Libya Bombed A German Disco in 1986, So The US Bombed Italy

In 1986, Libya bombed a discotheque in Germany… so the US retaliated by bombing Italy. Not all of Italy, of course. Just a small portion of it. A portion that is now underwater to be precise.

It all started with Libya’s leader – Muammar Gaddafi. In 1978, he decided what his country needed was socialism. Given the ongoing Cold War, this upset America, but Gaddafi didn’t care.

He began purging dissidents – both those within Libya, as well as those who had fled. Then he began funding anti-US, anti-British, and anti-Israeli groups around the world – including Muslim separatists in the Philippines, the Irish Republican Army, the Black Panthers in the US, Palestinian guerillas, and others.

He also increased Libya’s involvement in the neighboring, uranium-rich African country of Chad – which had been in a civil war since 1968. Gaddafi was not content with just supporting one side against the other. He also wanted Chad’s northern strip (the Aouzou) to be part of Libya.

It was not just to increase Libyan territory, however. Gaddafi wanted to be the first Arab nuclear power in the region. With that as his bargaining chip, he hoped to set up a federation of Arab and Muslim states with Libya as its head.  To make sure he had a powerful ally, he began courting the Soviet Union.

America responded by putting Libya on their list of “State Sponsors of Terrorism” in 1979, and that was all. Libya was an annoyance, not a threat, so the US was content to let things be. Until December 27, 1985, that is.

Map of the disputed Aouzou Strip
Map of the disputed Aouzou Strip. Hohum – CC BY-SA 3.0

On that day, four Arabs entered the Leonardo da Vinci-Fiumicino Airport outside Rome, Italy. At 8:15 AM, they threw hand grenades and shot randomly at people – killing 16 (five of whom were Americans) and injuring another 99 (including a US diplomat).

The Vienna International Airport was attacked at about the same time by three men. Their target was a line queuing for a flight to Tel Aviv, Israel – killing three and wounding 39.

The Abu Nidal Organization (ANO) claimed responsibility. It was revenge, they said, for the Israeli bombing of the Palestinian Liberation Organization (PLO) offices in Tunis on October 1, 1985.

America accused Libya of supplying the terrorists with weapons and funding. Though Libya denied such charges, its foreign minister praised the attackers for their “heroic acts.”

Things came to a head in the Gulf of Sidra off the northern coast of Libya. Gaddafi had imposed a 62 nautical mile zone over the area in 1973 and dubbed its borders “The Line of Death.” To prove his point, he installed Soviet SA-5 surface-to-air missile batteries and radars along the coast.

The US took action claiming violation of international maritime waters. They sent Navy ships to the area in January 1986 – making sure to cross The Line of Death.

Gulf of Sidra
The Gulf of Sidra

Libya did nothing until March 24. At 6 AM, they fired at the USS Ticonderoga and its escort of two destroyers, missing them. The US Navy did not. The Libyans lost 35 people, two ships, several missile batteries, and radars, while the Americans lost nothing – an incident called the Action in the Gulf of Sidra.

A disco paid the price weeks later on April 5. La Belle was located in the Roxy-Palast building in West Berlin and was a favorite hangout for American servicemen. A bomb went off at 1:45 AM. It killed two US Army sergeants, a civilian woman, and injured 229 others – about 50 of whom were American military personnel.

Intercepted messages to the Libyan embassy in East Germany congratulated those responsible.

President Ronald Reagan was furious. With backing from Congress, he declared retaliatory strikes on Libya on April 14. There was a problem, though – not all the Europeans were in agreement.

France, Italy, and Spain refused to let US warplanes fly over their airspace – something the first two would pay for. America turned to its bases in Britain. The US had already planned to strike Libya as early as 1985…

This was why they attacked Canada, instead. Ten formerly secret F-111Es based at the Royal Air Force (RAF) Upper Heyford Airfield in Britain flew to Canada. On October 18 they attacked a fake base in Newfoundland (with the Canadian government’s approval, of course) called Operation Ghost Rider.

Reagan consulting Congress about strikes on Libya on April 14, 1986
Reagan consulting Congress about strikes on Libya on April 14, 1986

The F-111Es proved their worth.  Unfortunately, planners had not anticipated the ban over French, Spanish, and Italian skies. To reach Libya from Britain, the planes had to make a detour of some 1,300 miles.

On April 15, 1986, Operation El Dorado Canyon (the bombing of Libya) took place. Eighteen F-111 bombers and four EF-111 electronic countermeasure planes left Britain. Their target was Libya’s capital, Tripoli.

As they zoomed over the Mediterranean between Sicily and northern Africa, they saw something suspicious. There was an enormous dark shape beneath the water… and look! Smoke was coming out of the sea!

They must be Libyan submarines. This surprised the US military – Libya has submarines!? Then again, Gaddafi was very friendly with the Soviets, so mystery solved. The F-111Es dropped depth charges on the target and flew on.

At 2:00 AM (Libyan time), the first of 60 tons worth of munitions fell – some on Gaddafi’s home. Oh, and the French embassy. It was an accident… really!

The primary targets, however, were the Tripoli and Benina airfields, the Bab al-Azizia and Jamahiriyah barracks, the Murat Sidi Bilal Camp, and air defense networks. It was over in 12 minutes. Two American servicemen died as compared to 40 Libyans.

Gaddafi was not hurt, but his two sons were, while his 15-month-old adopted daughter died. Interestingly enough, he then claimed to have been victorious over the US and renamed his country the “Great Socialist People’s Libyan Arab Jamahiriyah.”

What about the submarines? Libya never had any.

Approximate location of Graham Island / Isola Ferdinandea
Approximate location of Graham Island / Isola Ferdinandea – Gasmonitor – CC BY-SA 3.0

The black shape was the submerged Italian island of Ferdinandea – though the British also claimed it, calling it Graham Island. The island rises above sea level, only to disappear again every other century or so. It also has an active volcano called Empedocles.

While the international community condemned the attack on Tripoli, there was no outcry for the bombing of that little bit of Italian soil.

Shahan Russell

Shahan Russell is one of the authors writing for WAR HISTORY ONLINE