America’s Odyssey with Islamic Terror: The Failure to Retaliate
The Islamic terror attacks of September 11, 2001 did not come as a bolt out of the blue. For close to thirty years, America’s record of dealing with the hydra of Islamic terror was at best abysmal. Two earlier attacks, however, and the lack of American retaliation to these attacks, might very well have paved the way for the atrocity of 9/11. These two attacks were the Iranian takeover of the American embassy in Tehran in 1979 and the bombing massacre of the Marines in Beirut in 1983.
On November 4, 1979, hundreds of so-called “Muslim students” or “militants” stormed the American embassy in Tehran, Iran, taking dozens of Americans hostage. The “Iranian hostage crisis” had begun. After 444 days of brutal captivity, fifty-two American hostages were released on January 20, 1981. The attack, sanctioned by the government of Iran, may be considered the date when fanatical Islam began its official war on America.
The imprisonment of the American hostages and the ongoing ordeal that ensued remain one of America’s most embarrassing humiliations. Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini and his Islamic Republic of Iran had brought the United States to its knees. Had the Carter administration immediately threatened retaliatory military strikes on Iran’s political, military, and oil infrastructures, it is possible that the hostages might have spent 444 minutes of captivity instead of the 444 days that they were forced to endure. Instead, Carter wrote a polite letter to the Ayatollah requesting that the hostages be released. The letter appeared only to embolden Khomeini, who later boasted that “America cannot do a damn thing.” The failed rescue attempt on April 24, 1980 only added to America’s humiliation and Iran’s contempt for Carter and the nation he led.
(The storming of embassies and taking of hostages was not an Iranian invention. On March 2, 1973, members of the PLO stormed the Saudi embassy in Khartoum, Sudan. The United States ambassador to the Sudan and his charges d’affaires were viciously executed under the explicit orders of the godfather of terrorism himself, Yasser Arafat. The Nixon administration took no action. While the two embassy takeovers had no direct connection, the PLO and Khomeini had excellent relations dating back to the early 1970s.)
When Iran freed the hostages on January 20, 1981, it came minutes after Ronald Reagan had been sworn in as president. Whether the Iranians feared Reagan or wanted to further humiliate Carter is still open to debate. However, if Iran was indeed fearful of Reagan, the fear did not last long. Iran suffered no repercussions from the U.S. after the hostage crisis. Close to two and a half years later, Ronald Reagan would have his first devastating encounter with Iran and its proxies, leaving a trail of American blood in the Middle East.
The background to the bloody encounters began in August 1982. The United States had entered Lebanon for the express purpose of overseeing the withdrawal of the PLO in the wake of Israel’s June incursion into Lebanon. Israel had conducted a military campaign to stop PLO rockets from shelling northern Israel. However, a series of bloody events followed in September with the assassination of the Maronite Christian president-elect and reprisals by Christians and Muslims against each other. The U.S., which had already withdrawn its troops, reentered Lebanon in late September to try and stabilize the chaotic situation.
On April 18, 1983, the American embassy was rocked by a suicide truck bomber which killed 63 people. Seventeen Americans, including the Beirut CIA chief, were among the victims. The Iranian- and Syrian-backed terrorist group Hezb’allah claimed responsibility. As with the hostage crisis, there was no American response. The failure to retaliate to this massacre was a catastrophic mistake that would lead some five months later to a much worse murderous attack.
On early Sunday morning, October 23, 1983, another suicide bomber struck. This time, the target was the U.S. Marine barracks located at the Beirut International Airport. A Mercedes truck laden with an estimated six tons of TNT was exploded. The blast resulted in the murder of 220 Marines, 18 Navy, and three Army personnel. In the aftermath of various investigations, including that of the FBI, the blast was considered to be the biggest non-nuclear explosion since World War II.
Once again, Hezb’allah claimed responsibility. While President Reagan ordered a retaliatory strike, nothing followed. According to a 2001 PBS interview, then National Security Advisor, Robert McFarlane stated that Secretary of Defense Caspar Weinberger had “aborted” the retaliatory raid. In any event, the United States soon pulled out of Lebanon once and for all. This “cut and run” behavior of America was not lost on a young Osama bin Laden, who later recalled it as a sign of America being a “paper tiger.”
Terrorist attacks against Americans continued throughout the 1980s, with more attacks in Lebanon and elsewhere. The attacks included hijackings, kidnappings, murder, and bombings. Time and time again, there was no American retaliation.
On October 7, 1985, Arab terrorists from the PLO faction the Palestine Liberation Front hijacked a passenger ship, murdering one disabled American Jewish man and throwing his body into the sea. Finally, America acted. President Reagan ordered the plane carrying the hijackers — who had been freed by Egypt — to be forced down and to land in Italy. On April 5, 1986, a Berlin discotheque was bombed. Three American servicemen were killed. American intelligence traced the source of the attack to Muammar Qaddafi’s Libya. This time, President Reagan acted with strong retaliation, striking Libya’s capital of Tripoli and the city of Benghazi with U.S. aircraft.
As the 1980s turned into the 1990s, the first World Trade Center bombing occurred. This attack was treated as if it were a simple criminal matter and not a case of international terrorism. President Clinton didn’t even bother to visit the site of the first Islamic terror attack to hit the United States mainland. The Clinton administration also exhibited a “cut and run” attitude, most notably in Somalia in October 1993. Eighteen American soldiers were killed in battles with Somali militias, with some of the bodies dragged through the streets of the capital, Mogadishu.
As the Clinton years continued, there were the Khobar towers bombing, the twin bombings of the U.S. embassies in Kenya and Tanzania, and the suicide attack against the USS Cole. Al-Qaeda had claimed credit for the attacks, but Clinton’s attempts to capture or kill bin Laden were lukewarm at best. A few cruise missiles were fired into Afghanistan, and a pharmaceutical factory was struck in Sudan in response to the Cole bombing.
Of course, all changed on September 11, 2001. George W. Bush finally took the war to the heart of where the Islamic terrorists had devised their plans for 9/11 by invading Afghanistan. To bin Laden and other terrorists, this must have come as a great shock, based on the behavior of past American administrations.
The lesson to be learned, especially from the Iranian hostage crisis and the Beirut massacre of the Marines, is to strongly retaliate as quickly as possible. Not responding only emboldens the enemy and is an invitation for even worse atrocities. The attacks of 9/11 are witness to the decades of America’s mistake in its tragic failure to respond resolutely to Islamic terror.