Buda’s Wagon (1920)
“You have shown no pity to us! We will do likewise. We will dynamite you!
— Anarchist warning (1919)
On a warm September day in 1920, a few months after the arrest of his comrades Sacco and Vanzetti, a vengeful Italian anarchist named Mario Buda parked his horse-drawn wagon near the corner of Wall and Broad Streets, directly across from J. P. Morgan Company. He nonchalantly climbed down and disappeared, unnoticed, into the lunchtime crowd. A few blocks away, a startled postal worker found strange leaflets warning: “Free the Political Prisoners or it will be Sure Death for All of You!” They were signed: “American Anarchist Fighters.” The bells of nearby Trinity Church began to toll at noon. When they stopped, the wagon — packed with dynamite and iron slugs — exploded in a fireball of shrapnel.
“The horse and wagon were blown to bits,” writes Paul Avrich, the celebrated historian of American anarchism who uncovered the true story. “Glass showered down from office windows, and awnings twelve stories above the street burst into flames. People fled in terror as a great cloud of dust enveloped the area. In Morgan’s offices, Thomas Joyce of the securities department fell dead on his desk amid a rubble of plaster and walls. Outside scores of bodies littered the streets.”
Buda was undoubtedly disappointed when he learned that J.P. Morgan himself was not among the 40 dead and more than 200 wounded — the great robber baron was away in Scotland at his hunting lodge. Nonetheless, a poor immigrant with some stolen dynamite, a pile of scrap metal, and an old horse had managed to bring unprecedented terror to the inner sanctum of American capitalism.
His Wall Street bomb was the culmination of a half-century of anarchist fantasies about avenging angels made of dynamite; but it was also an invention, like Charles Babbage’s Difference Engine, far ahead of the imagination of its time. Only after the barbarism of strategic bombing had become commonplace, and when air forces routinely pursued insurgents into the labyrinths of poor cities, would the truly radical potential of Buda’s “infernal machine” be fully realized.
Buda’s wagon was, in essence, the prototype car bomb: the first use of an inconspicuous vehicle, anonymous in almost any urban setting, to transport large quantities of high explosive into precise range of a high-value target. It was not replicated, as far as I have been able to determine, until January 12, 1947 when the Stern Gang drove a truckload of explosives into a British police station in Haifa, Palestine, killing 4 and injuring 140. The Stern Gang (a pro-fascist splinter group led by Avraham Stern that broke away from the right-wing Zionist paramilitary Irgun) would soon use truck and car bombs to kill Palestinians as well: a creative atrocity immediately reciprocated by British deserters fighting on the side of Palestinian nationalists.
Vehicle bombs thereafter were used sporadically — producing notable massacres in Saigon (1952), Algiers (1962), and Palermo (1963) — but the gates of hell were only truly opened in 1972, when the Provisional Irish Republican Army (IRA) accidentally, so the legend goes, improvised the first ammonium nitrate-fuel oil (ANFO) car bomb. These new-generation bombs, requiring only ordinary industrial ingredients and synthetic fertilizer, were cheap to fabricate and astonishingly powerful: they elevated urban terrorism from the artisanal to the industrial level, and made possible sustained blitzes against entire city centers as well as the complete destruction of ferro-concrete skyscrapers and residential blocks.
The car bomb, in other words, suddenly became a semi-strategic weapon that, under certain circumstances, was comparable to airpower in its ability to knock out critical urban nodes and headquarters as well as terrorize the populations of entire cities. Indeed, the suicide truck bombs that devastated the U.S. embassy and Marine barracks in Beirut in 1983 prevailed — at least in a geopolitical sense — over the combined firepower of the fighter-bombers and battleships of the U.S. Sixth Fleet and forced the Reagan administration to retreat from Lebanon.
