Beirut Attack Recalled As New Chapter In Terrorism

Map Of Lebanon i i
Lindsay Mangum/NPR
Map Of Lebanon
Lindsay Mangum/NPR

Reporter's Notebook

Retired U.S. Marine Col. Timothy Geraghty says the morning of Oct. 23, 1983, was a bright one — before a truck filled with explosives slammed into the Marine barracks in Beirut, Lebanon. Hundreds of U.S. troops were killed in what was the deadliest day for America's military since 1945.

Geraghty was in command of the 24th Marine Amphibious Unit in Beirut at the time of the attack. He says the massive explosion — nearly 25 years ago to the day — blew out the windows of his office.

"I ran outside and couldn't see because of a dense fog of gray ash," he recalls. "As I staggered around to the rear of my headquarters, I thought we had taken a direct hit from a Scud missile. My logistics officer was right next to me, and as the fog started to lift, he said, 'My god, the BLT building is gone.'

"That's the battalion landing team headquarters that was a hundred meters from my headquarters," Geraghty says. "And that was the main building where we had to put our people because of the heavy artillery and rocket fire that we had through the summer. And it literally was leveled."

The blast killed 220 Marines and 21 other U.S. service members, along with 58 French paratroopers. They had been sent to Beirut as peacekeepers. An age of terrorist suicide car and truck bombings had begun.

Attack Inspired Al-Qaida

Looking back, Geraghty thinks the attack that day marked the beginning of a new chapter of terrorism in the world. "This started a whole series of the suicide truck bombings that just became the favorite weapon of the Islamic extremists," he says.

Al-Qaida later picked up the tactic from a man named Imad Mughniyeh, one of the key operatives trained by Iran and supported by Syria and who was heavily involved with the Beirut truck bombing, Geraghty notes.

"Bin Laden was inspired by the success of the simultaneous coordinated suicide bombings in '83," he says, "and they didn't have that expertise before Mughniyeh and Osama bin Laden met in Sudan in 1996."

He points out that the first al-Qaida attack involving simultaneous, coordinated suicide truck bombings occurred in August 1998 at U.S. embassies in Tanzania and Kenya.

'Largest Nonnuclear Explosion On Record'

Geraghty has often wondered if there were ways the U.S. military could have reduced or prevented the losses in 1983. "The original size magnitude of that device was considered to be stoppable. It wasn't," he says.

"Forensics done afterward by FBI and others [show] that this was the largest nonnuclear explosion on record," he adds. "It guaranteed mass casualties. There was no way we could have stopped that bomb in that environment."

Geraghty blames the vulnerable location of the base: "We were in the middle of an active international airport and really didn't have control of the people and vehicles entering and exiting.

"From the first day there, I was uneasy with that location. It was selected for diplomatic and political reasons a year earlier. [It was] a static location surrounded by hills with over 600 tubes of artillery [that] could be brought to bear on us."

He says that tactically, it was "an abominable position."

A quarter-century later, Geraghty feels blessed to have good friends and family. "But not a day goes by I don't think about them," he says of the victims.

Geraghty says he is looking forward to the 25-year reunion of those involved in the attack.

"I'll see again a lot of the families and just marvel at some of the children," he says. "And interesting — a lot of them have gone into the military for careers, particularly the Marine Corps."

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