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  Twenty Years of Anti-American Terror

By Tim Ito
Washingtonpost.com Staff Writer
April 30, 1999

The 1979 takeover of the U.S. Embassy in Tehran and the subsequent 444-day hostage crisis was an enormous surprise for the American public. At a time when Americans were still grappling with Watergate, Vietnam and a deepening oil crisis, the daily broadcasts of their blindfolded countrymen in Iran served as reminders that their world was becoming less and less secure from outside threats.

The hostage crisis thrust Americans into a situation with which they had little experience. But over the next several years, Iran, Syria, and an Iranian-backed extremist group in Lebanon known as Hezbollah would be accused of lashing out at U.S. citizens in a series of deadly bombings and kidnappings in the Middle East.

Marine barracks/AP
Marine Barracks
October 1983
  According to U.S. officials, Hezbollah:
Kidnapped an American university professor in Beirut in July 1982. (The first of 18 people abducted during a decade-long campaign.)
Killed 63 people (17 Americans) in an April 1983 suicide bombing of the U.S. Embassy in Beirut.
Killed 241 servicemen in an October 1983 truck bombing of the U.S. Marine barracks.
Killed 13 people in a September 1984 blast at the newly relocated U.S. Embassy in the Lebanese capital.

The quick succession, size and ferocity of the attacks stunned Americans and, according to members of the intelligence community, exposed the weaknesses of U.S. policy in the region. "Hezbollah tore U.S. terrorism policy apart in the 1980s and left us almost devoid of a response," says Kenneth Katzman, a Middle East terrorism expert at the Congressional Research Service.

Some U.S. officials acknowledge that the Hezbollah attacks caught the government off guard. According to them, few had focused on the group's operations or the threat from terrorism before the blasts – a fact that hindered investigations and the possibility of retaliating. "There was no so-called 'war on terrorism' back then because it was simply not regarded as a national security problem," recalls Vincent Cannistraro, former head of counterterrorist operations at the Central Intelligence Agency.

Hezbollah's structure also made it difficult for the U.S. military to conduct strikes against it. Founded in 1982 by clerics inspired by the revolutionary ideology of Iran, Hezbollah had integrated itself smoothly into Lebanese society, occupying buildings in the southern suburbs of Beirut and other areas where U.S. strikes could potentially hit civilians.

Hezbollah really shook up the [intelligence] community .... They made us realize we didn't have the experts. We needed to get smarter on Islamic fundamentalism.
— Kenneth Katzman, Middle East expert at the Congressional Research Service.

As Hezbollah and Iran continued their assault on Americans into the mid-1980s, other countries and groups joined in. Libya, for example. Fueled by the development of its rich oil deposits and Cold War financial support from the Soviet Union, Libya had become one of several breeding grounds for terrorists, by sponsoring and harboring a number of radical terrorist organizations within its borders, according to intelligence officials.

Abu Nidal
Abu Nidal
  Libya's support for the notorious Palestinian terrorist Sabri al-Banna (better known as Abu Nidal) made it a particular focus of U.S. intelligence efforts. The Abu Nidal Organization had already carried out a series of high-profile deadly hijackings and violent acts against Western targets by the mid-1980s. Intelligence officials considered Abu Nidal a kind of gun for hire, his organization a physical extension of the Libyan intelligence service and leader Moammar Gadhafi.

Rome attack
Rome & Vienna
December 1985
  ANO was also extremely vicious. During massacres at Rome and Vienna airports in December 1985, terrorists fired purposely at children, killing an 11-year-old American girl and 16 others. A note carried by one of the attackers would later warn that ANO sought to "violate everything, even ... children" in its bloody campaign.

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© Copyright 1999 The Washington Post Company

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