burning flag
target america
hometimelineinterviewsdiscussionislamic terrorism
Lessons Learned from the 1980s
There were hard truths learned from the Reagan administration's battles against terrorism in the 1980s. Here are excerpts from FRONTLINE's interviews with policymakers, White House officials, national security analysts, and journalists of the period, including Caspar Weinberger, Robert C. McFarlane, L. Paul Bremer, Bob Woodward, and others.


He was the chairman of the bipartisan National Commission on Terrorism, which in June 2000 published a report predicting a terrorist attack on the U.S. on the scale of Pearl Harbor. Bremer previously served as ambassador-at-large for counterterrorism in the Reagan administration from 1986 to 1989
read the full interview

There's a similarity in the challenge that's facing the [current] administration and the problem of the 1980s, which is the terrorists are able to operate freely in a territory. They were able to operate freely in Lebanon in the 1980s, because there was no functioning government in Beirut. They operate freely in Afghanistan now, because the government of Afghanistan encourages them or lets them, and it has become a cesspool of terrorism.

In my view, in terms of how we respond now, some of the lessons of the wars of 1970s and 1980s against terrorism are still valid. If we can show the world that we are really serious about punishing the terrorists who conducted these attacks, and the government of Afghanistan, we will find that the rest of the world will give us more support, not less. They will respect us for our power. And they will understand that we're serious. ...

Pan Am 103 is really the bookend to the 1980s fight against terrorism. The handling of Pan Am 103 shows exactly that the strategy we designed in the 1980s did not fit for the new kind of terrorism, because with Pan Am 103, the objective was not to start a negotiation; it was to kill as many people as could be killed, in this case 270 people.

The idea of, therefore, punishing the people who did it by bringing them to a court of justice was wrong. It was ludicrous; it was the wrong answer. And the fact that what we eventually got almost 10 years later was a conviction of a couple of minor operatives shows how naked this policy is in face of the new kind of terrorism we have.

What have we learned from all those years?

I think what we've learned is that the terrorist threat is serious, but it shifts. You cannot make a single person the sole focus of your counterterrorism. We had Qaddafi as the number one enemy from the late 1970s to the mid-1980s. Then we had Abu Nidal who appeared on the scene, and he was the number one enemy from the mid-1980s until the early 1990s. Now we have bin Laden. And the implication of that is if you can deal with this one guy, the threat will go away. The threat doesn't go away; it evolves.

What you need to do, and certainly is sort of the central lesson, is you need to have a policy and tools which evolve as the threat evolves. And that's the challenge that we're into right now.

What have the terrorists learned about us?

The terrorists have learned that we have a lot of vulnerabilities, particularly inside the United States, which had not been attacked before. The first large-scale attack in the United States was the first World Trade Center attack in 1993, almost 25 years after terrorism really started again. So it took a long time for them to attack us. Now they know we're vulnerable here. And that's certainly one lesson they've learned.


He was Director of NSC Intelligence from 1984 to 1987, and went on to serve as chief of operations for the CIA's Counterterrorism Center and to lead the CIA's investigation into the December 1988 bombing of Pan Am 103.
read the full interview

Basically, over the last three administrations, we have had a law enforcement response to the problems of terrorism -- we're going to catch the perpetrators and arrest them -- which doesn't do very much to deter future acts of terrorism. The premise is that it's like a criminal organization. You start peeling back the onion, you start arresting these people, and pretty soon there isn't anything left in the organization. That's the criminal organization premise. It doesn't work with terrorism.

With terrorism, we have basically arrested all the perpetrators in the bombings of our embassies in East Africa in 1998. But these are secondary parts. They're replaceable tools. The leadership, the sponsorship, is beyond law enforcement. That's the problem with the law enforcement response. It isn't sufficient. It doesn't mean that you shouldn't prosecute people who commit crimes. Killing people and bombing is a crime. Sure. But it's not an effective total response to terrorism itself.

And bombing the hills of Lebanon [following the 1983 U.S. Marine barracks bombing in Beirut] will not do much good. Covert action is very difficult. What works?

Only a coalition of countries who share the hope and the objective of destroying terrorism. Only the application of all of the resources that we have. There is the legal resource. There is the international sanctions resource. There is a military resource. There is a covert action resource. There is also intelligence -- intelligence collection that gets advanced knowledge of the plans and intentions of a terrorist group, or terrorist sponsor to act. And once you know that, you can act ahead of time.

In other words, there is no single way of approaching it. There are many ways, and all of them have to be used, sometimes simultaneously. ...

That's what the U.S. learned, hopefully. What have the terrorists learned from dealing with us over the past 20 years?

