Cliff May

Twenty-five years ago, several hundred U.S. Marines were stationed in Beirut on a peace-keeping mission. On September 26, an official with the Iranian Intelligence Service in Tehran phoned the Iranian ambassador in Damascus and issued an order to have them killed. Twenty-eight days later, at 0622 on Sunday morning, October 23, 1983, two suicide bombers struck.

The death toll: 241 troops, "the highest loss of life in a single day since D-Day on Iwo Jima in 1945," Timothy J. Geraghty, who had been the Marines' commanding officer, recently noted.

We know about the phone call because, as Geraghty also noted, it was intercepted by the National Security Agency. Unfortunately, this was an occasion - neither the first nor the last - when vital intelligence was collected but not translated, analyzed and acted upon in time.

To plan and carry out the attacks, the Iranian ambassador tapped Lebanese Hezbollah. The Hezbollah operative in charge was Imad Fayez Mughniyeh.

Mughniyeh organized a second attack that same day, one in which 58 French peace-keepers were killed at their base in Ramlet al-Baida. Such synchronized suicide attacks are considered Mughniyeh's pioneering contribution to modern terrorist warfare.

In an article in Proceedings Magazine, the flagship publication of the U.S. Naval Institute, Geraghty recalls that Mughniyeh went on to conduct many other terrorist operations, "including the 1984 kidnapping and murder of the CIA station chief in Beirut, William Buckley. Mugniyah was also directly in charge of the 1988 kidnapping and execution of Marine Corps Colonel Rich Higgins, who was serving with the United Nations peacekeeping mission. And he was indicted in absentia by the U.S. government for his role in the hijacking of TWA Flight 847 in 1985, which led to the savage beating and execution of U.S. Navy diver Robert Stetham."

In 1996, Mughniyeh (a Shia) met with Osama bin Laden (a Sunni) in Sudan. Among the topics these two terrorists presumably discussed was the efficacy of suicide attacks utilizing vehicles (if a truck rigged with explosives and fuel can kill several hundred infidels, what might various other vehicles do?), the psychological impact of synchronized and simultaneous attacks, and the encouraging fact that the United States had never made a serious attempt to punish the individuals (e.g. Mughniyeh), groups (e.g. Hezbollah) and regimes (Iran and Syria) responsible for the earlier attacks.

That same year, in what is believed to have been a coordinated Iranian/Hezbollah/al-Qaeda operation, a truck bomb was used to kill 19 American military personnel at Khobar Towers in Saudi Arabia.

Cliff May

Clifford D. May is the President of the Foundation for the Defense of Democracies.