On April 14, 1986 at 17:36 Greenwich Mean Time, twenty four F-111Fs of the USAF 48th Tactical Fighter Wing took off from the Royal Air Force base at Lakenheath, England. Twenty eight refueling tankers took to the air from bases at Mildenhall and Fairford, while five EF-111 Ravens equipped with high-tech jamming equipment soared skyward from a fourth base. Operation El Dorado Canyon was underway. The target: Libya. The American aircraft roaring through the English skies that evening were embarked on what would become the longest fighter combat mission in the history of military aviation, and the first major USAF combat mission in more than a decade.
The Libyan leader, Muammar Gaddafi, had been an enthusiastic sponsor of terrorist acts against the West for years. The son of a Bedouin shepherd, he became an officer in the Libyan army and in 1968 led a successful coup to overthrow King Idris. A self-proclaimed mystic and prophet of Islam, Gaddafi's grandiose vision was the creation of a Great Arab Nation encompassing all of North Africa, powerful enough to destroy Israel and punish the United States for its many sins against the Arab world. Purchasing over $12 billion worth of Soviet military hardware, Gaddafi in turn supported terrorists of all stripes -- the Irish Republican Army, Basque ETA separatists, Colombian M19 guerrillas -- maintaining as many as twenty terrorist training camps in Libya. He had given sanctuary to the Black September murderers of eleven Israeli athletes at the 1972 Olympics and to the Palestinian terrorist mastermind, Abi Nidal. It was Nidal who orchestrated Libyan-sponsored terrorist bloodbaths at the Rome and Vienna airports in December 1985 that left twenty people, four of them Americans, dead.
The U.S. and Libya had clashed before -- in 1981, when Gaddafi launched an air strike against provocative American naval maneuvers in the Gulf of Sidra, international waters that Gaddafi claimed for Libya. Two Soviet-built SU-22 fighters were shot down. That same year, U.S. intelligence learned that Libyan hit squads would be dispatched to assassinate Reagan and other government officials. Though some anti-terrorist experts suggested that a covert operation to kill Gaddafi was doable, this was not an alternative available to Reagan. He had promised to adhere to Executive Order No. 12333, issued in 1976 by President Gerald Ford, which banned the government from engaging in the assassination of world leaders.
In January 1986 Gaddafi proclaimed a "line of death" across the Gulf of Sidra, warning that if American ships or planes crossed that line they would be destroyed. In March the U.S. responded with Operation Prairie Fire, consisting of 45 ships and 200 planes. Aircraft from the Sixth Fleet's three carriers, Saratoga, Coral Sea and America, made forays across the "line of death." Then three surface vessels crossed the line, supported by planes overhead and Los Angeles-class attack submarines beneath the surface. On Monday, March 24, the Libyans fired several SA-5 surface-to-air missiles, but none came close to hitting an American target because they were diverted by jamming devices carried by EA-6B Prowler aircraft. Vice Admiral Frank Kelso, Sixth Fleet's commander, waited until dark to respond. A pair of A-6 Intruders from the America hit a Libyan attack boat with HARMs (high-speed anti-radiation missiles). Several more Libyan vessels venturing near the fleet the following morning were struck, with one confirmed destroyed. Reagan congratulated the airmen and sailors of the Sixth Fleet, some of whom wore "Terrorist Buster" t-shirts and buttons, for a job well done, and on Thursday, March 28, the naval "exercises" were concluded. There were no American casualties; 56 Libyans had been killed.
A Newsweek poll revealed that three out of every four Americans believed the U.S. attacks on Libyan boats and missile batteries were justified, while two-thirds feared that Gaddafi would retaliate. On March 25, Gaddafi ordered his embassies (or "people's bureaus") in East Berlin, Paris, Rome and Madrid to carry out terrorist action against Americans. At a mass rally in Tripoli, Gaddafi declared Libya to be in a state of war with the United States, and the crowd was entertained with the slaughtering of an ox with Reagan's name painted on its side. Less than a week later, 21-year-old Army Sergeant Kenneth Ford of Detroit was slain when a bomb blast ripped through Berlin's La Belle discotheque, a nightclub frequented by American servicemen.
