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terrorist attacks on americans, 1979-1988
The attacks, the groups, and the U.S. response

Nov. 4, 1979

Hostages taken at the U.S. Embassy in Tehran

Fifty-two American citizens were taken hostage when militant students of radical Islam stormed the U.S. Embassy in Tehran.[1] Shortly thereafter, U.S. President Jimmy Carter ordered a complete embargo of Iranian oil; stronger economic embargoes followed. On April 8, 1980, Carter severed diplomatic relations with Iran after negotiations for the hostages' release failed.

Later that month, Carter authorized a top-secret mission, named Operation Eagle Claw, to free the hostages. Helicopters were to carry Delta Force commandos from a carrier in the Persian Gulf to a point outside Tehran, where they were to spend the night and begin the rescue the next morning. The complicated mission, which involved refueling the helicopters at a spot in the Iranian desert labeled "Desert One," was aborted April 25 after three of the eight helicopters suffered mechanical failure. Eight U.S. servicemen were killed when one of the helicopters collided with a refueling plane.

The hostages were finally released just hours after Ronald Reagan's presidential inauguration on Jan. 20, 1981. They had spent 444 days in captivity.

May 1981

Threats from Libya

When intelligence reports surfaced that Libyan leader Muammar el-Qaddafi had plans to assassinate American diplomats in Rome and Paris, President Reagan expelled all Libyan diplomats from the U.S. (May 6, 1981) and closed Libya's diplomatic mission in Washington, D.C. Three months later, Reagan ordered U.S. Navy jets to shoot down Libyan fighters if they ventured inside what was known as the "line of death." (This was the line created by Qaddafi to demarcate Libya's territorial waters, which he said extended more than 100 miles off the country's shoreline; the U.S. and other maritime nations recognized Libyan territorial waters as extending only 12 miles from shore.) As expected, the Libyan Air Force counter-attacked and Navy jets shot down two SU-22 warplanes about 60 miles off the Libyan coast.

Some alleged that the U.S. exaggerated the terrorist threat from Libya, in part because Libya was an easy target. The small country -- Libya is about one-fifth the physical size of the U.S., and its entire population at that time was only 3 million or so -- was and still is considered a minor player in the Middle East with no steadfast allies. U.S. officials denied Libya was used as a scapegoat, maintaining that it posed a credible terrorist threat against U.S. targets and that Libya had sufficient oil funds to mount a significant attack on U.S. interests.

April 18, 1983

Bombing of U.S. Embassy in Beirut

A suicide bomber in a pickup truck loaded with explosives rammed into the U.S. Embassy in Beirut, Lebanon. Sixty-three people were killed, including 17 Americans, eight of whom were employees of the Central Intelligence Agency, including chief Middle East analyst Robert C. Ames and station chief Kenneth Haas.

Reagan administration officials said that the attack was carried out by Hezbollah operatives, a Lebanese militant Islamic group whose anti-U.S. sentiments were sparked in part by the revolution in Iran. The Hezbollah operatives who carried out the attack on the embassy reportedly were receiving financial and logistical support from both Iran and Syria. [For more on how and why Iran and Syria were helping to direct attacks on the U.S., see FRONTLINE's interviews with Robert Oakley and Robert C. McFarlane.]

The U.S. government took no military action in response to the embassy bombing, although, according to retired Marine Lt. Col. Bill Cowan, a covert military team entered Beirut in order to gather intelligence in preparation for retaliatory strikes.

Oct. 23, 1983

Bombing of Marine barracks in Beirut

A suicide bomber detonated a truck full of explosives at a U.S. Marine barracks located at Beirut International Airport; 241 U.S. Marines were killed and more than 100 others wounded. They were part of a contingent of 1,800 Marines that had been sent to Lebanon as part of a multinational force to help separate the warring Lebanese factions. (Twice during the early 1980s the U.S. had deployed troops to Lebanon to deal with the fall-out from the 1982 Israeli invasion. In the first deployment, Marines helped oversee the peaceful withdrawal of the PLO from Beirut. In mid-September 1982 -- after the U.S. troops had left -- Israel's Lebanese allies massacred an estimated 800 unarmed Palestinian civilians remaining in refugee camps. Following this, 1,800 Marines had been ordered back into Lebanon.)

