April 5, 1986 Berlin Nightclub Blast Kills Three, Inspires U.S. Airstrikes against Libya

by Florian Sohnke

Foreign governments and organized terror groups at odds with the United States shifted their tactics in the 1980s —  from the preferred method of hijacking commercial airliners — to bombings of metro areas, transportation hubs or cultural settings. They learned that this form of political expression invited immediate retaliation from the Reagan Administration, as Libyan strongman Muammar al-Gaddafi discovered in 1986.

While the United States was never immune to terror prior to 2001, acts of terror perpetrated upon Americans were most often manifested against embassies or diplomats abroad prior to 1980. That changed in Berlin in the Spring of 1986, as the bombing of the La Belle nightclub was a fresh approach for al-Gaddafi to intimidate the West.

Operatives under al-Gaddafi targeted La Belle — a cultural venue in a trendy section of West Berlin known to attract U.S. servicemen stationed in Germany —  on April 5, 1986. On that day the hotspot became the location of a terror bombing that would eventually claim the lives of three persons, two of whom were U.S. military personnel.

Shortly after 1:30 a.m., a small explosive device planted underneath a table exploded, killing one Turkish national and one American, Sergeant Kenneth Ford. A second American serviceman, James Goins, sustained injuries and succumbed to them some two months later.

Almost immediately, the Reagan White House suspected the involvement of al-Gaddafi and Libyan intelligence services. Armed with slender evidence — a Telex intercepted by West German security services (BND) that revealed congratulations issued from Tripoli to the Libyan embassy in East Berlin — the White House determined to retaliate militarily.

Best served cold
Best served cold

Imbued with the spirit of revenge, the Pentagon devised Operation El Dorado Canyon, the bombing of targets inside Libya, namely the military installations of Murat Sidi Bilal; Bab al-Azizia barracks; Tripoli airfield; the Benina airfield; and Jamahiriyah barracks. Similarly, the aerial bombardment targeted several air-defense systems near both Tripoli and Benghazi.

In sum, the attacks were comprised of a mixed bag of aircraft in the American arsenal: 22 F-111 bombers formed the mainstay of the raid to complete the task on April 14, supported by 15 A-6, A-7 and F-18 attack bombers.

The strikes killed approximately 40 Libyans, including a four-year-old girl that was argued to have been the daughter of al-Gaddafi, although her existence, relation and death are all disputed.

Although justice was served by American bombers, it was slow to come in a German courtroom, delayed until 1990 when German re-unification allowed German prosecutors access to East German intelligence (Stasi) documents. One intrepid German official, Detlev Mehlis, refused to abandon his quest to bring the guilty to the front. Detlev’s relentless burrowing through piles of East German archives led him to a Libyan, Musbah Abdulghasem Eter, known to Stasi as a Libyan intelligence agent operating in East Berlin and connected to the Libyan embassy. In 1996, Eter, two Palestinians, Yasser Mohammed Chreidi and Ali Chanaa, and Chanaa’s ex-wife, Verena, were arrested. After trial, all were sentenced to a maximum of 14 years, and Verena was convicted of murder.

In 2004, Libya finally claimed ownership for the nightclub bombing and paid $35 million in compensation to non-U.S. victims of the bombing after exhaustive negotiations. Four years later, Libya, again, acknowledged its role in four separate incidents and paid one-and-a-half-billion dollars into a fund to settle claims of the victims and descendants of terror acts, notably the Lockerbie bombing in 1988.

Another point of contention was the refusal by France, Spain and Italy to allow the United States the right to access their airspace for conducting the raid (forcing the bombers on a much longer route around the southern tip of Spain through the Straits of Gibraltar to reach Libya).  Yet F-111 aircraft from American air bases in Upper Heyford, Oxford and Lakenheath in Suffolk, United Kingdom, were very unlikely to have been capable complete the trip in the amount of time known to officials at each base. In fact, it is almost certain the governments of France, Italy and Spain did allow U.S. aircraft a means of approach over their territory for the raid. Thus, despite three decades of seemingly simmering American bitterness towards the three European powers, rumors persisted that the public refusal from all three countries was an elaborate rouse to obscure their cooperation. In a shroud of secrecy, all three countries did permit American aircraft overflight privileges, but this allowance was hidden in the media.