Opinion: Mishandled analysis of 1982 Tyre attack had implications for US, France

1983 Beirut barracks bombings

BETWEEN 1982 AND 1983, 450 defense personnel and civilians from Israel, the United States and France were killed in Lebanon as a result of four consecutive terrorist attacks conducted by Hezbollah. For years, questions have been raised whether these attacks could have been prevented.

In 2000, a senior Israel Security Agency (ISA) official wrote a report on the huge explosion in the Israeli compound in Tyre, Lebanon, in 1982. Based on the available intelligence, he reached a firm conclusion: it was a suicide bombing by a Shiite terrorist inside a booby-trapped vehicle, and not a gas balloon explosion, as was officially claimed. Requests to publish the new report with the recent conclusions were denied by ISA senior officials, for reasons that remain unknown. This prompted questions and strong doubts among counterterrorism experts and the Israeli the public, about whether the initial report from 1982 was actually a serious mistake of judgement, or even a cover-up.

Twenty years later, in November 2020, an investigative article was published in Israel by Ronen Bergman, which shed light on new details indicating a high probability that the attack in Tyre was a Hezbollah terrorist attack and not a result of an explosion of gas balloons. The article stated that in 1982 Israeli authorities, especially the ISA, were not ready to admit that their intelligence missed the attack and did not stop it in time. As a result, lessons were not learned regarding the immediate need to strengthen the security of foreign compounds in Lebanon against possible threats from Hezbollah. In 1983 Hezbollah used the same modus operandi of car bombs to attack US and French forces in Beirut and later the —then new— Israeli compound of Tyre.

To understand better what happened, we have to look into the historical background. In June 1982, the government of Israel decided to enter south Lebanon in order to counter Palestinian terrorist attacks emanating from there. The IDF occupied a large part of Lebanon in an operation called “Peace of Galilee”. The ISA entered Lebanon, took responsibility for counterterrorism, and began to conduct operations to thwart Palestinian terrorism against the IDF, and later to stop growing attacks by Shiite organizations against Israeli forces. On November 11, 1982, a huge explosion occurred in the building of the IDF Command in Tyre. Ninety-one people were killed, including IDF soldiers, the Israeli Border Police personnel, and 9 ISA field officers.

The investigation concluded that it was an explosion by gas balloons in the kitchen of the building, and not a terrorist attack. Shortly after the horrible explosion, there were claims by IDF officers and ISA officials that it was actually a terrorist incident, in which an explosive device was brought into the IDF headquarters by a suicide car driven by a Shiite terrorist from Hezbollah. These claims have been withdrawn as inaccurate. As early as 1985, Hezbollah claimed this was a terrorist attack, and also mentioned the name of the suicide driver. However, the assessment in Israel that it was a random explosion of gas cylinders stayed firm and did not change.

The conclusion that this was not an attack had a significant security implication because, in fact, it ignored that Hezbollah had become a highly dangerous terrorist organization that used for the first time a car bomb for terrorist attacks in Lebanon —a tactic that later became prominent in its terrorist activity. Therefore, the American and French forces that were active in Lebanon were not prepared as expected. On October 23, 1983, two car bombs exploded in the compound of the US marines, members of the Multinational Force (MNF) in Lebanon, and in the nearby compound of the French forces. These attacks killed 307 people, including 241 US marines and 58 French military personnel.

Just a few days after the attack on the US and French forces in Lebanon, on November 4, 1983, there was another attack using a car bomb at the new IDF headquarters in the city of Tyre, which killed 60 IDF personnel, including three ISA field officers. It was a Hezbollah terrorist attack carried out in the same way as the previous terrorist attacks against the forces of Israel, United States, and France. What is the significance of wrongly assessing Hezbollah’s terrorist capabilities immediately after the attack against the Israeli compound in Tyre in 1982? It can be argued that the misjudgment of the first Hezbollah suicide attack in Tyre did not prompt Israeli, US, and French forces to upgrade the levels of security in their compounds in Lebanon. Doing so timely could have saved many lives.

Dr. Avner Barnea is research fellow at the National Security Studies Center of the University of Haifa in Israel. He served as a senior officer in the Israel Security Agency (ISA).

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Expert news and commentary on intelligence, espionage, spies and spying, by Dr. Joseph Fitsanakis and Ian Allen.

2 Responses to Opinion: Mishandled analysis of 1982 Tyre attack had implications for US, France

  1. Carl says:

    I’m sure a lot of people have pointed this out by now but its Tyre not Tire. It is correct in the article but not the headline. Thanks.

  2. intelNews says:

    @Carl: Fixed. Thank you for catching that. [IA]

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