In his September 2001 FRONTLINE interview, Secretary of Defense Caspar Weinberger said the U.S. still lacks "actual knowledge of who did the bombing" of the Marine barracks. But it suspected Hezbollah, believed to be supported in part by Iran and Syria. Hezbollah denied its involvement.

The president assembled his national security team to devise a plan of military action. The planned target was the Sheik Abdullah barracks in Baalbek, Lebanon, which housed Iranian Revolutionary Guards believed to be training Hezbollah fighters. Defense Secretary Caspar Weinberger aborted the mission, reportedly because of his concerns that it would harm U.S. relations with other Arab nations. Instead, President Reagan ordered the battleship USS New Jersey, stationed off the coast of Lebanon, to the hills near Beirut. The move was seen as largely ineffective.

Four months after the Marine barracks bombing, U.S. Marines were ordered to start pulling out of Lebanon.

Dec. 12, 1983

Bombing of the U.S. Embassy in Kuwait

The American embassy in Kuwait was bombed in a series of attacks whose targets also included the French embassy, the control tower at the airport, the country's main oil refinery, and a residential area for employees of the American corporation Raytheon. Six people were killed, including a suicide truck bomber, and more than 80 others were injured. The suspects were thought to be members of Al Dawa, or "The Call," an Iranian-backed group and one of the principal Shiite groups operating against Saddam Hussein in Iraq.

The U.S. military took no action in retaliation. In Kuwait, 17 people were arrested and convicted for participating in the attacks. One of those convicted was Mustafa Youssef Badreddin, a cousin and brother-in-law of one of Hezbollah's senior officers, Imad Mughniyah. After a six-week trial in Kuwait, Badreddin was sentenced to death for his role in the bombings.

Over the following years, the arrest and imprisonment of the "Kuwait 17" (also known as the "Al Dawa 17"), became one of the most consistent demands of the kidnappers of Western hostages in Lebanon and plane hijackers.

Ironically, when Iraq invaded Kuwait in 1990, the Iraqis unwittingly released the imprisoned Badreddin and the remaining members of the Kuwait 17. Press reports vary about Badreddin's current whereabouts.

March 16, 1984

CIA Station Chief William Buckley kidnapped

Buckley was the fourth person to be kidnapped by militant Islamic extremists in Lebanon. The first American hostage, American University of Beirut President David Dodge, had been kidnapped in July 1982. Eventually, 30 Westerners would be kidnapped during the 10-year-long Lebanese hostage-taking crisis (1982-1992).

Americans who were kidnapped included journalist Terry Anderson, American University of Beirut librarian Peter Kilburn, and Benjamin Weir, a Presbyterian minister. While some of the prisoners lived through captivity -- Anderson spent the longest time as a hostage, 2,454 days -- some, including Buckley, died in captivity or were killed by their kidnappers.

U.S. officials believed that the Iranian-backed Hezbollah was behind most of the kidnappings and the Reagan administration devised a covert plan. Iran was desperately running out of military supplies in its war with Iraq, but Congress had banned the sale of American arms to countries like Iran that sponsored terrorism. Reagan was advised that a bargain could be struck -- secret arms sales to Iran, hostages back to the U.S. The plan, when it was revealed to the public, was decried as a failure and anathema to the U.S. policy of refusing to negotiate with terrorists.

In August 1985, the first consignment of arms to Iran was sent -- 100 anti-tank missiles provided by Israel; another 408 were sent the following month. As a result of the deal, American hostage Benjamin Weir was released from captivity; he had been imprisoned for 495 days. Only two other hostages were released as a result of the arms-for-hostages deal: in July 1986, Martin Jenco, a Catholic priest, was released; and the administrator of the American University of Beirut's medical school, David Jacobson, was released in November 1986.

Since the funds from the arms sales to Iran were secretly, and illegally, funneled to the U.S.-backed Contras fighting to overthrow the Sandinista regime in Nicaragua, the infamous episode became known as the "Iran-Contra affair." (See the "Final Report of the Independent Counsel for Iran/Contra Matters.)

Sept. 20, 1984

Bombing of U.S. Embassy annex northeast of Beirut

In Aukar, northeast of Beirut, a truck bomb exploded outside the U.S. Embassy annex killing 24 people, two of whom were U.S. military personnel. According to the U.S. State Department's 1999 report on terrorist organizations, elements of Hezbollah are "known or suspected to have been involved" in the bombing.

