Fear and Silence: 30th Anniversary of the US Embassy Bombing in Beirut
April 18, 2013
“Janet Stevens? …you mean Miss Janet! She spoke Arabic – I think she was American. Of course I remember her! We called her the little drummer girl. She had so much energy. She cared about the Palestinians. That was so long ago. She stopped coming to visit us. I don’t know why. How is she?” -
A Palestinian in the Burj al-Barajneh camp interviewed about one victim, twenty years after the bombing. (1)
On April 18, 1983, at approximately 1:05 p.m., a truck loaded with nearly 2,000 pounds of explosives crashed into the American Embassy in Beirut, Lebanon, ripping through all seven levels of the building. The embassy’s central section collapsed on itself, killing 63 and causing injuries to at least 120 people.
The victims were, to our knowledge, 17 Americans, 43 Lebanese (of which 38 were embassy employees), 1 Egyptian, 1 Tunisian, and 1 Jordanian. In a war-stricken country, where multiple states and non-state actors with conflicting agendas were engaged in acts of violence, including against civilians, these victims were viewed as scarcely more than statistics. Thirty years later, there is little doubt about the fact of the Islamic Republic of Iran’s responsibility in the attack. And yet, efforts to talk to victims or questions about details from experts are marred by fear, lack of interest, and political considerations.
In the aftermath of the bombing, the United States and Lebanese governments released very little information from their investigations. Journalists who reported on the event had to rely on anonymous leaks and unnamed sources. Over the years, clear and public acknowledgments of Iran’s responsibility appear to be few. The few acknowledgments that the Abdorrahman Boroumand Foundation (ABF)’s research did turn up were either stray remarks buried in documents that got little public attention, statements that called any available evidence of Iran’s involvement “circumstantial,” or leaks from the intelligence community that administration officials declined to verify.
It was only 20 years later, in 2003, that U.S. investigators were compelled to provide some findings in support of the conclusion that Iran was involved in a number of bombings, including the 1983 bombing of the embassy, in cases brought against Iran in the U.S. District Court for the District of Columbia. All of the followings lead to Iran and its proxies in Lebanon: information on the non-commercial bulk explosive (2);intercepted communications of Iranian officials in the area; and satellite imagery complemented by information published in Iran’s newspapers between 1979 and 1983 on the governments’ goals and activities in Lebanon; the movements of the Revolutionary Guards; and the links between high ranking officials and radical Lebanese Shi’ite groups.The organization that claimed responsibility for the bombing was “Islamic Jihad,” a heretofore little-noticed group known only for a string of grenade attacks launched on French, Italian, and American members of the Multinational Peacekeeping Force in March of 1983. “Islamic Jihad” was a shadowy subset of Hezbollah (The Party of God), a rising, radical, armed Shi’ite organization with deep ideological and organizational ties to the Islamic Republic of Iran. The group stated that the embassy attack was “part of the Iranian Revolution’s campaign against imperialist targets throughout the world” and promised to “keep striking at any imperialist presence in Lebanon, including the Multinational Force.” The bombing was indeed the first of a series of attacks against American and French targets in 1983-84 that claimed over 400 lives. (3)
The Islamic Republic’s leaders had the motives, the influence, and the means to carry out such an attack in Lebanon and did not hide them. Their resentment of the West, and the United States in particular, is a recurrent theme in their speeches and statements of the time. Ayatollah Khomeini, the Islamic Republic’s Spiritual Leader and Hezbollah’s chosen Spiritual Guide, saw the West’s presence and its influence in Muslim countries as a source of corruption and a bulwark against the expansion of the Islamic Revolution in the region. Iranian leaders were angered by U.S. (and French) support for Iraq in the war opposing it to Iran. They were also committed to sending forces to Lebanon to fight Israel, and, outraged by the June 1982 Israeli invasion of southern Lebanon, sent in a contingent of 1,500 Revolutionary Guards. Finally, they saw the American-brokered truce between Israel and Lebanon and the resulting establishment of a Multinational Peacekeeping force in Beirut as unappealing and threatening to their goals and, at the same time, as an opportunity to undermine U.S. influence in the region.
