Enclosed behind thick walls topped with razor wire and guarded by camouflage-painted pickup trucks with machine gun turrets, the new U.S. Embassy in Kuwait City looks like a fortress.
The old embassy wasn’t once so secure.
On the morning of Dec. 12, 1983, a suicide bomber drove an explosive-filled dump truck at the embassy. The consular annex collapsed, and four local staff were killed.
The French Embassy was bombed the same day, along with four other sites, in co-ordinated attacks orchestrated by Iranian-backed terrorists, among them Abu Mahdi al-Muhandis.
Convicted in absentia by Kuwait, al-Muhandis nonetheless went on to become an Iraqi militia leader — until he was killed in the same U.S. airstrike that took out Iran’s Qassem Soleimani.
Iran’s network of armed extremist factions are now promising revenge, and a terrorism expert said al-Muhandis’ 1983 Kuwait truck bombing operation could be a model of what’s in store.
The attackers were Iraqi and Lebanese Shias recruited from Iranian-backed militant groups for a complex operation in a neighbouring country, striking several targets including foreign embassies.
“Looking ahead, Iranian proxy attacks are likely to look a lot like those we saw in Kuwait in the 1980s, in which Abu Mahdi al-Muhandis played a prominent role,” said Prof. Matt Levitt, a counter-terrorism fellow at The Washington Institute.
The killing of Soleimani, who as leader of the Quds Force oversaw support for pro-Iran armed extremist groups, has ignited debate over whether he posed an imminent threat to the U.S.
While the White House has said four embassies were at risk, it has not released details. But in Kuwait, the Iraqi militia leader who also died in the strike had a history of such attacks.
The Kuwait car bombings occurred eight months after the U.S. Embassy in Beirut, Lebanon was bombed, killing 63. At the time, Kuwait was seen as sympathetic to Iraq, putting it in the cross hairs of pro-Iran factions.
When there is war around you, “you expect some of the negative reflections to reach you,” said Kuwaiti political analyst Ayed Al-Manna.
“And that’s what happened. During the Iran-Iraq war, people found it easy to infiltrate Kuwait.”
The operation began at around 9:30 a.m. In addition to the two embassies, Kuwait’s airport, its largest oil refinery, a power plant and the site of a U.S. company were also struck, but the attack was plagued with problems and only six died.
Responsibility was claimed by Islamic Jihad, which said it was loyal to the Iranian regime. Among the attackers was the brother-in-law of Imad Mugniyah, military chief of Iranian-backed Hezbollah.
Kuwait later convicted al-Muhandis in absentia for his role in the attacks and sentenced him to death. He was also linked to the attempted assassination of Kuwait’s emir, Sheik Jaber al-Ahmad al-Sabah.
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In May 1985, a car bomber rammed the royal motorcade. Three died, but the emir was unharmed. Islamic Jihad claimed responsibility, threatening more attacks unless the 17 arrested for the 1983 bombings were freed.
When al-Muhandis later won a seat in the Iraqi parliament, Kuwait’s government complained to Baghdad. He then fled to Iran and remained there until 2011, the Associated Press reported.
According to the U.S. Treasury, he formed a Shia militia group and led networks that smuggled ammunition and weapons such as sniper rifles into Iraq from Iran for attacks on coalition troops.
He also “facilitated the movement and training of Iraq-based Shia militia members to prepare them to attack Coalition Forces,” it continued, adding some were sent to Iran for sniper training.
More recently, his militia Kataib Hezbollah was blamed for rocket attacks on U.S. military bases. It was one such attack, on Dec. 27, that led U.S. President Donald Trump to order the Jan. 3 killing of Soleimani.
In a posthumous video, al-Muhandis appeared to admit his role in Kuwait, saying: “I pray I spend the afterlife with … those I fought with, from Kuwait to Iran to Iraq,” Al Jazeera reported.
Iran’s Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) responded on Jan. 8 with Operation Martyr Soleimani, launching missiles at Iraqi bases used by coalition forces. Canadian forces were present at one of the targeted bases.
Hours later, the IRGC shot down a commercial plane taking off from Tehran airport, killing all 176 on board. After denying responsibility, Iran finally admitted it thought the airliner was a missile.
Few experts believe the missile volley will be the end of Iran’s efforts to avenge Soleimani’s death. On Sunday, the leader of Hezbollah, Hassan Nasrallah, urged Tehran’s allies to exact revenge.
The U.S. Embassy in Kuwait has increased its security, advising Americans to “stay alert in locations frequented by tourists” and “use caution when walking or driving at night.”
Aside from its embassy row, Kuwait hosts U.S. troops and is the headquarters of Canada’s Iraq mission. The last major terrorist attack was the 2015 suicide bombing of a Shia mosque by ISIS. More than two dozen were killed.
An attack like the one that took place in 1983 would be much more difficult today. Kuwait has closed its only border crossing with southern Iraq since the recent escalation, and security is generally tighter.
“Well, we hope so,” Al-Manna said.
Embassies are also better fortified than in 1983, when the Beirut and Kuwait attacks led to the installation of diplomatic security measures such as vehicle barriers and perimeter walls.
But Iran and its proxies are also more experienced and more closely connected, and Levitt believes the Kuwait attack could be the prototype to which Iran’s IRGC is looking.
During the conflicts in Syria and Iraq, Iran’s Quds Force has built up what it calls an axis of resistance, a collection of Shia extremist groups that Tehran can call upon when the time is right.
“As a result of the war in Syria, where Iran has deployed a motley crew of Shia militants from around the region, the IRGC has effectively built up what affiliated with the IRGC describe as a Shia Liberation Army,” Levitt said.
“Mapping and tracking this Iranian foreign legion will present unique challenges for law enforcement and intelligence officers trying to get ahead of the Iranian proxy terrorist threat.”