The U.S. mounted no military response to the embassy annex bombing, but it did begin to explore covert operations in Lebanon. Investigative journalist Bob Woodward says that the CIA trained foreign intelligence agents to act as "hit teams" designed to destroy the terrorists' operations. Ambassador Robert Oakley says the U.S. merely attempted to set up a "protective unit," a Lebanese counterterrorist strike force.

President Reagan and the CIA called off covert operations when Lebanese intelligence operatives -- some allegedly trained by the U.S. -- set off a car bomb on March 8, 1985, in an attempted murder of Sheik Mohammed Hussein Fadlallah, the Shiite Muslim cleric who some believed to be the spiritual leader of Hezbollah. Over 80 people were killed in the attack near a Beirut mosque. Fadlallah survived.

Many blamed the CIA for the attack, saying it had directed the intelligence operatives to carry it out. Robert McFarlane, President Reagan's national security adviser, says that the operatives who carried out the attack on Fadlallah may have been trained by the U.S., but the individuals who carried it out were "rogue operative[s]," and the CIA in no way sanctioned or supported the attack.

Dec. 3, 1984

Hijacking of Kuwait Airways Flight 221

Kuwait Airways Flight 221, on its way from Kuwait to Pakistan, was hijacked and diverted to Tehran. The hijackers demanded the release of the Kuwait 17. When the demand wasn't met, the hijackers killed two American officials from the U.S. Agency for International Development. On the sixth day of the drama, Iranian security forces stormed the plane and released the remaining hostages.

Iran arrested the hijackers, saying they would be brought to trail. But the trial never took place, and the hijackers were allowed to leave the country. There was no U.S. military response. The State Department announced a $250,000 reward for information leading to the arrests of those involved in the hijacking. Later press reports linked Hezbollah's Imad Mughniyah to the hijackings.

June 14, 1985

Hijacking of TWA Flight 847

TWA Flight 847 was hijacked en route from Athens to Rome and forced to land in Beirut, Lebanon, where the hijackers held the plane for 17 days. They demanded the release of the Kuwait 17 as well as the release of 700 fellow Shiite Muslim prisoners held in Israeli prisons and in prisons in southern Lebanon run by the Israeli-backed South Lebanon Army. When these demands weren't met, hostage Robert Dean Stethem, a U.S. Navy diver, was shot and his body dumped on the airport tarmac. U.S. sources implicated Hezbollah.

In what was widely perceived as an implicit, never explicit, quid pro quo, the hostages started being released by the hijackers, followed some days after by Israel starting to free some of its hundreds of Shiite prisoners. At the time, U.S. officials denied there was a deal and said Israel had already committed to releasing the prisoners.

Imad Mughniyah, a senior officer with Hezbollah, was secretly indicted for the TWA hijacking in 1987, along with three others. One of those indicted, Mohammed Ali Hamadei, was arrested in Frankfurt, Germany. In 1989 he was convicted in a German court and sentenced to life in prison. [Editor's Note: Imad Mugniyah remained at large and on the FBI's Most Wanted List for 19 years, until he was killed in a car bombing in Damascus, Syria on Feb. 12, 2008.]

October 1985 - January 1986

Hijacking of cruise ship Achille Lauro;
Bombing of Rome, Vienna airports

On Oct. 7, 1985, off the coast of Egypt, four gunmen hijacked the Italian cruise ship Achille Lauro and demanded the release of Palestinian prisoners in Egypt, Italy, and elsewhere. When the demands weren't met, they killed Leon Klinghoffer, a 69-year-old disabled American tourist. Investigators blamed the Palestine Liberation Front, which some believed to be allied with Yasser Arafat's Palestinian Liberation Organization. Later, U.S. officials were able to link Libya to the PLF and the hijacking.

After the hijackers escaped the Achille Lauro and left Egypt by air, U.S. Navy fighters intercepted their plane and forced it down in Italy. The four hijackers were apprehended, and in 1986, they were found guilty in an Italian court. Two of the hijackers escaped from prison. One, Magid al-Molgi, who confessed to killing Mr. Klinghoffer, was caught and returned to prison. The man identified as the mastermind of the hijacking, Abu Abbas, was released by Italy despite Washington's pleas that he be held for trial.

