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Extracting clues, lessons of Beirut attack, 30 years later

US and French soldiers on Wednesday honoured the 299 servicemen killed in the Beirut barracks bombing of October 23, 1983. But 30 years later, there are still doubts surrounding the attack, although the lessons are quite clear.


Thirty years ago, a truck packed with explosives and inflammable gas ploughed through the security rim of the US Marines headquarters in the Lebanese capital of Beirut, blasting the building and killing 241 Americans – the deadliest single-day death toll for the US Marine Corps since the World War II Battle of Iwo Jima.

Minutes later, at the French barracks about six kilometres away, a second suicide bomb truck crashed into the Drakkar building, according to French officials, killing the wife and four children of the Lebanese janitor as well as 58 French paratroopers – France’s single worst military loss since the 1954 Indochina War.

At a commemoration ceremony at Camp Lejeune, North Carolina, on Wednesday, Marine Corps Commandant General James Amos said the Beirut barracks bombing defined the start of America’s war against terrorists.

“The nation was not expecting this. There was a new kind of warfare – the threat of radical extremists being able to target military and civilian personnel with weapons of mass destruction for political, religious and personal gains. It was a new way to attack the West,'' Amos told survivors and families of the victims. “We will never forgive nor will we ever forget.''

French survivors of the October 23, 1983 Beirut barracks bombing gather in a southern French town to commemorate their fallen colleagues 30 years later. (Photo: AFP)
French survivors of the October 23, 1983 Beirut barracks bombing gather in a southern French town to commemorate their fallen colleagues 30 years later. (Photo: AFP)

In a written statement marking the attack, US President Barack Obama paid tribute to “the fallen” and expressed “deep appreciation for the ultimate sacrifice made in service to our nation”.

French President François Hollande also paid homage to the 58 French soldiers, expressing “the nation’s gratitude and recognition for their sacrifice in the service of France and for peace in Lebanon”.

But three decades after the Beirut bombings, there are still questions surrounding the attack that effectively framed the course of Western military engagement in the Middle East in the years to come.

A report published in the leading French daily "Le Monde" on Wednesday questioned an official French inquiry into the attack, which concluded that a suicide truck bombing brought down the nine-storey “Drakkar” building that housed the French barracks in Beirut. (Click here for the report in French)

‘There was no way a truck could pass’

Based on interviews with survivors of the attack, the newspaper report questioned whether the suicide truck could enter the heavily fortified compound. It also raised doubts over the official version that shots were fired by French guards posted in the building as the vehicle entered the premises.

Images of soldiers rushing to try to rescue their colleagues trapped in the rubble of the buildings on October 23, 1983, haunted viewers across the globe.(Photo: AFP)
Images of soldiers rushing to try to rescue their colleagues trapped in the rubble of the buildings on October 23, 1983, haunted viewers across the globe.(Photo: AFP)

None of the survivors interviewed – including French soldiers posted in a building facing the Drakkar – recalled ever having seen the truck enter the premises nor did they hear gunshots fired at the vehicle.

"The building was surrounded by a wall and protected by levees,” Omer Marie-Magdeleine, a French military officer who was responsible for the building security, told "Le Monde". “The street was blocked on both sides. The building was protected by a barrier and barbed wire. There was no way a truck could pass without being noticed."

In the case of the bombing of the US Marines headquarters in Beirut, the charred remnants of the suicide vehicle was located and examined, according to "Le Monde", but in the Drakkar attack, the truck was never recovered.

Explosives experts and some family members of the victims have long questioned whether the attack was caused by a suicide vehicle or by mines planted in the building.

Internecine civil war, myriad players, shifting frontlines

The attack occurred just a month after French troops took over the Drakkar. As most residents of Beirut at that time knew all too well, the nine-storey building had previously been occupied by the Syrian intelligence services.

At the height of the Lebanese civil war, US and French troops were posted in Beirut at a particularly fraught time when several domestic and regional players were waging a pitched – and sometimes proxy – battle with shifting frontlines and militia alliances.

Israel had invaded Lebanon in 1982 to drive out the Palestine Liberation Organisation, based at that time in Beirut. But when Israel’s Lebanese allies slaughtered civilians in the Sabra and Shatila camp massacre, a multinational force was deployed to Lebanon to act as a buffer between warring militias.

The US and French presence in Beirut was an irritant for the Syrians who also occupied a part of the country – just as the Iranians, as we now know, were busy grooming a new Shiite group that was soon to emerge: Hezbollah.

Some survivors of the Drakkar bombing, as well as victims’ families, believe that Syrian intelligence had planted mines in the building.

The French Ministry of Defence, however, has dismissed this theory, noting that the official inquiry found no evidence of mines. Defence Ministry officials also note that engineering teams had previously thoroughly searched the building and that they were unlikely to overlook the sizeable load required to destroy the building.

The lessons of Beirut, 1983

On the US side, the forensic facts of the US Marines barracks bombing have been well established. But 30 years later, questions of who exactly planned and perpetrated the attack continue to simmer.

Shortly after the attack, a little-known group calling itself the Islamic Jihad took credit for the bombings.

But US intelligence officials, as well as judges in subsequent civil suits, have cited Iran as the chief suspect in ordering the attack, with Lebanese Shiites carrying it out. Hezbollah or its antecedents are often blamed, since the group was still coalescing in Lebanon's Bekaa Valley at the time and would not formally announce its existence until months after the attack.

But while  doubt continues to hover around the Beirut barracks bombings, for many US diplomats and intelligence officials, the lessons of October 23, 1983, are clear – and relevant to this day.

Subsequent US military operations in Somalia, Afghanistan and Iraq have underscored the importance of understanding the myriad players involved in conflicts in distant lands – from clan groups to ethnic militias to regional powers waging proxy wars.

In an interview with the US news site The Daily Beast on Tuesday, veteran US diplomat Ryan Crocker noted that Beirut taught him some of the “hard lessons of the Middle East,” namely: “Be careful what you get into, and beware the laws of unintended consequences.”

As the US, France and other European and Arab nations continue to deliberate on a response to the Syrian civil war, the shadow of multinational engagement in Lebanon looms over the international community.

“Did we learn anything? Probably not,” said Crocker. “We had Somalia afterwards and Iraq. Mercifully Obama has stayed out of Syria, but I think that reflects his natural caution rather than any lessons absorbed from Beirut.”

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