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