US Planes Attack Tripoli - History

US Planes Attack Tripoli - History

After a terrorist attack in Germany, during which an American serviceman was killed, the United States launched an air attack on Libya. Targets were hit in Tripoli and Benghazi. Libyan strongman Muammar Qaddafi's headquarters were also hit.

Libya, U.S. Attack (1986)

The United States air assault on Libya in April 1986 marked the first major American military response to modern terrorism. The immediate cause was a terrorist bombing in West Berlin ten days earlier, an incident to which U.S. intelligence sources linked Libyan strongman Muammar Qadhafi. The response of President Ronald Reagan was a massive bombing raid on facilities in Tripoli and Benghazi, the country's two major cities. Although the 1986 attacks did not bring an end to Qaddafi's state-sponsored terrorism — the 1988 bombing of Pan Am flight 103 over Lockerbie, Scotland, occurred less than two years later — it marked the first step on a long road toward open confrontation with terrorism and terror-sponsoring states.

Early provocations. Qadhafi seized power in 1969, and during the 1970s and 1980s used his oil wealth to sponsor terrorist movements in 50 or more countries from Northern Ireland to the Philippines. He also undertook other aggressive moves, such as his declaration in 1973 that the Gulf of Sidra between Tripoli and Benghazi belonged to Libya.

The United States refused to recognize this claim, and in August 1981 — on orders from Reagan — the U.S. Sixth Fleet conducted exercises in the gulf. The result was a skirmish between two U.S. F-14 Tomcat fighters and two Soviet-made Su-22 fighter-bombers. The Americans shot down both Libyan planes, whose pilots ejected and were rescued by their own forces the incident proved the superiority of Sidewinder missiles over Soviet Atoll air-toair missiles.

Operation El Dorado Canyon. Over the course of the next five years, tensions grew between the Reagan administration and the Qadhafi regime, which increased its sponsorship of and direct involvement in terrorism. On March 24, 1986, Libya launched six SA-5 missiles against the U.S. Sixth Fleet, which was conducting maneuvers nearby in the Mediterranean. The attacks failed, and in subsequent strikes and counterstrikes, the Americans sunk two Libyan vessels. On April 5, 1986, a bomb exploded in Berlin's La Belle discotheque, killing a U.S. soldier and a Turkish civilian, and injuring some 200 others, including 63 U.S. soldiers.

Ten days later, late in the evening of April 15, the United States prepared for air strikes against Libyan ground targets in five areas: the Aziziya barracks, known as a command and control post for terrorist activities the military facilities at the Tripoli international airport the Side Bilal base, said to be a facility for training terrorists in underwater sabotage the Jamahariya military barracks in Benghazi, another terrorist command post and the Benina air base southeast of Benghazi.

The attack, known as Operation El Dorado Canyon, involved more than 100 U.S. aircraft. The principal strike force was in the form of Navy A-6s from the aircraft carriers USS America and USS Coral Sea, and Air Force F-111s from airbases in the United Kingdom. The refusal of the French government to grant authority for an American overflight of their country greatly complicated matters, and necessitated refueling of the aircraft in a much longer flight around the Iberian peninsula.

Despite this obstacle, the U.S. force was able to launch its attack at 2:00 a.m. local time on April 16. Over the course of 12 minutes, U.S. forces dropped 60 tons (61 tonnes) of munitions and encountered negligible resistance from the Libyans, who failed to get a single aircraft airborne to challenge the attackers.

Aftermath. Qadhafi's agents later took part in the Lockerbie bombing, but for the most part his interest in international terrorism cooled after April 1986. After a protracted battle of words, in March 1999 he agreed to turn over two suspects in the Lockerbie bombing but claimed that the Americans who carried out the 1986 bombing raids should be charged for killing 31 people and wounding 226 others.

In May 2001, Qadhafi admitted to a German newspaper that Libya had been behind the discotheque bombing 15 years earlier, an apparent act of retaliation for the U.S. sinking of the two vessels in March 1986. In the La Belle bombing, he had received help from the East German Stasi intelligence service, but according to Stasi files retrieved after the end of the Cold War, the East Germans actively discouraged Middle-Eastern terrorism in Germany following the April 1986 U.S. retaliation against Libya. The La Belle bombing case, which could not have been possible prior to German reunification, finally went to trial in 2001, and in November, a German court found four people guilty of the attacks. They included a German woman and three men: a Palestinian, a Lebanese-born German, and a Libyan.


Multiple Aircraft Damaged In Tripoli Missile Strike

A rocket attack in Libya has left multiple aircraft damaged at Mitiga Airport in Tripoli today. The rockets, presumed to have been launched by Hafter-affiliated militias, hit at least two passenger planes belonging to Afriqiyah Airways and Buraq Airlines. Neither plane had any passengers on board at the time.

At least two aircraft damaged

Rockets fired at Tripoli’s International Airport have hit at least two passenger aircraft, causing serious amounts of damage. Reporting in AA.com suggests that as many as nine rockets were fired at Mitiga Airport east of Tripoli overnight. One, they say, hit close to the airport, causing ‘fear and panic’ among passengers and staff.

In a statement released by Buraq Air, reported in AirportHaber, the airline said that shrapnel parts hit a passenger plane, and that major damage was incurred. The airline said that the aircraft was no longer usable due to the damage. Local media report that the aircraft was sitting unoccupied on the apron at the time of the attack.

In the recent rocket attack of militia forces at Tripolis-Mitiga Airport (HLLT), Libya, two commercial jets, one Airbus of Afriqiyah and a B737 of Buraq Air were hit by shelling causing major damage. Both aircraft were parked empty at the time. @Lyobserverhttps://t.co/T8CoqWDCIl pic.twitter.com/Qz3GZnGWz7

&mdash JACDEC (@JacdecNew) March 3, 2020

A second aircraft, believed to belong to Afriqiyah Airways, is also reported to have sustained damage. The airline shared photos of the damage online, with spokesperson Imran Zabadi reported as saying that this aircraft was also too badly damaged to be used.

The aircraft types are believed to be a Boeing 737 of Buraq Air, and an A320 of Afriqiyah. The damage to these planes will be a huge blow for both airlines. Buraq Air operates a fleet of only six aircraft, all Boeing 737 variants. Four are Boeing 737 Classics, while two are the newer Boeing 737-800 model.

#Libya– #GNA photos showing damage sustained by Buraq Air Boeing 737 & Airbus A320 following #LNA shelling of Mitiga International Airport in #Tripoli pic.twitter.com/RDlFFOq1iT

&mdash Oded Berkowitz (@Oded121351) March 3, 2020

Afriqiyah Airways has a larger fleet to fall back on, with 15 aircraft in service, according to Planespotters. The airline operates an all-Airbus fleet, including one A300, 11 A320 family aircraft and three A330 widebodies.

Tripoli’s Mitiga Airport had only recently reopened

Flights only resumed at war-torn Tripoli airport in December last year. The airport had undergone a three-month suspension of services due to repeated rocket attacks on the facility. The airport had frequently come under fire since the launch of an offensive in April 2019 by Khalifa Haftar military, as part of a campaign to take the capital from the Government of National Accord.

Libya’s Eastern-Based LNA Says Attacked Turkish Air Defenses at Tripoli’s Mitiga Airport https://t.co/DqABxNnv8E pic.twitter.com/51SC42gLyW

&mdash The Pakistan Post (@TPPNewsOfficial) March 3, 2020

Afriqiyah Airways and Libyan Airlines took off from the airport first, on the 12 th December 2019. Other Libyan airlines including Libyan Wings and Buraq soon followed after. These were the first flights sine a September 1 st attack left four people wounded.

