Libya, U.S. Attack (1986)

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Libya, U.S. Attack (1986)

The United States air assault on Libya in April 1986 marked the first major American military response to modern terrorism. The immediate cause was a terrorist bombing in West Berlin ten days earlier, an incident to which U.S. intelligence sources linked Libyan strongman Muammar Qadhafi. The response of President Ronald Reagan was a massive bombing raid on facilities in Tripoli and Benghazi, the country's two major cities. Although the 1986 attacks did not bring an end to Qaddafi's state-sponsored terrorismthe 1988 bombing of Pan Am flight 103 over Lockerbie, Scotland, occurred less than two years laterit marked the first step on a long road toward open confrontation with terrorism and terror-sponsoring states.

Early provocations. Qadhafi seized power in 1969, and during the 1970s and 1980s used his oil wealth to sponsor terrorist movements in 50 or more countries from Northern Ireland to the Philippines. He also undertook other aggressive moves, such as his declaration in 1973 that the Gulf of Sidra between Tripoli and Benghazi belonged to Libya.

The United States refused to recognize this claim, and in August 1981on orders from Reaganthe U.S. Sixth Fleet conducted exercises in the gulf. The result was a skirmish between two U.S. F-14 Tomcat fighters and two Soviet-made Su-22 fighter-bombers. The Americans shot down both Libyan planes, whose pilots ejected and were rescued by their own forces; the incident proved the superiority of Sidewinder missiles over Soviet Atoll air-toair missiles.

Operation El Dorado Canyon. Over the course of the next five years, tensions grew between the Reagan administration and the Qadhafi regime, which increased its sponsorship of and direct involvement in terrorism. On March 24, 1986, Libya launched six SA-5 missiles against the U.S. Sixth Fleet, which was conducting maneuvers nearby in the Mediterranean. The attacks failed, and in subsequent strikes and counterstrikes, the Americans sunk two Libyan vessels. On April 5, 1986, a bomb exploded in Berlin's La Belle discotheque, killing a U.S. soldier and a Turkish civilian, and injuring some 200 others, including 63 U.S. soldiers.

Ten days later, late in the evening of April 15, the United States prepared for air strikes against Libyan ground targets in five areas: the Aziziya barracks, known as a command and control post for terrorist activities; the military facilities at the Tripoli international airport; the Side Bilal base, said to be a facility for training terrorists in underwater sabotage; the Jamahariya military barracks in Benghazi, another terrorist command post; and the Benina air base southeast of Benghazi.

The attack, known as Operation El Dorado Canyon, involved more than 100 U.S. aircraft. The principal strike force was in the form of Navy A-6s from the aircraft carriers USS America and USS Coral Sea, and Air Force F-111s from airbases in the United Kingdom. The refusal of the French government to grant authority for an American overflight of their country greatly complicated matters, and necessitated refueling of the aircraft in a much longer flight around the Iberian peninsula.

Despite this obstacle, the U.S. force was able to launch its attack at 2:00 a.m. local time on April 16. Over the course of 12 minutes, U.S. forces dropped 60 tons (61 tonnes) of munitions and encountered negligible resistance from the Libyans, who failed to get a single aircraft airborne to challenge the attackers.

Aftermath. Qadhafi's agents later took part in the Lockerbie bombing, but for the most part his interest in international terrorism cooled after April 1986. After a protracted battle of words, in March 1999 he agreed to turn over two suspects in the Lockerbie bombing but claimed that the Americans who carried out the 1986 bombing raids should be charged for killing 31 people and wounding 226 others.

In May 2001, Qadhafi admitted to a German newspaper that Libya had been behind the discotheque bombing 15 years earlier, an apparent act of retaliation for the U.S. sinking of the two vessels in March 1986. In the La Belle bombing, he had received help from the East German Stasi intelligence service, but according to Stasi files retrieved after the end of the Cold War, the East Germans actively discouraged Middle-Eastern terrorism in Germany following the April 1986 U.S. retaliation against Libya. The La Belle bombing case, which could not have been possible prior to German reunification, finally went to trial in 2001, and in November, a German court found four people guilty of the attacks. They included a German woman and three men: a Palestinian, a Lebanese-born German, and a Libyan.



Davis, Brian L. Qaddafi, Terrorism, and the Origins of the U.S. Attack on Libya. New York: Praeger, 1990.

Venkus, Robert E. Raid on Qaddafi: The Untold Story of History's Longest Fighter Mission by the Pilot Who Directed It. New York: St. Martin's Press, 1992.


Greenberger, Robert S. "Dictating Terms: Sept. 11 Aids Gadhafi in Effort to Get Libya off U.S. Terrorist List." Wall Street Journal. (January 14, 2002): A1.

Herschensohn, Bruce. "What Proof? Terrorism Alone Is Cause for Action." Los Angeles Times. (October 5, 2001): B15.

Weinberger, Caspar, and Peter Schweizer. "But We've Defeated Terrorists Before." USA Today. (September 24, 2001): A15.

Williamson, Hugh. "Libya Blamed for 1986 Berlin Disco Bombing." Financial Times. (November 14, 2001): 12.


Operation El Dorado Canyon. Federation of American Scientists. <> (April 7, 2003).


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