Hezbollah’s ruthless and brilliant use of car bombs in Lebanon in the 1980s to counter the advanced military technology of the United States, France, and Israel soon emboldened a dozen other groups to bring their insurgencies and jihads home to the metropolis. Some of the new-generation car bombers were graduates of terrorism schools set up by the CIA and Pakistani intelligence (the ISI), with Saudi financing, in the mid-1980s to train mujahedin to terrorize the Russians then occupying Kabul. Between 1992 and 1998, 16 major vehicle bomb attacks in 13 different cities killed 1,050 people and wounded nearly 12,000. More importantly from a geopolitical standpoint, the IRA and Gama’a al-Islamiyya inflicted billions of dollars of damage on the two leading control-centers of the world economy — the City of London (1992, 1993, and 1996) and lower Manhattan (1993) — and forced a reorganization of the global reinsurance industry.
In the new millennium, 85 years after that first massacre on Wall Street, car bombs have become almost as generically global as iPods and HIV-AIDS, cratering the streets of cities from Bogota to Bali. Suicide truck bombs, once the distinctive signature of Hezbollah, have been franchised to Sri Lanka, Chechnya/Russia, Turkey, Egypt, Kuwait, and Indonesia. On any graph of urban terrorism, the curve representing car bombs is rising steeply, almost exponentially. U.S.-occupied Iraq, of course, is a relentless inferno with more than 9,000 casualties — mainly civilian — attributed to vehicle bombs in the two-year period between July 2003 and June 2005. Since then, the frequency of car-bomb attacks has dramatically increased: 140 per month in the fall of 2005, 13 in Baghdad on New Year’s Day 2006 alone. If roadside bombs or IEDs are the most effective device against American armored vehicles, car bombs are the weapon of choice for slaughtering Shiite civilians in front of mosques and markets and instigating an apocalyptic sectarian war.
Under siege from weapons indistinguishable from ordinary traffic, the apparatuses of administration and finance are retreating inside “rings of steel” and “green zones,” but the larger challenge of the car bomb seems intractable. Stolen nukes, Sarin gas, and anthrax may be the “sum of our fears,” but the car bomb is the quotidian workhorse of urban terrorism. Before considering its genealogy, however, it may be helpful to summarize those characteristics that make Buda’s wagon such a formidable and undoubtedly permanent source of urban insecurity.
First, vehicle bombs are stealth weapons of surprising power and destructive efficiency. Trucks, vans, or even SUVs can easily transport the equivalent of several conventional 1,000-pound bombs to the doorstep of a prime target. Moreover, their destructive power is still evolving, thanks to the constant tinkering of ingenious bomb-makers. We have yet to face the full horror of semi-trailer-sized explosions with a lethal blast range of 200 yards or of dirty bombs sheathed in enough nuclear waste to render mid-Manhattan radioactive for generations.
Second, they are extraordinarily cheap: 40 or 50 people can be massacred with a stolen car and maybe $400 of fertilizer and bootlegged electronics. Ramzi Yousef, the mastermind of the 1993 attack on the World Trade Center, bragged that his most expensive outlay was in long-distance phone calls. The explosive itself (one half ton of urea) cost $3,615 plus the $59 per day rental for a ten-foot-long Ryder van. In contrast, the cruise missiles that have become the classic American riposte to overseas terrorist attacks cost $1.1 million each.
Third, car bombings are operationally simple to organize. Although some still refuse to believe that Timothy McVeigh and Terry Nichols didn’t have secret assistance from a government or dark entity, two men in the proverbial phone booth — a security-guard and a farmer — successfully planned and executed the horrendous Oklahoma City bombing with instructional books and information acquired from the gun-show circuit.
Fourth, like even the ‘smartest’ of aerial bombs, car bombs are inherently indiscriminate: “Collateral damage” is virtually inevitable. If the logic of an attack is to slaughter innocents and sow panic in the widest circle, to operate a “strategy of tension,” or just demoralize a society, car bombs are ideal. But they are equally effective at destroying the moral credibility of a cause and alienating its mass base of support, as both the IRA and the ETA in Spain have independently discovered. The car bomb is an inherently fascist weapon.