However, rocket attacks have been ramping up in recent weeks. One attack which took place towards the end of February forced a suspension of flights, according to Reuters.

While Libyan airlines are banned from Europe, there are frequent flights to Istanbul and Tunis from the airport. However, today’s attack will call into question once again the safety of the airport, and could see it reducing operations once again.


This day in history | 1986 US launches air strikes on Libya

At least 100 people have died after USA planes bombed targets in the Libyan capital, Tripoli, and the Benghazi region.
Around 66 American jets, some of them flying from British bases launched an attack at around 0100hrs on Monday.
The White House spokesman, Larry Speakes, has said that the strike was directed at key military sites but reports suggest that missiles also hit Bin Ashur, a densely populated suburb in the capital.
Colonel Muamar Gaddafi residential compound took a direct hit that killed Hanna Gaddafi, the adopted baby daughter of the Libyan leader.
President Reagan has justified the attacks by accusing Libya of direct responsibility for terrorism aimed at America, such as the bombing of La Belle discoteque in West Berlin 10 days ago.
President Reagan made a TV address to the American people two hours after the attack.
In it he said : “When our citizens are attacked or abused anywhere in the world on the direct orders of hostile regimes, we will respond so long as I’m in this office.”
He argued that America was exercising its right to self defence as defined by Article 51 of the UN charter.
The presidential spokesman, Larry Speakes, said, “US forces have executed a series of carefully planned air strikes against terrorist targets in Libya.”
He added: “Every effort has been made to avoid hitting civilian targets.”
The attacks began soon after an increase in coded radio traffic between US ships and planes off the Libyan coast had been noticed.
The fighter jets appear to have been both carrier based aircraft, operating in the Mediterranean and British based bombers which would have refuelled in mid air.
The Americans hit the harbour’s naval academy, the capital’s military airport and army barracks.
Tripoli’s embassy area and residential districts also suffered extensive damage.
The Tripoli central hospital and two other medical centres say they have treated hundreds of injured people, including a number of Greeks, Italians and Yugoslavs.
Mobs of angry survivors have taken to the streets shouting: “Down, down USA. Death to all Americans.”
There are also fears that Britain may be subject to terrorist attacks because some of its involvement in the raids.
The Syrian based terrorist group, Arab Revolutionary Cells, has announced on Lebanese radio that it will target both British and American interests.

Courtesy BBC News

President Reagan said he had irrefutable evidence that Libya was responsible for the West Berlin night club bombing on 5 April 1986 which killed two American servicemen and a Turkish woman.
The British Prime Minister, Margaret Thatcher, justified Britain’s involvement in the campaign by supporting America’s right to self-defence under Article 51 of the United Nations Charter.
The extremist group Arab Revolutionary Cells said it murdered two British and one American hostage in Lebanon on 17 April 1986, in retaliation for the US attack.
Fifteen years after the air raids, a German court ruled that the Libyan secret service was responsible for the West Berlin bomb attack.
In September 2004, Libya agreed to pay $35m to 150 non-US victims of the 1986 Berlin disco bomb.
Libya said it will not pay for US victims until Washington compensates it for the lives and property lost in the subsequent US air strikes on Libya.


At least 30 killed in Libya military academy attack

Tripoli (Reuters) - At least 30 people were killed and 33 others wounded in an attack on a military academy in the Libyan capital late on Saturday, the health ministry of the Tripoli-based government said in a statement on Sunday.

Tripoli, controlled by the internationally recognized Government of National Accord (GNA), is facing an offensive by military commander Khalifa Haftar’s Libyan National Army (LNA) that began in April.

There has been an increase in air strikes and shelling around Tripoli in recent weeks, with fears that fighting could escalate further after Turkey’s parliament voted to allow a troop deployment in support of the GNA.

Forces allied with the GNA described Saturday’s attack on the military camp at Al-Hadhba as “an aerial bombing” launched by their eastern rivals. An LNA spokesman denied involvement.

GNA Health Minister Hamid bin Omar told Reuters earlier in a phone call that the number of dead and wounded was still rising. Tripoli ambulance service spokesman Osama Ali said some body parts could not be immediately counted by forensic experts.

Earlier, the ambulance service appealed for a temporary ceasefire to allow its crews to retrieve the bodies of five civilians killed on As Sidra Road in southern Tripoli and to evacuate families.

Emergency teams withdrew after coming under fire while trying to access the area on Saturday, it said.

The GNA Foreign Ministry called for referring Haftar and his aides to the International Criminal Court on charges of committing “crimes against humanity”, adding that it will call for an emergency UN Security Council meeting to discuss the alleged crimes.

Qatar, which supports GNA, said on Saturday that the attack “may amount to a war crime and crimes against humanity”.

Ankara, which last week passed a bill approving a troop deployment in Libya to support Tripoli, also condemned the attack and said the international community needs to take steps to achieve a ceasefire.

“It is crucial for the international community to urgently take necessary steps to halt external support for the pro-Haftar army and its attacks and establish a ceasefire in Libya,” the Turkish foreign ministry said in a statement.

The United Nations Support Mission in Libya (UNSMIL) condemned the attack saying that “rising escalation. further complicates the situation in Libya and threatens the chances of returning to the political process”.

In response to the attack, GNA allied forces have targeted the LNA air base of Al-Wattia in an air strike, around 159 km southwest of Tripoli, a spokesman said in a statement.

Two sources in Haftar forces said four fighters were killed in a drone strike early on Sunday.

An increase in air strikes and shelling in and around Tripoli has caused the deaths of at least 11 civilians since early December and shut down health facilities and schools, the U.N. mission in Libya said on Friday.

Rockets and shelling also shut down Tripoli’s only functioning airport on Friday.

On Friday, U.N. Secretary General Antonio Guterres renewed his call for an immediate ceasefire in Libya.

He warned that the delivery of foreign support to warring parties would “only deepen the ongoing conflict and further complicate efforts to reach a peaceful and comprehensive political solution”.

The parliament which moved to the east in 2014 voted to provide Haftar with emergency funding on Saturday.

The pro-Haftar chamber also held a series of symbolic votes against the GNA and Turkey, which struck two pacts on maritime boundaries and military cooperation in November.

Reporting by Hani Amara, Ahmed Elumami, Ayman al-Warfalli and Omar Fahmy additional reporting by Ezgi Erkoyun in Istanbul writing by Mahmoud Mourad and Aidan Lewis editing by Paul Simao and Jason Neely


By Julius Melero

Burning of the Frigate Philadelphia in the Harbor at Tripoli by Edward Moran (U.S. Naval Academy Museum)

On the evening of 16 th February, 1804, the U.S. frigate Philadelphia was burned in Tripoli Harbor. The frigate had been captured on October 31, 1803 when the ship ran aground on a reef a few miles outside Tripoli. The war with Tripoli had raged since 1801, the entire action of the war mostly amounting to a few naval skirmishes and a lackadaisical blockade of Tripoli. When Commodore Edward Preble arrived to take command of the war, he had hoped to up the tempo of operations against Tripoli and quickly bring the war to a successful conclusion. The capture of the Philadelphia dramatically complicated this objective. The capture meant the Philadelphia’s captain and her crew, 307 Americans, became Tripoli’s prisoners. The capture also diminished American prestige among the Barbary States. Preble decided it was necessary to destroy the captured ship. The mission would be extremely dangerous Preble expected the destruction of the ship would only come with great loss of life. Lieutenant Stephen Decatur, Jr. volunteered to command the mission. His success restored American prestige and secured him a reputation of valor that followed him the rest of his life. The burning of the Philadelphia was a heroic episode during the Barbary Wars that made Decatur a hero and greatly increased the reputation of the Navy and the United States.

