The explosion shook the earth. And it wouldn’t be the last one.
Twenty-five years ago Friday, a suicide bomber drove a pickup truck full of explosives into the U.S. Embassy in downtown Beirut, killing 63 people. It heralded the rise in the Middle East of a soon-to-be common tool in the arsenal of radicals: the suicide bomb.
“I don’t think we realized on April 18 the significance of the attack,” said Graeme Bannerman, a former Senate Foreign Relations Committee staff director who shuttled between Beirut and Washington during much of the early 1980s. “It was a disaster. But most people didn’t realize we had a problem with these guys until 9/11.”
Bombing survivors, victims’ relatives, diplomats and embassy staff gathered Friday to remember the dead at a somber ceremony on the grounds of the heavily guarded hilltop U.S. mission in Lebanon, the Mediterranean Sea spreading out below.
“We remember today and every day our colleagues, relatives and friends who died at the hands of those terrorists during Lebanon’s terrible war years,” said Michele J. Sison, Washington’s envoy to Lebanon.
The event commemorated not only those who died and survived the bombing of the Beirut embassy, but also the bombing of the U.S. Marine barracks the following year, in which 241 American military personnel died, and the Sept. 20, 1984, attack here in Aukar, in the Christian hills north of Beirut, at what was then called the U.S. Embassy annex, in which 24 people perished.
Embassy employees, tearful Lebanese survivors and a contingent of visiting Marines gathered around and laid wreaths upon the half-circular monument engraved with the names of the those who died.
“They came in peace,” it said.
As a choir sang, an elderly Lebanese woman with a bent back hobbled with her cane to the monument and brushed her fingers against the name Rudaina Sahyoun, her daughter, who died in the embassy explosion three months after she began working for the Americans. She was 28.
C. David Welch, U.S. assistant secretary of State for Near East affairs, described the moment he heard about the attack as the Lebanon desk officer at the State Department.
“I will never forget receiving the call to alert me of the attack,” he said at the ceremony. “It was quite a blow.”
Islamic Jihad, a previously unknown group, claimed responsibility. Court rulings later pointed to Iran and the Iranian-backed Shiite militia Hezbollah as having a role in the embassy and barracks attacks.
“Since the Beirut attack, we and citizens of many countries have suffered more attacks at the hands of Hezbollah and other terrorists, backed by the regimes in Tehran and Damascus, which use terror and violence against innocent civilians,” President Bush said in a statement released Friday.
Lebanon was in turmoil in the early 1980s. Civil war between Christian and Muslim militias raged. An Israeli occupation in the south continued. Politically motivated bombings were all too common. But the only suicide bombing had been one targeting the Iraqi Embassy in Beirut in 1981. It was attributed to the Shiite Muslim Islamic Dawa Party, an Iraqi exile faction backed by Iran that evolved into the group that now counts U.S.-backed Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri Maliki as a member.
Marines entered Lebanon in 1982 as part of an international peacekeeping force. As the civil war heated up again, some accused Americans of taking the Christian side -- especially after U.S. warships began shelling Druze and Muslim positions in support of the weak Christian government.
Month after month the country drifted as the Israeli and Lebanese governments tried to hammer out a peace deal. Hostility mounted toward the Americans, who originally were welcomed as a buffer against the Israelis. The influence and capacity of Iranian-backed Shiite groups grew.
It was early afternoon when the bomber struck the embassy. He apparently drove an embassy vehicle believed to have been stolen a year earlier. Among the dead was the entire CIA station, including Robert Ames, the agency’s top Middle East expert.
More violence was to follow. Marine encampments in Beirut were hit by rockets throughout the summer by Druze militias led by Walid Jumblatt, now one of Washington’s closest allies. To avoid rocket fire, the Marines moved to a building east of the airport. It was struck Oct. 23, 1983, by a massive truck bomb. Minutes later, another bomb struck the building housing French paratroopers, killing 58.
Two months later, suspected Shiite radicals bombed the U.S. and French embassies in Kuwait, as well as a residential compound for employees of the U.S. firm Raytheon.
In September 1984, a bomb struck the U.S. Embassy annex in Aukar, now the site of the heavily fortified embassy.
“It took me a long time to get over it,” said Samir, a Lebanese employee of the embassy who survived the 1984 bombing. He had ended his studies in Southern California months earlier to take care of his mother after his father was killed in the French barracks bombing. He asked that his last name not be used because he still works for the embassy.
The bombings dramatically changed the architecture of U.S. diplomatic missions abroad and American diplomats’ relations with locals.
“It was the beginning of the process of building fortress America overseas,” said Bannerman. “We began to isolate ourselves from the community.”