How a Terror Attack Against Our Marines — 30 Years Ago This Week — Reverberated Down the Decades
When suicide bombers strike, the shadowy men who dispatch their charges then step back to gauge the response. Thirty years ago Wednesday, after one of the costliest acts of terror ever committed against America, Washington sent out the worst possible message to terrorists around the world. They were watching and listening.
Early on Sunday morning, October 23, 1983, when our Marines were still asleep in their cots at the Beirut International Airport, a truck driven by an Iranian, Ismail Ascari, and filled with explosives crashed into their barracks. The blast was so huge that witnesses said the four-story building actually lifted into the air before it came crashing down.
The blast killed 220 Marines, more than any day since Iwo Jima — 18 sailors, three soldiers and six civilians. Almost simultaneously, a second suicide truck bomber blew up a nine story building on the other side of the airport killing 58 French paratroopers.
The Americans and French were in Beirut as part of an international peacekeeping force sent to quell the violence from the Lebanese Civil War.
Once a beautiful and tranquil country, Lebanon descended into a living hell after the P.L.O. arrived, having been kicked out of Jordan by King Hussein in 1970. This tipped the fragile balance between Arab Christians and Muslims. Soon they were fighting each other as well as the Israelis, who entered in 1982 to stop PLO terror raids.
Then a new actor inserted itself into Lebanon. The Ayatollah Khomeini sent the Iranian Revolutionary Guards to train Shia militias, which would soon morph into Hezbollah, Iran’s proxy army that today controls much of Lebanon. Within three years of their revolution, the Iranians were already playing their long-term strategic game of chess.
Because Washington didn’t want the Marines to appear warlike, they were unable to defend themselves. The Marine guards posted outside the barracks on that Sunday morning were not allowed to carry live rounds in their chambers for fear of shooting a civilian.
After the bombing, a debate took place within the Reagan administration as to how to respond. The leading advocate for vigorous retaliation was the secretary of state, George Shultz. The defense secretary, Caspar Weinberger, argued against any further entanglement. Weinberger prevailed.
President Reagan, who had told the world the United States would never back down to terrorists, did exactly that when he pulled everyone out four months later.
All the Lebanese factions saw this. The Iranians saw it. A little known Saudi, Osama bin Laden, saw it as well. Later, bin Laden would tell ABC News, the fact that “the Marines fled after two explosions” showed the “decline of the American government and the weakness of the American soldier.”
Bill Cowan was a Marine lieutenant colonel who was sent to Beirut with a six-man team to track down those responsible. He worked closely with the CIA station chief, William Francis Buckley. Just before …read more