In 1801, Tripoli demanded larger tribute payments from the United States. If the United States did not agree to the increased tribute, then Tripoli’s ruler would declare war. The U.S. refused, and therefore, in May 1801, Tripoli declared war and began raiding the U.S. merchant fleet in the Mediterranean.[1] Commodore Richard Dale, the commander of U.S. Naval forces in the Mediterranean, then began actions against Tripoli. Arriving in Gibraltar July 1, 1801, Dale found two Tripolitan ships in quarantine. Convinced the ships were targeting American shipping, Dale dispatched the frigate Philadelphia under the command of Captain Samuel Barron to keep the ships from escaping.[2] Dale then proceeded to Tripoli to blockade, reaching the city July 24, 1801. However, Dale soon lifted the blockade and returned to Gibraltar where his squadron spent the rest of the year blockading the two Tripolitan vessels in Gibraltar and convoying American shipping.[3] They were relieved by a squadron commanded by Commodore Robert Morris in early 1802[4].

Morris soon became bogged down in disputes with Tunis as well. The Tripolitan ship, the Paulina, was captured by the schooner Enterprise in January 1802. Some of the Paulina’s cargo belonged to a Tunisian subject and the Bey of Tunis demanded immediate repayment, or the U.S. would face another war. During the course of negotiations, Morris was detained until he agreed to repay a loan the Bey claimed the American consul to Tunis, William Eaton, owed.[5]

Due to delays caused by the affair in Tunis as well as troubles with Algiers, Morris’ squadron did not arrive at Tripoli until May 20, 1802. After blockading Tripoli for about a month, during which an attack was made on Tripoli harbor which ended in the destruction of numerous Tripolitan ships[6], Morris raised the blockade on June 26, 1802. Morris then returned to Gibraltar and spent the remainder of the year in inactivity. Morris’ superiors were extremely displeased by his lack of initiative, so much so that he was suspended and command handed over to Captain John Rodgers. Morris was ordered to sail for home, where he faced a court of inquiry which found his conduct of the war inept and afterward he was dismissed from the Navy.[7] The first two years of war passed in relative inactivity, with Tripoli being blockaded for a total of about three months. Upon the arrival of Commodore Edward Preble, however, the conduct of the war changed dramatically.

Preble arrived in the Mediterranean September 12, 1803. As soon as he arrived, Preble sent the frigate Philadelphia and the schooner Vixen to blockade Tripoli. However, before he could sail to Tripoli with the entirety of his squadron, Preble felt he needed to first resolve issues with the state of Morocco.[8] The Emperor of Morocco had released his corsairs to capture American vessels because of the capture of the Tripolitan ship Meshuda, which was flying Moroccan colors.[9] Angering the Moroccan Emperor even further, on his journey to Gibraltar Captain William Bainbridge captured the Moroccan cruiser Mirboka, which had captured the American vessel Celia.

Preble arrived at Tangiers with the combined force of two American squadrons, for Captain John Rodgers, acting commander of Morris’ squadron since Morris’ relief, agreed to accompany Preble before returning home. This show of force impressed the Moroccan Emperor who then disavowed all hostile actions toward American vessels. To demonstrate his good will, the Emperor gave Preble a present of many animals and promised to release the crew of the American brig Hannah. Preble, in return, agreed to release the Meshuda and the Mirboka.[10]

Once hostilities with Morocco were resolved, Preble returned to Gibraltar and sailed for Cadiz in order to replace an anchor and a cable lost at Tangiers which were not available at Gibraltar. While in Cadiz, Preble issued a proclamation of a blockade stating “that all Neutral Vessels that attempt to enter the Port of Tripoli, or are met with on the coast near that Port… will be stopped by the Squadron under my command and sent into port for adjudication.”[11] This circular was sent to various U.S. ministers throughout Europe and the Mediterranean. Later Preble received orders from the Secretary of the Navy, Robert Smith, to amend his blockade, requiring that “in every case of an attempt to enter without a previous knowledge of the existence of the blockade, you will give the commanding Officer of such a vessel notice of such a blockade and forewarn him from entering.” [12]

While Preble was resolving the trouble with Morocco, Captain William Bainbridge in command of the frigate Philadelphia along with the schooner Vixen sailed to Tripoli in order to establish a blockade. The ships arrived at Tripoli on October 7, 1803. Action off the coast was very limited. Captain Bainbridge wrote he was “without the good fortune of seeing our enemies except under the refuge of well fortified works.” [13] However, Bainbridge learned of two Tripolitan cruisers off the coast of Cape Bon and dispatched Vixen on October 20 to find them. The Philadelphia stayed on station off Tripoli to continue the blockade[14]. On October 31, the Philadelphia sighted a Tripolitan vessel hugging the shoreline. The frigate began chasing the vessel at about 0900, getting within firing distance of her at 1100. At 1130, Bainbridge decided to cease the chase as the vessel was by then too close into the shore. However, when Bainbridge turned the Philadelphia away from land, he became immediately stuck on a reef, which was not on any of the Americans’ maps. To try and free the ship from the reef, Bainbridge had all but one anchor cut away and threw overboard most of the ships guns, “reserving as many only as would be necessary to defend against the enemy’s gunboats…”[15] Since the frigate was stuck only about three and a half miles outside Tripoli, many Tripolitan gunboats soon arrived and began firing on the ship. “The gun boats having taken a station on our Starboard quarter, commenced a firing, directed principally at our masts and rigging[16].” The Philadelphia returned fire with the few guns the crew had saved however, their fire had no effect. “We returned (fire) with two guns from our main deck and three of our quarter deck cannonades, which, from the very great heel the ship had, took no effect.”[17] To try and free the ship, Bainbridge ordered the stern and foremast to be cut away, but try as he might the Philadelphia could not be freed from the reef.

Bainbridge held out until about 1630, endeavoring to free the boat by any means, all the while being fired at by the enemy cruisers that circled the ship. At that time, he called a council of his officers in order to decide what to do. The council found it impossible to free the ship and that all further resistance was futile and would only bring unnecessary harm to the crew with little benefit to their mission. Therefore, “it was unanimously agreed that the only thing left for us to do was to surrender to the enemy…”[18] After ordering the magazine flooded, the ship scuttled and the remaining guns to either be thrown overboard or rendered useless, Bainbridge surrendered the Philadelphia. The crew was taken prisoner, with officer and sailor alike being stripped of most of their belongings. The prisoners were then taken to meet with the ruler of Tripoli, who was greatly pleased at his good fortune in capturing an American frigate. The officers were then placed under house arrest in the abandoned American consulate, while the sailors became slave laborers[19].

