If At First You Don’t Succeed – Four Decades Of US-UK Attempts To Topple Gadafi

Guest Media Alert by Richard Lance Keeble, Professor of Journalism at the University of Lincoln


Behind a wall of silence, the US and UK have been conducting over the last four decades a massive, largely secret war against Libya – often using Chad, the country lying on its southern border, as its base. The current attacks on Col. Gadafi’s troops and attempts to assassinate the Libyan leader with the US deployment of unmanned drones are best seen as part of a wide-ranging and long-standing strategy by the US/UK secret states to dislodge Gadafi.

Seizing power in Libya by ousting King Idris in a 1969 coup, [1] Gadafi (who intriguingly had undertaken a military training course in England in 1966) quickly became the target of massive covert operations by the French, US, Israeli and British. Stephen Dorril (2000), in his seminal history of MI6, records how in 1971 a British plan to invade the country, release political prisoners and restore the monarchy ended in a complete flop.

Dorril reports: ‘What became known as the “Hilton assignment” was one of MI6’s last attempts at a major special operation designed to overthrow a regime opposed to British interests.’ The plan to bring down Gadafi had originally been a joint MI6/CIA operation but the CIA suddenly withdrew after they concluded that ‘although Gadaffi was anti-West, he was also anti-Soviet, which meant there could be someone a lot worse running Libya. The British disagreed’ (ibid: 736).

Easy To Hate

In 1980, the head of the French secret service, Col. Alain de Gaigneronde de Marolles, resigned after a French-led plan ended in disaster when a rebellion by Libyan troops in Tobruk was rapidly suppressed (Deacon 1990: 262-264).

Throughout the early 1980s Gadafi was demonised in the mainstream US and UK media as a ‘terrorist warlord’ and prime agent of a Soviet-inspired ‘terror network’. According to Noam Chomsky, Reagan’s campaign against ‘international terrorism’ was a natural choice for the propaganda system in furtherance of its basic agenda: ‘expansion of the state sector of the economy; transfer of resources from the poor to the rich and a more “activist” (i.e. terrorist and aggressive) foreign policy’. Such policies needed the public to be frightened into obedience by some ‘terrible enemy’. And Libya fitted the need perfectly (Chomsky 1991: 120).

As Chomsky commented: ‘Gadafi is easy to hate, particularly against the backdrop of rampant anti-Arab racism in the United States and the deep commitment of the educated classes, with only the rarest of exceptions, to US-Israeli rejectionism and violence. He has created an ugly and repressive society and is indeed guilty of retail terrorism, primarily against Libyans’ (ibid).

In July 1981, a CIA plan to overthrow and possibly kill Gadafi was leaked to the press. At roughly the same time, Libyan hit squads were reported to have entered the United States, though this has since been revealed to have been a piece of Israeli secret service disinformation (Rusbridger 1989: 80). Joe Flynn, the infamous con man, was also able to exploit Fleet Street’s fascination with the Gadafi myth. In September 1981, posing as an Athens-based arms dealer he tricked almost £3,000 out of the News of the World with his story that the Libyan leader was ‘masterminding a secret plot to arm black revolutionary murder squads in Britain’ (Lycett 1995).

Then in 1982, away from the glare of the media, Hissène Habré, with the backing of the CIA and Israeli troops (Cockburn and Cockburn 1992: 123), overthrew the Chadian government of Goukouni Wedeye. Human Rights Watch records: ‘Under President Reagan, the United States gave covert CIA paramilitary support to help install Habré in order, according to secretary of state Alexander Haig, to “bloody Gadafi’s nose”.’ Bob Woodward, in his semi-official history of the CIA, reveals that the Chad covert operation was the first undertaken by the new CIA chief William Casey and that throughout the decade Libya ranked almost as high as the Soviet Union as the ‘bête noir’ of the administration (Woodward 1987: 348, 363, 410-11).

A report from Amnesty, Chad: The Habré Legacy, [2] recorded massive military and financial support for Habré by the US Congress. It added: ‘None of the documents presented to Congress and consulted by Amnesty International covering the period 1984 to 1989 make any reference to human rights violations.’

