"U.S. Embassy in Tripoli, Libya Attacked"

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"U.S. Embassy in Tripoli, Libya Attacked"

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By: The Associated Press

Date: December 3, 1979

Source: The Associated Press.

About the Author: Founded in 1848, the Associated Press (AP) is an international newswire service with offices and reporters stationed worldwide.


The arrival of Colonel Muammar Qaddafi to the leadership of Libya by way of a coup d'etat in 1969 transformed the sparsely populated, oil-rich, desert state. Qaddafi's manifesto, the Green Book, extolled a cross between Egypt's charismatic leader from 1956–1970 Gamal Abd-Al Nasser's philosophy of pan-Arabism and Cuban Premier Fidel Castro's Leninist Marxism. It was also infused with a call against colonialism.

In practice, Qaddafi's rule initially manifested itself as a kind of political gangsterism, combined with an indifferent neutrality. In 1970, the property of Italians and non-resident Jews in Libya was appropriated, leading to the exodus of much of the 13,000-strong Italian community. A year later, Qaddafi nationalized foreign banks and imposed various regulations on other foreign companies operating within Libya, most notably when he nationalized the Libyan holdings of British Petroleum in December 1971.

Qaddafi did not only shun Western governments. He also broke diplomatic ties with Morocco and Jordan after disagreements with Morocco's King Hassan and Jordan's King Hussein (Qaddafi would allegedly later order an attempt to assassinate Hussein).

With the United States, Qaddafi held a deeply contradictory relationship. Successive administrations tolerated him as an anti-Communist bulwark, even tipping him off about stirrings of coup attempts. Qaddafi responded by reinforcing his non-alignment convictions and shrugging away U.S. attempts at friendship in the 1970s. He was also deeply against the concurrent U.S.-brokered peace negotiations between Israel and Egypt, and backed an attempt to assassinate the U.S. ambassador to Cairo who was acting as broker.

Yet at the same time, Qaddafi lobbied hard for U.S. concessions on other matters. He sought export licenses for American-made Boeing 727 passenger aircraft. In November 1979, the Libyan government also attempted to intercede in the U.S. hostage crisis in Iran. These efforts failed.

Rising anti-American feeling across the Middle East then received a further boost when Iran's leader, the Ayatollah Khomeini, blamed America for an attack on the Grand Mosque in Mecca in 1979. The allegations were unsubstantiated, but anti-American riots broke out across Pakistan (where the U.S. embassy was burned down), in India, Malaysia, and Turkey.

On December 2, 1979, 2,000 students gathered outside the U.S. embassy in Tripoli to protest these accusations.


Some 2,000 Libyans sacked the U.S. Embassy in Tripoli and set fire to the four-story building, but the embassy staff escaped unhurt.

The State Department filed a strong protest with the Libyan government and implied that it was responsible for the attack.

Charge d'Affaires William Eagleton's wife said about a dozen staff members were working in the Tripoli embassy at midmorning Sunday when a group of demonstrators arrived "quietly chanting." She said the staff "immediately locked up," and several male officials went to the Green Square, a central plaza several blocks away, where they "saw a large mob. They got back to the embassy and within five minutes the mobs arrived."

Consul Vincent Principe said the Libyans began "banging on the door and made it known to us they wanted to get inside. We just thought it prudent to leave."

The Americans fled through a back door and took refuge in their homes.

Only one Libyan policeman was on duty in front of the embassy at the time, and Libyan officials ignored appeals from the embassy for reinforcements, the State Department said in Washington. The embassy's Marine guard was withdrawn from Tripoli some time ago at the request of the Libyan government, the department said.

The State Department said the mob apparently used two-by-fours to break through the front door while some of the demonstrators climbed up to a second-floor balcony. JANA, the official Libyan news agency, said the mob burned an American flag and effigies of President Carter and the deposed Shah of Iran. U.S. officials said there was serious fire damage to the consular section on the first floor and damage also on the second floor.

State Department officials in Washington said the attack on the building set off an automatic tear-gas security system. JANA charged that the embassy staff "fired toxic gases believed to be used only by the military, confirming that the embassy's employees are military personnel." It claimed the gas seriously injured several students.

State Department spokesman Hodding Carter said the U.S. government protested the "inadequate and unresponsive" security protection.

Asked whether the attack had the backing of the Libyan government, he replied: "Libya is not a country in which demonstrations and other public manifestations happen in the same way in which they happen in this country."

JANA said the Libyan government protested the embassy's use of gas.

Mrs. Eagleton said police reinforcements arrived after the mob scattered. "But we have protection now at the embassy and our houses." The State Department said Libyan firemen extinguished the fires.


The attack on the U.S. embassy in Tripoli exhausted American patience with Qaddafi. In 1980, President Jimmy Carter wrote: "There are few governments in the world with which we have more sharp and frequent policy differences than Libya. Libya has steadfastly opposed our efforts to reach and carry out the Camp David Accords between Israel, Egypt, and United States. . . We have strongly differing attitudes towards the PLO support of terrorism."

The expulsion of Libyan diplomats from Washington, D.C., in May of 1980, followed by Navy Sixth Fleet exercises in the Gulf of Sitre in August (which Libya claimed to be its sovereign waters, and led to skirmishes between U.S. naval fighter jets and Libyan fighter planes) soured relations still further.

When President Ronald Reagan took over the White House in January, 1981 he dubbed Libya "a base for Soviet subversion," with Qaddafi himself "the most dangerous man in the world." Further military exercises—creating further antagonism—were launched close to Libya; and in March 1982, Reagan declared a U.S. embargo on Libyan crude oil.

Plans to overthrow Qaddafi were hatched by the CIA and backing was even given to an Egyptian plan for an invasion of Libya, which were dropped after the assassination of Egyptian President Anwar Sadat in 1981. The United States also linked Libya to suspected plots to kill Reagan and then Vice President George H.W. Bush, as well as to Islamic Jihad, which hijacked flight 847 in June 1985. Libya was also implicated in terrorist attacks at the Rome and Vienna airports at Christmas 1985, and a bombing of a West Berlin disco in early April 1986, where two American servicemen were among the dead.

The disco bombing represented a "smoking gun" for U.S. intelligence services, who linked Libya to the attack. On April 15, 1986, the United States Air Force and Navy struck six targets in Tripoli and Benghazi, killing more than one hundred and injuring a further two hundred. Qaddafi escaped unharmed, but his wife and two children were seriously injured and his adopted daughter later died of her injuries.

The Tripoli bombings outraged Qaddafi. He then sanctioned the bombing of Pan Am flight 103, in December 1988, which blew up over Lockerbie, Scotland, killing 259 people on board and an additional eleven on the ground. Until the September 11 attacks in 2001, this would be the worst terrorist act committed against the United States.

A period of rapprochement with the Libyan regime, initiated in the late 1990s by the European Union, and dependent on a compensation settlement for the Lockerbie bombing, along with a commitment from Qaddafi to improve his human rights record, brought an end to European sanctions of Libya. Taking the lead from Europe, in September 2004, the United States resumed relations with Libya after a gap of twenty-two years. The Libyan government has since admitted their involvement in several terrorist incidents over the past three decades, including the bombing of PanAm 103.



Simons, Geoff. Libya: The Struggle For Survival. New York: Macmillan, 1993.

St John, Ronald B. Qaddafi's World Design: Libyan Foreign Policy 1969–1987. London: Saqi Books, 1987.

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