The capture of the Philadelphia completely changed the war with Tripoli. Suddenly, the Tripolitans had 307 American prisoners to ransom and a 40-gun American frigate added to their arsenal. Though the ship had been scuttled, “the Turks… got on board in season to stop the holes and prevent her filling.”[20] Also, most of the guns thrown overboard were salvaged. The capture of the Philadelphia meant “the enemy gained a better vessel than they had ever owned before.”[21] The Tripolitan ruler, Yusuf Kramanli, increased his demands for peace from $500,000 and an annual tribute payment of $20,000 to $3,000,000 for peace and the ransom of the crew of the Philadelphia[22]. Preble learned of the capture of the Philadelphia from the British frigate Amazon on 24 November 1803.[23] Writing to inform the Secretary of the Navy of the capture, Preble revealed his displeasure. “This affair distresses me beyond description, and very much deranges my plans of operations for the present.”[24] Preble wrote angrily of what he perceived to be a lack of an enthusiastic defense of the ship. “(I) would to God, that the officers and crew of the Philadelphia had one and all, determined to prefer death to slavery it is possible such a determination might have saved them from either.”[25] His hopes of ending the war soon were confounded. “If it had not have been for the Capture of the Philadelphia, I have no doubt, but we should have had peace with Tripoli in the Spring.”[26] Preble also feared the blow to prestige the United States would suffer among the other Barbary states. “I fear our national character will sustain an injury with the Barbarians.”[27] Indeed, the state of Tunis was emboldened in its dealings with the United States and began to demand restitution for the confiscation of Tunisian property during the fall of 1803. As one Tunisian minister told the U.S. consular agent to Tunis, George Davis, “the Americans are now like the ground.”[28]

Preble decided that it was necessary to destroy the frigate though he believed, “it will undoubtedly cost us many lives.”[29] Though he knew that the Tripolitans had no way to man the captured frigate, Preble knew that they would probably endeavor to sell it to another of the Barbary States, possibly Tunis or Algiers.[30] Preble decided to reconnoiter Tripoli’s harbor in his flagship, Constitution, along with the schooner Enterprise. While sailing off Tripoli, the Enterprise sighted a vessel flying Turkish colors departing Tripoli. The Enterprise stopped the vessel and found it to be a Tripolitan ship carrying tribute to Constantinople. An Italian doctor on board the Constitution identified the ship as the Mastico which had participated in the capture of the Philadelphia. The captain of the Mastico, a Tripolitan named Murad Reis, “was among the first that boarded the ship and was extremely active in taking the officers out and… plundering them of their cloathing[sic].”[31] The captain and the crew were taken prisoner and the Mastico was pressed into service and renamed the Intrepid.

The rest of 1803 was spent cruising throughout the Mediterranean. Preble stayed in Syracuse, his new base, trying to negotiate a peace and the freedom of the American prisoners. By January 1804, it was agreed that the price of peace would be a small consular gift, a ransom of $120,000, and an exchange of the Philadelphia for a schooner[32]. However, before this peace could be put into effect, Preble decided to try and destroy the Philadelphia. Preble ordered an expedition to be readied the ships Siren and Intrepid were to sneak into Tripoli harbor and attempt to destroy the Philadelphia. Lieutenant Stephen Decatur, Jr. volunteered to command the mission. The plan was fairly simple. The Intrepid would sneak into the harbor pretending to be a merchantman, the Siren would enter with her to provide support. The Intrepid would then moor right next to the captured Philadelphia the crew would board her and take control, and then burn the ship. The mission, however, would be extremely dangerous the Philadelphia lay in the middle of Tripoli Harbor, protected by 115 guns spread throughout numerous batteries, its own 40-gun compliment, with the majority of the Tripolitan fleet anchored in the harbor. Together the Intrepid and Siren mounted only 20 guns. Preble ordered Decatur to raise a group of 70 volunteers in order to man the Intrepid for the mission. When Decatur asked for volunteers from his crew, “every man and boy stepped forward”.[33]

The Intrepid received her orders on January 31, 1804 and departed Syracuse February 2.[34] The ship was extremely small and uncomfortable. Designed to carry a complement of only about 30 men, 70 men were forced to cram into her along with all of the materials necessary to destroy the Philadelphia. Also, because the ship was disguised as a Maltese merchantman, only about six or seven of the crew could be on deck at any time. The voyage lasted about a week, with the ships arriving at Tripoli on February 7.[35] Once outside of Tripoli, Decatur sent Midshipman Charles Morris along with Sicilian pilot Salvatore Catalano, who had accompanied the Americans to act as interpreter and guide, to inspect the conditions of the harbor. The two reported that the harbor could not be entered because of high surf.[36] Storms kept the ships from attempting to enter the harbor until the 16 th . In the evening on the 16 th , at around 1900, the Intrepid entered the harbor. However, before the Siren could enter, the wind stopped blowing. The Intrepid would have to attempt to accomplish the mission by herself without any support from the Siren.

To sneak into the harbor, the Intrepid disguised herself as a Maltese merchantman flying British colors. The crew dressed in the clothing of Maltese sailors. So skillfully was she disguised, the British consulate raised the Union Jack to welcome them.[37]

The USS Philadelphia Burning in Tripoli Harbor

The Intrepid sailed into the harbor and pulled up to the captured frigate. The Tripolitan captain called to the ship and ordered her to stay away. The Sicilian pilot, Salvatore Catalano, called back asking permission to tie the boat to the frigate saying the ship had lost its anchor in a storm. The captain asked what the ship at the harbor’s mouth, the Siren, was. Catalano replied it was the Transfer, a ship the Tripolitans had purchased in Malta but that had actually been captured by the Americans before it could arrive in Tripoli.[38] The two ships exchanged lines and the Intrepid moored next to the frigate. As soon as the Intrepid pulled up to the ship, Decatur gave the order to board and was the first on the Philadelphia. Behind him, sixty men boarded the ship “like a cluster of bees.”[39] The Americans quickly overpowered the Tripolitans, killing 20, with the rest of the Tripolitan guards escaping either by boat or by jumping overboard. Once the frigate was in their power, the crew of the Intrepid began the task of destroying the ship. The crew spread throughout the ship placing combustibles and waiting for Decatur to give the order to set fire to the ship. As the crew set about its work, the Tripolitans in the harbor and on shore raised the alarm. “The noise occasion by boarding… gave a general alarm on shore… many boats filled with men lay round, but from whom we received no annoyance.”[40] The guns from the shore batteries began to fire, “but with no other effect than one shot passing through our top gall sail.”[41] Decatur ordered the ship to be set fire, going to each station and giving the command. Decatur then supervised the withdrawal of the crew back onto the Intrepid, counting each man and ensuring everyone had gotten of the burning ship before he left it.[42] Twenty minutes had elapsed. Decatur quickly ordered his crew to push off of the burning frigate, as the Intrepid was in danger of catching fire. The crew pushed off with spars and the Intrepid’s boats towed her away from the burning Philadelphia. As the Intrepid pulled away, the Philadelphia’s cannons began to go off. “She had all of her guns mounted and loaded which as they became hot went off as she lay with her broadside to the town.”[43] The Intrepid pulled out of the harbor, rejoined the Siren, and the two ships made for Syracuse, returning on February 18 to general rejoicing by the rest of the squadron.

