In a Proceedings exclusive, the commanding officer of the Marine unit devastated by the suicide bombing of its barracks in Beirut recounts the horror of that October day 25 years ago and calls it a seminal event in the war against Islamist extremists.
On Sunday morning, 23 October 1983, I awoke as usual at dawn, dressed, and went below to the 24th Marine Amphibious Unit's Combat Operations Center to check the overnight communications traffic. I roamed outside my headquarters at Beirut International Airport to view the dawn, struck by the quiet of the morning. I saw Marines going about their duties and greeted others preparing for a workout. Being Sunday, we were on a modified routine that pushed reveille back an hour to 0630, with Sunday brunch served between 0800 and 1000.
I returned to my office, which I shared with my executive officer, Lieutenant Colonel Harry Slacum, to review the daily schedule. Little did we know that this morning would be anything but quiet and routine.
At 0622, a massive explosion rocked our headquarters, followed by enormous shock waves. Shards of glass from the blown out windows, equipment, manuals, and papers flew across the room. The office entry door, located on the far side away from the explosion, was blown off its hinges, the frame bent and the reinforced concrete foundation of the building cracked.
I ran outside to find myself engulfed in a dense, gray fog of ash, with debris still raining down. I felt sickened as I stumbled around to the rear of my headquarters, thinking we had taken a direct hit from a Scud missile or heavy artillery. As the acrid fog began lifting, my logistics officer, Major Bob Melton, gasped, "My God, the BLT building is gone!" A knot tightened in my gut.
After an instant of disbelief, I quickly realized we had suffered heavy casualties. I later learned that a suicide driver penetrated our southern perimeter and rammed a 19-ton truck bomb into the lobby of the Marine Battalion Landing Team (BLT) building and detonated it. Forensics and intelligence later estimated the compressed-gas-enhanced device to have an explosive equivalent in excess of 20,000 pounds of TNT. Minutes later, a similar truck bomb struck the French paratrooper headquarters at Ramlet-El-Baida, bringing down a nine-story building and killing 58 French peacekeepers.
This started the longest and most miserable day of my life. The death toll eventually reached 241 Marines, Sailors, and Soldiers, the highest loss of life in a single day since D-Day on Iwo Jima in 1945. The coordinated dual suicide attacks, supported, planned, organized, and financed by Iran and Syria using Shiite proxies, achieved their strategic goal: the withdrawal of the multinational force from Lebanon and a dramatic change in U.S. national policy. The synchronized attacks that morning killed 299 U.S. and French peacekeepers and wounded scores more. The cost to the Iranian/Syrian-supported operation was two suicide bombers dead.
Remembrance and Justice
At dawn this 23 October, a solemn candlelight vigil will begin the day 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. Each name etched on the marble wall of the memorial will be read aloud by a family member or friend. Later, a more formal ceremony will include military music, pageantry, and speeches commemorating the legacy of the peacekeepers who paid the ultimate sacrifice. A wreath will be laid at the foot of the statue of the lone Marine standing perpetual guard at the memorial.
The quiet strength and dignity displayed by the families of those lost is a continual source of inspiration to me. There are numerous stories about how they picked up the pieces of shattered lives, helped one another, and carried on to raise their families. There is no finer tribute to honor the memories of these fallen.
In the Iranian Behesht-E-Zahra cemetery in southern Tehran, there will also 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."
One individual who will be absent this year is Imad Fayez Mugniyah, one of the world's most wanted and notorious terrorists. He was a key operative in the suicide bombings that Sunday morning in Beirut and has been linked with many major 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.
Long overdue justice was finally served on 12 February 2008. In an ironic twist, Mugniyah was assassinated in a quiet, upscale neighborhood of Damascus—by a car bomb, one of his weapons of choice. His greatest notoriety was pioneering the widespread use of suicide bombers, which has evolved to become the favored tactic of Islamic extremists.
Osama bin Laden took inspiration from Mugniyah's 1983 bombings and used that model for al Qaeda's first successful dual suicide bombings against the U.S. embassies in Nairobi, Kenya, and Dar-es-Salaam, Tanzania, on 7 August 1998. Before a meeting between bin Laden and Mugniyah in Sudan in 1996, al Qaeda did not have this expertise. But it later expanded the simultaneous, coordinated suicide bombing model for the four commercial airline hijackings and attacks on 11 September 2001.
