Libya represented a high priority for President Ronald Reagan shortly after his 1981 inauguration. Libyan leader Muammar Gaddafi was firmly anti-Israel and had supported violent organizations in the Palestinian territories and Syria. There were reports that Libya was attempting to become a nuclear power and Gaddafi's occupation of Chad, which was rich in uranium, was of major concern to the United States. Gaddafi's alignment with the Soviet Union and his ambitions to set up a federation of Arab and Muslim states in North Africa were also alarming to U.S. interests. Furthermore, then-Secretary of State Alexander Haig wanted to take proactive measures against Gaddafi because he had been using former Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) operatives to help set up terrorist camps (most notably Edwin P. Wilson and Frank E. Terpil).
After the December 1985 Rome and Vienna airport attacks, which killed 19 and wounded approximately 140, Gaddafi indicated that he would continue to support the Red Army Faction, the Red Brigades, and the Irish Republican Army as long as the European governments supported anti-Gaddafi Libyans. The Foreign Minister of Libya also called the massacres "heroic acts".
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 the Libyan mainland. In March 1986, the United States, asserting the 12-nautical-mile (22 km; 14 mi) limit to territorial waters according to international law, sent a carrier task force to the region. Libya responded with aggressive counter-maneuvers on 24 March that led to the Gulf of Sidra incident.
On 5 April 1986, Libyan agents bombed "La Belle" nightclub in West Berlin, killing three people, one being a U.S. Serviceman, and injuring 229 people who were spending the evening there. West Germany and the United States obtained cable transcripts from Libyan agents in East Germany who were involved in the attack.
More detailed information was retrieved years later when Stasi archives were investigated by the reunited Germany. Libyan agents who had carried out the operation from the Libyan embassy in East Germany were identified and prosecuted by Germany in the 1990s.
After several unproductive days of meeting with European and Arab nations, and influenced by an American serviceman's death, Ronald Reagan, on the 14th of April, ordered an air raid on Libya. Eighteen F-111F strike aircraft of the 48th Tactical Fighter Wing, flying from RAF Lakenheath and 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 15 April, with the stated objectives of sending a message and reducing Libya's ability to support and train terrorists. Reagan warned that "if necessary, [they] shall do it again."
The attack mission against Libya had been preceded in October 1985 by an exercise in which the 20th TFW stationed at RAF Upper Heyford airbase in the UK, which was equipped with F-111Es, received a top-secret order to launch a simulated attack mission on 18 October, with ten F-111Es armed with eight 500 lb practice bombs, against a simulated airfield located in Newfoundland, Canada south of CFB Goose Bay. The mission was designated Operation Ghost Rider. The mission was a full rehearsal for a long-range strike against Libya. The mission was completed successfully, with the exception of one aircraft that had all but one of its eight bombs hang up on one of its wing racks. The lessons learned were passed on to the 48th TFW which was equipped with the newer "F" models of the F-111.
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 Tonopah Test Range Airport 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 of the F-117s, the Secretary of Defense scrubbed the stealth mission, fearing a compromise of the secret aircraft and its development program. The air strike was carried out with conventional U.S. Navy and U.S. Air Force aircraft. The F-117 would remain completely unknown to the world for several more months, before being 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 and Spain, over Portugal and through the Straits of Gibraltar, adding 1,300 miles (2,100 km) each way and requiring multiple aerial refuelings. The French refusal alone added 2,800 km and was imposed despite the fact that France had itself been the target of terrorism directed by the Gaddafi government in Libya. French president Mitterrand refused overflight clearance because the United States was interested in limited action in Libya while France was more interested in major action that would remove Gaddafi from power.
The attack began at 0200 hours (Libyan time), and lasted about twelve minutes, with 60 tons of munitions dropped. Eighteen F-111 bombers supported by four EF-111 electronic countermeasures aircraft flying from the United Kingdom bombed Tripoli airfield, a frogman training center at a naval academy, and the Bab al-Azizia barracks in Tripoli. During the bombing of the Bab al-Azizia barracks, an American F-111 was shot down by a Libyan surface-to-air missile (SAM) over the Gulf of Sidra. Some bombs landed off-target, striking diplomatic and civilian sites in Tripoli, and narrowly missing the French embassy. Some Libyan soldiers abandoned their positions in fright and confusion, and officers were slow to give orders. Libyan anti-aircraft fire did not begin until after the planes had passed over their targets. Twenty-four A-6 Intruders and F/A-18 Hornets launched from aircraft carriers bombed radar and antiaircraft sites in Benghazi before bombing the Benina and Jamahiriya barracks.
