October 9, 2008 | Scripps Howard News Services
After a quarter century, too little learned.
Twenty-five years ago, several hundred U.S. Marines were stationed in Beirut on a peace-keeping mission. On September 26, an official with the Iranian Intelligence Service in Tehran phoned the Iranian ambassador in Damascus and issued an order to have them killed. Twenty-eight days later, at 06:22 on Sunday morning, October 23, 1983, two suicide bombers struck.
The death toll: 241 troops, “the highest loss of life in a single day since D-Day on Iwo Jima in 1945,” Timothy J. Geraghty, who had been the Marines’ commanding officer, recently noted.
We know about the phone call because, as Geraghty also noted, it was intercepted by the National Security Agency. Unfortunately, this was an occasion — neither the first nor the last — when vital intelligence was collected but not translated, analyzed, and acted upon in time.
To plan and carry out the attacks, the Iranian ambassador tapped Lebanese Hezbollah. The Hezbollah operative in charge was Imad Fayez Mughniyeh.
Mughniyeh organized a second attack that same day, one in which 58 French peace-keepers were killed at their base in Ramlet al-Baida. Such synchronized suicide attacks are considered Mughniyeh’s pioneering contribution to modern terrorist warfare.
In an article in Proceedings magazine, the flagship publication of the U.S. Naval Institute, Geraghty recalls that Mughniyeh went on to conduct many other terrorist operations, “including the 1984 kidnapping and murder of the CIA station chief in Beirut, William Buckley. Mugniyah was also directly in charge of the 1988 kidnapping and execution of Marine Corps Colonel Rich Higgins, who was serving with the United Nations peacekeeping mission. And he was indicted in absentia by the U.S. government for his role in the hijacking of TWA Flight 847 in 1985, which led to the savage beating and execution of U.S. Navy diver Robert Stetham.”
In 1996, Mughniyeh (a Shia) met with Osama bin Laden (a Sunni) in Sudan. Among the topics these two terrorists presumably discussed was the efficacy of suicide attacks utilizing vehicles (if a truck rigged with explosives and fuel can kill several hundred infidels, what might various other vehicles do?), the psychological impact of synchronized and simultaneous attacks, and the encouraging fact that the United States had never made a serious attempt to punish the individuals (e.g. Mughniyeh), groups (e.g. Hezbollah) and regimes (Iran and Syria) responsible for the earlier attacks.
That same year, in what is believed to have been a coordinated Iranian/Hezbollah/al-Qaeda operation, a truck bomb was used to kill 19 American military personnel at Khobar Towers in Saudi Arabia.
In 1998, al-Qaeda carried out the dual suicide bombings of two of America’s embassies in Africa. Two years later, the U.S.S. Cole would be attacked by suicide bombers using a small boat. And one year after that, 19 al-Qaeda combatants would hijack four passenger jets and use them in the most devastating terrorist attack on the U.S. homeland ever.
While a second attack has not been successfully launched on American soil over the seven years since, Iranian-backed militias have killed American troops in both Iraq and Afghanistan, and the Islamist regime in Tehran has provided support to a range of terrorist groups.
At dawn on October 23, Geraghty writes, “at the foot of the Beirut Memorial, nestled in the pines of North Carolina, families, veterans, and friends will gather to pay tribute to those who ‘Came in Peace’ on this, the 25th anniversary. Later, a more formal ceremony will include military music, pageantry, and speeches commemorating the legacy of the peacekeepers who paid the ultimate sacrifice.”
On the same day, Geraghty observes, at “the Iranian Behesht-E-Zahra cemetery in southern Tehran, there will be a ceremony at a monument erected in 2004 to commemorate the Beirut suicide bombers. In attendance will likely be some dressed as suicide bombers, chanting the standard ‘death to America’ and ‘death to Israel.’”
The good news, if there is any, is that Mughniyeh will not be joining the festivities this year. In February, he was killed by a car bomb in Damascus. No individual, group, or government has claimed responsibility.
– Clifford D. May, a former New York Times foreign correspondent, is president of the Foundation for Defense of Democracies, a policy institute focusing on terrorism.