The terrorists have learned that ... if they hurt us badly enough, we'll turn tail and run. Now, where they may have made their mistake is in bombing New York City and the Pentagon in Washington, because we have no place to run. This is our home. They have attacked the homeland. They have tried to punish us in hope that we will draw our lesson from that and withdraw from Saudi Arabia, withdraw from the Persian Gulf. That is an overreaching by bin Laden. It may have been the critical mistake he's made.

How is bin Laden, the enemy of the moment, similar to all of the other names that we've heard over the years? And how does he differ?

... Lebanon was a very large example to him, the fact that the United States pulled out of Lebanon after acts of terrorism. He learned there that that kind of thing can work against the United States. He learned in Afghanistan that there was a limit to Soviet patience for staying the course. ... He learned that a superpower could be destroyed, in effect -- pushed away by very religious, very zealous people.

But how he differs from all the terrorists that went before him is this: He's not strictly a political person. ... He's also a spiritual person, ... he believes that he's getting guidance from God. And more important ... is that his followers believe that he's getting guidance from God. ... That's the great difference between bin Laden and secular terrorists. Secular terrorists generally don't commit suicide. ... That's a completely different kind of terrorist phenomenon than we are used to, and we don't understand it. We don't really know how to deal with it very effectively. So the lessons of the past sometimes help us a little bit, but not very much in this case.


A retired Marine Lt. Col., Cowan served three tours of duty in Vietnam and was awarded the Silver Star for valor in combat. In 1983, as a military intelligence officer, he was sent to Beirut by the Pentagon charged with finding out who was responsible for bombing the U.S. Embassy in April of that year.
read the full interview

I believe that if we used military force at that point [the bombing of the U.S. Marine barracks in Beirut, 1983], that we would have sent a message that would still be out there today: that when somebody strikes at all -- particularly when you kill 241 servicemen -- ... we're going to do something about it. To not do anything at all, I believe, sent a clear message to those terrorists back then, [and to] people who are terrorists now, and those in the future. The only way we're going to change that image is to do something, to do it right, to make sure that the targets we hit are the targets we want to hit. I believe that we'll start to have a shift in terrorism when we're able to respond.

... Every time somebody has struck at us, we've threatened, we've stood up, we've pounded our chest, we've blown fire out of our mouths, smoke out of our ears, and then within a couple of weeks we've sat back down and gone back to business as usual. So we've sent a message over the years that we weren't quite serious. We would take legal action. We would trace you down, track you down, that we'd take you to court. But we wouldn't do to you what you're willing to do to us, and that is, go right into the face of danger and strike at you and fight you and kill you and root you out, and do the kinds of things that they're more likely to understand.

How does that affect a bin Laden?

Bin Laden, a year or two ago, did an interview with somebody and in that interview he reminded the person he was being questioned by that we have never done anything. Bin Laden is acutely aware of the fact that, as a nation, historically, we don't have a record of striking back at those who have stuck at us. ...


A former Washington editor of Harper's Magazine, he is the author of two books about the intelligence community -- Spooks, about the use of intelligence agents in private industry, and Secret Agenda, his 1984 book about Watergate.
read the full interview

After Lebanon, we tended to avoid military strategies that might result in American casualties, and that sort of gets us into a whole period of Nintendo wars, such as the Gulf War -- wars that are carried out largely by aircraft, by remote control, by people looking through thick field glasses.

...I think Bush's administration should have learned from what occurred in Lebanon that we need a clear idea of what our mission is, what is really the goal. Why were we over there? One soldier was quoted as saying, "My understanding of the mission was we sent a lot of people over here, they all got killed, and then we left." I think not just the American soldier, but the American people need to know what we hope to gain from the war that we're about to undertake. ...

What lesson can be learned from the fact that this guy [Imad Mughniyah, Hezbollah's security chief indicted in the 1985 hijacking of TWA 847] ... is still free today. And we have no idea where he is?

... Imad Mughniyah is believed to have been responsible for the bombing of the Marine barracks with the death of more than 240 American soldiers. He's alleged to have been involved directly in the bombing of the American embassy -- the first time, because the American embassy was actually bombed twice. That led to a loss of 60 to 85 people. He was responsible directly for the kidnapping of the CIA station chief in Beirut, William Buckley, who subsequently died in captivity, and for the kidnapping of other Americans there as well.

I think one of the lessons to be drawn from the fact that Imad Mughniyah is still out there, still operating, is that America has to keep focus in this war, in what it's doing. I don't think we're particularly good about that. We get very excited, very upset, very determined in the wake of atrocities, such as what happened at the World Trade Center, but then over a period of a year or two, our attention shifts to other things. We lose determination, and I think that people like Mughniyah are allowed to sort of slip away and fall through the cracks until they jump out at us again.


