"British soldiers give a hand in rescue operations at the site of the bomb-wrecked U.S. Marine command center near Beirut airport Sunday, Oct. 23, 1983. A bomb-laden truck drove into the center collapsing the entire four story building." (AP Photo/Bill Foley)
At 6:25 local time on the morning of October 23, 1983, agents of the ayatollah used a suicide bomber to plow a truck filled with explosives into the U.S. Marines barracks in Beirut, Lebanon.
The attack resulted in “the largest non-nuclear explosion that had ever been detonated on the face of the Earth,” according to a U.S. federal court judge who found the Islamic Republic of Iran guilty of perpetrating the crime. Locked doors on a building nearly three hundred feet away were ripped off their hinges. All the trees in the surrounding area were stripped completely bare of their leaves. The windows in the control tower at Beirut’s international airport were blown out. And the four-story cement and steel Marine facility collapsed into fifteen feet of rubble, ash, and smoke.
When my wife and I got married in the summer of 1990 and settled in the Washington, D.C., area, we soon met Charlie and Lynn Derbyshire, a couple at church who had experienced the evil of the Iranian Revolution firsthand. Lynn lost her oldest brother—Marine Captain Vincent Smith—in the Beirut bombing. Charlie was still helping her heal from the loss when we met. But the horrors of 9/11 and the subsequent deaths of American and Israeli forces in Iraq, Afghanistan, and Lebanon in the years that followed ripped open those wounds afresh. Through Lynn and Charlie, my wife and I have gotten a personal and painful glimpse at the lasting emotional scars left by the jihadists.
When I set out to write this book, I wrestled with whether or not to even ask Lynn if I could share her story. In the end, however, I did ask. I felt it was important for others to understand the human impact of the Revolution and to realize that for the victims of terrorism, the trauma is in many ways as real today as it was so long ago.
Graciously, Lynn and Charlie agreed.
In October of that year, Lynn was living in New Mexico. Newly married, she and her husband had just come home from church on a beautiful Sunday morning when her neighbor ran to meet her. Tears were streaming down her neighbor’s face. She grabbed at Lynn’s arm as Lynn was getting out of the car. “You’ve gotta come in the house,” she said. “Something terrible has happened! You gotta come watch the news.”
“It was about ten in the morning,” Lynn recalled. “I kept saying, ‘Well, just tell me what’s happened—just tell me.’ We went into her house—and this was before they had 24/7 coverage of news events, so we had to wait through whatever the program was until the next time they broke in with their special report—and I kept saying to her, ‘Tell me what’s wrong; tell me!’ We were both crying, and I just couldn’t conceive of what was happening. So then when the news came on, I was obviously prepared that there was a huge tragedy, but I just didn’t . . . I just couldn’t think. And so when the news came on the television, it was almost like being physically hit. I kind of sat back in the chair—‘This can’t be happening, this can’t be true.’”
Network newscasters reported that suicide bombers had attacked the Marine barracks in Beirut as well as the barracks housing French peacekeepers. There were 241 Americans dead, 56 dead from the French barracks, and many more wounded.
Lynn rushed back home and called her parents, who were living in Washington, D.C., but they were not home. Nobody had cell phones back then, so she had no way of reaching them.
She then called Vince’s wife, also in the D.C. area, and found her parents already there, trying to comfort her and her young son. Lynn asked her father, who was an active duty colonel in the Marine Corps at the time, “Dad, don’t you know what’s happening? Can’t you tell us anything?”
“We just don’t know anything yet,” her father replied, noting that his colleagues were saying a massive search-and-rescue operation was under way because there were so many men still unaccounted for.
“That was a Sunday,” Lynn remembered, “and it was two and a half, almost three weeks later before they were able to identify Vince’s body. So it was just every day—going into my neighbor’s house to watch the television and calling my parents every day. My dad finally said, after about the fourth day, ‘Honey, I know it’s hard, but I promise I’ll call you if I find anything out. I’m not gonna leave you out. I promise I’ll call.’