Fifth, car bombs are highly anonymous and leave minimal forensic evidence. Buda quietly went home to Italy, leaving William Burns, J. Edgar Hoover, and the Bureau of Investigation (later, to be renamed the FBI) to make fools of themselves as they chased one false lead after another for a decade. Most of Buda’s descendants have also escaped identification and arrest. Anonymity, in addition, greatly recommends car bombs to those who like to disguise their handiwork, including the CIA, the Israeli Mossad, the Syrian GSD, the Iranian Pasdaran, and the Pakistani ISI — all of whom have caused unspeakable carnage with such devices.
Preliminary Detonations (1948-63)
“Reds’ Time Bombs Rip Saigon Center”
— New York Times’ headline (January 10,. 1952)
The members of the Stern Gang were ardent students of violence, self-declared Jewish admirers of Mussolini who steeped themselves in the terrorist traditions of the pre-1917 Russian Socialist-Revolutionary Party, the Macedonian IMRO, and the Italian Blackshirts. As the most extreme wing of the Zionist movement in Palestine — “fascists” to the Haganah and “terrorists” to the British — they were morally and tactically unfettered by considerations of diplomacy or world opinion. They had a fierce and well-deserved reputation for the originality of their operations and the unexpectedness of their attacks. On January 12, 1947, as part of their campaign to prevent any compromise between mainstream Zionism and the British Labor government, they exploded a powerful truck bomb in the central police station in Haifa, resulting in 144 casualties. Three months later, they repeated the tactic in Tel Aviv, blowing up the Sarona police barracks (5 dead) with a stolen postal truck filled with dynamite.
In December 1947, following the UN vote to partition Palestine, full-scale fighting broke out between Jewish and Arab communities from Haifa to Gaza. The Stern Gang, which rejected anything less than the restoration of a biblical Israel, now gave the truck bomb its debut as a weapon of mass terror. On January 4, 1948, two men in Arab dress drove a truck ostensibly loaded with oranges into the center of Jaffa and parked it next to the New Seray Building, which housed the Palestinian municipal government as well as a soup-kitchen for poor children. They cooly lingered for coffee at a nearby café before leaving a few minutes ahead of the detonation.
“A thunderous explosion,” writes Adam LeBor in his history of Jaffa, “then shook the city. Broken glass and shattered masonry blew out across Clock Tower Square. The New Seray’s centre and side walls collapsed in a pile of rubble and twisted beams. Only the neo-classical façade survived. After a moment of silence, the screams began, 26 were killed, hundreds injured. Most were civilians, including many children eating at the charity kitchen.” The bomb missed the local Palestinian leadership who had moved to another building, but the atrocity was highly successful in terrifying residents and setting the stage for their eventual flight.
It also provoked the Palestinians to cruel repayment in kind. The Arab High Committee had its own secret weapon — blond-haired British deserters, fighting on the side of the Palestinians. Nine days after the Jaffa bombing, some of these deserters, led by Eddie Brown, a former police corporal whose brother had been murdered by the Irgun, commandeered a postal delivery truck which they packed with explosives and detonated in the center of Haifa’s Jewish quarter, injuring 50 people. Two weeks later, Brown, driving a stolen car and followed by a five-ton truck driven by a Palestinian in a police uniform, successfully passed through British and Haganah checkpoints and entered Jerusalem’s New City. The driver parked in front of the Palestine Post, lit the fuse, and then escaped with Brown in his car. The newspaper headquarters was devastated with 1 dead and 20 wounded.
According to a chronicler of the episode, Abdel Kader el-Husseini, the military leader of the Arab Higher Committee, was so impressed by the success of these operations — inadvertently inspired by the Stern Gang — that he authorized an ambitious sequel employing six British deserters. “This time three trucks were used, escorted by a stolen British armored car with a young blond man in police uniform standing in the turret.” Again, the convoy easily passed through checkpoints and drove to the Atlantic Hotel on Ben Yehuda Street. A curious night watchman was murdered when he confronted the gang, who then drove off in the armored car after setting charges in the three trucks. The explosion was huge and the toll accordingly grim: 46 dead and 130 wounded.