He is a Lebanese journalist who works as Washington bureau chief for the Lebanese daily newspaper As-Safir. He also reports for Al-Qabas, a newspaper based in Kuwait, and for Radio Montecarlo.
read the full interview

If the United States was waging a campaign against terrorism in the 1980s in the Middle East, one could argue that they failed miserably. They did all the wrong things in the case of Hezbollah and the hostages in Lebanon. They ended up bombing civilians in Lebanon. They ended up [arming the] Iranians. They ended up looking like fools. Many people resigned because of the Iran-contra [scandal]. The attacks on Libya really did not change considerably the Libyan behavior until after Pan Am and after the other measures that were imposed on Libya. So one could argue that the Reagan administration entered into a conflict, or waged a campaign against terrorism, without really thinking through the means, the methods, the goals and the alliances. ...

If you're going to wage a comprehensive campaign, it has to be really comprehensive, and not solely rely on military means. And you have to tell the people in the region who is the enemy and you have to tell the people in the region what would you like to achieve concretely. You have to tell the people in the region, "Stand with us, but we will provide you with certain forms of support. We will try to resolve certain political problems. We will try to resolve certain underlining causes for the emergence of this phenomena." That's why just focusing on military means at a moment of anger is not going to resolve anything. ...

Other lessons learned from the Reagan years, specifically?

Don't act as American power. Don't act as an empire that thinks that it can impose its own will any time it wants, anywhere it wants. Avoid acting as an arrogant power. Consult. Talk to the people who are involved. Act not in a unilateral fashion. If you can achieve certain things by going through international organizations, legal means, political means, economic means, pursue it. I agree that this is a major threat. This is a faceless enemy. This is a fight that may require certain unconventional means and ways. But don't act unilaterally. And again, understand the environment that you're stepping into.

How different is this quagmire [following the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks in the U.S.] from the quagmire we stepped into in 1982 in Lebanon?

It's bigger, because the people in Lebanon had certain interests that they were defending. Many people in Lebanon were making rational calculations. This [Sept. 11, 2001] is a situation where you're dealing with people who have absolutely nothing to lose, who are not ready necessarily to make rational calculations all the time. People are willing to die just for the cause, whatever that cause is. People in Lebanon or in Iran or in the region in the early 1980s, when they were dealing with the Reagan administration, were not as atavistic or as bent on exacting retribution of events from the United States, as Osama bin Laden and his soulmates. ...


A former U.S. State Department coordinator for counterterrorism during the 1980s, Oakley also has served as U.S. ambassador to Pakistan, Zaire, and Somalia.
read the full interview

I think the lessons that we learned then are applicable now: building coalitions, picking your target carefully, being able to justify your target, making sure that you have a successful operation when you undertake it, calculating the political downside as well as the military effects. All those things were thought about at the time. In some cases we had the right results, in some cases we failed, and we're going through the same process again. And I think that we have to continue to do it, but we have to understand that we're not going to stop all terrorism for all time. That's the one thing that stands out.

What did the terrorists learn about us during those years of the Reagan administration?

Well, the terrorists learned, and others who oppose us have learned that in some circumstances a few casualties can cause us to retreat into our own shell, to give up whatever objective we were seeking, to abandon those with whom we've been working. And that's what we have to protect against. I think we're doing a pretty good job of protecting against it, but where they've seen that in the past, that encourages them. ...

Is the threat that we have dealt with before in the 1980s similar to the threat that we face in a bin Laden?

I think that the methods of trying to deal with it are quite similar, but the threat itself is qualitatively and now quantitatively different. This bin Laden group, as Colin Powell says, it's rather like a huge corporation, like General Motors, which has a number of different companies under it, therefore a great deal of autonomy, a great deal of freedom, if you will, of action, not something which a central organization like Abu Nidal, which is tightly controlled from the top. And state-supported terrorism is in some ways easier to control because if you could put the pressure on the states then they could stop the organization.

Here we're talking about who knows how many hundreds of terrorists, or maybe thousands -- probably I would say hundreds in terms of the hard core, who are scattered around a number of different countries. They're in Canada, they're in Egypt, they're in Saudi Arabia, they're in the Sudan, Germany, United States itself, who knows? They might come together, or they might be assisted with other terrorist groups -- we don't know -- to conduct a particular operation. It makes it much more difficult.


He served as national security adviser to President Ronald Reagan from 1983 to 1985. During that time, the administration faced the deadly bombing of the U.S. Marine barracks in Beirut; the abduction of the CIA's Beirut station chief, William Buckley; the bombing of the U.S. embassy annex in East Beirut; the hijacking of TWA 847; and the commandeering of the Achille Lauro in the Mediterranean Sea.
read the full interview

[During the 1980s] the terrorists learned that the American people can be traumatized by terrorism, that it can create pressure on the government, and that our government response in the 1980s tended to be rather conventional and heavy-handed. They learned that by presenting elusive targets, hiding, that terrorism is an extremely appealing strategy for engaging the West -- that we were not in the 1980s well equipped in terms of power or political understanding to deal with it. And so they have continued to use it, and they've expanded their networks and their capabilities. ...

