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Remembering 23 October

The article below by Prof. Christopher Harmon was published on October 22, 2013 in the “PTSS Daily” newsletter of the Program on Terrorism & Security Studies at the George C. Marshall Center.

The 23rd of October, which falls on a Wednesday this year, signals the 30th anniversary of one of the most significant dual-bombings in the history of low-intensity conflict.  Soldiers of France and the United States, dispatched to Lebanon to keep peace amidst its civil war, were destroyed in great numbers by vehicle bombs driven into their two residences. 

It was a Sunday morning, in 1983.  Most of the Americans targeted were asleep. And in a sense all of Lebanon was shaken awake by the truck-borne combination of 12,000 pounds of TNT and canisters of gas intended to enhance the explosion.  Astonished Federal Bureau of Investigation analysts called it the largest non-nuclear explosion they had studied.  There were 353 casualties in and around the flattened residence building, two-thirds of them dead, most of them U.S. Marines.

Not far away, and several minutes later, another trucker drove a massive bomb into a similar multi-storied building housing French Parachute Chasseurs.  Some of them had come to the balconies to look out at the sudden damage and smoke of the first bomb.  Now another 58 men died.  It was the greatest loss to France since the Algerian War ended, notes American analyst Dennis Pluchinsky, a career State Department expert on terrorism and author of a valuable unpublished chronicle of anti-American terrorism.

For the two countries most injured by the bombings, the first and most immediate legacy was of horror-the loss of so many lives with brutal suddenness.  But other legacies have earned the interest and study of Program on Terrorism and Security Studies men and women in the years since, as each anniversary comes around.

There was immediate reference to “terrorism” in 1983 and for good reason.  Marine guards at the U.S. residence had been warned about incidents and escalation; they presented arms that were unloaded; the truck drove right past them.  There at Beirut Airport there was nothing remotely like an open state of war, and France and the U.S. were not in the country to make war, or occupy anything.  The two outside forces came to interpose between fighters and prevent escalation of a murky low-intensity conflict among Lebanese factions and Israeli invaders who’d arrived because of attacks by the Palestine Liberation Front based there.  U.S. government lawyers characterized the Americans as “off duty” that early morning and declared that their killings constituted terrorism: they were “noncombatants.”  And yet the victims were military professionals.  Some Marines grant that the environment had deteriorated, and that the recent past had included fighting.  The long and kinked U.S. chain of command blundered in refusing to let guards really protect the residence.  Here was the gray area between war and peace in which much terrorism occurs.  In programs like ours, PTSS, this definitional issue still gets instructive debate.

The Shia militants themselves were part of a new era, “the age of sacred terror,” as several American analysts later called it.  They had not just an innovative tactical approach but a deliberative and ugly new ideology, distinctive from the nationalism of the PLO, or the conceptual offerings of most other political terror groups.  Mr. Pluchinsky has recovered for us the vivid text of the claim for credit, a call telephoned to Agence France Presse in Beirut: “We are the Soldiers of God…We are neither Iranians, Syrians nor Palestinians, but Muslims who follow the precepts of the Koran…Violence will remain our only way.”  It has.  That year of 1983 had already seen truck-bombings of the embassies of France and the U.S. in the same city; there would be kidnappings and torture to come for Westerners seized as symbols.  All this is classic “terrorism” by Shia extremists. 

Iran’s involvement was deep-and important, given how much the bombers and their apologists were talking of the “imperialism” of Paris and Washington.  Presenting an overheated visage to the world since 1979, and newly opposed to Israel’s 1982 incursion into Lebanon, Iran was spending millions, dedicating skilled personnel, and using its Syrian liaisons to undermine Lebanese sovereignty and inflame the factions.  Iran was behind the founding of Hezbollah in 1982/1983; it was Hizbollah which carried out the April and October bombings of the four buildings during mid-1983; the new group would openly speak of its allegiance to Tehran.  “Islamic Jihad” and other cover names were used, but the strong new sub-state actor most responsible was that Lebanese Shia militant organization which is now thirty yeas of age, Hezbollah. There are excellent reasons why both Iran and Hezbollah are today on international lists of terrorist entities: 23 October 1983 accurately signaled their character and their intimate relationship.

One operative of interest in all this was Imad Mughniyah.  Formerly a Fatah “Force 17” agent of the Palestinians, Mughniyah faced a new scene as PLO fighters left Beirut, and 1983 found him under Iranian control, according to authors such as Kenneth Timmerman (whose 2005 book was Countdown to Crisis).  This young terrorist man perfected the black art of “boosting” explosives with compressed gas and he had much to teach in many other departments; he rose to be considered the intelligence chief of Hezbollah.  I devoted four pages to him, in a year-2007 book.  Professor Ken Duncan and many of us on PTSS faculty vividly recall the moment–during our course in Garmisch in February 2008–when Mughniyah was assassinated in Damascus.  Few individual terrorists have done as much as Mughniyah to teach evil to their generation.  

Just there lies another legacy of the events of that October:  its instructiveness to other terrorists.  I think Osama bin Laden was fascinated by the operational use of multiple attacks at different places at the same moment-something he would do later.  But author Warren Kozak, and that monograph by Dennis Pluchinsky, each separately recall the impact these October 1983 events had upon bin Laden’s strategic thinking.  He saw strategic results. Bin Laden saw flight.  He saw the U.S. Marines withdraw from Lebanon.  It spurred ambition and his hope that U.S. power could collapse as had that of the Soviets in Afghanistan.  Bin Laden told John Miller of ABC News that the American soldier is “unprepared to fight long wars.  This was proven in Beirut when the Marines fled after two explosions.  It also proves they can run in less than 24 hours and this was repeated in Somalia.”  An Arab-language journal editor, Abu Walid al Misri, has written that many militants heard bin Laden say in private meetings that the 1983 Beirut case proved the U.S. was not only weak but prone to collapse.

The founder of “the base” (Al Qaeda) and many of its leaders have since then displayed ridiculous optimism about breaking America economically with their terrorist campaign of economic attrition.  They cannot-as the new skyscraper at “ground zero” in New York City indicates.  Nor has terrorism prevented the U.S., France, and a global coalition from fighting a “long war” against terrorists-we’ve proven tougher than that.  But terrorism may be effective strategic maneuvering.  The threats and fighting hopes may well exercise limited power and enjoy limited validity.  Terrorism often works, or works to degrees.  Bin Laden was correct to say that it worked in Beirut in 1983, markedly reducing United States and French influence.  Of course, the results only hurt more Lebanese, while aiding the geopolitical designs of two states: Syria and Iran. 

Dr. Christopher C. Harmon was a teacher and executive in the Marshall Center, directing academics for the PTSS for the years 2007-2010.  He departed to accept the Horner Chair of Military Theory at Marine Corps University in Virginia.