The Libyan air defense network was extensive, and included:4 Long range S-200 Angara/Vega/Dubna Vega anti-aircraft missile units with 24 launchers.
86 S-75 Dvina Volkhov and SA-3 Neva anti-aircraft missile units with 276 launchers.
Covering Tripoli alone were:7 S-75 Dvina Volkhov anti-aircraft missile units with 6 missiles launchers per unit giving 42 launchers.
12 S-125 Neva anti-aircraft missile units with 4 missiles launchers per unit giving 48 launchers.
3 2K12 Kub Kub anti-aircraft missile units with 48 launchers.
1 9K33 Osa Osa-AK anti-aircraft regiment with 16 launch vehicles.
2 Crotale II anti-aircraft units with 60 launch pads.
Forewarned by a telephone call, Libyan leader Muammar Gaddafi and his family rushed out of their residence in the Bab al-Azizia compound moments before the bombs dropped. It was long thought that the call came from Malta's Prime Minister, Karmenu Mifsud Bonnici. However, Italian Prime Minister Bettino Craxi was the person who actually warned Gaddafi, according to Giulio Andreotti, Italy's foreign minister at the time, and to Abdel Rahman Shalgham, Libya's then-ambassador to Italy. Shalgham's statement was also confirmed by Margherita Boniver, foreign affairs chief of Craxi's Socialist Party at the time.
According to medical staff in a nearby hospital, two dozen casualties were brought in wearing military uniforms, and two without uniforms. Total Libyan casualties were estimated at 60, including those at the bombed airbases. An infant girl was among the casualties; her body was shown to American reporters, who were told she was Gaddafi's recently adopted daughter Hanna. However, there was and remains much skepticism over the claim. She may not have died; the adoption may have been posthumous; or he may have adopted a second daughter and given her the same name after the first one died.
Two U.S. Air Force captains — Fernando L. Ribas-Dominicci and Paul F. Lorence — were killed when their F-111 fighter-bomber was shot down over the Gulf of Sidra. In the hours following the attack, the U.S. military refused to speculate as to whether or not the fighter-bomber had been shot down, with Defense Secretary Caspar Weinberger suggesting that it could have experienced radio trouble or been diverted to another airfield. The next day, the Pentagon had announced it was no longer searching for the F-111 believed to be downed by a Libyan missile. On 25 December 1988, Gaddafi offered to release the body of Lorence to his family through Pope John Paul II. The body, returned in 1989, was identified as Ribas-Dominicci's from dental records. An autopsy conducted in Spain confirmed that he had drowned after his plane was shot down over the Gulf of Sidra. Libya denies that it held Lorence's body. However, Lorence's brother said that he and his mother saw television footage of a Libyan holding a white helmet with the name "Lorence" stenciled on the back. Furthermore, William C. Chasey, who toured the Bab al-Azizia barracks, claimed to have seen two flight suits and helmets engraved with the names "Lorence" and "Ribas-Dominicci", as well as the wreckage of their F-111.
Gaddafi announced that he had "won a spectacular military victory over the United States" and the country was officially renamed the "Great Socialist People's Libyan Arab Jamahiriyah".
Gaddafi said reconciliation between Libya and the United States was impossible so long as Reagan was in the White House; of the president he said, "He is mad. He is foolish. He is an Israeli dog." He said he had no plans to attack the United States or U.S. targets. He claimed that Reagan wanted to kill him, stating "Was Reagan trying to kill me? Of course. The attack was concentrated on my house and I was in my house", he also described how he rescued his family. When asked that if he is in danger of losing power, he told "Really, these reports and writings are not true. As you can see I am fine, and there has been no change in our country."
The Government of Libya said that the United States had fallen prey to 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.
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 time in 1986 and 1987.
The Libyan Post dedicated several postage stamps issues to the event, from 1986 until 2001. The first issue was released in 1986, 13 July (ref. Scott catalogue n.1311 – Michel catalogue n.1699). The last issue was released in 2001, 15 April (ref. Scott catalogue n.1653 – Michel catalogue n.2748–2763).
Libya responded by firing two Scud missiles at a United States Coast Guard station on the Italian island of Lampedusa which passed over the island and landed in the sea.
There was only limited change in Libyan-connected terrorism.
