Well before then-President George W. Bush coined the term, Libya was the primary U.S. adversary in the war on terror. The government of Muammar el-Qaddafi had carried out a pair of high-profile strikes on American targets: the 1986 bombing of a discotheque in West Berlin, which left two American military personnel dead, and the downing of Pan Am Flight 103 in 1988, which killed all 259 on board—mostly Americans—and 11 more on the ground.
But a closer look at Libya’s on-again, off-again use of state-sponsored terrorism during Qaddafi’s decades in power serves as a vivid reminder of just how often Libyan agents attempted to strike American targets in the past—and underscores why so many senior U.S. officials worry that Qaddafi may seek to launch new attacks in the weeks ahead as revenge for the ongoing American-led military intervention in Libya.
Gen. Carter Ham, the overall commander of Operation Odyssey Dawn, told reporters this week that the prospect of Qaddafi using Libyan agents or other surrogates to launch terror attacks against targets inside Europe or the U.S. was “a very, very legitimate concern.”
Michael Chertoff, the former head of the Department of Homeland Security, said in an interview that Qaddafi “has a history of being a terrorist” and would potentially seek to strike at the countries—France, England, and the U.S.—who are leading the military effort to impose a no-fly zone over Libya.
“You can’t exclude the possibility that he is going to determine that he wants to retaliate or distract by carrying out a terrorist attack against the people he sees as antagonists,” Chertoff, who runs a security consultancy called the Chertoff Group, told National Journal.
Chertoff said it would be harder for Qaddafi to carry out a successful terror attack now than in the past because of the heightened security measures after the September 11 terror attacks. He also noted that planning overseas attacks requires both time and resources, two quantities probably in short supply for Qaddafi because of the ongoing military campaign against his regime.
Still, Chertoff warned it was too soon to conclude that the Libyan strongman had lost his appetite for such attacks—or his ability, in a pinch, to find surrogates willing to carry out a strike.
“Could he get some sympathizers of somebody, let’s say in Europe, to do something?” Chertoff asked. “I wouldn’t exclude the possibility.”
Speaking to reporters in Cairo on Wednesday, Defense Secretary Robert Gates said Western forces were considering their own options while not seeking to specifically kill Qaddafi. He suggested the ongoing military campaign in Libya could spark divisions within Qaddafi's family or other members of the country's senior leadership to turn against him, potentially forcing him from power. Gates also indicated that he hoped the escalating American-led intervention would lead rebel forces to redouble their ground assaults against Qaddafi loyalists, magnifying the military pressures on him and his regime.
"Qaddafi has basically sworn that he will show no mercy to anyone who has been in opposition—that is not exactly an invitation to negotiate," Gates said. "Having the coalition—under the auspices of the Security Council resolution—prevent Qaddafi from slaughtering his own people, I suppose you could call that choosing sides. These folks are still mainly fighting on their own."
American officials have been worried about Libyan terrorism for decades, and a close look at the history of Libyan plots against the U.S. reveals that they were far more numerous—and far more serious—than is commonly known.
In his 1996 memoir From the Shadows, Gates writes of flying to Algiers in 1979 for a banquet featuring “all the principal thugs in the world”: then-Syrian President Hafez al-Assad, then-Palestinian Liberation Organization Chairman Yasir Arafat and, of course, Qaddafi himself.
Gates, who wrote the book after serving as the director of the CIA in the early 1990s, said Libya moved to the center of American concerns about terrorism in 1981, when Qaddafi’s agents were implicated in a terrorist murder in Chicago. In the immediate aftermath of that attack, the U.S. launched a large-scale naval exercise in international waters off the coast of Libya. On August 20, Libyan warplanes fired on a pair of American F-14 fighter jets, which promptly downed both Libyan aircraft.
“After the incident, CIA received several clandestine reports of Qaddafi’s desire to exact revenge,” Gates wrote, noting that the plots were said to target then-President Ronald Reagan and a pair of other senior administration officials. The report led U.S. officials to “change the face of Washington” by bolstering the protective details surrounding Reagan and other top officials and constructing new barricades outside important government installations, he said.
The CIA uncovered another successful Libyan terror attack in 1984 when it found evidence that Qaddafi had used divers to mine parts of the Red Sea near the Gulf of Suez and the strategically vital Bab-el Mandeb Strait. The undersea bombs damaged 19 ships.
The following year, the Reagan administration asked the CIA to identify options for striking the three countries then seen as the world’s main sponsors of terrorism: Iran, Syria, and Libya. Qaddafi’s regime, Gates writes, quickly emerged as the administration’s preferred target.
“The Reagan administration wanted Qaddafi’s hide in the worst way,” Gates writes. “It had been obsessed with him since 1981, and its bill of particulars against the Libyan leader grew longer each day.”
The administration’s obsession with Libya led to some fairly radical thinking about ways of removing him from power. Gates wrote that a White House working group drew up plans for a joint U.S.-Egyptian invasion of Libya that would start with the Egyptian military attacking across the desert while American air and ground forces moved in on Tripoli. The plan, Gates writes, “looked a lot like the invasion of Normandy on D-Day, 1944.”
The plan didn’t go anywhere, but Qaddafi’s lethal attack on the La Belle disco in 1986 forced the administration’s hand. The CIA had specific, credible details on nine additional Libyan terror plots against Western targets that were in the planning stages or already in motion, Gates said. At the urging of his top national security officials, Reagan ordered a series of airstrikes on Tripoli, including one that narrowly missed killing Qaddafi.
Reagan, Gates wrote, never got over his visceral hatred for Qaddafi. At Opening Day in Baltimore in 1986, Reagan visited the Orioles dugout and vented his fury about Qaddafi toward several of the Orioles players. At one point, Gates writes, Reagan leaned in toward Orioles catcher Rick Dempsey and said, colorfully, “You know what I’d do if Qaddafi were sitting here right now? I’d nail his balls to the bench and then push him over backwards.”
Gates, especially in his current job, is far more careful in his public comments about the Libyan leader. Still, there is little doubt that he shares his former boss’s fundamental assessment of Qaddafi. On a flight to Russia earlier this week, Gates was asked whether he felt comfortable effectively supporting Libya’s rebels, who are largely unknown to American intelligence officials and policymakers. He answered without even a pause.
“We certainly know a lot about Qaddafi,” he said, “and that’s good enough for me.”
This article appears in the March 23, 2011, edition of National Journal Daily PM Update.