The United States bombing of Libya (code-named Operation El Dorado Canyon) comprised the joint United States Air Force, Navy and Marine Corps air-strikes against Libya on April 15, 1986. The attack was carried out in response to the 1986 Berlin discotheque bombing.
After years of occasional skirmishes with Libya over Libyan territorial claims to the Gulf of Sidra, the United States contemplated a military attack to strike targets within Libyan landmass. In March 1986, the United States, asserting the 12-nautical-mile (22 km; 14 mi) limit to territorial waters recognized by the international community, sent a carrier task force to the region. Libya responded with aggressive counter-maneuvers on March 24 that led to the Gulf of Sidra incident. Less than two weeks later on April 5, a bomb exploded in a West Berlin disco, La Belle, killing two American servicemen and a Turkish woman and wounding 200 others. The United States claimed to have obtained cable transcripts from Libyan agents in East Germany involved in the attack.
After several days of diplomatic talks with European and Arab partners, President Ronald Reagan ordered the strike on Libya on April 14. Eighteen F-111F strike aircraft of the 48th Tactical Fighter Wing, flying from RAF Lakenheath supported by four EF-111A Ravens of the 20th Tactical Fighter Wing, from RAF Upper Heyford in England, in conjunction with fifteen A-6, A-7, F/A-18 attack aircraft and EA-6B Prowler Electronic Warfare Aircraft from the aircraft carriers USS Saratoga, USS America and USS Coral Sea on station in the Gulf of Sidra struck five targets at 02:00 on April 15, with the stated objective that their destruction would send a message and reduce Libya's ability to support and train terrorists.
Elements of the then-secret 4450th Tactical Group (USAF) were put on standby to fly the strike mission against Libya. Over 30 F-117s had already been delivered to Tactical Air Command (USAF) and were operating from secret bases in Nevada. Commanders in the North Africa/Mediterranean theaters knew nothing about the capabilities of the F-117, or that the aircraft even existed. Within an hour of the planned launch time for the F-117s, the Secretary of Defense scrubbed the Stealth mission, fearing a compromise of the secret aircraft and its development program. The airstrike was carried out with conventional US Navy and US Air Force aircraft. The F-117 would remain completely unknown to the world for several years until it was unveiled in 1988 and featured prominently in media coverage of Operation Desert Storm.
For the Libyan raid, the United States was denied overflight rights by France, Spain and Italy as well as the use of European continental bases, forcing the Air Force portion of the operation to be flown around France, Spain and through the Straits of Gibraltar, adding 1,300 miles (2,100 km) each way and requiring multiple aerial refuelings. The attack lasted about ten minutes. Several targets were hit and destroyed, but some civilian and diplomatic sites in Tripoli were struck as well, and the French embassy was reportedly only narrowly missed, when a number of bombs missed their intended targets.
|Azizyah barracks||9× F-111F||36× GBU-10 2,000 lb (910 kg) LGB||3× bombed
4× aborts, 1× lost
|Murat Sidi Bilal camp||3× F-111F||12× GBU-10 2,000 lb LGB||all bombed||12||-|
(fmr. Wheelus Air Base)
|6× F-111F||72× Mk 82 500 lb (230 kg) RDB||5× bombed
|Jamahiriyah (Benghazi) barracks||7× A-6E||84× Mk 82 500 lb RDB||6× bombed
1× abort on deck
|Benina airfield||8× A-6E||72× Mk 20 500 lb CBU
24× Mk 82 500 lb RDB
|60× Mk 20
12× Mk 82
|Tripoli||6× A-7E||8× Shrike
|all aircraft fired||8× Shrike
|Benghazi||6× F/A-18||4× Shrike
|all aircraft fired||4× Shrike
|Totals||45 aircraft||300 bombs
48 homing missiles
The Libyan air defense network was extensive, and included:
Covering Tripoli alone were:
The air strike killed 45 Libyan soldiers and government officials, and 15 civilians. Forewarned by a telephone call from Malta's Prime Minister, Karmenu Mifsud Bonnici, that unauthorized aircraft were flying over Maltese airspace heading south towards Tripoli, Libyan leader Muammar Gaddafi and his family rushed out of their residence in the Bab al Aziziya compound moments before the bombs dropped. Gaddafi escaped injury but his 15-month-old adopted daughter Hanna was killed, and two of his sons were injured. However, according to Giulio Andreotti and Abdel Rahman Shalgham, it was Bettino Craxi who warned Gaddafi.
In July 2008, Gaddafi's son Saif al Islam announced that an agreement was being negotiated with the United States whereby Libya would make any future compensation payments to American victims of terror attacks conditional upon the settlement of claims by victims of the U.S. bombing of Libya in 1986. On August 14, 2008 the resultant U.S.-Libya Comprehensive Claims Settlement Agreement was signed in Tripoli by Assistant Secretary of State for Near Eastern Affairs, David Welch, and by Libya's Secretary for American Affairs, Ahmad Fituri.
