analysisMiddle East

Hezbollah’s pioneering role in suicide terrorism

Recent IDF investigation reassesses what caused deadly 1982 Lebanon blast.

Workers use a large crane to move the rubble of a U.S. marine barracks in Beirut, Lebanon which collapsed after a truck filled with explosives crashed through a gate and smashed into the building. Over 200 marines inside the building were killed by the blast. Photo: Bettmann/Getty Images.
Workers use a large crane to move the rubble of a U.S. marine barracks in Beirut, Lebanon which collapsed after a truck filled with explosives crashed through a gate and smashed into the building. Over 200 marines inside the building were killed by the blast. Photo: Bettmann/Getty Images.
Yaakov Lappin
Yaakov Lappin
Yaakov Lappin is an Israel-based military affairs correspondent and analyst. He is the in-house analyst at the Miryam Institute; a research associate at the Alma Research and Education Center; and a research associate at the Begin-Sadat Center for Strategic Studies at Bar-Ilan University. He is a frequent guest commentator on international television news networks, including Sky News and i24 News. Lappin is the author of Virtual Caliphate: Exposing the Islamist State on the Internet. Follow him at: www.patreon.com/yaakovlappin.

The Israel Defense Forces has recently reassessed its official explanation for a deadly explosion that rocked an administration building used by Israel in southern Lebanon in 1982. In doing so, it cast a spotlight on Hezbollah’s pioneering role in introducing suicide bombing to the Middle East. 

A new investigation committee led by Maj.-Gen. (res.) Amir Abulafia, which included members of the Israel Security Agency and the Israel Police, determined “with high probability” that the collapse of the administration building in Tyre on Nov. 11, 1982, was due to a suicide car bombing. 

The attack resulted in the deaths of 76 security personnel (from the Border Police, IDF and ISA) and 15 Lebanese detainees. Soon after the attack, Hezbollah claimed responsibility and commemorated it as the death of its “first martyr.”

Ely Karmon, a senior research scholar at the International Institute for Counter-Terrorism at Reichman University in Herzliya, pointed out that this conclusion is not a new one.

“Most if not all experts on Hezbollah and suicide bombing considered early on that the bombing was the result of a suicide operation by Hezbollah,” Karmon told JNS.  

He noted that a monument near Baalbek, Lebanon, is dedicated to 17-year-old Ahmad Qasir, the bomber responsible for the attack. Hezbollah celebrates the attack annually on November 11 as Martyr Day, with Nasrallah referring to it as the organization’s first.

Nearly a year after that attack, Karmon said, another suicide bombing occurred in Tyre, on Nov. 4, 1983. The bomber drove a pickup truck filled with explosives into an ISA building located at an IDF base, resulting in the deaths of 28 Israelis and 32 Lebanese prisoners, and wounding about 40 others.

These bombings firmly established Hezbollah as a pioneering force in suicide terrorism in the region.

However, Karmon added, the first modern suicide bombing in the Middle East is considered to have occurred on Dec. 15, 1981, in the form of an attack on the Iraqi embassy in Beirut by the Iraqi Shi’ite Islamist group al-Dawa. 

The explosion leveled the embassy, killing 61 people and injuring at least 100 others. It was likely the first of five signature bombings organized by Imad Mughniyeh, a Hezbollah terrorist leader, in which a terrorist drive into a building with a bomb-laden truck, Karmon assessed. Mughniyeh was assassinated in a car bomb in Damascus, Syria, in 2008. 

“The Lebanese branch of the Iraqi Dawa Party was founded in the 1960s. It would later become a core component in the establishment of the Hezbollah movement in 1982,” Karmon explained.

The use of suicide bombings by Hezbollah was significantly inspired by the tactics employed by Iranian forces during the Iran-Iraq War, according to Karmon.

“The sacrifice and martyrdom of Iranian young or child soldiers” likely influenced the young Hezbollah operatives, he stated. During the Iran-Iraq War, Iranian child soldiers were given plastic “keys to paradise” as symbolic assurances of their passage into heaven upon their deaths. These young soldiers were frequently used to clear minefields by simply walking through them, an act celebrated in Iran as a form of ultimate martyrdom.

Hezbollah’s introduction of suicide bombings set a precedent that was soon emulated by other, Palestinian Sunni terrorist organizations. 

Karmon noted that after Israel deported 415 Hamas and Palestinian Islamic Jihad operatives to Lebanon in December 1992, the deportees established a camp near the southern Lebanese village of Marj al-Zuhur, close to the Israeli border. During their stay in southern Lebanon, they were indoctrinated and trained in suicide bombing by Hezbollah operatives. After a year, they were permitted by Israel to travel back Gaza and Judea and Samaria, and began organizing the first suicide bombing atrocities of the 1990s.

The Mehola Junction bombing on April 16, 1993, in Samaria, marked the first suicide car-bombing carried out by Hamas and PIJ terrorists, said Karmon. This was followed by another car bombing by Hamas member Sulayman Zidan on Oct. 4, 1993 at Beit El.

Bassam Abu-Sharif, former PFLP spokesman, claims in his book “Tried by Fire” that Waddi Haddad, the operational leader of the terror organization at the time, initiated suicide bombings in the early 1970s. One recruit, Abu Harb, was trained to fly a twin-engine plane from the Bekaa Valley to Tel Aviv, with the intent of crashing it into the Shalom Tower. The plan was thwarted when Abu Harb crashed during a practice landing and was severely injured. Published in 1995, Sharif’s book predates the 9/11 attacks by six years.

The spread of suicide bombing tactics was not limited to the Middle East, Karmon told JNS.

 In 1983, Sri Lankan Tamil Tiger cadres were training in Hezbollah terror camps at the time of the massive suicide truck bombing of the U.S. Marines in Beirut. 

“A few years later, the head of the Tamil Tigers, Prabhakaran, decided to try to model an attack after the Beirut suicide truck assassination,” said Karmon.

 In July 1987, the first Tamil Tiger suicide attack occurred when a terrorist drove a truck into a barracks of Sinhalese Sri Lankan troops. This attack initiated a wave of suicide bombings that lasted for over two decades, demonstrating the wide-reaching influence of Hezbollah’s tactics.

“But they are not religious,” said Karmon in reference to the Tamil Tigers. “They’re not Islamic. They’re a Hindu group, a Marxist group. They’re actually anti-religious. They are building the concept of martyrdom around a secular idea of individuals essentially altruistically sacrificing for the good of the local community.” Nevertheless, the Tigers ended up killing a Sri Lankan president with a suicide bombing in 1993. 

The Kurdish PKK separatists in Turkey also adopted suicide attacks. The group began using suicide attacks in mid-1996. Most PKK suicide attacks were carried out by women against military or police targets, and the campaign proved to be ineffective. 

Meanwhile, Al-Qaeda began to adopt this tactic by the 1990s, and went on to plot and implement the deadliest suicide mass casualty terror attack in history, on Sept. 11, 2011. The hijacking of four passenger aircraft on that dark day occurred 30 years after the PFLP hijacked five passenger planes simultaneously and blew them up in Jordan.

In the years that followed 9/11, Al-Qaeda inspired jihadists would implement suicide terrorism in Iraq, Syria and around the Middle East, as well as in European cities. Islamic State, its successor organization, adopted the tactic as well, employing it in Afghanistan, the Middle East and Africa. 

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