On September 17, 1981, a car booby-trapped with 300 kilograms of TNT exploded in front of the Joint Forces headquarters in Sidon, killing 21 people and wounding 96. Within the next three days, three other serious explosions occurred throughout Lebanon: a bomb in the grounds of a cement factory in Shakka in the north, where four people were killed and eight injured; a car bomb in Beirut’s southern suburb of Hayy al-Salloum which left three dead and four wounded; and a bomb explosion in the popular Salwa cinema in Barbir, west Beirut, where a Bruce Lee film was playing, which killed five people and injured 26. [1]

These September 1981 attacks marked the beginning of an unprecedented wave of deadly explosions within the areas of Lebanon controlled by the Lebanese National Movement (LNM) and the Palestine Liberation Organization. While the frequency of explosions would wax and wane over the following months, from then on the people of west Beirut and parts of the rest of the country were never free from the anxiety of terrorist attack. These bombings were clearly a departure from the routine violence of factional rivalry and gangsterism then afflicting Lebanon. They all took place within areas at least nominally under the control of the LNM, the Syrian Arab Deterrent Force (ADF) and the PLO. This was not remarkable in itself, as there were at least 50 armed groups within these areas, many prone to serious internal clashes. However, the places attacked in mid-September 1981 did not fit the pattern of factional clashes. These usually targeted specific offices of an organization, or took the form of kidnapping and assassination. The car bombings were against targets that were popular in the broadest sense of the word. Attacking them would not help the interests of any particular group within the nationalist areas. The Joint Forces center represented the unity of the PLO and the LNM; the cement factory was controlled by anti-Phalangist forces affiliated with former president Sulayman Franjiyya; both Hayy al-Salloum and Barbir are poor, mainly Lebanese neighborhoods that provided support for both the LNM and the PLO.

The clearest indication that these attacks were not simply a part of internal feuding or gang warfare was the name of the group that claimed responsibility for all four attacks: the Front for the Liberation of Lebanon from Foreigners. The FLLF had claimed responsibility for several random terror attacks since 1977. It was popularly assumed to be a cover for the Phalangists, elements of the army’s Deuxieme Bureau and Israeli intelligence. Their avowed aim was the same as the Phalangists (and the Israelis during and after the June 1982 invasion): to rid Lebanon of all “foreigners,” meaning primarily the Palestinians and Syrians, but also including their supporters, the Lebanese leftists.

In late September, a car bomb exploded in Zurariyya, south Lebanon, near a Joint Forces checkpoint, killing 18 people and injuring 70. The FLLF claimed responsibility. On October 1, a huge car bomb exploded in the Arab University neighborhood?the heart of the nationalist area. On the street where the explosion occurred were offices of the Lebanese Organization for Communist Action (OCA), the Lebanese Communist Party, and several PLO offices. Eighty people were killed and approximately 225 injured. The FLLF once again claimed responsibility, stating that “attacks will continue until no foreigners remain.” Along with five other small unclaimed explosions in west Beirut and the south during the last week of September, these attacks contributed to a pervasive and rapidly growing sense of panic and frustration among the populace. From September 17 to October 1, over 500 people had been killed and injured by these terrorist car bombs.

Political Setting

This systematic terror campaign seems to have had specifc political motivations directly related to the situation in Lebanon in the autumn of 1981. On the Palestinian level, the battles with Israel that past July saw the heaviest fighting since the 1978 invasion. The PLO had not only held its own, but had wreaked havoc in Israel’s northern settlements. This fighting had ended on July 24, 1981, under the terms of a ceasefire negotiated by US special envoy Philip Habib. For the PLO, being a de facto partner in the ceasefire was a diplomatic coup. More important, however, was that the ceasefire was actually holding from the PLO side, providing the world with a picture of unity and self-restraint, and increasing the PLO’s legitimacy internationally. For the Likud government, this situation was not satisfactory. Begin&rsquos promise that “no more Katyushas will fall on Kiryat Shimona” was not meant to be fulfilled by a ceasefire that politically enhanced the PLO.