“I was a schoolteacher, and I went to school and was trying to teach, and I just couldn’t even function. I would be writing on the blackboard and forget midsentence what I was writing. I would turn around and look at these little sixth graders, and I just kept leaving the room. But I couldn’t not go to work, because that’s even worse. So if you can just imagine . . . waiting—nineteen days—to find out whether someone you love is dead or alive. It was torture.”
“How did you finally get the news?” I asked her.
“My father called me on a Thursday morning. It was about 5:00 a.m., I think. And when the phone rang, I knew. I just knew. You know, you have a sixth sense about that stuff. I answered the phone, and he said, ‘It’s time to come home. They’ve identified Vince, and it’s time to come home to bury him.’
“That was a whirlwind in itself, trying to get from a tiny little town in central New Mexico back to Washington, D.C., and see to the funeral arrangements, and it was just surreal. They buried him in Quantico Cemetery. It was the first time I had been back together with most of my family since my wedding day. So to go from the joy of seeing your family at your wedding and then to be together at a funeral, it was just terrible.
“And I really couldn’t believe it. I spent a long time in that first of stage of grief, where you say, ‘This isn’t happening; this can’t be real; this isn’t me.’ Because I was accustomed to Vince being gone for a long time. He was seven years older than me. When I was eleven, he went away to the Naval Academy, and I was accustomed to not seeing him. He would be gone for long stretches, and then we would get letters and hear whatever was going on with him. Then he would be home for a few days, and then he’d be gone again for six months. So I just had this surreal feeling that, ‘He’s gonna come home. He’s gonna come home.’
“Of course it was a closed casket, so I had to talk myself into believing that he was in that box. I remember when we went to the funeral home the night before the funeral. They had the casket in a room and you could go in and kneel down and pray, and they gave each of us an opportunity to do that. Here’s this flag-draped casket and all these flowers, and there’s nothing there that was Vince. It couldn’t be—it just couldn’t be. I remember kneeling down and praying, ‘Lord, how could You do this? If You really are a loving God, how could You let this happen?’”
In time, U.S. authorities reconstructed the chain of events that led to the bombing.
They learned that after months of monitoring operations at the barracks housing the 24th Marine Amphibious Unit, Hezbollah operatives had ambushed a truck that was headed to the compound to deliver fresh water. The operatives then quickly replaced that truck with one they had painted to look like the one Marine guards were expecting. This nineteen-ton vehicle, however, had been outfitted with some 2,500 pounds of high-tech explosives.
The driver, the U.S. later learned, was a devout jihadist, eager to give up his life to kill Americans and thus, he hoped, secure his place in paradise.
As the sun was just beginning to rise on a gorgeous autumn day in the Lebanese capital, “the driver drove past the Marine barracks” and “circled in the large parking lot behind the barracks.” He then pushed the accelerator to the floor, “crashed through the concertina wire barrier and a wall of sandbags, and entered the barracks.” The force of the explosion was equivalent to between 15,000 and 21,000 pounds of TNT.
At the time, of course, Lynn and her family knew almost none of the details. They were operating in the fog of war, amid rumors and scraps of information. Moreover, they were dealing with a kind of warfare that had never been used against Americans before.
“I’d never heard of suicide bombing,” Lynn recalled. “And up until Vince went there, I had never heard of Lebanon. I’m embarrassed to say I was one of the average Americans who doesn’t know anything about geography. We had to look it up on a map. I had never heard of terrorists, of course. I had heard of Muslims, but I’d never heard of this whole idea of radical Muslims and jihad and all of that sort of stuff. None of us had ever heard of that.”
Lynn was not alone; this was the first known suicide bombing by Muslims against American targets in history.
“Right after the bombing,” Lynn explained, “Hezbollah came forward and claimed credit for having done this, and in a very bragging, grandiose way: ‘We killed all these Americans! We’re gettin’ ’em! We’re gettin’ ’em where it counts, and we’re the ones; we did it!’ But by pretty early in 1984, it became clear that Hezbollah was doing this at the behest of the Iranian government.”
