Targeting terrorists with bombs and bullets

updated 12:21 PM ET, Tue, September 23

By Jason Hanna, CNN

A U.S. airstrike in Iraq targeted this vehicle, which reportedly belonged to the terrorist group ISIS. Kurdish fighters inspect the damage. It's one of many examples in the last three decades of the United States using military power to combat international terrorism.

Ahmad Al-Rubaye/AFP/Getty Images

The U.S. military has attacked terrorists in Iraq and Syria, targeting ISIS fighters who have captured swaths of those countries for what it calls its new Islamic caliphate. The strikes are among the actions that the U.S. military has taken against Islamist groups or sponsors of international terrorism in the last 35 years.

Some military operations are carried out in secret, but others are publicly known. The following is a look at some of the major instances in which the U.S. military took action against Islamist groups or international terrorism.

Iran hostage crisis, 1979-1980

A blindfolded American hostage is paraded by his captors at the U.S. Embassy in Tehran, Iran, in November 1979.

Alain Mingam/Gamma-Rapho/Getty Images

The situation: In November 1979, militant students supporting Iran’s Islamic Revolution stormed the U.S. Embassy in Tehran and took scores of hostages, in part to demand the extradition of the Shah from the United States, where the ousted ruler was getting cancer treatment. President Jimmy Carter ordered Iranian assets in U.S. banks frozen and eventually cut diplomatic ties with Iran. Ultimately, 52 Americans were held hostage for 444 days.

Military response: An April 1980 rescue attempt ended in disaster before U.S. troops even reached Tehran. Troops landed in an Iranian desert for refueling as planned, but mechanical and other issues took three of their eight helicopters out of operation. Commanders decided five helicopters weren’t enough to proceed, so they aborted the mission. As the troops prepared for the return flights, one of the helicopter struck a transport plane, killing eight U.S. servicemen.

Iran released the hostages in January 1981 after the Shah died of cancer and the country’s assets were unfrozen. A U.S. military review of the rescue attempt lamented that the task force coordinating the operation’s planning among the military’s various services was created on the fly. This helped lead to the creation of today’s U.S. Special Operations Command, which oversees elite troops in all service branches.

Achille Lauro hijacking, 1985

The Achille Lauro cruise ship leaves Egypt’s Port Said harbor after being released from terrorist hijackers in October 1985.

Francois Lochon/Gamma-Rapho/Getty Images

The situation: Members of the Palestinian Liberation Front, demanding the release of Palestinians from Israeli prisons, hijacked the Italian cruise ship Achille Lauro off the coast of Egypt in October 1985. During the raid, the hijackers killed a disabled American Jew, 69-year-old Leon Klinghoffer, and dumped his body overboard. After two days of negotiations, the four hijackers surrendered to Egyptian authorities in exchange for a promise of safe passage.

Military response: As an Egyptian airliner was flying the four hijackers to Tunisia, U.S. Navy fighter jets forced the plane to land at a NATO airbase in Italy, where they were arrested. Eighteen years later, during the U.S.-led invasion of Iraq, U.S. troops in Baghdad captured PLF leader Abu Abbas, whom U.S. authorities accused of masterminding the hijacking. He died in captivity of natural causes in 2004, the U.S. military said.

West Berlin disco bombing, 1986

Shoes belonging to victims of the La Belle disco bombing are stored at a police station in West Berlin in April 1986.


The situation: A bomb in April 1986 exploded at a disco popular with Americans in West Berlin, killing three people -- including two U.S. servicemen -- and injuring at least 229 others. U.S. President Ronald Reagan blamed Libya, citing intercepted messages from Libya’s East Berlin embassy. Fifteen years later German courts also pointed the finger at Libya and secured convictions of several people who had worked at the Libyan embassy in East Berlin. The bombing came after years of deteriorating relations between Libya and the United States, including 1981 and 1986 clashes in which Libyan and U.S. forces exchanged fire -- ending in the destruction of Libyan jets and ships -- in a dispute over where Libya’s territorial waters began.

Military response: Less than two weeks after the Berlin bombing, U.S. planes bombed targets in the Libyan cities of Tripoli and Benghazi, including homes of Libyan leader Moammar Gadhafi. Libyans say dozens of people died in the U.S. air attack, including Gadhafi’s 1-year-old adopted daughter. In 2008, three years before rebels would oust Gadhafi from power, Libya paid $1.5 billion to families of terror victims as part of a rapprochement with the West, including more than $280 million for victims of the La Belle disco bombing.