Palestinians and Lebanese viewed the terrorist car bombs in September as the Israeli response to the ceasefire: to provoke an infringement of the ceasefire, and to keep the PLO busy with self-defense measures by opening an internal front. This would foster anti-Palestinian sentiments in Lebanon and weaken the PLO’s mass base among both Palestinians and Lebanese by exposing the inability of the PLO to protect them. [2]

At the same time, the Lebanese presidential elections scheduled for the summer of 1982 promised to be a decisive struggle between the fascist and anti-fascist camps. The LNM was desperately trying to remedy its serious internal divisions, and had issued a call for “a broad national front that would save Lebanon from the dangerous conspiracy which is meant to culminate in the summer of 1982 when the country would be handed over to one who will place it under the authority of the Phalangists and therefore of Israel.” [3]

Muhsin Ibrahim, general secretary of both the OCA and the LNM, blamed the wave of car bombings on “Israeli intelligence…assisted by direct Israeli agents and Phalangist agencies.” He said that the object of the bombings is “to prove that the political options adopted in the nationalist areas can lead only to chaos and anarchy and that the only sound option is the one that has been imposed on the other side — what we can call the fascist option.” He specifically linked the bomb campaign to the elections, saying the enemy wants

to establish the following equation by the summer of 1982: Lebanon is divided into two parts, one of them united and orderly and the other divided and fragmented. The only salvation for the fragmented part is to join the united, orderly part which is ruled by Bashir Gemayel. This of course is linked to the ultimate goal of the Phalangists, that the next president…be under the Phalangist umbrella. For this reason they are now accelerating the implementation of the plan for the fragmentation of the nationalist areas, and the security factor is a major one in this plan. [4]

The attacks of late September 1981 proved to be just the beginning. In the months that followed literally hundreds of bombs exploded. Some were openly claimed by the FLLF. Even those not claimed were assumed to be FLLF work, given the nature of their targets — busy streets in poor but progressive neighborhoods. The situation worsened further with a spate of bombs planted by Armenians against French targets, and a rise in local feuding among nationalist forces which mainly took the form of bomb attacks against embassies and violent street clashes.

According to the Lebanese weekly, Monday Morning, 544 bombs exploded and 107 were dismantled in 1981. In January and February 1982, 121 exploded and 23 were dismantled. Some bombs expressly claimed by the FLLF include the following: an explosion on November 9 in the Beirut offices of al-Liwa’ newspaper; on December 10, a car bomb in Tripoli killed 12 and injured 80; on February 23, a car bomb in the Raouche popular market area in west Beirut, killed one person, wounded three and started a major fire in the shops; minutes later, 200 meters away, a second car bomb exploded, killing six and wounding 59; on February 27 a car bomb near an ADF checkpoint in Ouzai killed four and wounded 26; on May 6, a car bomb in the Jinah area of west Beirut killed two and wounded 18; on May 5, a car bomb next to a mosque being built in Aramoun, south of Beirut, wounded four; on May 21, three bombs against Nasserite targets in different parts of west Beirut destroyed a building, killed 19 and wounded 25. On February 23, a car booby-trapped with 200 kilograms of explosives was found in the center of ‘Ayn al-Hilwa refugee camp. Palestinian security forces towed the car out of the camp; it exploded after being partially defused, killing four bomb experts and wounding 20 other persons. The explosives were clearly marked with Hebrew letters. [5]

There were very many other, smaller bombings during this period. In December alone there were four bombs in the Shiyah area of west Beirut. A bomb in an ADF building in Bir Hasan and another in a cinema in Hamra were dismantled. Two small bombs exploded in Barbir, and a car bomb went off in the UNESCO area of west Beirut. Another exploded near the Arab University. At least 14 people were reported killed from these explosions alone. Each month in 1982 saw a comparable pattern.

“Our Areas Are Clean”

The Phalangists publicly denied any involvement in the bombings, and attributed them all to internal factional feuding. (An incident directly linking the Phalange to the bombs took place in mid-December: A man was killed in the Mar Ilyas neighborhood of west Beirut when a bomb he was transporting exploded. The government’s internal security forces raided his house and found papers associating him with the Phalange. A few months previously, the Organization for Communist Action arrested an ex-member and published his confession that he had planted a bomb after being recruited by a member of the Deuxieme Bureau and some Phalangists, and paid a large sum of money.) At the end of December 1981, the Phalangist-dominated Lebanese Forces released their comparative statistical study of crime in the leftist and rightist areas. From January 1 to November 25, according to the Lebanese Forces, 494 acts of terrorism and explosives occurred in the leftist areas while 48 took place in the rightist areas. Their statistics for the total number of crimes in that same period were 2,273 in the leftist areas and 147 in theirs. When asked to explain this huge disparity, a Lebanese Forces spokesman said: “Our areas, sir, are clean of aliens and occupiers.”

