Tripoli, June 1986—Two months after US warplanes bombed Tripoli, piles of rubble lie virtually untouched in the comfortable tree-lined neighborhood of Ben Ashour. An arch has been erected to commemorate the raid, displaying a gaudy painting of war planes on fire as they swoop down on innocent residents. The state radio rarely lets an hour pass without a reference to April 15, the night of “barbaric Atlanticist aggression.” Neither Libya nor its leadership has yet been able to put the raid behind them.
Tripoli in mid-June was outwardly calm and festive as Libyans celebrated the end of the Muslim fasting month of Ramadan. The streets and markets were fuller than at any time since the raid, as residents, visibly relaxed, enjoyed splendid Mediterranean weather and a week of public holidays. But a gnawing uneasiness was evident beneath the calm public demeanor. “Do you think the Americans will do it again?” people kept asking visiting journalists.*
Colonel Muammar Qaddafi has kept the country on a war footing. In a recent speech marking the anniversary of the evacuation of US troops from the Wheelus Air Force Base near Tripoli, he called on Libyans to arm themselves in preparation for a new US attack. Growing economic woes are uppermost in the minds of many Libyans, but these warnings have Libyans on edge, profoundly unsure of the future. As one put it, “I wish there would be either open war or a flat-out peace. This constant state of uncertainty is very bad for the country.”
Surprisingly little has in fact changed since the US bombings. Like clocks stopped by the impact, time has in a sense stood still. An event that was clearly a national trauma, referred to by the state media as a turning point in Arab history, has so far changed nothing in the country’s policy or political and military leadership. Yet there is a sense among residents and diplomats that something must change—how and why being the subject of endless and often wild speculation.
I had been one of some 80 foreign journalists in Tripoli’s Grand Hotel the night of April 14-15. Like most Tripoli residents, I went to bed thinking the chances of a US strike were receding. The rhetoric on both sides had eased, and the European Community had endorsed political and economic sanctions in a move many thought would appease Ronald Reagan. Little did we know that F-lll bombers were already on their way from England. Even when the windows shook and I awoke to the low rumble of explosions and the distant roar of jets, I still could not believe it was a US strike.
Sleepy and confused, I pulled the curtains and looked out over the port. Its searchlights were blazing and not a car or person stirred. To the west, a fiery glow lit up the horizon after a thunderous bang. It was five minutes after two. No sirens, no movement in the city below. A lone police car sped westward by the port. The chilly sky above it soon lit up with red and white fireworks, tracer and anti-aircraft rockets that faded into the night. It was ten past two. I heard one more explosion—I think there was a total of four—and the electricity was out. Vehicle traffic on the main port road thickened. At 2:20, the anti-aircraft missiles fell silent.
In the dark hotel lobby, journalists huddled around maps and a radio, which broadcast patriotic songs and readings from Qaddafi’s Green Book. The information ministry official in charge of foreign journalists ran around shouting hysterically, “It’s nothing. It’s only a test by our forces. Go back to your rooms and sleep.”
Sleep was, of course, the last thing on our minds. At 3:15, the radio announced that a “barbaric American aggression” targeting Qaddafi’s home had injured several members of his family. There were many other civilian casualties, most of them foreigners, the radio said. Buses came to take us to the bomb sites. Our departure was thwarted by a sudden, violent outburst of Libyan anti-aircraft fire—one of half a dozen over the next four days, never fully explained. Washington says it carried out only one raid.
At dawn, there was the first of many tightly organized trips to damaged civilian areas. We were not shown military targets and were discouraged from mixing with Libyan bystanders. Despite the limited evidence, two things became clear: the US missed many targets, killing at least two dozen Libyan civilians. The Libyans were totally unprepared and profoundly shaken.
For precision bombing, it was sloppy. In Ben Ashour, roughly 10 apartment buildings were damaged. One, just behind the French embassy, received a direct hit, killing a family. Ben Ashour is a middle class residential neighborhood with several foreign embassies. Presumably, the target (if there was one; it was never acknowledged by the US) was the Jamahiriyya Security Headquarters and its giant communications tower. But the three or four bombs dropped on Ben Ashour missed the headquarters and tower and instead caused the highest civilian casualties of the raid. The size of the craters and concentration of damage make it extremely unlikely they were caused by Libyan ordnance falling back to earth as US officials have suggested.
In Benghazi, we saw bomb damage in an elementary school courtyard and a center for handicapped persons, and flattened houses near a bridge in the city center. We also saw craters and unexploded shells in farmland several miles from the nearest possible target, the Tripoli air base.
Despite restrictions on our movements, we did hear of and see evidence of extensive damage at four military sites, the Tripoli and Benghazi air bases, the Jamahiriyya barracks in Benghazi and a navy frogman training school on the coast west of Tripoli. A separate naval secondary school, also at Sidi Bilal, west of Tripoli, was half reduced to rubble. We looked in on classes in which West German instructors were giving teenage Libyan boys math lessons. Could they be terrorists in the making?
