BEIRUT: On Jan. 18, 1984, Dr. Malcolm Kerr, president of the American University of Beirut (AUB), stepped into a hallway leading to his office on the sprawling campus in the Lebanese capital. It was a rainy Wednesday morning. The civil war had been raging in the country for nine years.
Suddenly two armed men appeared, as if from nowhere, and opened fire on 52-year-old Kerr. He was shot twice in the back of the head and died instantly. The killers fled and were never identified.
In a telephone call to news agency AFP, the Islamic Jihad Organization (IJO), a Shiite militia backed by Iran, claimed responsibility for the killing. It cited the US military presence in Lebanon as the reason. American soldiers were part of a four-nation peacekeeping force created in 1982 during a US-brokered ceasefire between the Palestine Liberation Organization and Israel.
Speaking to Arab News from southern California, Kerr’s widow, Ann, recalled that terrible day, the events of which remain fresh in her memory even after 36 years.
“The grief is an ongoing thing,” she said. “You live with the loss and the loss assumes a place in your heart.”
Ann met her husband while they were both students at AUB in the 1950s. She was on a study trip from Occidental College in Los Angeles, he was studying for a master’s degree in Arabic studies. To them, AUB “represented the best of what the US had to offer,” Ann said.
Her husband, an American citizen, was born and raised in Lebanon and educated in the US. His parents had taught at AUB, so it was close to his heart. He returned to Lebanon on many occasions, eventually taking up further studies and teaching assignments at the university. An authority on the Middle East and the Arab world, in 1982 he was offered the job of president at the prestigious institution.
Ann blames Iran and Hezbollah for his murder, as the IJO is said to have been the forerunner to Hezbollah, which was formed in 1985.
“It is pretty clear that (Hezbollah was responsible) because in those days they were targeting visible westerners (such as) journalists and professors,” she said. “You might remember that David Dodge was kidnapped before Malcolm was assassinated.”
Dodge, also an American citizen, held a number of positions at AUB, including acting president before Kerr was appointed. On July 19, 1982, he was abducted from the campus and held hostage by the IJO. He was released a year later to the day, after Syria intervened.
The IJO went on to claim responsibility for a number of kidnappings, assassinations and attacks, including the 1983 bombings of French and US Marine barracks and the US embassy in Beirut. Between 1982 and 1992, 104 foreign writers, priests and journalists were kidnapped in what came to be known internationally as the Lebanon Hostage Crisis.
They included Associated Press reporter Terry Anderson, who was abducted on March 16, 1985 and held for six years and nine months, the longest time an American was held captive in Lebanon.
“Why was (Malcolm) assassinated and not kidnapped? That remains a question,” Ann said. “But we understood that they (the IJO) had not perfected the art of kidnapping yet, and did not know where to keep (hostages).”
Though the circumstantial evidence points the finger of blame at the IJO, it was not only radical Islam that posed a threat to Kerr’s safety. According to Ann, right-wing Lebanese Christian factions were “not happy” with his views on the Palestinian situation.
“At the time, everyone walked around with guns … it was a civil war,” she said.
News of Kerr’s murder spread quickly. Local media — including Lebanese newspaper An-Nahar and magazine Al-Shiraa, and the French-language weekly La Revue du Liban — as well as international news outlets such AFP and the New York Times, linked the assassination to the kidnapping of Dodge.
The day before Kerr was killed, the IJO claimed responsibility for the kidnapping of Hussein Al-Farrash, the Saudi consul general in Beirut, and threatened to kill him. He was released 66 days later following the intervention of Nabih Berri, who at the time was Lebanon’s justice minister and is now speaker of the parliament and head of the Amal Movement, an ally of Hezbollah.
Two decades after Kerr’s murder, his family called for a fresh investigation into the case and a trial, in light of new information that had come to light. In February 2003, they filed a lawsuit against Iran and Hezbollah at the US District Court for the District of Columbia.
Though they did not seek damages at the time, it was reported that the court awarded them a settlement in 2018, the proceeds of which are being used to create a student endowment fund.
The District Court ruled that IJO was a name used by Hezbollah to conceal its identity. The verdict provided some degree of closure for Ann.
“The value of the trial was that it brought some resolution to my family. I think it was better to close the case,” she said.
The sense of loss, however, is something Ann continues to contend with every day.
“Each person, (especially) in a close family such as ours, responds to things differently,” she said.
“For me, I was satisfied going on with my work, which always involved international education. For my son Steve, he was starting out in his basketball career.”
Steve Kerr, who has two brothers and a sister, was born in Beirut in 1965. He is an eight-time NBA champion, winning five titles as a Chicago Bulls player and three as head coach of the Golden State Warriors.
“From birth, practically, he had a ball in his hand,” said Ann. “For him, the spirit of competitive sports was his resolution.”