By Claude Salhani–
On the morning of October 23, 1983 a man driving a pick-up truck packed with explosives rammed his way past the U.S. Marine sentry guarding the perimeter where the Marines serving with the multinational peacekeeping force in Lebanon were bivouacked, right next to Beirut International Airport.
By the time the sentry inserted his clip into his M16 rifle, the suicide bomber was several meters past the sentry and well on his way into the building where several hundreds Marines were still sleeping this early Sunday morning.
Counter to all logic and particularly when deployed in a hostile environment and on direct orders from Washington the Marines in Beirut – including the sentries on guard duty – were not allowed to have the magazine inserted in their weapons. This was a “peacekeeping mission,” the Marines were told, and that despite the fact that there had been an absence of peace in the country since 1975 and that the Marines had been taking mortar and cannon fire from hostile forces in the hills above Beirut Airport.
The Marines, much like the French, the Italians and the much smaller British contingents serving with the MNF had come in peace, as the inscription on the memorial erected at Camp Lejeune, in Jacksonville, NC, in memory of those who died, attests.
Two-hundred and forty-one U.S. servicemen, most of them Marines, lost their lives on that Sunday morning in Beirut, as did 58 French paratroopers when just a few seconds later a second suicide bomber blew up the building housing the French headquarters, a few miles from the Marine base.
A report from the FBI later found that the attack against the Marine base was the largest non-nuclear explosion in history.
The twin attacks had their desired effect: they forced the U.S. to fold and abandon the mission. President Ronald Reagan promised revenge, retaliation, justice and so on, but in truth, the American president simply abandoned the fight and walked away.
In the typical style that is Washington politics, the White House passed the blame down to the Marines, and more specifically to the Marine commander in Beirut, Col. Timothy Geraghty.
Geraghty’s requests for changes in the manner in which his Marines were deployed were ignored, or turned down. The United States wanted to counter Iran’s rising influence over the Lebanese Muslims, particularly in regards to Hezbollah, the Lebanese proxy militia Iran had formed, trained and armed. But they went about it the wrong way, arming and training the Lebanese Army, which at that time was seen as being an extension of the Lebanese Christian militias. In essence, and as far as the Lebanese Muslims were concerned, the Marines had become another militia in the Lebanese civil war.
The two terrorists who attacked the U.S. and French contingents were believed to have been members of Hezbollah. The operation according to U.S. intelligence sources was believed to have been planned by Hezbollah’s boy wonder of terrorist activities, Imad Mughniyeh.
The failure of the Beirut mission was not the fault of the Marines. They sailed bravely into troubled waters, as they were asked to do, they showed the flag and nearly 240 Marines paid the ultimate price for the ignorance that the civilian leadership had of the area where the Marines were deployed. Had President Reagan reacted more firmly and stood his ground and instead of ordering the Marines out of Lebanon and in doing so giving forces opposed to democracy a free hand to operate in the Middle East, chances are the course of history would have been very different from what we are seeing unfold today in Syria and Iraq.
The current occupant of the White House should take a moment and reflect on the events that unfolded in Lebanon 31 years ago this Thursday and not repeat the same mistakes.
The mistake made in the past should at least serve as a lesson and not be repeated with the so-called Islamic State unless the next time we face an existentialist threat it will not emanate from forces straddling the Syrian-Turkish border, but more likely straddling Pennsylvania Avenue and 16th Street, in Northwest Washington, DC, or on an intersection in Toronto.
Think this is farfetched? Perhaps, but then again had anyone told me 30 years ago that the Islamic state would be operating in the two most stable countries in the Arab world, Syria and Iraq, or that a group of Saudis could fly civilian planes into the World Trade Center, I would have found it just as farfetched. Or for that matter had someone told me only yesterday that fanatic Islamists would strike in the Canadian capital… Stay tuned this is by no means the end of the story.
Claude Salhani is a specialist on Middle East and terrorism affairs. You can follow Claude on Twitter @claudesalhani.