The window of opportunity for such attacks — the possibility of passing from one zone to another — was rapidly closing as Palestinians and Jews braced for all-out warfare, but a final attack prefigured the car bomb’s brilliant future as a tool of assassination. On March 11, the official limousine of the American consul-general, flying the stars and stripes and driven by the usual chauffeur, was admitted to the courtyard of the heavily-guarded Jewish Agency compound. The driver, a Christian Palestinian named Abu Yussef, hoped to kill Zionist leader David Ben Gurion, but the limousine was moved just before it exploded; nonetheless, 13 officials of the Jewish Foundation Fund died and 40 were injured.
This brief but furious exchange of car bombs between Arabs and Jews would enter into the collective memory of their conflict, but would not be resumed on a large scale until Israel and its Phalangist allies began to terrorize West Beirut with bombings in 1981: a provocation that would awake a Shiite sleeping dragon. Meanwhile, the real sequel was played out in Saigon: a series of car and motorcycle bomb atrocities in 1952-53 that Graham Greene incorporated into the plot of his novel, The Quiet American, and which he portrayed as secretly orchestrated by his CIA operative Alden Pyle, who is conspiring to substitute a pro-American party for both the Viet-Minh (upon whom the actual bombings would be blamed) and the French (who are unable to guarantee public safety).
The real-life Quiet American was the counterinsurgency expert Colonel Edward Lansdale (fresh from victories against peasant Communists in the Philippines), and the real leader of the ‘Third Force’ was his protégé, General Trinh Minh The of the Cao Dai religious sect. There is no doubt, writes The’s biographer, that the general “instigated many terrorist outrages in Saigon, using clockwork plastic charges loaded into vehicles, or hidden inside bicycle frames with charges. Notably, the Li An Minh [The’s army] blew up cars in front of the Opera House in Saigon in 1952. These ‘time-bombs’ were reportedly made of 50-kg ordnance, used by the French air force, unexploded and collected by the Li An Minh.”
Lansdale was dispatched to Saigon by Allen Dulles of the CIA some months after the Opera atrocity (hideously immortalized in a Life photographer’s image of the upright corpse of a rickshaw driver with both legs blown off), which was officially blamed on Ho Chi Minh. Although Lansdale was well aware of General The’s authorship of these sophisticated attacks (the explosives were hidden in false compartments next to car gas tanks), he nonetheless championed the Cao Dai warlord as a patriot in the mould of Washington and Jefferson. After either French agents or Vietminh cadre assassinated The, Landsdale eulogized him to a journalist as “a good man. He was moderate, he was a pretty good general, he was on our side, and he cost twenty-five thousand dollars.”
Whether by emulation or reinvention, car bombs showed up next in another war-torn French colony — Algiers during the last days of the pied noirs or French colonial settlers. Some of the embittered French officers in Saigon in 1952-53 would also become cadres of the Organisation de l’Armé Secrete (OAS), led by General Raoul Salan. In April 1961, after the failure of its uprising against French President Charles de Gaulle, who was prepared to negotiate a settlement with the Algerian rebels, the OAS turned to terrorism — a veritable festival de plastique — with all the formidable experience of its veteran paratroopers and legionnaires. Its declared enemies included De Gaulle himself, French security forces, communists, peace activists (including philosopher and activist Jean-Paul Sartre), and especially Algerian civilians. The most deadly of their car bombs killed 62 Moslem stevedores lining up for work at the docks in Algiers in May 1962, but succeeded only in bolstering the Algerian resolve to drive all the pied-noirs into the sea.
The next destination for the car bomb was Palermo, Sicily. Angelo La Barbera, the Mafia capo of Palermo-Center, undoubtedly paid careful attention to the Algerian bombings and may even have borrowed some OAS expertise when he launched his devastating attack on his Mafia rival, “Little Bird” Greco, in February 1963. Greco’s bastion was the town of Ciaculli outside Palermo where he was protected by an army of henchmen. La Barbera surmounted this obstacle with the aid of the Alfa Romeo Giulietta. “This dainty four-door family saloon,” writes John Dickie in his history of the Cosa Nostra, “was one of the symbols of Italy’s economic miracle — ‘svelte, practical, comfortable, safe and convenient,’ as the adverts proclaimed.” The first explosive-packed Giulietta destroyed Greco’s house; the second, a few weeks later, killed one of his key allies. Greco’s gunmen retaliated, wounding La Barbera in Milan in May; in response, La Barbera’s ambitious lieutenants Pietro Torreta and Tommaso Buscetta (later to become the most famous of all Mafia pentiti) unleashed more deadly Giuliettas.
