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Beirut attack: The start of Islamic terrorism

Twenty-five years on and it still appears in my nightmares and daydreams: the visual equivalent of a lone, empty shoe or sandal, on top of a pile of rubble, all that remains of the child who once wore it.

Only in my mind's eye it's not a shoe – it's a stepladder. The aluminum kind you'd use to change a bulb or paint the ceiling. It was lingering somewhere inside or against the 1/8 Marines' barracks in Beirut when a suicide bomber drove his five-ton yellow Mercedes truck, laden with six tons of TNT, right through an unfortified perimeter fence and straight into the lobby of the barracks, setting off the largest non-nuclear explosion since World War II.

Image:  bomb-wrecked U.S. Marine command center near Beirut
AP file
British soldiers give a hand in rescue operations at the site of the bomb-wrecked U.S. Marine command center in Beirut on Oct. 23, 1983.

I came across the ladder hours later, and hundreds of yards from the scene. It had impaled a tree trunk like a huge dart, and was hanging, parallel to the ground, swaying in the breeze. A strange image – but one that is seared in my mind when I think about that awful day 25 years ago that marked the first of what would become many radical Islamic terror attacks against Western interests.

Peacekeepers on an unwelcomed mission
By the fourth week of October 1983, our NBC News team had spent several months, off and on, covering – the term "embedding" didn't exist yet – the 1,600-strong contingent of U.S. Marines out of Camp Lejeune, N.C., in Lebanon. They were part of a multinational peacekeeping task force, including French and Italian troops, sent in to ease tensions between Lebanese, Palestinian and Israeli factions, following Israel's invasion and the pull-out of Yasser Arafat's PLO fighters from Beirut the previous September.

The beaching of U.S. Marines on the Lebanese coast was a big deal – proof, said Ronald Reagan's White House, that the dark days of Vietnam were over and that, once again, America could engage, militarily, in the defense of freedom. But the Marines weren't welcomed, and tensions didn't ease.

Alpha Company, based at the Lebanese Science Faculty building, about 3 miles from the main barracks,  was quickly surrounded by nameless Muslim resistors who would eventually coalesce into groups called Amal and Hezbollah.

Capt. Paul Roy, the company commander, had that grim look of grit and frustration I would so often see in future years. His troops were supposed to be peacekeepers, so he couldn't build an offensive firewall or serious protective barrier; his weapons were always unloaded unless his troops were fired upon; and they couldn't fire back until the source of fire had been positively identified and it had been cleared with higher-ups.

Over time, our team – reporter Stan Bernard, cameraman Brian Prentke, soundman Thierry Meaume and myself – filed more than a dozen stories with Alpha Company, living with these brave sitting ducks, under fire, as their patrols dwindled and their area of operation shrank. Sleeping on concrete, eating the first (bad) generation of Meals Ready to Eat, taking bottled water showers.

Every day began with Roy peering through binoculars from the roof's sniper nest, fixing the large Marine barracks to the southwest as his main landmark; and every day ended with all of us non-combatants huddled in a shallow clay trench as rocket propelled grenades and AK-47 fire snapped and boomed overhead.

VIDEO From the NBC News Archives:  Bombing in Beirut

'The barracks will always be there'
By Oct. 22, we'd had enough. And were determined that our next story would be more comfortable. Close to showers. And real food. Why not do a "day-in-the-life" with U.S. Marines "inside the wire" – at the battalion's barracks – where troops spent their down time cleaning weapons, doing laundry, reading mail, pumping iron and barbequing hamburgers to country western tunes? In a word, Heaven.

Our plan was to spend the night at the barracks and return to our base – at the Commodore Hotel in West Beirut – when our "slice of life" story was in the can. It was a great plan, on paper.

But early Saturday evening when our portly Lebanese driver who we called "Haj and a Half" picked us up, our car hit Beirut's chaotic traffic and didn't budge for an hour. Now it was dark. And we were hungry, smelly and angry. "Screw it!" I bellowed from the back seat. "The barracks will always be there. Let's go back to the f… ing hotel. We deserve it."