U.S. Embassy bombings in Kenya and Tanzania, 1998

Sudanese soldiers wear protective masks while surveying the wreckage of a pharmaceutical factory that was destroyed by American cruise missiles on the outskirts of Khartoum, Sudan, in August 1998. U.S. officials say the plant was housing chemical weapons and had ties to al Qaeda.

Enric Marti/AP

The situation: Less than six months after al Qaeda founder Osama bin Laden issued a statement saying Muslims should kill Americans anywhere they can be found, bombs exploded at the U.S. embassies in Kenya and Tanzania on August 7, 1998. The Kenya bomb, delivered in a truck, killed 224 people, including 12 Americans, and injured about 4,650 other people. The Tanzania explosion killed 10 Tanzanians. Bin Laden, who was accused of financing and planning the attacks, was indicted on more than 200 counts of murder. Twenty other al Qaeda members were also indicted.

Military response: The United States fired about 75 Tomahawk cruise missiles at facilities in Afghanistan and Sudan. Among the targets were terrorist training camps in Afghanistan, but al Qaeda would be a force for years to come.

September 11, 2001

Anti-Taliban fighters watch U.S. bombs explode in the Tora Bora mountains of Afghanistan in December 2001. The airstrikes were targeting Taliban and al Qaeda operatives in the region.

Erik de Castro/Reuters/Landov

The situation: Hijacked airliners struck the World Trade Center in New York, the Pentagon in Washington and a field outside Shanksville, Pennsylvania, killing 2,977 people in the worst terrorist attack in U.S. history. The U.S. government blames bin Laden and al Qaeda.

Military response: In Operation Enduring Freedom, U.S.-led forces began airstrikes against, and soon afterward invaded, Afghanistan in October 2001, in part to overthrow the Taliban for hosting al Qaeda, kicking off a global “war on terror.” It also preceded the 2003 U.S. invasion of Iraq, with the U.S. government arguing, among other things, that the Iraqi regime had weapons of mass destruction and posed an imminent threat.

Brown University's Watson Institute for International Studies estimates that the United States will spend more than $3 trillion on military and diplomatic operations in Afghanistan, Iraq and Pakistan from 2001 to 2014, and has incurred about $1 trillion in obligations for veterans' care through 2053. More than 3,400 coalition troops (including more than 2,300 Americans) have died in the Afghanistan-centered war, Operation Enduring Freedom, while more than 4,400 U.S. troops died in the 2003-2010 Iraq war.

Use of U.S. drones, 2000s to present

A U.S. Predator drone flies over the Kandahar Air Field in southern Afghanistan in January 2010.

Kirsty Wigglesworth/AP

During the United States' long war on terror, the military and the CIA have used unmanned aircraft for reconnaissance and airstrikes, notably in Afghanistan, Iraq, Pakistan, Yemen and Somalia.

Drone strikes have come under heavy criticism in Pakistan, where the United States has used them in its fight against suspected Taliban and Pakistani jihadist groups near the Afghan border. The Pakistani government has objected to the drones for many reasons, including the loss of innocent civilian lives. The strikes in Pakistan have killed 2,132 to 3,496 people since 2004, about 250 to 300 of them being civilians, according to the New America Foundation.

When President Obama gave a May 2013 speech that laid out standards for drone strikes, he said drones must be used with more temperance and caution, but they remain a necessary tool to take on terrorists. "It is a hard fact that U.S. strikes have resulted in civilian casualties, a risk that exists in all wars," Obama said. "As Commander in Chief, I must weigh these heartbreaking tragedies against the alternatives. To do nothing in the face of terrorist networks would invite far more civilian casualties."

Al Qaeda in Iraq, 2000s

A U.S. soldier at a news conference in Baghdad replaces an older picture of Jordanian terrorist Abu Musab al-Zarqawi with an image purporting to show al-Zarqawi’s body after he was killed in a U.S. airstrike in June 2006.