On June 30, 1963, “the umpteenth Giulietta stuffed with TNT” was left in one of the tangerine groves that surround Ciaculli. A tank of butane with a fuse was clearly visible in the back seat. A Giulietta had already exploded that morning in a nearby town, killing two people, so the carabinieri were cautious and summoned army engineers for assistance. “Two hours later two bomb disposal experts arrived, cut the fuse, and pronounced the vehicle safe to approach. But when Lt. Mario Malausa made to inspect the contents of the boot, he detonated the huge quantity of TNT it contained. He and six other men were blown to pieces by an explosion that scorched and stripped the tangerine trees for hundreds of metres around.” (The site is today marked by one of the several monuments to bomb victims in the Palermo region.)
Before this “First Mafia War” ended in 1964, the Sicilian population had learned to tremble at the very sight of a Giulietta and car bombings had become a permanent part of the Mafia repertoire. They were employed again during an even bloodier second Mafia war or Matanza in 1981-83, then turned against the Italian public in the early 1990s after the conviction of Cosa Nostra leaders in a series of sensational “maxi-trials.” The most notorious of these blind-rage car bombings — presumably organized by ‘Tractor’ Provenzano and his notorious Corleonese gang — was the explosion in May 1993 that damaged the world-famous Uffizi Gallery in the heart of Florence and killed 5 pedestrians, injuring 40 others.
“The Black Stuff”
“We could feel the rattle where we stood. Then we knew we were onto something, and it took off from there.”
— IRA veteran talking about the first ANFO car bomb
The first-generation car bombs — Jaffa-Jerusalem, Saigon, Algiers, and Palermo — were deadly enough (with a maximum yield usually equal to several hundred pounds of TNT), but required access to stolen industrial or military explosives. Journeymen bomb-makers, however, were aware of a homemade alternative – notoriously dangerous to concoct, but offering almost unlimited vistas of destruction at a low cost. Ammonium nitrate is a universally available synthetic fertilizer and industrial ingredient with extraordinary explosive properties, as witnessed by such accidental cataclysms as an explosion at a chemical plant in Oppau, Germany in 1921 — the shock waves were felt 150 miles away and only a vast crater remained where the plant had been — and a Texas City disaster in 1947 (600 dead and 90% of the town structurally damaged). Ammonium nitrate is sold in half-ton quantities affordable by even the most cash-strapped terrorist, but the process of mixing it with fuel oil to create an ANFO explosive is more than a little tricky as the Provisional Irish Republican Army (IRA) found out in late 1971.
“The car bomb was [re]discovered entirely by accident,” explains journalist Ed Maloney in his The Secret History of the IRA, “but its deployment by the Belfast IRA was not. The chain of events began in late December 1971 when the IRA’s quartermaster general, Jack McCabe, was fatally injured in an explosion caused when an experimental, fertilizer-based homemade mix known as the ‘black stuff’ exploded as he was blending it with a shovel in his garage on the northern outskirts of Dublin. [Provisionals’] GHQ warned that the mix was too dangerous to handle, but Belfast had already received a consignment, and someone had the idea of disposing of it by dumping it in a car with a fuse and a timer and leaving it somewhere in downtown Belfast.” The resulting explosion made a big impression upon the Belfast leadership.
The “black stuff” — which the IRA soon learned how to handle safely — freed the underground army from supply-side constraints: the car bomb enhanced destructive capacity yet reduced the likelihood of Volunteers being arrested or accidentally blown up. The ANFO-car bomb combination, in other words, was an unexpected military revolution, but one fraught with the potential for political and moral disaster. “The sheer size of the devices,” emphasizes Moloney, “greatly increased the risk of civilian deaths in careless or bungled operations.”