The Tripolitan reaction to the raid was a mixture of surprise and fury. Tripoli’s ruler was enraged and ordered more guards and tighter restrictions placed on the American prisoners. He had good reason to be angry Tripoli had actually already sold the frigate to Tunis.[44] Kramanli was so incensed at the burning that he refused to even consider a proposed prisoner exchange.[45] One Tripolitan man, recalling the event years later, was impressed with the Americans. “These Americans have wise heads, when they lose their ship, they lose it to everybody.”[46]

To the Americans, the burning of the Philadelphia was viewed as an enormous victory. “The success of this enterprise added much to the reputation of the Navy, both at home and abroad.”[47] Preble praised Decatur for his intrepidity and courage, immediately writing the Secretary of the Navy to ask for Decatur’s immediate promotion to captain, writing “I wish as a stimulus (to others), it could be done in this instance it would eventually be of real service to our Navy.”[48] The Secretary took Preble’s advice and in a letter dated May 22, 1804 formally granted Decatur the rank of Captain, writing, “The President has desired me to convey to you his thanks for your gallant conduct on this occasion… As a testimonial of the President’s high opinion of your gallant conduct in this instance, he sends to you the enclosed commission.”[49] For his part in the raid, Decatur became the youngest captain ever appointed in the U.S. Navy.[50] Decatur’s reputation was also made among his European counterparts. Nelson, who was blockading Toulon at the time, heard about the event and called it the most bold and daring act of the age.[51] Decatur would be further honored by Congress with a sword and the other officers and sailors who took part in the raid received two month’s pay.[52] The raid cemented Decatur’s reputation for bravery and as a daring commander.

Stephen Decatur: American Naval Hero

Preble now prepared for a major attack on Tripoli. Preble began to assemble a large fleet at Syracuse. Preble supplemented his own forces with the captured Transfer, which was renamed the Scourge. Preble also asked the King of Naples, who was also at war with Tripoli, for a number of gun and mortar boats with which to bombard Tripoli.[53] These the King provided along with the crews to man them. Preble made his assault in the summer of 1804, capturing numerous Tripolitan prizes and causing great destruction in Tripoli. When the Philadelphia was captured, Preble wrote back to the United States for reinforcements. These were sent, but unfortunately for Preble, there were not enough junior captains to command the reinforcements. The Secretary of the Navy wrote Preble informing him of this unfortunate circumstance and that he was to be relieved of command.[54] Preble was greatly disappointed at the thought of being relieved at “the moment of victory.”[55] Preble, though, duly relinquished his squadron to Commodore Samuel Barron on December 24, 1804 and sailed for home, leaving the Tripolitans considerably weaker than when he arrived.

The burning of the Philadelphia was the result of a daring raid during the war against Tripoli. Stephen Decatur secured for himself a reputation for valor that lasted for the rest of his life. The burning of the Philadelphia shocked the Tripolitans, enraging their ruler, and restored American prestige in the eyes of the other Barbary States. Even more amazing, the raid cost no American lives. While Bainbridge and the crew of the Philadelphia remained prisoners until the end of the war, the destruction of the frigate ensured that the Tripolitans could not use it nor sell it to any of the other Barbary States. After the frigate’s destruction, Preble increased the tempo of operations against Tripoli, causing great destruction for Tripoli and her fleet, and increasing even further the prestige of the U.S. Navy in the eyes of Barbary. Preble and Decatur would both return home to a hero’s welcome. Costing no lives or ships lost, cementing the heroic reputation of Decatur, and giving the initiative back to the Americans, the burning of the Philadelphia was a heroic and important episode in the war against Tripoli.

[1]Ray W. Irwin,Diplomatic Relations of the United States with the Barbary Powers 1776-1816 (New York: Russell & Russell, 1970), p.107

[2]Irwin, Diplomatic Relations, p.106

[3]Irwin, Diplomatic Relations, p. 109

[4]Irwin, Diplomatic Relations, p. 112

[5]Gardener W. Allen, Our Navy and the Barbary Corsairs (Hamden: Archon Books, 1965), p. 121-122

[7]Irwin, Diplomatic Relations, p. 129

[11]Navy Department, Naval Documents Related to the United States Wars with the Barbary Powers, (Washington: United States Government Printing Office, 1941), p. 215

[12]Navy Department, Naval Ops, p. 389

[13]Navy Department, Naval Ops, p. 159

[14]Navy Department, Naval Ops, p. 192

[15]Navy Department, Naval Ops, p. 193

[16]Navy Department, Naval Ops, p. 193

[17]Navy Department, Naval Ops, p. 193

[18]Navy Department, Naval Ops, p. 194

[20]Navy Department, Naval Ops, p. 192

[22]Irwin, Diplomatic Relations, p. 135

[23]Navy Department, Naval Ops, p. 235

[24]Navy Department, Naval Ops, p. 256

[25]Navy Department, Naval Ops, p. 256

[26]Navy Department, Naval Ops, p. 257

[27]Navy Department, Naval Ops, p. 256

[28]Irwin, Diplomatic Relations, p. 140

[29]Navy Department, Naval Ops, p. 258

[30]Navy Department, Naval Ops., p. 277

[31]Navy Department, Naval Ops, p. 294

[33]Robert J. Allison, Stephen Decatur: American Naval Hero 1779-1820 (Amherst and Boston: University of Massachusetts Press, 2005) p. 46


Describing the NATO airstrikes on the residence of Libyan leader Muammar Gaddafi, the New York Times reported, “The NATO campaign, some officials said, arose in part from an analysis of Colonel Gaddafi’s reaction to the bombing of Tripoli that was ordered by President Ronald Reagan a quarter-century ago.”

It is worth reviewing that act of American aggression, carried out by a conservative Republican president, because it bears uncanny similarities, in both military methods and media lies, to the contemporary actions of a Democratic president hailed by the liberals.

In his book El Dorado Canyon: Reagan’s Undeclared War with Qaddafi (Naval Institute Press, 2003), Joseph L. Stanik gives a detailed picture of the 1986 attacks on Tripoli and Benghazi that were the culmination of a protracted campaign of destabilization waged against the Libyan regime.

Reagan decided on the air strikes in response to the Libyan role in the April 5, 1986 bombing of a West Berlin disco, in which two American off-duty soldiers were killed. Libyan agents organized the attack, which was carried out by two Palestinian men and the German wife of one of the Palestinians, who actually planted the bomb.

US military planners drew up a list of targets in the two main Libyan cities, including military as well as “terrorist training” sites, and adding key government installations as well, on the theory—embraced 25 years later by the Obama administration and NATO—that all government facilities play a role in communications to and within the military.

Reagan’s operatives, like Obama’s, included the Bab al-Aziziyah compound as a potential target for bombing, knowing that Gaddafi and many of his family members resided there.

According to Stanik’s book, Reagan personally selected Bab al-Aziziyah to be the main focus of the attack. He quotes Admiral William Crowe, then chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, to the effect that “there was strong sentiment for psychological purposes that we should do something to his personal compound and get his communications center and headquarters.”

After three decades of US-led wars, the outbreak of a third world war, which would be fought with nuclear weapons, is an imminent and concrete danger.

Lt. Col. Oliver North, a member of the National Security Council at the time, recalled the deliberations, which included the same type of cynical hairsplitting about assassinating Gaddafi offered this week by officials of NATO and the Obama administration.

“Killing him was never part of our plan. On the other hand, we certainly made no attempt to protect him from our bombs. By law, we couldn’t specifically target him. But if Gaddafi happened to be in the vicinity of the Aziziyah Barracks in downtown Tripoli when the bombs started to fall, nobody would have shed any tears.” (Stanik, p. 152)

White House Press Secretary Larry Speakes had even prepared a statement in the event that Gaddafi was killed in the attack, calling his death “a fortunate by-product of our act of self-defense” (ibid).

Unfortunately for the Air Force pilots assigned the mission to bomb Gaddafi’s residence, the desire to kill Gaddafi outweighed the recommendations of the military planners, who allotted six warplanes to each of the three targets in Tripoli.

Reagan personally ordered the Pentagon to shift three planes from the Tripoli military airfield to the Bab al-Aziziyah compound, increasing the number of planes to nine, including two specifically targeting Gaddafi’s residence.