The Libyan government was alleged to have ordered the hijacking of Pan Am Flight 73 in Pakistan on 5 September 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.
In May 1987, Australia deported diplomats and broke off relations with Libya, claiming Libya sought to fuel violence in Australia and Oceania.
In late 1987 French authorities stopped a merchant vessel, the MV Eksund, which was delivering 150 tons of Soviet arms from Libya to the Irish Republican Army (IRA).
In Beirut, Lebanon, two British hostages held by the Libyan-supported Abu Nidal Organization, Leigh Douglas and 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, Israel. 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.
On 21 December 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 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 downing of the Iranian Airbus by the USS Vincennes, but in 1991 two Libyans were charged, one of whom was convicted of the crime in a controversial judgement on 31 January 2001. The Libyan Government accepted responsibility for the Pan Am Flight 103 bombing on 29 May 2002, and offered $2.7 billion to compensate the families of the 270 victims. The convicted Libyan, Abdelbaset al-Megrahi, who was suffering from terminal prostate cancer, was released in August 2009 by the Scottish Government on compassionate grounds. He died in 2012. In May 2014 a group of relatives of the Lockerbie victims continued to campaign for al-Megrahi's name to be cleared by reopening the case.
The attack was condemned by many countries. 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."
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. China stated that the U.S. attack violated norms of international relations and had aggravated tension in the region. The Soviet Union said that there was a clear link between the attack and U.S. policy aimed at stirring up existing hotbeds of tension and creating new ones, and at destabilizing the international situation. West Germany stated that international disputes required diplomatic and not military solutions, and France also criticized the bombing.
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 discotheque.
The U.S. received support from the United Kingdom, Canada, 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 public criticism, including an unprecedented story in The Sunday Times suggesting the Queen was upset by an "uncaring" Prime Minister. However, the Americans strongly endorsed Thatcher, and the long-standing Special Relationship between the United States and Britain was strengthened.
Although the Soviet Union was ostensibly friendly 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.
Former U.S. Attorney General Ramsey Clark, acting for Libyan citizens who had been killed or injured in the bombing raid by the U.S. using British air bases, brought suit under international law against the United States and the United Kingdom in U.S. federal court. The lawsuit was dismissed as frivolous. A subsequent appeal was denied, and monetary sanctions against Clark were allowed. Saltany v. Reagan, 886 F. 2d 438 (D.C. Cir. 1989).
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 left-wing activists gathered to commemorate the anniversary. After a day 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.
In June 2009, during a visit to Italy, Colonel Gaddafi criticized American foreign policy and, asked as to the difference between al-Qaeda attacks and the 1986 U.S. bombing of Tripoli, he commented: "If al-Qaeda leader Osama Bin Laden has no state and is an outlaw, America is a state with international rules."
On 28 May 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. Gaddafi's son Saif al-Islam publicly announced that an agreement was being negotiated in July of that year. On 14 August 2008, the resulting U.S.-Libya Comprehensive Claims Settlement Agreement was signed in Tripoli by Assistant Secretary of State for Near Eastern Affairs David Welch and by Libyan Secretary for American Affairs Ahmad Fituri.
In October 2008, Libya paid US$1.5 billion (in three installments of $300 million on 9 October 2008, $600 million on 30 October 2008, and US$600 million 31 October 2008) into a fund used to compensate the following victims and their relatives:Lockerbie bombing victims, who were given an additional US$2 million each after having been paid US$8 million earlier;
American victims of the 1986 Berlin discotheque bombing;
American victims of the 1989 UTA Flight 772 bombing; and,
Libyan victims of the 1986 U.S. bombing of Tripoli and Benghazi.
To pay the settlement, Libya demanded US$1.5 billion from global oil companies operating in Libya's oil fields, under threat of "serious consequences" to their leases. Libya's settlement was at least partially funded by several companies, including some based in the U.S., that chose to cooperate with Libya's demand.
On 4 August 2008, President George W. Bush signed into law the Libyan Claims Resolution Act, which had unanimously passed Congress on 31 July. The Act provided for the restoration of Libya's sovereign, diplomatic, and official immunities before U.S. courts if the Secretary of State certified that the United States Government has received sufficient funds to resolve outstanding terrorism-related death and physical injury claims against Libya.
On 14 August 2008, the United States and Libya signed a comprehensive claims settlement agreement. Full diplomatic relations were restored between the two nations.