The nationalist forces did not remain passive in the face of these attacks. In October, after the first wave of explosions, a Higher Security Committee was formed to cope with the bombings and the internal clashes, grouping the PLO, the LNM, the ADF and the Amal movement. Certain areas were closed off to traffic or parking, and special parking centers were patrolled. The number of checkpoints was doubled, and mobile patrols randomly searched cars. Specially trained dogs were imported to detect explosives. However, the ability of the committee to change or control the situation was limited. Among the reasons were the sheer volume of cars due to the lack of public transportation; the impossibility of controlling all access to any one area because of numerous small side streets; and the thousands of agents and thugs who roamed the city at will (and who surfaced, often dramatically, during the Israeli invasion and occupation).

The real problem was more basic, and impossible to solve by enforced security measures. This was the limbo character of the nationalist areas since the civil war. While there was no effective central government, there was also no effective alternative put forward by the nationalist forces. While Bashir Gemayel had built up a disciplined, one-party rule in his fascist enclave, the LNM had called on the state to reform itself on a more national framework and take up its responsibilities. This, together with the Syrian presence and the existence of numerous militias, often affiliated to various Arab regimes, greatly contributed to the anarchy in the nationalist areas, especially west Beirut, that left them so vulnerable to a systematic terrorist campaign. It was precisely this vulnerability that the enemy was trying to exploit.

The “Internal Front” and the Invasion

The car bombs appear to be an integral part of the larger Israeli-Phalangist campaign to transform Lebanon. The main targets of the “internal bombs” later became the main targets of Israeli F-15s and artillery in the summer of 1982. The names are familiar: Sidon, Ouzai, Shiyah, Barbir, Raouche, Hayy al-Salloum, the Arab University (which is only a few blocks from Fakhani, where many Palestinian and nationalist organizations were headquartered). Car bombs fit into the Israeli tactic of “softening up” an area before a main battle. In this case, the “softening up” was more at the psychological level than the military. This fits with Israel’s conduct of a very carefully planned psychological campaign. During the invasion, the Israelis dropped threatening letters from airplanes, blockaded the city, cut off electricity and water, and conducted numerous mock air raids. The aim of all these things was the same as the pre-invasion terror campaign: demoralization, fear and alienation among the masses, with their resultant abandonment of the nationalist forces.

The most striking link between the car bomb campaign and the war is what actually took place during the invasion. In the last week of May there were five major explosions, three of them claimed by the FLLF. After June 4, the internal terrorist attacks continued, but took on a new aspect. On June 26, L’Orient le Jour reported that there had been no less than 12 car bombs within the first three weeks of the invasion. A list of the major attacks includes the following:

  • car bomb on Verdun St. near the UNRWA depository; two killed and five injured.
  • car bomb in Shiyah in front of a clinic; six killed and 20 injured.
  • car bomb in front of Abu Nuwas restaurant in Hamra.
  • huge car bomb in old hotel area; minutes later a second bomb explodes; 50 killed and 120 wounded.
  • car bomb in Shiyah; two killed and 12 injured.
  • car bomb in the Sanayeh; two killed and 21 injured.

None of these west Beirut areas was under direct Israeli attack at the time of the explosions. All were places where large numbers of displaced people, mainly Palestinians, had gathered after fleeing their homes which were under direct attack. Verdun Street, with its many schools and institutions, had become the site of a number of refugee centers. The mainly Shi‘i neighborhood of Shiyah was a place of refuge for many of the Lebanese who fled the south, as well as displaced people from Sabra and Shatila. Both Hamra and Sanayeh were residential Lebanese neighborhoods considered “safe” by their original residents as well as by a massive influx of refugees. The Sanayeh car bomb was within a block of the Concorde cinema, which had become an emergency center for Palestinians who fled the southern town of Damour. The most devastating car bomb of all was the one in the old hotel district, near the Phoenicia. While there was a military presence in the area, the abandoned buildings were also full of refugees who had no place to go. One of the victims of the explosion was the Lebanese Communist Party cadre responsible for displaced people.

