Wednesday, March 2, 2011

Libya - Remembering Reagan's Attack

The mainstream media has done very little in covering the American attack on Libya 25 years ago.  Way back in history, on April 14th, 1986 (well maybe not WAY back), the United States under the leadership of Ronald Reagan launched airstrikes against Libya in retaliation for that country's sponsorship of terrorism against both American citizens and American troops.  I can recall the day quite clearly; I was working in the oil industry and the price of oil on the market looked like it had no bottom.  I can recall fellow geoscientists and engineers musing that this action might be just the stimulus needed to push oil prices higher and put an halt to the seemingly endless layoffs in the oil industry.  It didn't.

During the 1970s and 1980s, Muammar Qaddafi's Libya was closely aligned with both anti-British and anti-American terrorist groups around the world ranging from the the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine (PFLP), the Palestinian Abu Nidal Organization, the Irish Republican Army, Japanese Red Army, Black Panthers and a wide range of anti-imperialist and anti-colonial terrorist groups whose primary goal was to further the cause of Arab nationalism, a "pet project" of Colonel Qaddafi.  Interestingly enough, the Qaddafi regime also supported Islamic militants in neighbouring Algeria and Morocco, two of the African states now experiencing revolutionary uprisings.  His support for these Islamic militants was in sharp contrast to the hatred he held for domestic Islamic politics which he regarded as "more dangerous than AIDS".

The air strikes were launched in retaliation for the connection between Libya and the Berlin bombing of a discotheque.  On April 5th, 1986, Libyan agents planted a bomb in La Belle Discotheque, a popular haunt of United States servicemen in West Berlin.  The bomb killed 2 United States servicemen and one Turkish woman as well as injuring over 220 people including 63 American servicemen.  In the days that followed, the United States intelligence network intercepted communications originating from the Libyan People's Bureau in East Berlin that clearly stated the involvement of Libya in the bombing including comments by Colonel Qaddafi ordering an attack on Americans that would "...cause maximum and indiscriminate casualties.".  Ten days after the blast, the Reagan Administration ordered the bombing of Libya.

In retaliation for the discotheque bombing as well as various other attacks on United States citizens and property, on April 14th, 1986 (2:00 am April 15th local time), the United States launched an attack code-named Operation El Dorado Canyon with 14 A-6E Navy attack jets based in the Mediterranean and 18 FB-111 bombers flown from bases in Great Britain.  Interestingly enough, France would not allow the United States aircraft to fly over their sovereign territory which added 2600 miles to the round trip distance, resulting in the need for mid-air refueling.  The attack was targeted at the Aziziyah military barracks in Tripoli and the Jamihiriyah military barracks in Benghazi (both were headquarters for Libyan terrorism), the military facilities at Tripoli's airport, the Murrat Side Bilal base which was used to train underwater saboteurs and the airbase in Benghazi which was selected because it could be used to launch a MIG counter-attack against the United States raid.  To attain tactical surprise, mission planners decided to hit all five targets at the same time.

Here is President Reagan's televised announcement of the airstrike at the same time as it was underway:

The attack itself lasted less than 12 minutes and dropped 60 tons of munitions.  One FB-111 bomber was shot down by anti-aircraft fire, killing its 2 crewmen.  Other than heavy anti-aircraft fire and the use of surface-to-air missiles, Libyan defence forces were completely overwhelmed and unable to scramble aircraft to defend their airspace.  

The raid had mixed physical success.  Qaddahi's residence was hit killing his 15 month old adopted daughter and seriously injuring two of his young sons.  Somewhat ironically, the French Embassy was also part of the collateral damage.  The Iranian Embassy and Swiss Consulate also sustained damage.  On the civilian side of the ledger, dozens of residential buildings were destroyed and between 30 and 100 Libyan civilians were killed.  As well, only two of the nine planes trying to kill Qaddafi struck close to their target and one FB-111 missed its target by several miles, hitting a diplomatic residential neighbourhood in downtown Tripoli.  As well, at least 7 of the 32 attack planes used for the raid aborted their bombing runs.  Some of the blame for missed targets can be attributed to the use of laser guided weapons.  While they are designed to be highly accurate, their accuracy is compromised when the atmosphere between the plane and the ground is smoke and dust-filled as was the case after the first planes dropped their munitions.  Heavy cloud cover may also have been responsible for missed targets.

