Almost a quarter-century ago today a multiple simultaneous suicide bombers struck the barracks of U.S. Marines and French paratroopers who (along with British and Italian soldiers) were attempting to stabilize the war-torn city of Beirut. International terrorism had long been on the world scene since the PLO sky-jackings that started in 1968 and continued throughout the 1970s. Suicide bombings had only just become a major tactic (most notably a deadly strike against the U.S. Embassy in Beirut only a few months earlier). But this bombing, in which nearly 300 lives (241 Marines and sailors and 58 French paratroopers) were snuffed out in moments, took this phenomenon to a new scale. Politically, the attack caused the peace-keeping operation to fold – sending terrorists the message that if you hit the Western powers hard enough they will retreat.
Lebanon was then left as prey to Syria, Hezbollah, and Iran.
In the mid-1990s Osama bin Laden met with the attack’s mastermind, Hezbollah’s top killer Imad Mughniyah (view his network graph here). Bin Laden expressed his admiration for Mughniyah’s achievement. An alliance was cemented and Hezbollah tutored the nascent al-Qaeda in this tactical innovation, the multiple simultaneous suicide attack.
This attack has raised certain questions about the definition of terrorism. The victims were uniformed military and terrorism is generally defined as the targeting of civilians. There is the argument for modifying the definition of terrorism, or viewing the Barracks Bombing as an act of war rather than terrorism.
The debate is academic and to some extent trumped by the inscription on the monument to the victims of the attack at Camp Lejeune in North Carolina –