Stanik observes—with the professional military man’s distaste for micromanagement by politicians—“Assigning two planes to attack Gaddafi’s headquarters-residence building certainly increased the chances of killing or wounding Gaddafi, but that was not the mission’s objective.”

Moreover, it endangered the pilots and was described as a “gross tactical error” by the Air Force mission planners.

Since the planes were to attack in succession, separated by 60- to 90-second intervals, the overloading of planes on Bab al-Aziziyah meant that the last of the nine would not hit the target until eight to ten minutes had elapsed, giving Libyan anti-aircraft forces ample time to recover from the initial surprise and open fire.

The result was that one of the later-arriving jets was shot down, with the loss of both airmen, who ejected into the Mediterranean Sea and were drowned.

While the American media depicted the raid as a brilliant success, only two of the nine planes that attacked Bab al-Aziziyah actually struck the compound, with the rest forced to abort because of mechanical difficulties or lack of visibility, while one dropped its load elsewhere over Tripoli, killing civilians and hitting the French and several other Western embassies. All told, 37 Libyans were killed and 93 wounded, the majority of them civilians.

Overall, of the 18 planes dispatched against Tripoli, six aborted, one was shot down, seven missed their targets and, Stanik concludes, “only four put their bombs directly on or very near their aim points.”


Operation Odyssey Dawn

The Obama administration spent about $1 billion on Libya’s “revolution” and helped NATO with everything from munitions to surveillance aircraft, carrying out roughly 20 percent of the over 26,000 bombing sorties in the seven-month Operation Odyssey Dawn.

U.S.-NATO jet bombers dropped cluster munitions, phosphorus and fuel-air explosives which are outlawed under international law.

In the opening hours of the campaign, the USS Florida launched 100 cruise missiles against Libyan air defenses, creating an entry corridor for the airstrikes that followed.

Predator drones flew overhead for hundreds of hours, chronicling the “patter of life below” to prepare target selection for B-2 stealth bombers and Hellfire and Tomahawk missiles with depleted uranium warheads.

Civilians only loosely linked to Qaddafi’s regime were targeted in the bombing. Buildings and homes were hit along with desalinization plants and the man-made river and water pipe infrastructure supplying over four million people. (21)

The town of Sirte, a Qaddafi stronghold envisioned as the center of a united Africa, was reduced to a “ghost town filled with the stench of death,” as one eyewitness described it. (22)

Qaddafi’s home was bombed in another illegal assassination attempt that killed his son and three of his grandsons.

A major ethnic cleansing operation was also carried out by rebel forces in Misrata targeting pro-Qaddafi Blacks who had racial slurs painted on the walls of their abandoned homes.

They bombed and shot at us and we had to run away. I ran away with my kids. I’ve lost a boy and I don’t know whether he is alive or dead. And now we are here [refugee camp where militias would kidnap young men], with no future. We are scared, we need a solution to our problem, and we want to go home.

The final assault on Tripoli was led by Qatari Special Forces paid by the CIA and Pakistani ISI mercenaries.

When Qaddafi was found with the assistance of U.S. predator drones hiding in a sewer pipe, rebels tortured and sodomized him with a sharpened two-foot pole and then shot him in the head and displayed his body in a meat locker.

In an interview with ABC News, Hillary Clinton subsequently proclaimed: “We came, we saw, he died,” a twisted play on the words of Julius Caesar following his victory over the King of Bosporus at the Battle of Zela around 47 B.C.

CIA Director John Brennan told speechwriter Ben Rhodes that Qaddafi’s death marked a “fitting end for one of the biggest rats of the 20 th century.” No Western leader would ever be characterized in this way.


El Dorado Canyon

The United States on April 14, 1986, launched Operation El Dorado Canyon, a controversial but highly successful mission that hit Col. Muammar Qaddafi squarely between the eyes. Working with carrier aircraft of the US Sixth Fleet, Air Force F-111s of the 48th Tactical Fighter Wing flew what turned out to be the longest fighter combat mission in history. The crushing strikes caused a remarkable reduction in Libyan­sponsored terrorist activity.

In the mid-1980s, the F-111s of the 48th TFW, stationed at RAF Lakenheath in Britain, formed a key element of NATO power. If war came, the Aardvark’s long range and night, low-level bombing capability would have been vital in defeating a Soviet attack. To the south, in the Mediterranean, the Sixth Fleet engaged Soviet warships in a constant game of mutual surveillance and stayed in more or less permanent readiness for hostilities.

Fate would dictate that the 48th TFW and Sixth Fleet carriers would be teamed in a totally unexpected quarter against a very different kind of enemy. They would strike not in or around Europe but on the North African littoral. They would go into action not against Soviet conventional forces but against an Arab state bent on sponsoring deadly terrorist acts.

Western nations had long been alarmed by state-sponsored terrorism. The number of attacks had risen from about 300 in 1970 to more than 3,000 in 1985. In that 15-year period, a new intensity had come to characterize the attacks, which ranged from simple assaults to attacks with heavy casualties such as the Oct. 23, 1983, truck bombing of the Marine Barracks in Beirut.

Qaddafi, who seized power in a 1969 coup, had long been an American antagonist. Each year, Libya trained 8,000 terrorists, providing false passports, transport on Libyan airliners, and access to safe houses across Europe. Libyan support for terrorist operations exceeded all nations except Iran. It disbursed $100 million to Palestinian terrorists eager to strike Israel.

“Heroic” Actions

Qaddafi joined forces with one of the most notorious terrorists of the time, Abu Nidal. In November 1985, Abu Nidal’s operatives hijacked an EgyptAir transport 60 passengers were killed, many in the rescue attempt staged by an Egyptian commando team. On Dec. 27, 1985, Abu Nidal terrorists launched simultaneous attacks on airports at Rome and Vienna 20 passengers and four terrorists were killed in these events. Qaddafi publicly praised the terrorists, called them martyrs, and applauded what he described as “heroic” actions.

President Ronald Reagan at about this time gave his approval to National Security Decision Directive 207, setting forth a new US policy against terrorism. He had decided that the US needed to mount a military response to Qaddafi and his brethren, but first he wanted to obtain cooperation from the Western Allies and allow time for the removal of US citizens working in Libya.

Meantime, the Sixth Fleet, based in the Mediterranean Sea, began a series of maneuvers designed to keep pressure on Libya. Two and sometimes three aircraft carriers (Saratoga, America, and Coral Sea) conducted “freedom of navigation” operations that would take US warships up to and then southward across a line at 32 degrees 30 minutes north latitude. This was Qaddafi’s self-proclaimed “Line of Death.”

The Line of Death defined the northernmost edge of the Gulf of Sidra and demarcated it-in Qaddafi’s mind, at least-from the rest of the Mediterranean. The Libyan leader had warned foreign vessels that the Gulf belonged to Libya and was not international waters. The message was that they entered at their own risk and were subject to attack by Libyan forces. Thus Qaddafi, by drawing the Line, unilaterally sought to exclude US ships and aircraft from a vast, 3,200-square-mile area of the Med which always had been considered international.

The skirmishing soon began. On March 24, 1986, Libyan air defense operators fired SA-5 missiles at two F-14s. The Tomcats had intercepted an intruding MiG-25 that came a bit too close to a battle group. The next day, a Navy A-7E aircraft struck the SAM site with AGM-88A HARM missiles. At least two of the five threatening Libyan naval attack vessels were also sunk.