Sure enough, over the next few years, as the U.S. government continued to investigate the attack, it became increasingly clear that the entire operation had been set into motion not by Hezbollah alone but with the direct assistance of the Khomeini regime in Tehran. The mounting evidence was so compelling, the families of the slain Marines eventually decided to join together and file a wrongful death suit against the Islamic Republic of Iran. In so doing, they hoped to prove once and for all in a court of law that Iran was, in fact, responsible for the deaths of their loved ones. They also hoped to punish the regime in the only way they could, since neither the Reagan administration nor any U.S. administration that followed had punished anyone for the wanton murder of American Marines.
“I’m just a soccer mom,” Lynn demurred. “Really, I’m just trying to raise my children and keep my household running. I’m going to the grocery store and doing the laundry and those kind of things, so most of this about radical Islam I don’t really understand. It’s way above my pay grade. It wasn’t until we were actually at the trial and I was hearing the testimony they had gathered that I understood how cut-and-dried the case really was, how completely and thoroughly responsible the government of Iran was for the death of my brother and the other 240 Americans that were killed that day.”
Lynn was right. During the court case, which the families ultimately won, many facts came to light that proved beyond a doubt that Iran was behind the attack. Consider the following excerpts from the trial judge’s written opinion:
- “The post-revolutionary government in Iran . . . declared its commitment to spread the goals of the 1979 revolution to other nations. Towards that end, between 1983 and 1988, the government of Iran spent approximately $50 to $150 million financing terrorist organizations in the Near East. One of the nations to which the Iranian government directed its attention was the war-torn republic of Lebanon.”
- “Dr. Michael Ledeen, a consultant to the Department of Defense at the time of the Marine barracks bombing and an expert on U.S. foreign relations, testified at the trial that ‘Iran invented, created, funded, trained, and runs to this day Hezbollah, which is arguably the world’s most dangerous terrorist organization.’”
- “The fake water delivery truck . . . [was] driven by Ismalal Ascari, an Iranian.”
- “On October 25, 1983, the chief of naval intelligence notified Admiral [James A.] Lyons of an intercept of a message between Tehran and Damascus that had been made on or about September 26, 1983. . . . The message directed the Iranian ambassador to contact . . . the leader of the terrorist group . . . and to instruct him to have his group instigate attacks against the multinational coalition in Lebanon, and ‘to take a spectacular action against the United States Marines.’” (emphasis added)
- “Based on the evidence presented by expert witnesses at trial, the Court finds that it is beyond question that Hezbollah and its agents received massive material and technical support from the Iranian government.”….
When the trial was over and all the evidence had been examined and thoroughly reviewed, the Honorable Royce C. Lamberth, the U.S. district judge for the District of Columbia, ruled that agents acting on behalf of the Islamic Republic of Iran “caused the deaths of over 241 peacekeeping servicemen at the Marine barracks” in a “willful and deliberate act of extrajudicial killing.” Moreover, Judge Lamberth concluded that Hezbollah, the Islamic Republic of Iran, and the Iranian Ministry of Information and Security “are jointly and severally liable to the plaintiffs for compensatory and punitive damages.”
On September 7, 2007, after reviewing the merits of each individual member of the class action suit, Judge Lamberth ordered Iran to pay more than $2.6 billion to the nearly one thousand survivors and family members of those killed. “The cost of state-sponsored terrorism,” he said, “just went up.”
The families of the victims know that the chances of their ever actually receiving any of the settlement money are very low. And even victory cannot heal all the wounds.
“Twenty-four years later, the wound in my heart over Vincent’s death is still gaping wide,” Lynn shared with me as our conversation drew to a close. “Now why is that? It’s because the criminals are getting away with their crime. And it’s because they’re continuing to commit similar crimes and other people are suffering and dying at their hands.”
May we never forget the Americans Iran killed in Beirut in 1983. May we do justice, love mercy, and walk humbly with our God, praying faithfully for the victims and their families and friends, as well as the criminals.
This article is adapted from Joel C. Rosenberg’s New York Times best-selling non-fiction book, Inside The Revolution.
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