The events that Sunday morning in Beirut exposed a deep-seated fanaticism fanned by Islamic jihadists without sectarian divisions. Recent history has made us more familiar with this phenomenon. The 18 April bombing of the U.S. embassy and the Marine barracks' bombings in Beirut are considered to be seminal events in the war against terrorism. It was the first time Islamic suicide bombers had attacked significant American targets. This Iranian- and Syrian-instigated act of war was pure terrorism. Our timidity to respond created an aura of impunity that the Islamic extremists sensed and pursued all the way to the 9/11 attacks, which finally awakened America.
The introduction of suicide truck bombs as a tactic in Beirut in 1983 proved to be an effective if heinous tool. The bottom line is that they worked, and recent history has confirmed their cruel efficiency and huge cost in innocent lives. These attacks were cynically planned to ensure success for the terrorists and cause massive casualties.
The post-bombing investigation conducted by FBI Special Agent Danny Deffenbaugh revealed computations and technical assessment of the device (bomb) and the high explosive used—pentaerythritol tetranitrate (PETN). Deffenbaugh also identified canisters of compressed butane gas contained in the bed of the truck with the PETN. This enhancement of the explosive, also found at the earlier U.S. embassy attack, indicated the Iranians were trying to create a fuel-air explosive. This creates a shocking effect with a propagation wave that produces additional heat and takes away the oxygen twice as fast. An explosives expert stated that this effect verified the anti-personnel purpose of the attack. It also explained the reason why so many dead and wounded suffered severe burns.
In describing the destructive strength of the bomb, Deffenbaugh verified publicly what was briefed to us privately by the FBI and others—that the immensity of the bomb precluded the necessity of the truck bomb reaching the building. I was informed that the truck did not even have to leave the airport access road adjacent to the western side of the BLT building to have comparable devastation and casualties. The suicide bomb that killed the French paratroopers did not reach their headquarters before it detonated but still caused the collapse of the nine-story structure.
More telling was the successful suicide attack on Israeli headquarters in Tyre, Lebanon, on 4 November 1983, just ten days after the attack on U.S. and French peacekeepers. Even though the Israelis had none of the restrictions of a presence mission and nothing that would hinder their extensive intelligence capabilities, they were struck with a carbon-copy attack ten days after our attack. It should be noted that the Israelis had many of the defenses the Marines were criticized for not having at Beirut International Airport. Still, the terrorist attack was successfully carried out—killing 60 and injuring 30 more—even though the suicide truck was halted well short of the target.
Members of the intelligence community compiled an all-sources damage assessment after the Marine barracks bombing. In it, they studied signals, overhead, and human intelligence and concluded the evidence was overpowering that Iran had been behind it. An intelligence expert close to the final assessment stated he did not know anyone who studied the information and drew any other conclusion.
Beyond carnage, suicide bombings provide grand theater by way of international press coverage. Since their genesis in Beirut, such attacks have grown to becoming a weapon of choice for Shia and Sunni alike. This tactic carries a profound psychological message of fear and intimidation. I believe reasonable observers agree that such attacks are very difficult to deter, and their increased usage and success reflect the terrorists' desire for the spectacular hysteria and chaos created by such attacks.
Iran, Syria, and Hezbollah
The Multinational Peacekeeping Force presence in Lebanon in 1982-83 undoubtedly contributed to the stability of the government of Lebanon and saved lives. Our successes, albeit limited, were obviously worrisome enough to the primary powerbrokers in Tehran and Damascus to compel them to launch the suicide truck bombing operations against us. The timing, locations, and targets of the bombings were no more coincidental than were the sophisticated planning, magnitude, and execution of the attacks.
The choice of 23 October was significant because National Reconciliation Talks among all key factions within the government of Lebanon were scheduled to be held in Geneva, beginning on the 31st. Preliminary talks were set to begin on the 24th at Beirut International Airport, where the U.S. Multi-National Peacekeeping Force had been located for more than a year.
The airport site was supposed to be one of the most secure areas in Lebanon. The Marine and the French headquarters were targeted primarily because of who we were and what we represented. The passive nature of the peacekeeping mission provided attractive targets that Iran and Syria were not about to pass up. It is noteworthy that the United States provided direct naval gunfire support—which I strongly opposed for a week—to the Lebanese Army at a mountain village called Suq-al-Garb on 19 September and that the French conducted an air strike on 23 September in the Bekaa Valley. American support removed any lingering doubts of our neutrality, and I stated to my staff at the time that we were going to pay in blood for this decision.