Ayatollah Khomeini repeatedly demonized the United States and routinely called on Muslims, both Sunni and Shi'a, to follow Iran on matters of foreign policy, to rise against their corrupt leaders, and to get rid of great powers exercising influence in their countries. He repeatedly offered Iran’s help to Muslims who took a step to do so. He also warned them that eliminating Western presence from their land was a religious duty and that, if they failed, then it would be Iran’s duty to step in. The Ayatollah was particularly harsh when it came to Egypt and Lebanon:
“Is it not shameful for Muslims that a country … which is considered the enemy of Islam and the enemy of humanity, reaches out from the other side of the world to determine the fate of Muslim countries? ... America pursues its corrupt goals through [Islamic and Arab] governments dependent on it, through wicked writers and speakers, and Muslims are just sitting [and doing nothing]. Is it not our duty? Do Muslims have no duties any longer in this day and age?”
-Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini, Hoseyniyeh Jamaran, January 2, 1983
Days after the Israeli invasion of south Lebanon, Iran openly stated, through the Speaker of the Parliament, that it planned to use a proxy to expel the Americans from Lebanon. “We must not be afraid of confronting America,” said Hashemi Rafsanjani. “If America becomes embroiled in this war [in Lebanon] with Muslims, it would be in our interest, and it would end America’s intervention in the region.” Once the American peacekeepers had arrived in Lebanon, Rafsanjani again warned that “the occupation of Lebanon, this small, sectarian, and war-stricken country,” would inevitably bring “revenge.”
Blowing up an embassy is a daring attack, an act of war that is rarely attempted, even during hostilities. In the case of such a devastating and spectacular attack, one would expect a simple Google search to bring up substantive reports, numerous articles, victims’ testimonies, interviews with witnesses and official investigators, or perhaps a few references to the statements of the alleged attackers. Surprisingly, though, a simple search brings up little information – a Wikipedia page, a memorial page, some commemorative news coverage.
Understandably, this is old news and the internet did not exist at the time. Furthermore, verifiable evidence is often scarce and the analysis of the situation on the ground is far from being simple. Nonetheless, one would expect that, over the years, information would surface during the yearly commemorations or on specific occasions, such as the 20th or the 25th anniversary of the bombing. In fact, investigating the April 18th bombing and searching for mention of the victims makes it difficult not to notice the silence surrounding the event and other similar cases dating back to the 1980s.
Most of the victims of the embassy bombing were not Americans, and it is not an exaggeration to say that there has been little interest in knowing or writing about them. Learning that 27-year-old Ghazi Kabbout, a Shi‘ite from the south of Lebanon and the graduate of a culinary institute, worked for the catering company that ran the embassy cafeteria, and enjoyed swimming and playing soccer was not easy. The same is true for the 54-year-old embassy employee, Antoine Abi‑Najem, a father of five, who was born in Damascus, Syria, and married a Lebanese. Abi-Najem was a skilled woodworker and a kind-hearted family man who loved to take walks in Beirut and surprise his wife by buying her sweets, even when the budget was tight.
The retired embassy employee, Mary Metni, was born in Alexandria, Egypt in an Orthodox Christian family in 1914. She had an amazing memory and was jolly and witty. She had taught her daughters to be themselves and to “take life with irony and make the best of it.” She had been rehired for a contract that ran from mid-March to late April 1983.
For an NGO with limited resources and without access to official sources, investigating a bombing is not a simple task. It took months of searching on the web, in books, in the archives of Lebanese newspapers and Iran’s media of the time, and trying to earn the trust of potential sources, in order to obtain pieces of information that would help the understanding of the event and its aftermath.
The reaction to our inquiries of experts, and of those with potential access to official information, was diverse. Some were quite helpful or cautiously helpful. Others didn’t respond or seemed slightly puzzled and uncomfortable. In one case, we were simply accused of having a hidden agenda. Identifying all the Lebanese victims and locating them was also a challenge. Searching newspaper obituaries, Facebook, and LinkedIn, among other sources, led us to a few victims –but many are still fearful and refuse to talk about their loved ones. The same is true with many of the American victims we contacted in the U.S. Except for a handful, few responded.