The National Security Agency used high-tech eavesdropping equipment to intercept three secret messages between Tripoli and European-based Libyan agents. Libya's diplomatic code had been broken, and the messages made it clear that Gaddafi was behind the bombing of the Berlin disco. On April 7, Reagan met with his chief aides to discuss an appropriate response to the Libyan terrorist act. "The president had maps all over the floor of the Oval Office," recalled Edwin Meese III, U.S. Attorney General and Reagan's close friend, in order to select potential targets. These included airbases at Tripoli and Benine, naval bases at Taranbulas and Benghazi, a terrorist training camp at Sidi Balal, and the Bab al Azizia barracks where Gaddafi often stayed in a Bedouin tent equipped with telephones, heaters and a television set.
Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher signed off on the use of British bases in the operation, but Spain and France refused to grant American warplanes overflight permission; this meant the planes would have to fly 2,800 miles to reach their targets, and be refueled five times in the air. Italian Prime Minister Bettino Craxi spoke for many European leaders when he expressed concern that any American retaliation would simply trigger more terrorist acts in reprisal. But the Reagan administration was determined to act. It felt that someone had to take a stand against worldwide terrorism that had run rampant in the Eighties. Gaddafi and others like him, said the president, had to be given "incentives . . . to alter [their] criminal behavior."
Those "incentives" were provided on the evening of Monday, April 14, as the F-111s from the British bases joined a dozen A-6 strike aircraft launched from the carriers Coral Sea and Americaand thundered through Libyan anti-aircraft fire to drop more than 60 tons of laser-guided bombs on five targets. Five F-111s hit Gaddafi's barracks compound with sixteen 2,000-lb. Paveway II gravity bombs. Five more American warplanes struck the military sector of the Tripoli International Airport. Army barracks and an airfield at Benina and the naval port at Sidi Bilal were also bombed. The raid lasted eleven minutes. Four Libyan MIG-23 interceptors, five Il-76 transports and two Mi-8 Hip helicopters were destroyed. Libyan radio reported many casualties, including Gaddafi's 18-month-old adopted daughter Hana. An F-111 was destroyed by a Libyan SAM (surface-to-air missile); pilot Captain Fernando Ribas-Dominicci and weapons system officer Captain Paul Lorence were killed.
President Reagan made a televised address to the nation later that evening. "I said that we would act . . . to ensure that terrorists have no sanctuary anywhere," he said. "Tonight, we have." Polling showed the American people overwhelmingly approved of the raid, though there were some who concurred with former National Security Adviser Zbigniew Brzezinski who complained that "we haven't really dealt a blow to terrorism; we've just made ourselves feel good." In Britain, Prime Minister Thatcher was roundly criticized for going against the advice of her cabinet and supporting the American strike. In the House of Commons she stood firm -- like a "lioness in a den of Daniels," said the London Times -- against shouts of disapproval from opposition members. The Iron Lady felt she owed Reagan for U.S. support during the Falklands War, and she knew Gaddafi was giving aid to the IRA.
There were repercussions; three hostages were executed by Arab Revolutionary Cell gunmen in Lebanon, two of them British teachers and the third an American, Peter Kilburn, while William Cokals, a U.S. embassy official, was shot down in the streets of Khartoum, Sudan. For a time there was widespread concern that terrorist revenge attacks would occur on American soil, and experts warned that the U.S. was woefully unprepared to deal with such a contingency. The attacks never came.
The Soviet Union responded to the raid by canceling scheduled talks between Foreign Minister Eduard Shevardnadze and Secretary of State George Shultz that were intended to formalize plans for a summit meeting between Reagan and Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev, who promised Gaddafi that the USSR would help Libya strengthen its military defenses. But Gaddafi, described by Reagan as the "mad dog of the Middle East," was strangely subdued in the aftermath of the raid. According to Secretary Shultz, the administration's leading proponent of strong action against Libya, Gaddafi "retreated into the desert." An Arab diplomat told Donald Gregg, national security adviser to Vice-President George Bush, that when Gaddafi was seen "carrying the body of his dead child out of the wreckage, he lost all stature because it as shown that he couldn't protect his family." For whatever reason, Gaddafi acted with uncharacteristic restraint in the years that followed. According to a 1989 Department of State Bulletin, while terrorist activity continued on the rise in 1987 and 1988, Libyan-sponsored terrorist acts declined significantly.