The IRA Army Council led by Sean MacStiofain, however, found the new weapon’s awesome capabilities too seductive to worry about ways in which its grisly consequences might backfire on them. Indeed, car bombs reinforced the illusion, shared by most of the top leadership in 1972, that the IRA was one final military offensive away from victory over the English government. Accordingly, in March 1972, two car bombs were sent into Belfast city center followed by garbled phone warnings that led police to inadvertently evacuate people in the direction of one of the explosions: Five civilians were killed along with two members of the security forces. Despite the public outcry as well as the immediate traffic closure of the Royal Avenue shopping precinct, the Belfast Brigade’s enthusiasm for the new weapon remained undiminished and the leadership plotted a huge attack designed to bring normal commercial life in Northern Ireland to an abrupt halt. MacStiofain boasted of an offensive of “the utmost ferocity and ruthessness” that would wreck the “colonial infrastructure.”
On Friday, July 21st, IRA Volunteers left 20 car bombs or concealed charges on the periphery of the now-gated city center, with detonations timed to follow one another at approximately five-minute intervals. The first car bomb exploded in front of the Ulster Bank in north Belfast and blew both legs off a Catholic passerby; successive explosions damaged two railroad stations, the Ulster bus depot on Oxford Street, various railway junctions, and a mixed Catholic-Protestant residential area on Cavehill Road. “At the height of the bombing, the center of Belfast resembled a city under artillery fire; clouds of suffocating smoke enveloped buildings as one explosion followed another, almost drowning out the hysterical screams of panicked shoppers.” A series of telephoned IRA warnings just created more chaos, as civilians fled from one explosion only to be driven back by another. Seven civilians and two soldiers were killed and more than 130 people were seriously wounded.
Although not an economic knockout punch, “Bloody Friday” was the beginning of a “no business as usual” bombing campaign that quickly inflicted significant damage on the Northern Ireland economy, particularly its ability to attract private and foreign investment. The terror of that day also compelled authorities to tighten their anti-car-bomb “ring of steel” around the Belfast city center, making it the prototype for other fortified enclaves and future “green zones.” In the tradition of their ancestors, the Fenians, who had originated dynamite terrorism in the 1870s, Irish Republicans had again added new pages to the textbook of urban guerrilla warfare. Foreign aficionados, particularly in the Middle East, undoubtedly paid close attention to the twin innovations of the ANFO car bomb and its employment in a protracted bombing campaign against an entire urban-regional economy.
What was less well understood outside of Ireland, however, was the enormity of the wound that the IRA’s car bombs inflicted on the Republican movement itself. Bloody Friday destroyed much of the IRA’s heroic-underdog popular image, produced deep revulsion amongst ordinary Catholics, and gave the British government an unexpected reprieve from the worldwide condemnation it had earned for the Blood Sunday massacre in Derry and internment without trial. Moreover, it gave the Army the perfect pretext to launch massive Operation Motorman: 13,000 troops led by Centurian tanks entered the “no-go” areas of Derry and Belfast and reclaimed control of the streets from the Republican movement. The same day, a bloody, bungled car bomb attack on the village of Claudy in County Londonderry killed 8 people. (Protestant Loyalist paramilitary groups — who never bothered with warnings and deliberately targeted civilians on the other side — would claim Bloody Friday and Claudy as sanctions for their triple car bomb attack on Dublin during afternoon rush hour on May 17, 1974 which left 33 dead, the highest one-day toll in the course of the “Troubles.”)
The Belfast debacle led to a major turnover in IRA leadership, but failed to dispel their almost cargo-cult-like belief in the capacity of car bombs to turn the tide of battle. Forced onto the defensive by Motorman and the backlash to Bloody Friday, they decided to strike at the very heart of British power instead. The Belfast Brigade planned to send ten car bombs to London via the Dublin-Liverpool ferry using fresh volunteers with clean records, including two young sisters, Marion and Dolours Price. Snags arose and only four cars arrived in London; one of these was detonated in front of the Old Bailey, another in the center of Whitehall, close to the Prime Minister’s house at Number 10 Downing Street. One hundred and eighty Londoners were injured and one was killed. Although the 8 IRA bombers were quickly caught, they were acclaimed in the West Belfast ghettoes and the operation became a template for future Provisional bombing campaigns in London, culminating in the huge explosions that shattered the City of London and unnerved the world insurance industry in 1992 and 1993.