Tension further increased on April 2, 1986, when a terrorist’s bomb exploded on TWA Flight 840 flying above Greece. Four Americans were killed. Three days later, a bomb exploded in Berlin’s La Belle Discotheque, a well-known after-hours hangout for US military personnel. Killed in the blast were two American servicemen, and 79 other Americans were injured. Three terrorist groups claimed responsibility for the bomb, but the United States and West Germany independently announced “incontrovertible” evidence that Libyans were responsible for the bombing.

President Reagan decided that it was time for the US to act.

In the months leading up to the Berlin bombing, planners at USAF’s 48th TFW had developed more than 30 plans for delivering a punitive blow against Libya. Most were variations on a theme-six or so Air Force F-111 fighter-bombers would fly through French airspace and strike selected military targets in Libya. Planners assumed that the attack would have the benefit of surprise the small number of F-111s made it probable that the bombers would be in and out before the Libyan defenses were alerted.

Later, when detailed speculation in the Western media lessened the probability of surprise, attack plans were changed to include support packages that would carry out suppression of enemy air defenses. These packages were to comprise Air Force EF-111 electronic warfare aircraft as well as Navy A-7 and EA-6B aircraft. This was the start of an Air Force-Navy liaison that would prove essential in the actual mission.

However, all the 48th’s plans had been rendered obsolete by April 1986. Continuous media coverage, apparently fueled by leaks from very senior and knowledgeable sources in the White House, had rendered surprise almost impossible. Moreover, the US was having serious trouble with its Allies. Britain’s Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher approved US use of British bases to launch the attack. However, Washington’s other Allies lost their nerve. The fear of reprisals and loss of business caused France, Germany, Italy, and Spain to refuse to cooperate in a strike.

The faintheartedness of these countries forced the US to prepare a radically different attack plan. USAF F-111s would now navigate around France and Spain, thread the needle through the airspace over the narrow Strait of Gibraltar, and then plunge on eastward over the Mediterranean until in a position to attack.

It would prove to be a grueling round-trip flight of 6,400 miles that spanned 13 hours, requiring eight to 12 in-flight refuelings for each aircraft. Inasmuch as a standard NATO F-111 sortie was about two hours, the El Dorado Canyon mission placed a tremendous strain on crews and complex avionic systems at the heart of the aircraft.

US authorities crafted a joint operation of the Air Force and Navy against five major Libyan targets. Of these, two were in Benghazi: a terrorist training camp and the military airfield. The other three were in Tripoli: a terrorist naval training base the former Wheelus AFB and the Azziziyah Barracks compound, which housed the command center for Libyan intelligence and contained one of five residences that Qaddafi used.

Eighteen F-111s were assigned to strike the three Tripoli targets, while Navy aircraft were to hit the two Benghazi sites. Navy aircraft also were to provide air defense suppression for both phases of the operation. US authorities gave overall command to Vice Adm. Frank B. Kelso II, commander of the Sixth Fleet.

Enter the Air Force

The composition of the El Dorado Canyon force has stirred controversy. In his 1988 book, Command of the Seas, former Navy Secretary John F. Lehman Jr. said the entire raid could have been executed by aircraft from America and Coral Sea. This claim cropped up again in 1997 in a letter to Foreign Affairs, Marine Maj. Gen. John H. Admire, an operations planner in US European Command at the time, said, “Sufficient naval forces were available to execute the attacks.” Both attributed USAF’s participation to a bureaucratic need to placate the Air Force.

The fact of the matter, however, is the Air Force had long been preparing for such a raid. When Washington decreed that there would be only one attack, it became absolutely necessary to mount a joint operation because only the inclusion of heavy USAF attack aircraft could provide the firepower needed to ensure that the operation would be more than a pinprick attack.

The Navy had only America and Coral Sea on station. According to Air Force officials involved in the plans, these two carriers did not have sufficient aircraft for effective attacks against all five targets in both Tripoli and Benghazi. At least one more carrier, and perhaps two, would have been required, said these officers.

The act of calling in a third or even a fourth carrier to handle both targets would have caused a delay and given away any remaining element of surprise. This fact was pointed out to the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, Adm. William J. Crowe Jr. Crowe himself recognized that F-111s were needed if both Tripoli and Benghazi were to be struck at more or less the same time. They would also add an element of surprise and a new axis of attack.

For these reasons, the JCS Chairman recommended to Reagan and the National Security Council that the United States use both Air Force and Navy aircraft in the raids.

The F-111Fs of the 48th were special birds, equipped with two Pratt & Whitney TF-30 P-100 turbofan engines of 25,100 pounds of thrust each and a highly classified AN/AVQ-26 Pave Tack bombing system. Pave Tack consisted of an infrared camera and laser designator. It enabled the F-111 crew to see the target in the dark or through light fog or dust obscurations (not heavy dust and smoke). When the target was seen, it was designated by the energy of a laser beam. The 2,000-pound GBU-10 Paveway II laser-guided bomb tracked the laser to the illuminated target. Pave Tack imparted to the F-111s a limited standoff capability, achieved by lobbing the bombs at the target. As events unfolded, the Pave Tack equipment would be crucial to the mission’s success.

On April 14, at 17:36 Greenwich Mean Time, 24 Aardvarks departed Lakenheath with the intent that six would return after the first refueling about 90 minutes out. Also launched were five EF-111 electronic warfare aircraft. This marked the start of the first US bomber attack from the UK since World War II. The tanker force was launched at roughly the same time as the F-111s, four of which joined up on their respective “mother tankers” in radio silence, flying such a tight formation that radar controllers would see only the tanker signatures on their screens. At the first refueling, six F-111Fs and one EF-111A broke off and returned to base. Beyond Lands End, UK, the aircraft would be beyond the control of any international authority, operating at 26,000 feet and speeds up to 450 knots.

To save time and ease navigation, tankers were to accompany the fighters to and from the target area. KC-10 tankers, called in from Barksdale AFB, La., March AFB, Calif., and Seymour Johnson AFB, N.C., were refueled in turn by KC-135s, assigned to the 300th Strategic Wing, RAF Mildenhall, and the 11th Strategic Group, RAF Fairford, UK.

Drastic Changes

What had been drafted as a small, top secret mission had changed drastically. The force now included 18 USAF strike aircraft and four EF-111F electronic warfare aircraft from the 42d Electronic Combat Squadron, RAF Upper Heyford, UK. The lead KC-10 controlled the F-111s.

The size of the attack force went against the judgment of the 48th’s leadership, including that of its commander, Col. Sam W. Westbrook III. With the possibility of surprise gone, the 48th felt that the extra aircraft meant there would be too much time over target, particularly for the nine aircraft assigned to strike the Azziziyah Barracks. Libyan defenses, already on alert, would have time to concentrate on the later waves of attackers.

Secretary of Defense Caspar Weinberger, however, was an advocate of a larger strike, and he was supported in this by Gen. Charles A. Gabriel, Chief of Staff of the Air Force, Gen. Charles L. Donnelly Jr., commander of United States Air Forces in Europe, and Maj. Gen. David W. Forgan, Donnelly’s operations deputy.

The three USAF officers believed the large force increased the possibility of doing substantial damage to the targets.

On the Navy side, the Sixth Fleet was to attack with the forces arrayed on two carriers. Coral Sea launched eight A-6E medium bombers for the attack and six F/A-18C Hornets for strike support. America launched six A-6Es for the attack and six A-7Es and an EA-6B for strike support. F-14s protected the fleet and aircraft.

