On April 14, 1986, the United States launches air strikes against Libya in retaliation for the Libyan sponsorship of terrorism against American troops and citizens. The raid, which began shortly before 7 p.m. EST (2 a.m., April 15 in Libya), involved more than 100 U.S. Air Force and Navy aircraft, and was over within an hour. Five military targets and “terrorism centers” were hit, including the headquarters of Libyan leader Muammar al-Qaddafi.
During the 1970s and ’80s, Qaddafi’s government financed a wide variety of Muslim and anti-imperial groups worldwide, from Palestinian guerrillas and Philippine Muslim rebels to the Irish Republican Army and the Black Panthers. In response, the U.S. imposed sanctions against Libya, and relations between the two nations steadily deteriorated. In 1981, Libya fired at a U.S. aircraft that passed into the Gulf of Sidra, which Qaddafi had claimed in 1973 as Libyan territorial waters. That year, the U.S. uncovered evidence of Libyan-sponsored terrorist plots against the United States, including planned assassination attempts against U.S. officials and the bombing of a U.S. embassy-sponsored dance in Khartoum, Sudan.
In December 1985, five American citizens were killed in simultaneous terrorist attacks at the Rome and Vienna airports. Libya was blamed, and U.S. President Ronald Reagan ordered expanded sanctions and froze Libyan assets in the United States. On March 24, 1986, U.S. and Libyan forces clashed in the Gulf of Sidra, and four Libyan attack boats were sunk. Then, on April 5, terrorists bombed a West Berlin dance hall known to be frequented by U.S. servicemen. One U.S. serviceman and a Turkish woman were killed, and more than 200 people were wounded, including 50 other U.S. servicemen. U.S. intelligence reportedly intercepted radio messages sent from Libya to its diplomats in East Berlin ordering the April 5 attack on the LaBelle discotheque.
On April 14, the United States struck back with dramatic air strikes against Tripoli and Banghazi. The attacks were mounted by 14 A-6E navy attack jets based in the Mediterranean and 18 F-111 bombers from bases in England. Numerous other support aircraft were also involved. France refused to allow the F-111s to fly over French territory, which added 2,600 total nautical miles to the journey from England and back. Three military barracks were hit, along with the military facilities at Tripoli’s main airport and the Benina air base southeast of Benghazi. All targets except one were reportedly chosen because of their direct connection to terrorist activity. The Benina military airfield was hit to preempt Libyan interceptors from taking off and attacking the incoming U.S. bombers.
Even before the operation had ended, President Reagan went on national television to discuss the air strikes. “When our citizens are abused or attacked anywhere in the world,” he said, “we will respond in self-defense. Today we have done what we had to do. If necessary, we shall do it again.”
Operation El Dorado Canyon, as it was code-named, was called a success by U.S. officials. Qaddafi’s 15-month-old adopted daughter was killed in the attack on his residence, and two of his young sons were injured. Although he never admitted it publicly, there is speculation that Qaddafi was also wounded in the bombing. Fire from Libyan surface-to-air missiles and conventional anti-aircraft artillery was heavy during the attack, and one F-111, along with its two-member crew, were lost in unknown circumstances. Several residential buildings were inadvertently bombed during the raid, and 15 Libyan civilians were reported killed. The French embassy in Tripoli was also accidentally hit, but no one was injured.
On April 15, Libyan patrol boats fired missiles at a U.S. Navy communications station on the Italian island of Lamedusa, but the missiles fell short. There was no other major terrorist attack linked to Libya until the 1988 bombing of Pan Am 747 over Lockerbie, Scotland. All 259 passengers and crew of that flight were killed, and 11 people on the ground perished. In the early 1990s, investigators identified Libyan intelligence agents Abdel Basset Ali al-Megrahi and Lamen Khalifa Fhimah as suspects in the bombing, but Libya refused to turn them over to be tried in the United States. But in 1999–in an effort to ease United Nations sanctions against Libya–Colonel Moammar Gadhafi agreed to turn the suspects over to Scotland for trial in the Netherlands using Scottish law and prosecutors. In early 2001, al-Megrahi was convicted and sentenced to life in prison, although he continues to profess his innocence and work to overturn his conviction. Fhimah was acquitted.
In accordance with United Nations and American demands, Libya accepted responsibility for the bombing, though it did not express remorse. The U.N. and U.S. lifted sanctions against Libya; the country then paid each victim’s family approximately $8 million in compensation. In 2004, Libya’s prime minister said that the deal was the “price for peace,” implying that his country only accepted responsibility to get the sanctions lifted, angering the survivors’ families. He also admitted that Libya had not really accepted guilt for the bombing. Pan Am Airlines, which went bankrupt as a result of the bombing, is still seeking $4.5 billion in compensation from Libya in civil court.
Qaddafi surprised many around the world when he became one of the first Muslim heads of state to denounce al-Qaida after the attacks of September 11, 2001. In 2003, he gained favor with the administration of George W. Bush when he announced the existence of a program to build weapons of mass destruction in Libya and that he would allow an international agency to inspect and dismantle them. Though some in the U.S. government pointed to this as a direct and positive consequence of the ongoing war in Iraq, others pointed out that Qaddafi had essentially been making the same offer since 1999, but had been ignored. In 2004, U.K. Prime Minister Tony Blair visited Libya, one of the first western heads of state to do so in recent memory; he praised Libya during the visit as a strong ally in the international war on terror.
In February 2011, as unrest spread through much of the Arab world, massive political protests against the Qaddafi regime sparked a civil war between revolutionaries and loyalists. In March, an international coalition began conducting airstrikes against Qaddafi strongholds under the auspices of a U.N. Security Council resolution. On October 20, Libya’s interim government announced that Qaddafi had died after being captured near his hometown of Sirte.