Hell’s Kitchen (the 1980s)
“We are soldiers of God and we crave death. We are ready to turn Lebanon into another Vietnam.”
— Hezbollah communiqué
Never in history has a single city been the battlefield for so many contesting ideologies, sectarian allegiances, local vendettas, or foreign conspiracies and interventions as Beirut in the early 1980s. Belfast’s triangular conflicts — three armed camps (Republican, Loyalist, and British) and their splinter groups — seemed straightforward compared to the fractal, Russian-doll-like complexity of Lebanon’s civil wars (Shiite versus Palestinian, for example) within civil wars (Maronite versus Moslem and Druze) within regional conflicts (Israel versus Syria) and surrogate wars (Iran versus the United States) within, ultimately, the Cold War. In the fall of 1971, for example, there were 58 different armed groups in West Beirut alone. With so many people trying to kill each other for so many different reasons, Beirut became to the technology of urban violence what a tropical rainforest is to the evolution of plants.
Car bombs began to regularly terrorize Moslem West Beirut in the fall of 1981, apparently as part of an Israeli strategy to evict the Palestine Liberation Organization (PLO) from Lebanon. The Israeli secret service, the Mossad, had previously employed car bombs in Beirut to assassinate Palestinian leaders (novelist Ghassan Kanfani in July 1972, for example), so no one was especially surprised when evidence emerged that Israel was sponsoring the carnage. According to Middle Eastern schoalr Rashid Khalidi, “A sequence of public confessions by captured drivers made clear these [car bombings] were being utilized by the Israelis and their Phalangist allies to increase the pressure on the PLO to leave.”
Journalist Robert Fisk was in Beirut when an “enormous [car] bomb blew a 45-foot-crater in the road and brought down an entire block of apartments. The building collapsed like a concertina, crushing more than 50 of its occupants to death, most of them Shia refugees from southern Lebanon.” Several of the car bombers were captured and confessed that the bombs had been rigged by the Shin Bet, the Israeli equivalent of the FBI or the British Special Branch. But if such atrocities were designed to drive a wedge of terror between the PLO and Lebanese Moslems, they had the inadvertent result (as did the Israeli air force’s later cluster-bombing of civilian neighborhoods) of turning the Shias from informal Israeli allies into shrewd and resolute enemies.
The new face of Shiite militancy was Hezbollah, formed in mid-1982 out of an amalgamation of Islamic Amal with other pro-Khomeini groupuscules. Trained and advised by the Iranian Pasdaran in the Bekaa Valley, Hezbollah was both an indigenous resistance movement with deep roots in the Shiite slums of southern Beirut and, at the same time, the long arm of Iran’s theocratic revolution. Although some experts espouse alternative theories, Islamic Amal/Hezbollah is usually seen as the author, with Iranian and Syrian assistance, of the devastating attacks on American and French forces in Beirut during 1983. Hezbollah’s diabolic innovation was to marry the IRA’s ANFO car bombs to the kamikaze — using suicide drivers to crash truckloads of explosives into the lobbies of embassies and barracks in Beirut, and later into Israeli checkpoints and patrols in southern Lebanon.
The United States and France became targets of Hezbollah and its Syrian and Iranian patrons after the Multinational Force in Beirut, which supposedly had landed to allow for the safe evacuation of the PLO from that city, evolved into the informal and then open ally of the Maronite government in its civil war against the Moslem-Druze majority. The first retaliation against President Reagan’s policy occurred on April 18, 1983, when a pickup truck carrying 2,000 pounds of ANFO explosives suddenly swerved across traffic into the driveway of the oceanfront U.S. embassy in Beirut. The driver gunned the truck past a startled guard and crashed through the lobby door. “Even by Beirut standards,” writes former CIA agent Robert Baer, “it was an enormous blast, shattering windows. The USS Guadalcanal, anchored five miles off the coast, shuddered from the tremors. At ground zero, the center of the seven-story embassy lifted up hundreds of feet into the air, remained suspended for what seemed an eternity, and then collapsed in a cloud of dust, people, splintered furniture, and paper.”
