Thirteen years after the devastating Marine barracks bombing in Beirut, the U.S. military again faces questions about why it seemed unprepared for an attack foreshadowed months earlier.
Both last week’s truck bombing of an eight-story apartment building in Saudi Arabia and the truck bombing of a four-story Marine Corps barracks in Lebanon came after smaller attacks.
“There are great parallels,” said Benis Frank, the U.S. Marine Corps historian and author of a book on the Beirut bombing. “One of the things that the people in Saudi Arabia should have learned from the Beirut experience was that you just don’t put crowds of people in a building like that.”
On April 18, 1983, a delivery van packed with explosives drove to the entrance of the U.S. Embassy in the Lebanese capital and exploded, killing 62 people including 17 Americans. It was a smaller-scale version of the barracks attack six months later that would kill 240 Marines and one sailor.
Similarly, U.S. forces in Saudi Arabia got a brutal wake-up call seven months before the June 25 bombing in Dhahran that killed 19 U.S. servicemen and wounded dozens more. Last Nov. 13, a car bomb exploded in a parking lot outside a military training center in Riyadh, killing five Americans and two Indians.
In all four incidents, investigators pointed to the sophisticated nature of the explosives as an indication that hostile governments may have been involved.
The first attacks in Beirut and Saudi Arabia caught U.S. officials off guard.
“It seemed like an inexplicable aberration,” retired Army Gen. John Vessey Jr., who was chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff at the time, said years later of the initial Beirut bombing.
And Navy Capt. Michael Doubleday, a Pentagon spokesman, said of the Riyadh attack: “In the Kingdom (of Saudi Arabia) there had never before been any kind of terrorist attack.”
Indeed, before the bombing in Riyadh, seven years had elapsed since the last Mideast-related fatal terrorist attack directed at Americans - the bombing of Pan Am Flight 103 over Lockerbie, Scotland.
Warnings about followup attacks abounded following the first attacks in Lebanon and Saudi Arabia. An investigative report on the Beirut bombing said that in the months leading up to the barracks attack the local Marine command “was virtually flooded with terrorist attack warnings.”
Likewise, the beheading of four convicted terrorists in a Saudi public square on charges of participating in the Riyadh blast sparked warnings of reprisal attacks on U.S. airmen.
“It’s no surprise to anybody that it happened,” said Andy Messing, a former U.S. Special Forces officer and head of the National Defense Council Foundation, an independent research group.
But the scale of the attack seemed to have caught some in the Pentagon off guard. Defense Secretary William Perry noted that the second Saudi bomb was more than 10 times as powerful as the first.
Similarly, a Pentagon commission had written of the Beirut bombing that, from a terrorist’s point of view, “the true genius of this attack is that the objective and the means of attack were beyond the imagination of those responsible for Marine security.”
No senior Reagan administration officials were punished in 1983 in connection with the Lebanon bombing, though two Marine commanders at the scene were issued “letters of instruction” upbraiding them for concentrating 350 troops in a single building.