Both Reagan and Qaddafi presented the raid to their peoples as a victory, yet the evidence suggests neither side performed brilliantly. Libyan guns opened fire 10 minutes after the raid started, when most of the attacking planes had begun the trip home. Lights were dimmed only the night after. A Libyan newspaper openly criticized military officers who, it said, left their posts at the crucial hour.
Libyans from the man on the street to Qaddafi himself continue to express shock, not so much that the raid took place but that it struck so literally close to home. “i expected Reagan to do something,” said an American-educated Libyan university professor to foreign reporters outside his home in Ben Ashour the morning after. “But I never thought he would bomb us in our beds at night.”
Qaddafi himself appears to have been deeply shaken by what was indisputably an assassination attempt. We saw eight bomb craters clustered near his home, tent and office complex in the Bab al-Aziziyya military barracks in southwest Tripoli. “Why didn’t you tell me they were going to bomb my home?” he repeated several times to a US reporter in mid-June. Two of his sons were seriously wounded and an adopted daughter killed.
The raid quite literally terrorized large numbers of Libyans. Only hours afterwards we saw them piling possessions into cars and heading for the countryside. Qaddafi later gently scolded those who fled instead of standing firm to face the enemy.
Tripoli in the days following the raid was tense, confused and very much at war. Young members of revolutionary committees, paramilitary groups formed by Qaddafi, fanned out quickly through the streets to check ID papers, direct traffic, and arrest anyone suspicious. They remained the only visible source of authority during the confused 48 hours after the raid, during which Qaddafi made no public appearance and rumors had him dead, in a Moscow hospital, or in exile in South Yemen.
What exactly happened during this period may never be known. We saw a sustained exchange of machine-gun fire at Bab al-Aziziyya on April 16. Libyan officials unconvincingly explained this as a case of jitters during the overflight of a US reconnaissance plane. We heard other isolated outbursts of gunfire and reports of fresh air attacks near the Tripoli air base and the navy school complex at Sidi Bilal. Most mysteriously, a nightly outburst of anti-aircraft fire lasted for over an hour on April 15—long for a simple test, or a mere overflight. Many diplomats believe an internal struggle took place involving army and possibly air force dissidents.
What is clear is that Qaddafi emerged on top. There is no evidence that the raid has weakened him—or strengthened him, for that matter. And it did not fundamentally alter his policy on terrorism. But it has highlighted his isolation in the Arab world, exposed the inefficiency of his military and burdened the government with new expenses at a time of dwindling revenues. There were demonstrations in some Arab capitals, but no unified Arab response—not even a statement condemning the raid. On April 19, several thousand people gathered for an emotional martyrs&Rsquo; funeral. Khouweildi al-Hamidi, one of the four remaining officers who took power with Qaddafi, addressed the gathering. Otherwise, there were few of the rousing mass rallies one would expect at a time of national crisis. For several nights after Qaddafi’s June 11 address, Libyan television played reruns of a 1977 rally in the eastern port city of Darma. It was hard not to compare the exhausted, grim-faced Qaddafi of 1986 to the fiery orator of 1977, twitching with energy before a giant, excited crowd.
The state of the economy is rarely mentioned in the official press, but is vivid in the public consciousness and was reportedly the main concern in meetings earlier this year of the Basic People’s Congresses, grassroots components of Libyan people’s democracy. Oil revenues this year are expected to be $5-6 billion, one-fourth the 1980 level of $23 billion. The government has responded by slashing imports, resulting in shortages of many basic commodities. The ground floor food section of the “people’s supermarket,” a five-story department store designed as a showcase of socialist retailing, now carries only two products: ghee and powdered milk. Long lines have formed at downtown shops in recent months for soap powder, shoes and clothing, residents say.
Qaddafi recently asked every Libyan to help defend their nation by paying 200 dinars ($600 dollars) to buy a Kalashnikov. The raid has thus provided a timely and potent nationalist rallying cry for which the people are being asked to make fresh economic sacrifices. Libya’s leadership is in no hurry to put the raid behind it; the post-raid era is too full of difficult choices.
* US Navy carriers have been conducting regular, unannounced “freedom of navigation” exercises in the Gulf of Sidra since shortly after the April 15 bombing. The exercises came to light when Libyan radio announced on July 11 that Libya would shortly begin conducting missile firing exercies in the Gulf. US fighter planes have reportedly flown within 40 miles of Qaddafi’s “line of death.” According to US officials, the exercises are intended “to remind Qaddafi of US retaliatory capabilities” and to escort electronic spy planes collecting data for the US National Security Agency. (Washington Post, July 13,1986)—Eds.