Whether as a result of superb intelligence or sheer luck, the bombing coincided with a visit to the embassy of Robert Ames, the CIA’s national intelligence officer for the Near East. It killed him (“his hand was found floating a mile offshore, the wedding ring still on his finger”) and all six members of the Beirut CIA station. “Never before had the CIA lost so many officers in a single attack. It was a tragedy from which the agency would never recover.” It also left the Americans blind in Beirut, forcing them to scrounge for intelligence scraps from the French embassy or the British listening station offshore on Cyprus. (A year later, Hezbollah completed their massacre of the CIA in Beirut when they kidnapped and executed the replacement station chief, William Buckley.) As a result, the Agency never foresaw the coming of the mother-of-all-vehicle-bomb attacks.
Over the protests of Colonel Gerahty, the commander of the U.S. Marines onshore in Beirut, Ronald Reagan’s National Security Advisor, Robert McFarlane, ordered the Sixth Fleet in September to open fire on Druze militia who were storming Lebanese Army Forces positions in the hills above Beirut — bringing the United States into the conflict brazenly on the side of the reactionary Amin Gemayel government. A month later, a five-ton Mercedes dump truck hurled past sandbagged Marine sentries and smashed through a guardhouse into the ground floor of the “Beirut Hilton,” the U.S. military barracks in a former PLO headquarters next to the international airport. The truck’s payload was an incredible 12,000 pounds of high explosives. “It is said to have been the largest non-nuclear blast ever [deliberately] detonated on the face of the earth.” “The force of the explosion,” continues Eric Hammel in his history of the Marine landing force, “initially lifted the entire four-story structure, shearing the bases of the concrete support columns, each measuring fifteen feet in circumference and reinforced by numerous one and three quarter inch steel rods. The airborne building then fell in upon itself. A massive shock wave and ball of flaming gas was hurled in all directions.” The Marine (and Navy) death toll of 241 was the Corps’ highest single-day loss since Iwo Jima in 1945.
Meanwhile, another Hezbollah kamikaze had crashed his explosive-laden van into the French barracks in West Beirut, toppling the eight-story structure, killing 58 soldiers. If the airport bomb repaid the Americans for saving Gemayal, this second explosion was probably a response to the French decision to supply Saddam Hussein with Super-Etendard jets and Exocet missiles to attack Iran. The hazy distinction between local Shiite grievances and the interests of Tehran was blurred further when two members of Hezbollah joined with 18 Iraqi Shias to truck-bomb the U.S. embassy in Kuwait in mid-December. The French embassy, the control tower at the airport, the main oil refinery and an expatriate residential compound were also targeted in what was clearly a stern warning to Iran’s enemies.
Following another truck bombing against the French in Beirut as well as deadly attacks on Marine outposts, the Multinational Force began to withdraw from Lebanon in February 1984. It was Reagan’s most stunning geopolitical defeat. In the impolite phrase of Washington Post reporter Bob Woodward, “Essentially we turned tail and ran and left Lebanon.” American power in Lebanon, added Thomas Friedman of the New York Times, was neutralized by “just 12,000 pounds of dynamite and a stolen truck.”
[This article — a preliminary sketch for a book-length study — will appear next year in Indefensible Space: The Architecture of the National Insecurity State (Routledge 2007), edited by Michael Sorkin.]
Mike Davis is the author most recently of The Monster at Our Door: The Global Threat of Avian Flu (The New Press) and Planet of Slums (Verso). He lives in San Diego.
[Note for readers: Part 2 of Mike Davis’s history of the car bomb, “Car Bombs with Wings,” will be posted this Thursday.]
Copyright 2006 Mike Davis
This piece appeared first, with an introduction by Tom Engelhardt, at Tomdispatch.com.