Frontline World

LEBANON - Party of God, May 2003

Related Features THE STORY
Synopsis of "Party of God"

A History of Hezbollah

Negotiating With Hezbollah

Lebanon Country Profile

Hezbollah, the Region and U.S. Policy




1983-1991: Target America
Civil WarHezbollah EmergesTarget AmericaGlobal TerrorThe Fate of Hezbollah
Geographical Key

Suicide Bombs

The United States Embassy building in Beirut

The United States Embassy building in Beirut, after being struck by a suicide bomber on April 18, 1983. (AP/Wide World Photos)
By early 1983, the multinational force made up of U.S., French and Italian soldiers had settled into their peacekeeping duties in Beirut. This military presence soon pushed the United States into direct confrontation with groups allied with Hezbollah. In March 1983, U.S. Marines were fired upon for the first time while patrolling areas near the Beirut airport. A Lebanese radio station later announced that "a militant Shiite Muslim faction aligned with Syria and Iran" was responsible for the attacks.

Although U.S. officials vowed no change in U.S. policy as a result of the attack, the next strike proved harder to shrug off. Less than a month later, on April 18, 1983, a suicide bomber drove a truck loaded with high explosives into the U.S. embassy in Beirut. The blast killed 60 people, including 17 Americans. Hours later, an organization called Islamic Jihad claimed responsibility.

The explosion of the Marine Corps building in Beirut

The explosion of the Marine Corps building in Beirut, Lebanon, created a large cloud of smoke that was visible from miles away. (Department of Defense)
The United States now was confronted with a rather shadowy enemy. From the start, it seemed to U.S. intelligence analysts that Islamic Jihad and Hezbollah were in some way connected. Both organizations pledged fervent allegiance to Iran, both were based in the Baalbeck region of the Bekaa valley and both were known to have received weaponry from Syria. In addition, the groups shared the same leaders, including a man named Sheikh Hussein Mussawi.

U.S. intelligence sources began suggesting that Islamic Jihad was simply a cover used by Hezbollah for carrying out its terrorist attacks. This charge was repeatedly denied by Hezbollah's spiritual leader, Sheikh Muhammad Hussein Fadlallah, who insisted that Hezbollah stood for moderation and restraint. When asked by Western reporters to clarify Hezbollah's objectives, he responded in vague terms: "It is a mass movement that concentrates on facing political problems. Maybe it is closer to the Islamic revolution in Iran than others due to its religious commitment."

Debate Over U.S. Policy

The devastation of the barracks bombing in Beirut

The devastation of the barracks bombing in Beirut, Lebanon, left Marines searching through tons of rubble for their missing comrades. (Department of Defense)
Some within the Reagan administration, including Defense Secretary Caspar Weinberger, argued that threats posed by shadowy organizations was reason enough to evacuate the Marines. But instead of withdrawing forces, President Reagan deployed an additional 2,000 Marines to Beirut by mid-September 1983.

The arrival in Lebanon of more American soldiers was met with swift and devastating force. On October 23, 1983, a truck bomb destroyed the U.S. Marine barracks at the Beirut airport, killing 241 American soldiers. Until September 11, 2001, this was considered the greatest loss in U.S. history of American lives in a terrorist attack. Islamic Jihad once again claimed responsibility.

While the Reagan administration considered a military response to the truck bombing, Islamic Jihad continued its campaign against American targets. In January 1984, Islamic Jihad gunmen killed Malcolm Kerr, the president of the American University of Beirut. Months later, William Buckley, chief of the CIA's Beirut station, became Islamic Jihad's first American kidnap victim. Buckley was eventually smuggled to Teheran via Damascus aboard an Iranian plane. He died in Iran after being tortured.

NEXT - Target America (continued): The Marines Withdraw a Second Time

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