Unknown to us at the time, the National Security Agency had made a diplomatic communications intercept on 26 September (the same date as the cease-fire ending the September War) in which the Iranian Intelligence Service provided explicit instructions to the Iranian ambassador in Damascus (a known terrorist) to attack the Marines at Beirut International Airport. The suicide attackers struck us 28 days later, with word of the intercept stuck in the intelligence pipeline until days after the attack.
Looking back today, it is easier to comprehend why Iran moved a contingent of the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps into the Syrian-controlled Bekaa Valley during the height of the Iraq-Iran War in 1982-83. Following the 1982 Israeli invasion, and with Syrian complicity, Iran established a base of operations to carry out its strategic goals. This corps founded, financed, trained, and equipped Hezbollah to operate as a proxy army, a force expanded today to challenge the freely elected government of Lebanon, which cannot control, much less disarm, Hezbollah.
Using Lebanon as a base, the force conducted border raids and rained rocket and missile attacks on Israel. Iranian persistence and determination has paid off handsomely in terms of regional influence, political power, and military prowess, and they have suffered no consequences. It is clear that their brashness and the carnage they inflict continue to expand.
The recent revelations that Iranian weapons are killing U.S. Marines and Soldiers in Iraq and Afghanistan should surprise no one. Conclusive evidence has disclosed that the Iranian Revolutionary Guard's Quds Force has transported roadside bombs and armor-piercing "explosively formed penetrators" (EFPs) from Iran into Iraq. Other advanced Iranian weapons found in Iraq include the RPG-29 rocket-propelled grenade, 240-mm rockets, and perhaps the most ominous, the Misagh 1, a portable surface-to-air missile that uses an infrared guidance system.
This influx of sophisticated weaponry has been accompanied by intelligence revealing Iranian facilitation of travel and training inside Iran for Iraqi insurgents. U.S. intelligence officials have stated that Iranian complicity could not take place without approval at the highest levels of the Iranian government.
Among the terrorist groups that Iran supports are al Qaeda, Hezbollah, Hamas, and Palestinian Islamic Jihad. Three of them are Sunni groups and are supported, among other reasons, to undercut the peace process between Israel and the Palestinians. Shiite Iran's support and its strategic relationship with the Sunni Wahhabi al Qaeda are especially telling.
The relationship between Iran and al Qaeda was confirmed by the National Commission on Terrorist Attacks Upon the United States, also known as the 9/11 Commission. Its report highlighted Iranian involvement in the 1996 Khobar Towers bombing in Saudi Arabia, training for al Qaeda operations against Israel and the United States, and safe-transport and safe-haven for those operations.
War Against the United States
What continues to unfold is the debunking of the theory that an ideological separation between the Sunnis and Shiites would prevent any mutual cooperation in operations against a common enemy, i.e., the United States and its allies. Evidence confirms the old adage that my enemy's enemy is my friend.
In reality, Iran has been waging war against the United States for more than a quarter-century, from the 1979 hostage crisis and the Marine barracks bombing in 1983 to providing sophisticated weaponry to Sunni and Shia insurgents in Iraq. Iranian mullahs have chosen to wage a radically aggressive campaign to create and accelerate instability throughout the region by using their proxies, many of whom are non-Shia. Some examples include:
- Support for Hamas to launch rockets and attacks into Israeli villages across the Gaza Strip borders
- Continued building of heavily armed Hezbollah in Lebanon to not only challenge the legitimacy of the duly-elected government of Lebanon, but also to prepare for the inevitable next war with Israel
- Supporting Syria, their lone Arab client, in their incessant efforts to further destabilize Lebanon and Iraq. (At last count, eight anti-Syrian Lebanese leaders, journalists, and members of parliament have been assassinated by Syrian operatives.)
- Supporting Sunni Taliban in Afghanistan against NATO forces
- Using the Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corps' Quds Force to facilitate training, equipping, and financing Shiite and Sunni extremist militias in Iraq against U.S., Iraqi Army, and coalition forces.
A recent development revealed that Hezbollah instructors trained Shiite militiamen in remote camps inside southern Iraq and planned some of the most brazen attacks against U.S.-led forces.