Then on Dec. 17, 1985, airports in Rome and Vienna were bombed, killing 20 people, five of whom were Americans. This time, U.S. officials said they were able to link Libya to the bombing attacks. In January, U.S. officials decided to send the Navy and its warplanes to patrol the Gulf of Sidra -- in territorial waters claimed by Libya -- in an effort to provoke Qaddafi. The White House warned Qaddafi that any Libyan forces further than 12 miles from shore were subject to attack. (The U.S. and other nations used an international standard, set at only 12 miles from Libya's coast, to mark the country's territorial waters; Qaddafi said that Libya's territorial waters extended more than 100 miles from the coastline.) At this point, the face-off between the U.S. and Libya escalated.

April 5, 1986

Bombing of La Belle Discotheque

An American soldier was killed when a bomb was detonated at La Belle, a discotheque in West Berlin known to be popular with off-duty U.S. servicemen. A Turkish woman was killed, and nearly 200 others were wounded. U.S. intelligence sources identified Libya as being responsible for the attack. [For more on the evidence pointing to Libya, see interviews with Paul Bremer, Caspar Weinberger, and Robert Oakley.] In Berlin, five individuals were tried for carrying out the bombing of the discotheque. In November 2001, four of the defendants were convicted and sentenced, while the fifth was acquitted. The court found only Verena Chanaa guilty of murder; she was sentenced to 14 years. Prosecutors said Chanaa, a 42-year-old German national, brought the bomb into the disco in a handbag. Three other defendants were all convicted of multiple counts of attempted murder. Yasir Shraydi, a Palestinian who was said to have assembled the bomb, was sentenced to 14 years, while Musbah Eter, a Libyan diplomat, and Verena Chanaa's former husband, Palestinian Ali Chanaa, were sentenced to 12 years apiece. Verena Chanaa's sister, 36-year-old Andrea Haeusler, was acquitted. She had accompanied Verena Chanaa to the disco on the night of the bombing.

After U.S. intelligence intercepted Libyan government communications implicating Libya in the La Belle disco attack, President Reagan ordered retaliatory air strikes on Tripoli and Benghazi. The operation on April 15, 1986, dubbed Operation El Dorado Canyon, involved 200 aircraft and over 60 tons of bombs. One of the residences of Libyan leader Muammar el-Qadaffi was hit in the attack, which, according to Libyan estimates, killed 37 people and injured 93 others. As a result of this American operation, U.S. national security officials say Libyan-sponsored terrorism ceased "for a long time." (See interviews with Robert Oakley and L.Paul Bremer.)

Two days after the U.S. retaliatory attack, the bodies of three American University of Beirut employees -- American Peter Kilburn and Britons John Douglas and Philip Padfield -- were discovered near Beirut shot to death. The Arab Revolutionary Cells, a pro-Libyan group of Palestinians affiliated with terrorist Abu Nidal, claimed to have executed the three men in retaliation for Operation El Dorado Canyon.

December 21, 1988

Bombing of Pan Am Flight 103

Pan Am Flight 103 from London to New York exploded over the small town of Lockerbie, Scotland. All 259 people on board were killed, along with 11 on the ground. According to the State Department's "Patterns of Global Terrorism, 1991," released in April 1992, the bombing of Pan Am 103 "was an action authorized by the Libyan Government." Though there were reports that Syria and Iran also played significant roles in the attack, U.S. officials were never able to tie the two countries to the bombing. No one has ever taken credit for planting the bomb.

In May 2000 the trial of the two Libyan intelligence officers charged with planting the bomb started in the Netherlands. It ended in February 2001 with the conviction of defendant Abdelbaset Ali Mohmed al-Megrahi; he received a life sentence. The other defendant, Al Amin Khalifa Fhimah, was acquitted and set free.


[1] After the shah of Iran, Mohammed Reza Shah Pahlavi, was dethroned during the Islamic revolution led by Ayatollah Khomeini, he traveled to the U.S. for treatment of lymphatic cancer. Fearing that the shah's visit to the U.S. indicated that Washington was plotting to restore the monarchy, some 80 Iranian students staged a sit-in at the American embassy, where the U.S. hostages were subsequently seized.

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