"The barracks will always be there" came back,  of course, to haunt me. A little after 6 a.m. the following morning, the force of the blast, four or five miles away, knocked me from of my hotel bed.

'It's gone.  It's just … gone'

The unbelievable news traveled quickly, by way of colleagues' shouts in the corridors, and on BBC radio bulletins. Within minutes news teams dressed, loaded up and raced off to a ground zero that would, inexorably, lead to the Ground Zero, a generation later. Many of us who had to record and make sense of what we saw flipped on "auto pilot" that day.

The four-story barracks was flattened as if by a massive earthquake. The wailing beneath the rubble; the naked dead bodies pulled from a morass of concrete and cinderblocks; bruised and bloodied survivors who couldn't grasp why they weren't dead, too stunned to even cry…we took it all in as if in a trance.

We collected telephone numbers from survivors, like many of my colleagues in those days before cell or satellite phones, and called families back in the states with the good news. Instinctively, the following day, we returned to the Science Faculty building to visit our buddies from Alpha Company. Nothing – and everything – had changed.

 It seemed like the soul had been ripped out of their mission. These Marines had already checked out. We spent the night, mostly out of respect. There was the obligatory RPG attack during the night. And the next morning, Capt. Roy climbed up, as always, to the sniper nest, we right behind him. He looked through his binoculars, as he did every morning, across the urban sprawl of southwest Beirut.

But this time he peered much longer than usual, as if he'd lost his bearings. Then he turned to me, this war-hardened Marine's Marine, tears streaming down his face, catching the sun's glare. And croaked, "It's gone. It's just … gone.''

First of many attacks
In all, 241 U.S. servicemen, mostly Marines, died in the blast. And 58 French peacekeepers were also killed that morning when a second suicide bomber detonated yet another truck outside the French barracks, nearby.

This was not only a new chapter in the way the West would have to deal with Islamist terror; this was the table of contents for a new, very thick book. The first suicide truck bombers, even seen to be smiling as they met their fate; the first act of Islamist jihad against the U.S. military; the first humiliating defeat at the hands of a force few Westerners even knew existed.

The loss was so big it drove President Reagan to make an about-face and pull U.S. forces out of the Middle East, allowing a young Osama bin Laden to remark how America didn't have the stomach for real warfare. The atrocity set the bar for a whole generation of future attacks on U.S. targets, from Saudi Arabia to the World Trade Center. But none of that makes Oct. 23, 1983 any easier to handle, even 25 years later.

In 1985 a secret U.S. grand jury found Lebanese radical Imad Mughniyeh guilty of masterminding the Marine barracks bombing. But Mughniyeh went on for years after that to strike elsewhere, allegedly killing 19 U.S. soldiers and wounding dozens at the Khobar Towers in Saudi Arabia in 1996. And there were other attacks – until last February, when Mughniyeh died in a car bomb in Damascus, Syria. 

VIDEO: Crowds gather in Beirut for terrorist's funeral

And, though it was no longer my beat, in yet another quirk of fate I was assigned to cover Mughniyeh's funeral in Beirut. His coffin was laid out on a wide wooden dais, draped in flowers and Hezbollah slogans. He received full military honors, including a marching brass band and a visit and eulogy by Iran's Foreign Minister. 

I watched from the press section, in front of the dais, one of the few obviously Western reporters in a vast room the size of a hangar, thinking how easy it would be to be kidnapped and disappear then and there. I thought about how weirdly symmetrical it was to be gazing at the coffin of the man who likely killed so many Marines, and – but for a traffic jam – could have killed me.

And then I thought of that stepladder.

** 10/23/08  Erroneous references to the 1/6 Marines were corrected thanks to attentive readers.

Jim Maceda is an NBC News Correspondent based in London, who, in October 1983, was embedded with the 1/8 Marines in Beirut.