I think the problems of the 1980s in dealing with this were largely problems of fundamental disagreement within our decision-making apparatus -- fundamentally different judgments about whether one could undertake operations against Muslim terrorists without alienating the broader Muslim world. And, I think, we have learned since then, that yes, moderate Muslim states acknowledge that this is a menace, a threat. ... And, I think, our own government understands that, and has become more adept at being able to rally moderate Muslim states to cooperate in dealing with the problem.


An assistant managing editor of investigative news for The Washington Post, Woodward is the author of several books on U.S. politics, leaders and government, including Veil: The Secret Wars of the CIA 1981-1987.
read the full interview

What's interesting when you lay out the history of the Reagan administration, each time there was a terrorist incident, they had a different response. It was never the same response.

In Beirut, we just essentially left when, in fact, we knew that Syria and Iran were behind it. In the Achille Lauro we captured the people who did it. In Libya, eventually we bombed their intelligence agency and their leader Muammar Qaddafi. In the case of the hostages being taken, we went and traded arms secretly to get the hostages back. It was very piecemeal, it was incoherent. It was born of a failure to understand the other side and the enemy. And we just hopped from one problem to the next to the next. And never sat down.

There were commissions -- Vice President Bush, when he was Reagan's vice president, headed a commission studying terrorism and came to the conclusion we should never negotiate with terrorists. And it turned out, with top secret orders, President Reagan had ordered the negotiation and trading of arms with terrorists and those who took our hostages.

So, there was never an overlap between the public rhetoric and the action. And, I think, it was looked at almost like perhaps the weather. That it might be good or it might be bad. And when it's bad you deal with it. And there was no effort to really control it, or understand it. And, in a sense, because no one ever fully got their hands around it, there was never a person really in charge with kind of absolute control in any administration over counterterrorist activities spread between the FBI, the CIA, military, the various services, Department of Transportation. I mean, everyone has their hand in it. And it wasn't treated seriously. And when something is not treated seriously, and then it really comes home to roost, you have a big problem. And that's why we've got the problem, in part, today. ...


He was Secretary of Defense in the Reagan administration from 1981 to 1987, during the U.S. military intervention in Beirut. In a 1984 speech given to the National Press Club, Weinberger advocated restraint in what became known as the Weinberger Doctrine, which argued for strict limits on the use of U.S. combat forces.
read the full interview

You have eight years experience [dealing with terrorists]. Looking at those years, what was learned about the terrorists?

I think there was one serious mistake made by the Reagan administration, and that was the idea that you could deal and temporize with and negotiate successfully with terrorists who were running Iran. And that was a mistake, as President Reagan was courageous enough to admit and agree to later on. He was misled by some very wrong advice and it had very terrible consequences in the [Beirut] airport.

But otherwise, I think the lessons learned were we need more human intelligence, we need greater intelligence capability in that different area, and that we need a response capability, and that we should make sure that that response capability is used effectively. Some people are asking why deterrence failed. Why did these people feel that they could launch an attack on our Trade Center and on the Pentagon and all of that? Why did they feel they could get away with it? And I'm afraid it's because our responses in the past, during the Clinton administration, had been too weak, too feeble, too unconcentrated.

When Saddam Hussein kept violating his promises, we would unleash a few ineffective small airstrikes. In Yugoslavia, we only went along as part of a group that was under the direction of the U.N. committee, or something of that kind, without a clear intention of carrying out an objective, which was to win. And I think they underestimated the American strength and the American willingness to respond strongly, just as had been done before World War II.

So I think the lesson learned is we should be strong enough and have a visible enough and effective enough response, and that we should be able to do the kind of response that would convince the people who did the World Trade Center and the Pentagon bombing that they could never again make such an attempt; that the consequences for them, the cost that they would have to pay, was far higher than they were willing to risk.

The Pan Am 103 situation, where the strategy seemed to be that, instead of war, you could use the law to deal with the issues ... is that foolish?

Sanctions and negotiations? It can be very ineffective, and indeed foolish, unless the people you are talking with and negotiating with and trying to reach agreements with are people who can be trusted to keep their word. ...

It doesn't say you shouldn't try. But negotiations have to be for more than a cease-fire, which can be broken within 15 minutes, or something more than sanctions, which other countries won't adhere to. And if the people who are capable of these outrages think that that's all you're going to do, they will continue to commit these outrages. But when they get a response such as we were able to give to Libya, they do go underground. They do stop their activity for quite a long time.

home +  introduction +  interviews +  timeline +  islamic terrorism
lessons from the 1980s +  links & readings +  video +  discussion +  tapes & transcripts
press +  credits
frontline privacy policy +  FRONTLINE +  pbs online +  wgbh

photo copyright © reuters newmedia inc./corbis
web site copyright 1995-2014 WGBH educational foundation