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Wright: Barracks blast 'ripped through all of Beirut'

"This was pure terror. And the seeds that we now see played out in so many countries in so many parts of the Islamic world," Wright told CNN.

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CNN's Brent Sadler looks back at the 1983 bombing of U.S. Marine barracks in Beirut and the impact it had on U.S. foreign policy (October 23)
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NEW YORK (CNN) -- Twenty years ago Thursday, the United States was stunned by a suicide bomb attack on the Marine barracks in Beirut, Lebanon. The blast killed 242 Americans. Within six months of the attack, most of the American troops were pulled out of Lebanon. American policy-makers and terrorist leaders, too, have taken cues from what happened there.

Journalist Robin Wright was in Beirut on October 23, 1983, when the barracks were bombed. She's the author of "Sacred Rage: The Wrath of Militant Islam." And she talked with CNN's Aaron Brown about her memories of that horrific day.

AARON BROWN, CNN ANCHOR: What do you remember about the day?

ROBIN WRIGHT, AUTHOR, "SACRED RAGE": Oh, I'll never forget it, the enormous explosion that literally ripped through all of Beirut.

I was five, six miles away, and I'll never forget being awakened by a really thunderous explosion that rattled windows a long distance from where the two bombs went off at the American and French compounds.

BROWN: You said today earlier, everyone knew it was going to happen. Who was everyone and what did they know was going to happen and what did they do to stop it?

WRIGHT: Well, Colonel Garrety (ph), who was the commander in Beirut at the time, had been ordered 34 days earlier to fire on a Muslim militia in Beirut.

He protested because the Americans had been deployed as peacekeepers, not to get engaged in what was then a raging civil war in Lebanon between Christians and Muslims, who were vying for a different division of power inside Lebanon. And he protested and said that, if the U.S. warships opened fire on the Muslim militias, that the American Marines would then become targets. And his direct quote was to the effect, "We'll get slaughtered down here."

And he was right. And everyone who lived in Beirut and knew the situation that well knew that the Marines were going to become a target. The blast October 23, 1983, was the most powerful non-nuclear explosion anywhere on Earth since World War II.

BROWN: I went back and listened to what President Reagan said after the attack. And he talked about, if we cut and run, the terrorists or the people -- I'm not sure he used the word terrorists, honestly -- the people who did this, the criminals who did this, will be emboldened.

I suppose you can argue whether six months is cutting and running, but that's certainly how it was perceived. Have the terrorists been emboldened?

WRIGHT: Yes.

If you look at that whole period, it was a yearlong period where both two American embassies and the Marine compound were all destroyed by suicide bombers. Those were the first suicide bombers in the Middle East. This was a new tactic. The use of militant Islam, the emergence of Hezbollah was then a new type of political party. Only in Iran had you seen a kind of angry Islam become a political force.

But, even then, it was not used as a terrorist tactic. It was against another nation. Even if you look at the takeover of the American Embassy, that was a political act, in many ways. But this was pure terror. And so, these were the seeds that we now see having -- played out in so many countries in so many parts of the Islamic world.

BROWN: John Lehman, the former Navy secretary, is quoted today as saying: "There is no question" -- the Beirut bombing -- "it was a major cause of 9/11. We told the world that terrorism succeeds."

Was that the lesson of Beirut?

WRIGHT: To a certain degree, yes.

It also showed that -- in part, because we did effectively cut and run -- the Marines moved underground into bunkers. And then they moved -- were deployed, redeployed on to ships offshore. And then they sailed away. But it showed that extremist tactics can be effective in intimidating nations to leave. Israel withdrew first after a three-year presence deeper inside Lebanon back to an area across the border, in, largely, almost totally in response to extremist tactics used, suicide bombings, by Hezbollah and other militant groups, and then, several years later, withdrew from Lebanon altogether.

It was the only country Israel has ever withdrawn from without a security pact or a peace agreement. And it was in response to this kind of extremism that took its -- had its beginnings in 1983.

BROWN: Now flash forward to today. Are the policy-makers -- certainly the policy-makers are aware of what happened 20 years ago. Some of them were young decision-makers at the time. Do you think it's a lesson learned by the American government?

WRIGHT: No.

We clearly haven't learned enough about what spawns Islamic extremism, how to deal with it politically, as well as militarily. What's happened to Hezbollah in the interceding 20 years is very interesting, how it's evolved. There are a lot of lessons to be learned. One of the tragic ironies is that we didn't respond way back then. And the man believed to be responsible, widely linked by U.S. intelligence and others to this bombing, is a man Imad Mughniyeh, who today is still out there. And he's one of the 22 most wanted on the terrorism list.

And he's the one who has been there much longer. Osama bin Laden learned his tactics from what was used by Imad Mughniyeh much earlier.


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