A high alert status characterized Soviet vessels in the Mediterranean monitoring ship and aircraft movement. Libya’s vast air defense system was sophisticated, and its operators were acutely aware that an attack was coming. In the wake of the raid, the US compared the Libyan network with target complexes in the Soviet Union and its satellites. Only three were found to have had stronger defenses than the Libyan cities.

The difficulties of the mission were great. Most of the crews had never seen combat. Most had never refueled from a KC-10, and none had done so at night in radio silence. The strike force did benefit from the presence of highly experienced flight leaders, many of them Vietnam combat veterans. They were flying the longest and most demanding combat mission in history against alerted defenses–and doing it in coordination with a naval force more than 3,000 miles distant.

Timing was absolutely critical, and the long route and multiple refuelings increased the danger of a disastrous error. The Air Force and Navy attacks had to be simultaneous to maximize any remaining element of surprise and to get strike aircraft in and out as quickly as possible.

Rules of Engagement

Mission difficulty was compounded by rigorous Rules of Engagement. These ROE stipulated that, before an attack could go forward, the target had to be identified through multiple sources and all mission-critical F-111 systems had to be operating well. Any critical system failure required an immediate abort, even if an F-111 was in the last seconds of its bomb run.

At about midnight GMT, six flights of three F-111Fs each bore down on Tripoli. Fatigue of the long mission was forgotten as the pilots monitored their terrain-following equipment. The weapon system officers prepared for the attack, checking the navigation, looking for targets and offset aiming points, and, most important of all, checking equipment status.

The first three attacking elements, code-named Remit, Elton, and Karma, were tasked to hit Qaddafi’s headquarters at the Azziziyah Barracks. This target included a command and control center but not the Libyan leader’s nearby residence and the Bedouin-style tent he often used. Westbrook proved to be prescient in his belief that nine aircraft were too many to be put against the Azziziyah Barracks, as only two of the nine aircraft dropped their bombs. These, however, would prove to be tremendously important strikes.

One element, Jewel, struck the Sidi Balal terrorist training camp where there was a main complex, a secondary academy, a Palestinian training camp, and a maritime academy under construction. Jewel’s attack was successful, taking out the area where naval commandos trained.

Two elements, Puffy and Lujac, were armed with Mk 82 Snakeye parachute-retarded 500- pound bombs, and they struck the Tripoli airport, destroying three Ilyushin IL-76 transports and damaging three others as well as destroying a Boeing 727 and a Fiat G. 222.

Flying in support of the F-111 attacks were EF-111As and Navy A-7s, A-6Es, and an EA-6B, using HARM and Shrike anti-radar missiles. Similar defense suppression support, including F/A-18s, was provided across the Gulf of Sidra, where Navy A-6E aircraft were to attack the Al Jumahiriya Barracks at Benghazi, and to the east, the Benina airfield. The Navy’s Intruders destroyed four MiG-23s, two Fokker F-27s, and two Mil Mi-8 helicopters.

The Air Force F-111Fs would spend only 11 minutes in the target area, with what at first appeared to be mixed results. Anti-aircraft and SAM opposition from the very first confirmed that the Libyans were ready. News of the raid was broadcast while it was in progress. One aircraft, Karma 52, was lost, almost certainly due to a SAM, as it was reported to be on fire in flight. Capt. Fernando L. Ribas-Dominicci and Capt. Paul F. Lorence were killed. Only Ribas-Dominicci’s body was recovered his remains were returned to the US three years later.

Adrenaline Rush

As each F-111 aircraft exited the target area, they gave a coded transmission, with “Tranquil Tiger” indicating success and “Frostee Freezer” indicating that the target was not hit. Then the crews, flushed with adrenaline from the attack, faced a long flight home, with more in-flight refuelings, the knowledge that one aircraft was down, and the incredible realization that the raid’s results were already being broadcast on Armed Forces Radio. The news included comments from Weinberger and Secretary of State George P. Shultz. One F-111F had to divert to Rota AB, Spain, because of an engine overheat. The mission crew was returned to Lakenheath within two hours.

Early and fragmentary USAF poststrike analysis raised some questions about the performance of the F-111s. Even though all three targets had been successfully struck, only four of the 18 F-111s dropped successfully. Six were forced to abort due to aircraft difficulties or stringencies of the Rules of Engagement. Seven missed their targets and one was lost. There had been collateral damage, with one bomb landing near the French Embassy.

The combined Air Force-Navy raid resulted in 130 civilian casualties with 37 killed, including, it was claimed, the adopted daughter of Qaddafi.

Yet events were soon to prove that the raid had been a genuine success, and as time passed, its beneficial effects would be recognized. It quickly become obvious that Qaddafi, who had exultantly backed the bombing of others, was terribly shaken when the bombs fell near him. His house had been damaged and flying debris had reportedly injured his shoulder. He disappeared from the scene for 24 hours, inspiring some speculation that he had been killed. When he did reappear-on a television broadcast-he was obviously deeply disturbed, lacking his usual arrogance.

Libya protested but received only muted support from Arab nations. In its comments, Moscow was curiously nonjudgmental and withheld a strong endorsement of Qaddafi. More importantly, the following months would see a dramatic decrease in the number of Libyan-sponsored, anti-American terrorist events. The Red Army Faction, one of the groups that had claimed responsibility for the La Belle disco bombing, reduced its activities. Other Libyan-sponsored groups followed suit.

Slight Praise

It became evident that the F-111s and the carrier attack aircraft, ably assisted by Air Force and Navy support units, had achieved a signal success. Ironically, that success was not to receive much formal recognition. There was slight praise for the aircrews. The Air Force declined a nomination for a Presidential Unit Citation, although the Navy awarded its forces a Meritorious Unit Citation. This situation, with an excellent description of the attack, is covered in Robert E. Venkus’ book, Raid on Qaddafi.

Operation El Dorado Canyon was carried out in the finest tradition of the Air Force. Its crews and aircraft were pushed to the absolute limits of their capability. Yet they prevailed, destroying key targets and shocking Qaddafi as a raid on Benghazi alone would never have done. More important, the effect of El Dorado Canyon went far beyond Libya, registering with the entire terrorist world.

Moreover, the raid demonstrated that the United States had the capability, using fighters and large numbers of land-based tankers, to make precision strikes from land bases at very great distances.

Perhaps as important, F-111 problems surfaced during El Dorado Canyon and the Air Force set about fixing them. This was to pay great dividends five years later when, during Operation Desert Storm, the F-111F Pave Tack system flew more missions and destroyed more targets than any other aircraft in that war.

Walter J. Boyne, former director of the National Air and Space Museum in Washington, is a retired Air Force colonel and author. He has written more than 400 articles about aviation topics and 29 books, the most recent of which is Beyond the Horizons: The Lockheed Story. His most recent article for Air Force Magazine, “Stuart Symington,” appeared in the February 1999 issue.


Legacy of the Wars Against the Barbary Pirates

The threat of the Barbary pirates faded into history, especially as the age of imperialism meant the African states supporting piracy came under the control of European powers. And pirates were mainly found in adventure tales until incidents off the coast of Somalia made headlines in the spring of 2009.

The Barbary Wars were relatively minor engagements, especially when compared to European wars of the period. Yet they provided heroes and thrilling tales of patriotism to the United States as a young nation. And the fights in distant lands can be said to have shaped the young nation's conception of itself as a player on the international stage.

Gratitude is extended to the New York Public Library Digital Collections for the use of images on this page.


Watch the video: President Reagans Address to the Nation on the bombing of Libya, April 14, 1986