western withdrawal from Lebanon also demonstrated to the Muslim extremists, Shias and Sun­nis alike, that the Americans had become risk-averse and could be humbled by Islamist warriors fight­ing an asymmetric war.
By bringing about the MNF’s hu­miliating retreat, Iran and Syria, allied with Hezbollah, only then emerging from the shadows, de­clared war on the West.
Extreme Islamic fundamentalism was unleashed, introducing a reli­gious dynamic to a phenomenon that had essentially been driven by nationalism, injustice and poverty.
But the lessons of October 1983 were not learnt until 18 years later when bin Laden’s jihadists took ter­rorism to even bloodier heights by taking the war to America’s sym­bols of power.
“Over time,” observed Matthew Levitt of the Washington Institute for Near East Policy, “Hezbollah and Iran’s interests in driving for­eign forces out of Lebanon would expand from attacks targeting Western interests in Lebanon to at­tacks on Western interests abroad.”
In December 1983, a congres­sional inquiry into the BLT bomb­ing concluded that “very serious errors in judgment” by officers on the ground, up through the chain of command had left the US Marines vulnerable.
Much of the blame fell on Ger­aghty. In his 2009 book, Peacekeep­ers At War, he insisted that he was the victim of military ineptitude and political interference.
A congressional commission that investigated the attack on the Ma­rines declared that Geraghty “bore the principal responsibility” for the Marine Corps’ worst single-day fatalities since the invasion of Iwo Jima in 1945.
He was relieved of his command and later left the Marines, joining the Central Intelligence Agency’s counterterrorism division.
Geraghty and those who sup­port him maintain he was made the scapegoat for others’ mistakes. He was not without sympathisers on the commission.
US Representative, Larry Hop­kins, R-Kentucky, was harshly criti­cal of the Pentagon brass and the utter absurdity of the MNF mission to restore stability in a complex, religion-driven Middle Eastern civil war.
“The people of the Middle East have been fighting since the days of Abraham,” Hopkins said. “Ask­ing our Marines to stop the fight­ing there is like trying to change the course of Niagara Falls with a bucket.”
There’s a resonance there with US President Barack Obama’s reluc­tance to drag the United States into another Middle Eastern maelstrom in Syria.
In the end, Reagan took respon­sibility for the Beirut catastrophe, precluding any courts-martial. Ger­aghty, nonetheless, became an ear­ly casualty of the global war against terrorism.
He said he was dangerously ex­posed in “an abominable position” at Beirut airport amid a deteriorat­ing crisis, his military options se­verely limited by the ambiguities of deploying assault troops as peace­keepers in the bewildering com­plexity of Lebanon’s multisided civil war.
Once Washington decided to use military force in Lebanon, particu­larly the 16-inch guns on the battle­ships cruising offshore, to support the Lebanese Army fighting Syri­an-backed Muslim militias in the mountains above Beirut, the peace­keepers lost the neutrality under which they had been cloaked.
As Geraghty explained, and as many observers in Beirut at that time knew, it was just a matter of time before radical forces, particu­larly Iran’s Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps clamouring to get to grips with the Great Satan, went af­ter the Americans.
Tehran and Damascus knew the longer the Americans stayed in Leb­anon the stronger the Christian-led army would become.
Indeed, Geraghty argued that the Syrians and Iranians, with their Lebanese proxies, deliberately set out “to provoke us into unleashing our massive firepower against the Druze and Muslim militias”, thus dragging the Americans into the war.
Ironically, the invading Israelis wanted the same thing but with the Americans on their side.
Geraghty blamed the American entanglement in the fighting to a large extent on gung-ho US special presidential adviser Robert Mc­Farlane, who six years later would be one of the shadowy figures at the centre of the Iran-Contra affair scandal that involved clandestine White House dealings with Tehran and almost brought down Reagan’s presidency.
The author portrayed McFarlane, who others said was heavily influ­enced by the Israelis and their de­sire to get the United States into the war, as a leading advocate of using maximum force to support the be­leaguered Lebanese Army.
In his book, Geraghty recounted that in one of many heated ex­changes, he yelled at McFarlane: “This will cost us our neutrality. Don’t you realise we’ll get slaugh­tered down here? We’re sitting ducks.”
With the benefit of hindsight, Geraghty argued that the US fail­ure to retaliate for the BLT attack, the suicide bombing that demol­ished the US embassy on Beirut’s corniche six months earlier and the frenzy of hostage-taking through­out the 1980s, emboldened the ter­rorists and their sponsors to believe they could go on attacking US and Western interests with impunity — leading, ultimately, to the suicide attacks of 9/11.