In October 2008 Libya paid $1.5 billion into a fund which will be used to compensate relatives of the
As a result, President Bush signed an executive order restoring the Libyan government's immunity from terror-related lawsuits and dismissing all of the pending compensation cases in the US, the White House said.
Two USAF captains—Fernando L. Ribas-Dominicci and Paul F. Lorence—were killed when their F-111 was shot down over the Gulf of Sidra. On December 25, 1988, Gaddafi offered to release the body of Lorence to his family through Pope John Paul II. This turned out to be Ribas-Dominicci's body, which was returned in 1989. Lorence's remains were never found. The U.S. government stated that Libya denies holding Lorence's remains.
In 2001, Theodore D. Karantsalis, a reference librarian at Miami-Dade College, enlisted the aid of Congressman Wally Herger's office to urge Libya to return Lorence's remains on behalf of his family and friends. Karantsalis also created a website and invited visitors to sign a petition to Congressman Lincoln Diaz-Balart seeking the return of Capt. Lorence's remains. On January 27, 2005, Karantsalis filed a federal lawsuit under the Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) against the Department of Defense and the Department of the Air Force seeking "to know where Captain Paul Lorence's remains are located." Karantsalis had hoped to locate the remains before the 20th anniversary of Lorence's death.
Libya responded by firing two Scud missiles at U.S. Coast Guard stations on the Italian island of Lampedusa which exploded far short of their targets. In Beirut, Lebanon, two British hostages held by the Libyan-supported Abu Nidal Organization, Leigh Douglas, Philip Padfield, along with an American named Peter Kilburn were shot dead in revenge. In addition, journalist John McCarthy was kidnapped and tourist Paul Appleby was murdered in Jerusalem. Another British hostage named Alec Collett was also killed in retaliation for the bombing of Libya. Collett was shown being hanged in a video tape. His body was found in November 2009. Gaddafi quashed an internal revolt, the organization of which he blamed on the United States. Although Gaddafi appeared to have left the public sphere for a while in 1986/87, it later emerged that he had significantly increased Libyan arms shipments to politico-terrorist groups in this period – especially to the Provisional IRA.
The Libyan government was alleged to have retaliated by ordering the hijacking of Pan Am Flight 73 in Pakistan on September 5, 1986, which resulted in the deaths of 20 people. The allegation did not come to light until it was reported by The Sunday Times in March 2004—days after British Prime Minister Tony Blair paid the first official visit to Tripoli by a Western leader in a generation.
On December 21, 1988, came the bombing of Pan Am Flight 103, which exploded in mid-air and crashed on the town of Lockerbie in Scotland after a bomb set by Libyan agents detonated, killing all 259 people aboard, and 11 people in Lockerbie. Iran was initially thought to have been responsible for the bombing in revenge for the dowing of the Iranian Airbus by the USS Vincennes, but in 1991 two Libyans were charged, one of whom was convicted for the crime on January 31, 2001. The Libyan Government formally accepted responsibility for the Pan Am Flight 103 bombing on May 29, 2002, and offered $2.7 billion to compensate the families of the 270 victims. However, the convicted Libyan, Abdelbaset Ali Mohmed Al Megrahi, who was suffering from terminal prostate cancer, was released in August 2009 by the Scottish government on compassionate grounds.
The attack was widely condemned in strong terms. By a vote of 79 in favor to 28 against with 33 abstentions, the United Nations General Assembly adopted resolution 41/38 which "condemns the military attack perpetrated against the Socialist People's Libyan Arab Jamahiriya on 15 April 1986, which constitutes a violation of the Charter of the United Nations and of international law."
The Government of Libya said that the United States had fallen prey to the arrogance and madness of power and wanted to become the world's policeman. It charged that any party that did not agree to become an American vassal was an outlaw, a terrorist, and a devil. A meeting of the Non-Aligned Movement said that it condemned the "dastardly, blatant and unprovoked act of aggression". The League of Arab States expressed that it was outraged at the United States aggression and that it reinforced an element of anarchy in international relations. The Assembly of Heads of State of the African Union in its declaration said that the deliberate attempt to kill Libyans violated the principles of international law. The Government of Iran asserted that the attack constituted a policy of aggression, gunboat diplomacy, an act of war, and called for an extensive political and economic boycott of the United States. Others saw the United States motive as an attempt to eliminate Libya's revolution. The Government of China felt that the U.S. attack violated norms of international relations and had aggravated tension in the region. The Government of the USSR believed that there was a clear link between the attack and U.S. policy aimed at subjecting countries to its diktat, at stirring up existing hotbeds of tension and creating new ones, and at destabilizing the international situation.
