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The lasting impact of 1983 Beirut attack

The Marine barracks bombing 25 years ago ushered in a new era of large-scale Al Qaeda attacks against the US and its allies.

By Correspondent of The Christian Science Monitor / October 24, 2008

Turning point: The massive suicide bombing at the US Marine barracks in Beirut killed 241 American servicemen on Oct. 23, 1983.

Jamal/AP/File

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BEIRUT, Lebanon

The blast rippled across Beirut just after dawn, throwing Khodr Hammoud out of bed and stumbling to his front door.

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Gazing across the packed houses of the Shiite-populated slums east of Beirut airport, the young Shiite resident saw a huge plume of smoke rising into the pale sky.

A suicide bomber had just hit the barracks housing the US Marines beside Beirut airport. The blast 25 years ago on Thursday killed 241 Americans, almost all of them marines, in what remains the highest fatality toll for the Corps in a single day since Iwo Jima in World War II.

"When I heard that marines had been blown up, I couldn't believe it," says Mr. Hammoud. "We didn't think of [the Marines] as an enemy then like we do now."

The bombing that left the Reagan administration's Lebanon ambitions in tatters continues to reverberate today in shaping US diplomatic, political, and counterinsurgency policies toward Lebanon and the Middle East.

"It was a turning point in asymmetrical warfare, especially in the Middle East," says Timur Goksel, a security analyst and former long-serving United Nations peacekeeper in south Lebanon. "All those people who couldn't fight powerful armies such as the United States suddenly found an easy way of balancing strength on the ground. That was the beginning and we have been seeing it ever since."

The attack exposed the vulnerabilities of even a superpower such as the US, which found itself unable to retaliate against its shadowy and anonymous adversaries, and ushered in a new era of grand-scale bombings – the World Trade Center in 1993, the Khobar Towers in Saudi Arabia in 1996, the US embassies in Kenya and Tanzania in 1998 – that reached its apogee on Sept. 11, 2001.

"In terms of significance it forced us out of Lebanon – and a cascade of attacks of the same nature forced us into the crusader castles that we live in today in the Middle East," says Robert Baer, a former Central Intelligence Agency field agent who operated in Beirut in the 1980s.

The tactic was first used against the Americans in Beirut six months earlier when the US Embassy was destroyed in a suicide car bomb blast that claimed the lives of 57 people. But the first suicide car-bomb attack had occurred three years earlier when a militant from the Dawa Party, an Iraqi opposition group, car-bombed the Iraqi Embassy in Beirut.

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