The motivation behind these car bombs seemed quite specific: to convince the residents of west Beirut that no place was safe, and that they were besieged from within as well as without. The enemy premise was that the more fear and despair they created on the mass level, the more quickly the PLO would capitulate. They also hoped to force people to flee the city, to simplify an IDF entry.

There was another aspect of the terror bombs. The targeting of displaced people — poor Lebanese and Palestinians who were fleeing Israeli aggression — only made sense in the context of the Phalangist-Israeli drive to “purify” west Beirut.


After the Invasion

The number of car bombs lessened dramatically in late July, by the time the entire western sector of Beirut was under direct Israeli fire. The two major car bombings in this period occurred in northern Lebanon, in Baddawi and Zghorta. In the wake of the Israeli invasion, Lebanon was dramatically rearranged. West Beirut and the south fell under Lebanese Army and Israeli control, respectively. For Palestinians and anti-Phalangist Lebanese in these areas, terror was now overt and state-sanctioned. The campaign against “foreigners” took the form of mass arrests by the army, and kidnappings, threats and killings by right-wing vigilantes. The new regime of Amin Gemayel openly discussed plans for expelling hundreds of thousands of Palestinians, and bulldozers went to work razing the shantytowns that housed Beirut’s mainly Muslim poor.

Still, the FLLF continues to operate as an unknown terror group, not officially linked to any party. In the past year, the FLLF has taken credit for four major car bombs, three of these in areas not occupied by the IDF or the Lebanese Army. The first was on January 28, 1983, in the town of Shatoura, behind Syrian lines on the Beirut-Damascus road. The target was a building used as a PLO headquarters. Some 40 people were killed. On February 5, a large car bomb destroyed the Palestine Research Center in Beirut. The Center had been looted and ransacked when the IDF entered Beirut, but at the time of the bombing it was functioning as the only PLO institution officially recognized by the Lebanese government. The explosion killed 20 people and injured 136. The message of both these attacks was clear: no PLO presence, in any form, in Lebanon.

The two other car bombs claimed by the FLLF came within days of each other. Like the Shatoura bomb, they were in Syrian-controlled parts of Lebanon. On August 5, a booby-trapped car exploded in front of a mosque in the northern city of Tripoli, causing the building to collapse on the worshipers. Two days later, on August 7, a car filled with over 200 pounds of dynamite blew up at noon at the entrance of Baalbek’s main vegetable market, close to the local bus terminal. Over 50 people were killed and close to 200 injured in the two explosions.

The US media often refers to the FLLF as “a shadowy organization.” This is true, in that it most probably functions as a front for other forces. The names of its planners may never be known, though the nature of its targets, as well as its very name, points to a Phalangist-Israeli connection. Their use of terror may be unparalleled. More than 1,000 persons have been killed and injured by FLLF bombs between September 1981 and August 1983, making this one of the most serious sustained terrorist campaigns in the world. Its victims have been overwhelmingly Palestinians and poor Lebanese. This allows the FLLF to continue unchallenged and unmasked.

Author’s Note: Allison Brooks provided valuable research assistance for this article.


[1] All information concerning explosions before June 1982 is from Monday Morning, a Lebanese weekly English-language magazine published in Beirut. Information concerning terror attacks from June 1982 on is from the Lebanese daily, L’Orient le Jour.
[2] See the statement of the PLO&rqsuo;s Abu Iyad in Monday Morning, October 5, 1981.
[3] Lebanese National Movement communique, printed in al-Safir, October 3, 1981.
[4] Muhsin Ibrahim interviewed by Monday Morning, October 5, 1981.
[5] See the photo and story in AJME (Americans for Justice in the Middle East) News (Beirut, April 1982), citing Lebanese press accounts of February 14, 1982.

How to cite this article:

Lee OBrien "Campaign of Terror," Middle East Report 118 (October 1983).

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