Iran has evolved as a major player in the Middle East with growing influence. Its proxy war with Israel, which many fail to see as only one front in a larger war, increases Iranian popularity throughout the Arab world. The Iranian capability to cause trouble on three fronts, on their schedule, does not augur well for the peace process. Add to this Quds Force links to the Taliban and Iranian weapons and sophisticated munitions being smuggled into Iraq and Afghanistan, and Iran has positioned itself to wreak havoc and cause diversions through proxies while avoiding retribution for their continuing bloodshed.
Connecting the Dots
In August 2005, Mustafa Mohammad-Najjar was named the new defense minister of Iran. This position takes on new importance considering the brazen, complex campaign Iran is waging to destabilize the region. Keep in mind that these diversions draw attention from their primary objective of attaining a nuclear capability.
Najjar's previous assignment as senior commander of the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps earned him a reputation of ruthlessness and ideological loyalty. In 1983, he commanded the 1,500-man expeditionary force sent to Lebanon's Baaka Valley.
This Iranian unit provided security, planning, training, and operational support for the dual suicide truck bombings on 23 October 1983. Najjar's successes in these attacks, which are still celebrated in Tehran today, led to the withdrawal of the Multinational Peacekeeping Force. The withdrawal after the bombings, with no retribution from the United States, became a turning point in the unbounded use of terrorism by radical Islamic fanatics worldwide. Under his command, Najjar's corps played a key role in the formation of the Party of God (Hezbollah) and the education and training of Mugniyah, who reportedly lived and operated out of Iran.
I often wonder whether Najjar was among those troops involved in the fighting at Suq-al-Garb during the September War in 1983. The 24th Marine Amphibious Unit's 2d Radio Detachment was intercepting, among others, significant Farsi communications during the multi-Muslim militia's assault on the Lebanese armed forces. The multi-confessional Lebanese army held together and successfully defended its position which, in my opinion, led the decision makers in Tehran and Damascus to change their tactics from conventional attacks to the shadows of terrorism. Whether or not he was present at Suq-al-Garb, Najjar's position as commander of the Revolutionary Guard detachment supports the notion that he would have wanted to be there. My guess is that he was.
As the Iranian defense minister, he is most certainly involved in global terrorist attacks and the acquisition of nuclear weaponry. It is more probable than possible that Iran will use its favorite proxy, Hezbollah, to carry out future attacks against the West, including the United States. Najjar's long association with the now-deceased terrorist mastermind Mugniyah lends credence to this. We could well find ourselves, in our own country, the recipient of a weapon of mass destruction in an attack planned and executed by some of the same players who carried out the 1983 suicide attacks in Beirut. Some of these dots could very well connect.
Another dot emerged shortly after the announcement of Najjar's ascendency to defense minister. A close confidant and fellow alumnus of the Iranian Revolutionary Guard's Lebanon contingent was appointed by Iran's Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei to lead the corps' ground forces. Brigadier General Ahmad Kazemi, whose previous assignment was commander of the Republican Guard's air force, was responsible for the development of solid-fuel technology. He was also responsible for research and production of Shahab missiles, including the Shahab-4, with a projected range of 3,000 kilometers and capable of carrying a nuclear warhead that could reach the heart of Europe.
The Story Continues
Today, Lebanon is again being used as a battlefield for foreign forces to settle their disagreements. The state-within-a-state that the Palestine Liberation Organization created in the late 1970s has been replaced. The Iranian model, establishing Hezbollah as a proxy, has proved to be more successful. Hezbollah's development and growth suggest that in 1983, Iran and Syria had a long-range strategy to increase their influence in the region and the world. The operational and training base established by the Iranian Revolutionary Guard that year remains an active hub of activity a quarter-century later.
This 23 October, when families and friends gather for this year's remembrance, will again remind us of those dedicated peacekeepers who never came home. They were denied the joy of raising a family, pursuing their dreams, and enjoying the blessings of America. Amid the renewals of friendship, hugs, and tears, there always lingers an undercurrent of deep sorrow and anguish that hasn't lessened 25 years later. The peacekeepers' valor and sacrifice will never be forgotten.
Colonel Geraghty served over 25 years in the Marine Corps and seven years in the Special Operations Group of the Central Intelligence Agency. He commanded the 24th Marine Amphibious Unit in Beirut, Lebanon, during the suicide truck bombings on 23 October 1983. He currently resides in Phoenix, Arizona.