The 1983 Marine Barracks Bombing: Connecting the Dots


The 1983 Marine Barracks Bombing: Connecting the Dots

Oct 23, 2009 4 min read

Former Visiting Fellow, Allison Center

James Phillips was a Visiting Fellow for Middle Eastern affairs at The Heritage Foundation.

Today is the 26th anniversary of the 1983 bombing of the Marine barracks in Beirut, Lebanon, by Lebanese terrorists supported and directed by Iran. The attack, which killed 241 American servicemen (220 Marines, 16 Navy personnel, and 3 Army soldiers), was the deadliest single-day death toll for the Marines since the World War II battle of Iwo Jima and the deadliest for the U.S. military since the 1968 Tet offensive in Vietnam. The suicide truck bombing, along with a similar bombing that day that killed 58 French paratroopers, was perpetrated by the Lebanese terrorist group Hezbollah (“Party of God”), which was created, supported, and directed by Iran.

The bombing led to the February 1984 withdrawal from Lebanon of the Multinational Force (MNF), a peacekeeping contingent composed of American, British, French and Italian troops, that had been deployed to stabilize Lebanon after the September 14, 1982, assassination of Lebanese President-elect Bashir Gemayel by a Lebanese faction aligned with Syria. Although the United States had mounted two previous successful peacekeeping operations in Lebanon in 1958 and earlier in 1982 (to facilitate the evacuation of P.L.O. forces from Beirut that had been defeated by Israel), the ignominious end of the MNF intervention brought disastrous consequences.

The failure of the peacekeeping mission led to renewed fighting between Lebanese factions and the ascendancy of Hezbollah, backed by Iran and Syria. Moreover, the Marine barracks bombing, which was the deadliest terrorist attack against Americans before the 9/11 attacks, later inspired Osama bin Laden, who viewed the United States as a “paper tiger” because of its rapid withdrawal of peacekeeping forces from Lebanon and Somalia after suffering casualties. Al Qaeda members were later dispatched to Hezbollah training camps in Lebanon, according to the 9/11 Commission Report (p. 68). This assistance is believed to have significantly boosted al-Qaeda’s killing power, which dramatically increased by the end of the decade. Al-Qaeda’s 1998 bombings of the U.S. Embassies in Kenya and Tanzania killed 224 people, including 12 Americans, and wounded more than 5,000 people in simultaneous operations that used huge truck bombs similar those used in past Hezbollah operations.

Although Hezbollah, a revolutionary Shia Islamist organization, had loose ties to Al Qaeda, a revolutionary Sunni Islamist organization, it enjoyed much closer ties to radical Shia revolutionary regime in Iran, which had mid-wifed its birth in 1982. Hezbollah leaders were inspired by Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini’s 1979 revolution in Iran, trained by Iranian Revolutionary Guards, financed by Iran, and often carried out Iranian orders. Indeed, the October 23, 1983 bombing later was discovered to have been ordered by Iran. The commanding officer of the Marine unit targeted by Hezbollah later wrote:

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.

Iran, working through Hezbollah surrogates to insulate itself from retaliation, learned that terrorism paid off in a big way. It later used Hezbollah to capture 15 western hostages in Lebanon that it used as bargaining chips to secure arms from the United States in the Iran-Contra Affair in 1985-1986. The leader of the 1,500 man Revolutionary Guard contingent that was dispatched to Lebanon’s Bekaa Valley to train and support Hezbollah later became Iran’s Defense Minister. The Iranian Ambassador to Syria, Ali Akbar Mohtashemipur, who presided over the creation of Hezbollah, later became Iran’s Interior Minister and now is a close associate of Iranian “moderate” Mir Hossein Mousavi, a defeated candidate in Iran’s sham elections last June.

The operational mastermind behind the Marine barracks bombing, Imad Mugniyah, frequently traveled to Iran and worked closely with Iran’s Revolutionary Guards and its Ministry of Intelligence and Security (MOIS). The son of a Lebanese Shia cleric, Mugniyah trained with Yasser Arafat’s Fatah terrorist group in Lebanon in the late 1970s and became part of Force 17, Arafat’s personal security force. After the 1982 expulsion of Arafat from Lebanon, Mugniyah served as a bodyguard for Hezbollah’s spiritual leader, Sheikh Muhammed Hussein Fadlallah, and quickly rose to become a key leader of Hezbollah’s terrorist operations, earning the alias of “the Fox.” In addition the bombing of the Marine barracks Mugniyah was involved in the 1983 bombing of the U.S. Embassy in Beirut that killed 63 people, including 17 Americans; the taking of many American and western hostages in Lebanon; and the 1985 hijacking of TWA Flight 847 in Lebanon, which resulted in the murder of a passenger, a U.S. Navy diver.

Mugniyah died in a mysterious car bombing in Damascus last year that may have been an Israeli counter-terrorist operation. He reportedly had been involved in the 1992 bombing of the Israeli Embassy in Argentina, which killed 29 people, and the 1994 bombing of a Buenos Aires Jewish community center, which killed 85 people. He also may have played a role in planning Hezbollah’s July 2006 kidnapping of two Israeli soldiers, which provoked a 34-day war in southern Lebanon.

Following Mugniyah’s bloody career helps to connect the dots in a surprising number of far-flung terrorist operations. But it is important to remember the major role played by Iran in many of these terrorist atrocities. Iran’s Revolutionary Guards continue to support terrorist attacks today in Iraq just as they did in Lebanon twenty six years ago.

This piece originally appeared in The Daily Signal