On April 18, 1983, a suicide bomber detonated a one-half-ton pickup truck laden with 2,000 pounds of TNT near the front of the U.S. Embassy in Beirut, Lebanon, killing 63 people, including 17 Americans. It was the deadliest attack on a U.S. diplomatic mission to date, and changed the way the U.S. Department of State secured its resources and executed its missions overseas.
Members of the Diplomatic Security Service’s (DSS) predecessor organization, the Office of Security, were affected by the terrorist attack. Marine Security Guard Corporal Robert McMaugh was standing guard inside the front of U.S. Embassy Beirut’s east entrance when the blast exploded; it killed him and destroyed nearly every floor of the building. Charles Light was the embassy’s Marine Security Guard detachment commander, and despite suffering severe shrapnel wounds and five crushed neck vertebrae, he worked around the clock for 18 days helping survivors, securing classified information, and recovering the dead.
Tragedy struck again in Beirut on October 23, 1983, when a suicide bomber drove a truck underneath the four-story building housing the U.S. Marine barracks and detonated 12,000 pounds of TNT. The explosion reduced the building to rubble and killed 220 Marines, 18 sailors, and three soldiers. DSS Physical Security Specialist Richard Truman, a U.S. Marine at the time, was deployed to Beirut with Marine Helicopter Squadron 162 when the bomb went off. He recalls the post-blast triage as a “surreal experience” and the body recovery as one of the most difficult things he has ever done.
In December that same year, terrorists drove a dump truck filled with explosives through the gate of the U.S. Embassy in Kuwait City and set off an explosion that destroyed the consular annex. No Americans were injured, but four local staff employed by the embassy were killed.
The suicide bombings in Beirut and Kuwait City were part of a larger shift in terrorist tactics that redefined diplomatic security and dramatically altered how U.S. officials perceived and responded to the terrorist threat. The Department of State convened a diplomatic security review panel, led by retired U.S. Navy Admiral Bobby Inman, which recommended the creation of mandatory minimum physical security standards for diplomatic facilities, budgeting for new construction and supplemental funding to upgrade existing office buildings, and elevating the State Department Office of Security to a bureau. Two years later, Congress and U.S. Secretary of State George P. Shultz authorized resources to create the Bureau of Diplomatic Security and “the principal element of the new bureau,” DSS. Shortly thereafter, President Ronald Reagan signed the Omnibus Diplomatic Security and Antiterrorism Act of 1986, providing the new organization with a formal structure.
Since then, the U.S. Department of State has implemented a number of countermeasures to harden U.S. facilities overseas, including anti-ram perimeter walls, passive and active vehicle barriers, parking standoff for screened vehicles, and window treatments such as laminated glass, shatter resistant film and locking mechanisms. These physical security requirements will be incorporated into the new U.S. Embassy in Beirut, for which the United States broke ground in April 2017.
About the Author: Eric Weiner serves in the Diplomatic Security Service’s Office of Public Affairs.