Today in Terrorism: 23 October 1983 bombing of Marine barracks

US Marines in Beirut suffer catastrophic bombing in October 1983

US Marines suffer devastating attack at barracks in Beirut on October 23, 1983

As the on-again, off-again saga of what is happening with US forces in northern Syria continues – does anyone know what US President Trump has tweeted in the last 30 seconds? – there is a much larger issue. This refers to the deployment of troops abroad, the reason why they are sent there in the first place, the short term (hopefully not long term as we will see in a bit) goals, the end strategy and the impact on local, regional and international geopolitics.

In some instances the decision to send the military beyond one’s borders is self-explanatory. A nation may want to project power beyond its jurisdiction or protect vital interests such as trade or freedom of movement on the high seas. Alternatively, a country may opt to deploy in the wake of a catastrophic event either to catch those responsible or to demonstrate to the population that ‘no one messes with us and gets away with it!’

This of course is precisely what happened after 9/11 when the US invaded Afghanistan to catch the Al Qaeda guys who planned that enormous attack. The US is still there 18 years later despite several rounds of ‘peace talks’ with the Taliban (can you really talk peace with a terrorist group, or should you even try?). Trump has frequently said he wants to pull US forces out of these kinds of wars, and I must reluctantly admit I agree with him, but probably not for the same reasons.

Here is the problem. If a state establishes a military presence on foreign soil, say with the intent to fight terrorism, it paradoxically creates more terrorism. The mere existence of ‘enemy forces’ serves as a catalyst for many, terrorists and others, to remove that presence, either as a matter of pride or nationalism or in response to the inevitable ‘collateral damage’ (i.e. civilian casualties) that ensue. Terrorist groups ALWAYS make reference to this in their propaganda and history is replete with examples where such groups garnered support to evict the invader (the Soviet Union in Afghanistan in 1979, the US in Afghanistan in 2001, the US in Iraq in 2003, Ethiopia in Somalia in 2005… – the Turks might want to pay attention to this while they are running around northern Syria).

So we finally get to this day in terrorism, October 23, 1983. At 6:22 AM a truck carrying 2,000 pounds of explosives drove into the Marine compound in Beirut killing 241 US servicemen and women. The Reagan Administration had sent the Marines as part of a multinational peacekeeping force in August 1982 to help broker a deal between the Palestinians and Israel. The terrorist group Hizballah is believed by many to be behind the attack: US troops withdrew from Lebanon four months later.

There are other parts to this story however. US forces, and particularly the Sixth Fleet stationed in the Mediterranean Sea, had repeatedly shelled the Shouf mountains, a historic part of Lebanon in southeast Beirut, killing many innocent civilians. The attack on the Marine barracks was thus painted as a justification for this ‘collateral damage’.

I will leave aside the argument of whether an assault on a functioning Marine barracks qualifies as terrorism, bearing in mind the usual need for the victims to be civilians, as I am sure most people think it does. Nevertheless, it does raise the interesting question of whether foreign military deployments that consist of a semi-permanent presence actually work.

I cannot think of a single case where the military presence of a foreign power has led to the disappearance of a specific terrorist group or a cessation of terrorist acts.

Can you?

By Phil Gurski

Phil Gurski is the President and CEO of Borealis Threat and Risk Consulting Ltd. Phil is a 32-year veteran of CSE and CSIS and the author of six books on terrorism.

Leave a Reply