In Beirut, 26 years ago today, the era of mass terror for Americans began with a big bang—and a smile. The bang came from 19 tons of explosives in a suicide truck bomb that demolished a four-story compound housing the U.S. Multinational Peacekeeping Force, a contingent of Marines who had been trying to keep a nonexistent peace in Lebanon for nearly a year. Two minutes later, a second truck bomb struck the French paratroopers across town, killing 58. By the time I arrived in Beirut from Cairo the following day, rescue workers from several countries were still struggling to free our wounded and dying soldiers from the debris. That night, I interviewed a Marine who had been guarding the entry post and who remembered only one thing about the driver of the Mercedes that had rammed through the compound’s concrete barriers: the young man with a beard, who turned out to be a 24-year-old Shiite Muslim, was smiling.
On October 23, 1983, 241 Marines, sailors, and soldiers died in the first mass suicide bombing attack—the largest single-day loss of life for Americans overseas since World War II. Thus began the age of asymmetrical mass suicide terrorism by militant Islamists against the Great Satan and our Muslim and non-Muslim allies. It was the de facto start of a war that continued with the smiling martyrs of 9/11—a war that of course continues to this day.
The attack offers several lessons, some of which are being resisted by those who favor compromise with militants who seek a worldwide Islamic caliphate and the imposition of a strict Islamic order on their fellow Muslim and non-Muslim citizens. The first lesson is that by 1983, militants had already managed to overcome the historic divisions between Sunni and Shiite Islam. The Beirut attacks were a collaboration between Sunni Muslim Syria, a supposedly secular, leftist Baathist regime, and the Shiite Muslim Islamic Republic of Iran, whose religious militants had seized control of the populist 1979 revolution to establish an autocratic theocracy in what had once been one of America’s “pillars” of regional stability.
The Iranian revolution was modern militant Islam’s first victory and remains its most enduring cautionary tale. For the most brutal and repressive forces among the inept, corrupt clergy have yet again crushed a reform movement that arose indigenously, without foreign incitement or encouragement, to challenge Mahmoud Ahmadinejad’s fraudulent reelection as president. That Tehran saw no “Velvet Revolution,” or even a serious recount, should remind us once more that the mullahs of Qum and like-minded aspirants are not likely to abide by the people’s will. They will cling to power however they can, in Islam’s name.
As Colonel Timothy J. Geraghty, the commanding officer of the 24th Marine Amphibious Unit in Beirut in 1983, wrote in an essay today in the New York Post, two of the Iranian regime’s key security officials have direct ties to the Beirut bombing. Mostafa Mohammad-Najjar, named defense minister in 2005, was the commander of the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps in the Bekaa Valley in 1983 and was directly responsible for the truck strikes. And General Ahmad Vahidi, Ahmadinejad’s choice as the new defense minister, also took part in planning the attacks. Interpol has issued a so-called Red Notice for Vahidi, thanks to his alleged role in Hezbollah’s bombing of the Jewish Community Cultural Center in Buenos Aires in 1994. Some 85 people died in that attack—the most lethal on a Jewish target outside Israel since World War II.
“Some of us with long memories are still waiting for justice to be served on Iran and Syria,” Geraghty wrote, as Iranians and Americans met in Vienna to discuss United Nations demands that Tehran suspend its nuclear-enrichment program and give up what several Western intelligence agencies call its not-so-covert nuclear-weapons program. President Obama’s attempt to talk Iran out of its nuclear weapons ambitions—which Iran denies—may produce results, or it may ultimately fail and end in economic sanctions. There may even be a military strike against Tehran’s nuclear sites. But this “engagement,” whatever the outcome, should give us pause today, when families and friends of those killed in the ’83 attack gather to honor the fallen peacekeepers.
Another lesson of Beirut is that terrorism works. In 1983, the culprits achieved their aim: the Multinational Peacekeeping Force pulled out of Beirut. In a dramatic policy shift under President Reagan, the United States abandoned Lebanon to its fate: years of civil war and the rise of Hezbollah as an entrenched political party that sponsors terror when violence suits its aims. While Afghanistan is not Lebanon, and while President Obama has already declared that the United States will not reduce its force levels as he recalculates American strategy there, one hopes that the administration’s foreign-policy advisers will consider how Afghans and Pakistanis alike are likely to view an American policy shift in their region. Inadvertently reinforcing the perception that America is “abandoning” them yet again, or the fear that America lacks the will and staying power to help defend them, will play into militants’ hands.
A final lesson is that while the Obama administration has rhetorically abandoned George Bush’s “global war on terror,” the conflict itself continues. At a conference in Washington this week sponsored by the Washington-based New America Foundation and the New York University Law School’s Center of Law and Security, prominent experts assessed al-Qaida’s evolution since 9/11 and the status of the war on militant Islamism. Though their verdicts were mixed, none of the experts declared al-Qaida a spent force.
Peter Bergen, a preeminent expert on Osama bin Laden and his cause, lamented the lack of the desired “bookend” for the war on Islamic terror: bin Laden remains alive, at large, and on the air, or at least on the Internet, though physically isolated and under enormous pressure. And while al-Qaida and like-minded groups have created a “world of enemies” with their barbaric tactics, he pointed out—beheadings, genital mutilations, the slaughter of fellow Muslims, the intimidation of civilians, acid attacks on women, and strikes against schools and mosques—they are still finding and training a vast number of recruits, even in America.
There were hopeful signs in the region, the experts agreed. Abdulrahman A. Al-Hadlaq, an American-educated Saudi Interior Ministry official in charge of the kingdom’s deradicalization program, said that the initiative, which offers former militants such incentives as money, education, housing, and jobs, had succeeded in reclaiming many young men from a path of terror. The Saudi government now blocks radical websites on the Internet (a major recruiting ground for militants); tries to reduce direct and indirect funding of radical mosques; and sponsors “volunteer” Islam experts to appear in the media, in seminars, and in mosques to inveigh against perverse interpretations of the Koran. The government also encourages families, a key untapped force in Saudi life, to help reclaim their errant sons, whom it calls “deviants,” never “jihadists,” a religious term. Five rehabilitation centers for such deviants are under construction throughout the kingdom. Graduates of the Saudi program who had formerly been held at Guantánamo Bay, Al-Hadlaq reported, had a recidivism rate of less than 20 percent. While some notable veterans of the program had returned to the fight, particularly in Yemen, he acknowledged, the program’s recidivism rate was far lower than the 66 percent of former prisoners in American jails who return to a life of crime.
Nevertheless, militant Islamism is resourceful, innovative, patient, and determined, the experts agreed. Hamas in the Palestinian territories and Hezbollah in Lebanon are both gaining ground. While al-Qaida lacks what Bergen calls “a positive vision,” it has managed to hijack well-entrenched groups throughout South Asia that offer an alternative to the region’s corrupt, inept, unresponsive bureaucracies. Even in Iraq, where al-Qaida has ostensibly been vanquished, an obituary is premature, Bergen warned. The terrorist group’s August 19 attack in Baghdad killed more than 100 people at two government ministries.
Bergen predicted more attacks on commercial aircraft using surface-to-air missiles, a widely proliferating weapon; more attacks on Israeli, Jewish, and other Western targets throughout the world; and even suicide bombings by homegrown American militants. President Obama may have changed the rhetoric, but he cannot end the fight against this determined foe.