Some observers held the opinion that Article 51 of the UN Charter set limitations on the use of force in exercising the legitimate right of self-defense in the absence of an act of aggression, and affirmed that there was no such act by Libya. It was charged that the United States did not bother to exhaust the Charter provisions for settling disputes under Article 33. Others asserted that Libya was innocent in the bombing of the West Berlin discothèque.
The U.S. received support from the United Kingdom, Australia, Israel, and 25 other countries. Its doctrine of declaring a war on what it called "terrorist havens" was not repeated until 1998, when President Bill Clinton ordered strikes on six terrorist camps in Afghanistan. Margaret Thatcher's approval of the use of Royal Air Force bases led to substantial criticism, including an unprecedented story in The Sunday Times suggesting the Queen was upset by an "uncaring" Prime Minister. Gaddafi himself responded by saying "Thatcher is a murderer...Thatcher is a prostitute. She sold herself to Reagan".
Although the Soviet Union was ostensibly in cooperation with Libya, it had, by the time of the Libya bombing, made its increasing ambivalence toward Libya apparent in public communications. Gaddafi had a history of verbally attacking the policy agendas and ideology of the Soviet Union, and he often engaged in various international interventions and meddling that conflicted with Soviet goals in a variety of spheres. During a period where the Soviet Union was apparently attempting to lead a subtle diplomatic effort that could impact its global status, close association with the whims of Gaddafi became a liability.
In the entire crisis, the Soviet Union explicitly announced that it would not provide additional help to Libya beyond resupplying basic armaments and munitions. It made no attempt to militarily intimidate the United States, despite the ongoing American operations in the Gulf of Sidra and its previous knowledge that the United States might launch an attack. The Soviet Union did not completely ignore the event, issuing a denunciation of this 'wild' and 'barbaric' act by the United States.
After the raid, Moscow did cancel a planned visit to the United States by foreign affairs minister Eduard Shevardnadze. At the same time, it clearly signaled that it did not want this action to affect negotiations about the upcoming summer summit between the United States and the Soviet Union and its plans for new arms control agreements.
Every year, between at least 1994 and 2006, the United Nations General Assembly scheduled a declaration from the Organization of African Unity about the incident, but systematically deferred the discussion year after year until formally putting it aside (along with several other issues which had been similarly rescheduled for years) in 2005.
On the first anniversary of the bombing, April 1987, European and North American peace and solidarity activists gathered to commemorate the anniversary. After a few days of social and cultural networking with local Libyans, including a tour of Gaddafi's bombed house, the group gathered with other Libyans for a commemoration event.
Early on April 15, 2006 – to mark the 20th anniversary of the bombing raid – a concert involving U.S. singer Lionel Richie and Spanish tenor José Carreras was held in front of Gaddafi's bombed house in Tripoli. Diplomats, businessmen and politicians were among the audience of what Libya dubbed the "concert for peace". The BBC reported Lionel Richie as telling the audience:
Hanna [Gaddafi's adopted daughter] will be honored tonight because of the fact that you've attached peace to her name.—
The Libyan Posts (GPTC General Posts and Telecommunications Company) dedicated several postage stamps issues to the event, from 1986 until 2001. The first issue was released in 1986, July 13 (ref. Scott catalogue n.1311 – Michel catalogue n.1699). The last issue was released in 2001, April 15 (ref. Scott catalogue n.1653 – Michel catalogue n.2748–2763).
In October 2008, Libyan Foreign Minister Abdel Rahman Shalgham revealed that Italian Prime Minister Bettino Craxi had warned Gaddafi two days before the attack that an American raid was coming. Italy had refused American use of its airspace for the strike. Giulio Andreotti, Italy's foreign minister at the time, and Margherita Boniver, foreign affairs chief of Craxi's Socialist Party, both confirmed Shalgham's statement.
On May 28, 2008, the United States began negotiations with Libya on a comprehensive claims settlement agreement to resolve outstanding claims of American and Libyan nationals against each country in their respective courts.
On August 4, 2008, president George W. Bush signed into law the Libyan Claims Resolution Act, which had unanimously passed Congress on July 31. The Act provides for the restoration of Libya’s sovereign, diplomatic, and official immunities before U.S. courts if the Secretary of State certifies that the United States Government has received sufficient funds to resolve outstanding terrorism-related death and physical injury claims against Libya.
On August 14, 2008, the United States and Libya signed a comprehensive claims settlement agreement. Full diplomatic relations were restored between the two nations.
In June 2009, during a visit to Italy, Colonel Gaddafi criticized American foreign policy and, quizzed as to what the difference was between al-Qaeda attacks and the US bombing of Tripoli in 1986, when one of his own children was killed, he commented: "If al-Qaeda leader Osama Bin Laden has no state and is an outlaw, America is a state with international rules." The Colonel received a red-carpet welcome by Italian Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi, in what may be regarded as a warming of relations between Tripoli and Rome after years of difficulties.
Redirecting to Bombing of Libya