Khalid Mohammed/AP

The situation: Jordanian terrorist Abu Musab al-Zarqawi, who the U.S. says ran a terrorist training camp in Afghanistan before the U.S.-led invasion there, turned his attention to Iraq, where he founded al Qaeda in Iraq, the predecessor to ISIS. He encouraged a Sunni Muslim insurgency against U.S.-led forces in Iraq, and in February 2006, his group bombed the Askari mosque in Samarra, one of the most important shrines to Shiite Muslims -- believed to be an attempt by al-Zarqawi to ignite a regional sectarian conflict. Thousands of Sunnis were killed in retaliatory attacks.

Military response: A U.S. airstrike killed al-Zarqawi on June 7, 2006, as he was meeting with associates at a safe house near the Iraqi city of Baquba, an insurgent hotbed about 30 miles north of Baghdad, the U.S. military said. As CNN's Tim Lister has written, al-Zarqawi's killing, plus his group's vicious treatment of civilians and the emergence of the Sunni Awakening tribal revolt against al Qaeda, seriously degraded the group for a time.

Killing of Osama bin Laden, 2011

From the Situation Room of the White House, U.S. President Barack Obama and his national security team watch updates on the mission to capture Osama bin Laden on May 1, 2011.

Pete Souza/The White House/Getty Images

The situation: Years after the September 11 attacks, U.S. intelligence officials found a home of one of bin Laden's most trusted couriers in Abbottabad, Pakistan. The home's features were intriguing: It was surrounded by 12- to 18- foot walls topped by barbed wire; it lacked telephone and Internet service, but it was larger than other homes in the area; residents burned their trash; a third-floor terrace had a 7-foot privacy wall; and it cost a reported $1 million when it was built in 2006, but the courier and his brother had no obvious means of affording it.

The CIA informed President Obama in September 2010 that bin Laden could be living there, basing its assessment on the compound's size, price and elaborate security.

Military response: After five National Security Council meetings on the issue, Obama in April 2011 ordered a raid on the compound. In the early morning of May 2, more than 20 members of the secretive Navy SEAL Team 6 flew into Pakistan in two Black Hawk helicopters and raided the compound. They killed several men in a firefight, including bin Laden, ending a years-long hunt for America's No. 1 target. Hours later, in a televised address, Obama called it “the most significant achievement to date in our nation's effort to defeat al Qaeda.”

Killing of Anwar al-Awlaki, 2011

As an imam in California and Virginia, Anwar al-Awlaki preached to and interacted with three of the 9/11 hijackers, according to the 9/11 Commission Report.

Tracy Woodward/The Washington Post/Getty Images

The situation: American-born Muslim cleric Anwar al-Awlaki was an imam in California and Virginia before moving to Yemen in the last decade. The U.S. government said he would go on to be a prominent figure with al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula and accuses him of directing an operative's failed attempt to bring down a Detroit-bound airliner on Christmas Day in 2009, as well as planning for other attacks on the United States.

Military response: A CIA drone strike killed al-Awlaki near the Yemeni town of Khashef in September 2011.

In June 2014, in response to a court order, the Justice Department released a 2010 memo in which the department's Office of Legal Counsel said a drone strike against the American citizen would be justified. The document said the government had no feasible way to arrest al-Awlaki and concluded the authorization of military force against al Qaeda applied to him as it would a noncitizen.

Benghazi attack and its aftermath, 2012 to present

An armed man reacts as the U.S. mission in Benghazi, Libya, is engulfed in flames on September 11, 2012.

Esam Omran Al-Fetori/Reuters/Landov

The situation: Late on September 11, 2012, militants with automatic weapons and rocket-propelled grenades blasted through a U.S. diplomatic facility in Benghazi, Libya, before setting it ablaze, killing U.S. Ambassador Chris Stevens and State Department computer expert Sean Smith, court documents say. Hours later, early on September 12, militants attacked a nearby U.S. facility, killing two former Navy SEALs working as security contractors, Tyrone Woods and Glen Doherty. The Obama administration initially said the attack started with a protest by a mob angry about a video that mocked Islam, but it later said it was a planned terrorist attack.

Military response: U.S. military commandos and FBI agents captured a suspect, Ahmed Abu Khatallah, in eastern Libya in June 2014. Authorities say he is a senior leader of Ansar al Sharia, whose members were among several militias that participated in the Benghazi assault. Abu Khatallah was taken to the United States, where he pleaded not guilty to one count of providing material support to terrorists.