In response, on the following day, Libyan patrol vessels in the Mediterranean fired missiles at the United States Navy communications station on the Italian island of Lemedusa but they fell short of their target.

When all things are considered, the raid was a rather miserable failure.  Colonel Qaddafi remained firmly in power and continued to export his brand of terrorism around the world and, in 2 short years, was responsible for one of the great commercial airplane bombings in history.  As well, from this attack, it became quite apparent that attempts to assassinate heads of state by using complex technology cannot be counted on, especially when it comes to preventing collateral damage to innocent civilians.  This is a lesson that successive Presidents have seemingly not learned.

The relationship between Libya and the United States has been very complex over the past 4 decades.  Libya was a key party in the Arab oil embargo of 1973 and, in 1988, was responsible for the bombing of Pan Am Flight  103 over Lockerbie, Scotland, killing all 259 passengers and crew and an additional 11 people on the ground.  The imposition of United Nations sanctions actually worked in this case; Colonel Qaddafi agreed to turn over the suspects in the bombing for trial in the Netherlands and also agreed to pay each victim's family approximately $8 million, basically, the price paid for the lifting U.N. sanctions against the country.

In 2003, Colonel Qaddafi gained favour with the Bush II  and Blair Administrations when he admitted that Libya had a program to build weapons of mass destruction and that he would allow inspectors to view and dismantle his country's program.  Of course, President Bush announced that it was the U.S. led invasion of Iraq and the overthrow of Saddam Hussein that sent "an unmistakable message" to regimes that stockpiled weapons of mass destruction.

Here's a quote from the Economist:

"Domestic considerations may also have influenced Mr Qaddafi’s decision to abandon his WMD programmes. There is widespread discontent among Libyans that, due to their leader’s erratic rule, they have seen little benefit from their country’s oil riches. Libya’s reserves are the largest in Africa and about the same as America’s, but they mostly lie untapped and the country’s oil output has fallen by almost half since the 1970s.

Mr Qaddafi has promised to scrap the extreme form of socialism he introduced after seizing power in a coup in 1969. Now he is seeking foreign capital and technology to develop Libya’s economy and thus leave it in good shape for his eventual successor, who many assume will be his 31-year-old son, Seif al Islam Qaddafi. So it makes sense to encourage such foreign investment by clearing the main remaining obstacle to Libya’s becoming a normal country. Mr Bush has said that if Libya keeps its promise to scrap its WMD programmes, “its good faith will be returned”—implying that the sanctions preventing American firms from investing in Libya will be lifted."
Perhaps some of this history explains the "dilly-dallying" of the past few days when it comes to dealing with the uprising in Libya.  I guess ultimately it really does boil down to "doing business".



  1. You forgot to mention in 1997--Qaddifi had the western support when he defied the uprising of the Islamist regimes in his country.

  2. The data in your article seems to be accurate. It would not even been available except for the work of SR-71 Blackbird pilot Brian Shul. I met him years ago at the Reno Air Races and he spoke at our church when he was there one year. You will enjoy his account of his Libya recon after the bombing. You can find it here:

  3. This is a good article. It ignores however, the new dimension in the conflict; rebel groups which essentially have the power to take over if given the chance and start a new government. Does this legitimise the action? Perhaps not. But it calls for the use of new analysis on a new questions. If the Western countries do indeed want to replace Gaddafi, can they empower the rebels to do so through aerial attack?

  4. I met him years ago at the Reno Air Races and he spoke at our church when he was there one year. You will enjoy his account of his Libya recon after the bombing.