Understandably, families who live in Lebanon are cautious and not eager to bring more harm to their loved ones. But fear and mistrust are also haunting victims who live in the United States. If fear and silence go hand in hand, the fact is that those who survived the bombing and those who lost their loved ones have seen neither justice nor any serious formal and public attempt by their own government, let alone the international community, to establish the truth about what happened and acknowledge their suffering. Except for occasional and discreet commemorations, they are left to live with their trauma and the pain of their loss in silence, decade after decade. Their ordeal is forgotten by most of their contemporaries and unknown to the younger generation.
The lack of official recognition has been painful for survivors, hence the reaction of those who filed a lawsuit against Iran and won their case in September 2003: (4)
"I got what I wanted - someone who is an official figure has declared that Iran was responsible."
-Anne Dammarell, US Embassy employee who survived the bombing with 19 broken bones and post-traumatic stress symptoms that forced her to retire at age 50.
"I was surprised to read in the decision how indignant the judge was over what happened. It is something to be indignant about. We have been indignant about this for 20 years."
-Catherine Votaw, the daughter of Albert Votaw who was killed in the bombing.
Secrecy and silence about crimes such as the embassy bombing may have been seen as necessary caution or a way to avoid provoking perpetrators and ensure security.The facts, however, show that silence did not ensure security. In the decade following the bombing of the embassy, the Islamic Republic’s leaders used bombings and targeted civilians, time and again, (5) to advance their foreign policy goals. And they have boasted about their successes in Lebanon.(6)
Political considerations and the desire not to hamper the chances of reducing tensions or concern for further alienating foes may also be determining factors in this kind of deliberate amnesia. But silence on serious crimes does not change the facts and can hardly bring antagonistic governments to work out their differences for good. It does, however, encourage impunity. Closure and healing for survivors and for the families of the 63 men and women who lost their lives on that April 18th in Beirut requires official transparency and public acknowledgment. This thirtieth anniversary is an opportunity for the Abdorrahman Boroumand Foundation to remember the victims and to call on their respective governments and the international community to take action to ensure their long-overdue right to truth and effective remedy, including compensation and such full rehabilitation as may be possible.
(1) Dr. Franklin Lamb (Ms. Steven’s partner), "A Letter to Janet About Sabra-shatilla", in Counterpunch, September 14-17, 2007. (2) According to testimony by Mr. Danny Defenbaugh, the FBI’s lead explosives investigator for the 1983 embassy bombings in Lebanon and Kuwait, as well as the bombing of the U.S. Marine Barracks in October of 1983 (where the same explosive was used), the bulk form of PETN was produced for military purposes by state-sponsored manufacturers. Such factories did not exist in Lebanon, but bulk form PETN was being manufactured in Iran. This testimony was given before the U.S. District Court in the District of Columbia in the civil suit Peterson v. Islamic Republic of Iran, et al. For relevant citations from Mr. Defenbaugh’s testimony, see the Memorandum Opinion by the Honorable Royce C. Lamberth, May 20, 2003, 264 F. Supp. 2d at 56-58.
(3) The attacks targeted, in 1983 and 1984, the American Embassies in Lebanon and Kuwait, the French Embassy in Kuwait, and the French and American contingents of the Multinational Peacekeeping Force – eventually driving the Multinational Force out of Lebanon.
(4) http://articles.philly.com/2003-09-12/news/25458154_1_car-bombing-beirut-bombing-islamic-republic (5)A number of bombings in the 1980s appear to have connections to the Islamic Republic, including at least four in Lebanon, six in Kuwait, and eleven in France. Together with related assassinations and hostage-takings, these acts of terror killed over 400 men, women, and children: 262 Americans, 76 Lebanese, 71 Frenchmen, 6 Iranians, and 11 persons of other nationalities have so far been identified.
(6) Mohsen Rafiqdust, commander of the Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corps in 1983:“In the victory of the revolution in Lebanon … the United States has felt our power on its ugly body; and it knows that both the TNT and the ideology that, in one blast, sent to hell 400 officers, NCOs, and soldiers at the Marine Headquarters, were provided by Iran.” Resalat, Iran’s state-run newspaper, July 20, 1987 (p.8).