US official records indicate that funding for the Chad-based secret war against Libya also came from Saudi Arabia, Egypt, Morocco, Israel and Iraq (Hunter 1991: 49). According to John Prades (1986: 383), the Saudis, for instance, donated $7m to an opposition group, the National Front for the Salvation of Libya (also backed by French intelligence and the CIA). But a plan to assassinate Gadafi and take over the government on 8 May 1984 was crushed (Perry 1992: 165). In the following year, the US asked Egypt to invade Libya and overthrow Gadafi but President Mubarak refused (Martin and Walcott 1988: 265-6). By the end of 1985, the Washington Post had exposed the plan after congressional leaders opposing it wrote in protest to President Reagan.


Thrilled To Blitz

Frustrated in its covert attempts to topple Gadafi, the US government’s strategy suddenly shifted. In March 1986, US planes patrolling the Gulf of Sidra were reported to have been attacked by Libyan missiles. But Noam Chomsky suggests this incident was a provocation ‘enabling US forces to sink several Libyan boats, killing more than 50 Libyans and, it was hoped, to incite Gadafi to acts of terror against Americans, as was subsequently claimed’ (Chomsky op cit: 124). In the following month, the US responded with a military strike on key Libyan targets. The attack was widely condemned. James Adams (1987: 372) quotes a British intelligence source: ‘Although we allowed the raid there was a general feeling that America had become uncontrollable and unless we did something Reagan would be even more violent the next time.’

Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher was perhaps hoping for an action-replay of the Falklands factor when she gave the US permission to fly F-111 attack jets from bases in East Anglia to bomb Libyan targets. Also, according to Annie Machon, Mrs Thatcher was ‘anxious for revenge’ after the shooting of W.P.C. Fletcher during a demonstration by Libyan oppositionists outside the Libyan embassy in London in 1984 (Machon 2005: 104). It was an archetypal move of the secret state: only a select few in her cabinet were involved in the decision. Yet the attack appeared to win little support from the public. Harris, Gallup and MORI all showed substantial majorities opposed.

Much of the UK mainstream press, however, responded with jingoistic jubilation. The Sun’s front page screamed: ‘Thrilled to blitz: Bombing Gadaffi was my greatest day, says US airman.’ The Mirror concluded: ‘What was the alternative? In what other way was Colonel Gadafi to be forced to understand that he had a price to pay for his terrorism?’; The Times: ‘The greatest threat to Western freedoms may be the Soviet Union but that does not make the USSR the only threat. The growth of terrorist states must be curbed while it can be curbed. The risks of extension of the conflict must be minimised. And in this case it would appear that it has been.’ The Star’s front page proclaimed: ‘Reagan was right.’ In the Sunday Telegraph, of 1 June, columnist Paul Johnson denounced the ‘distasteful whiff of pure cowardice in the air’ as ‘the wimps’ raised doubts about the US bombing of ‘terrorist bases’ in Libya.

But there was an intriguing mediacentric dimension to the mission as the BBC, transformed into the ‘enemy within’ of the vulnerable state, was to come under some considerable attack from the Conservative government over its coverage of the attacks. Though most of the press responded ecstatically to Britain’s role in the bombing, all their contrived jingoism could not hide the fact that the raid failed to capture the imagination of important elements of the elite. Opposition even came from cabinet members.

The BBC became the perfect scapegoat. Kate Adie’s on-the-spot reports could not fail to mention the casualties (Sebba 1994: 266-7). Many of the main targets were missed. Four 2,000lb bombs fell on the suburb of Bin Ghashir, causing far more devastation than any ‘terrorist’ bomb could ever achieve. Even so, Norman Tebbitt, chairman of the Conservative Party, engaged in a highly personalised attack on Adie. Yet there was an air of theatre about the whole event. Adie was one of the most trusted BBC correspondents. And both government and BBC could benefit from the spat. The Tory right, on the ascendancy at the time, and ever hasty to criticise the BBC it so desperately wanted privatised as the ‘enemy within’, was satisfied and the BBC, who stuck by their star reporter throughout the attacks, could appear to be courageously defending media freedom. Amidst the many contradictions and complexities of modern-day politics, mediacentric elements are put to many diverse uses by (usually competing) factions in the ruling elites.

According to US academic Douglas Kellner, the bombing was a manufactured crisis, staged as a media event and co-ordinated to coincide with the beginning of the 7 pm news in the US (Kellner 1990: 138). Two hours later President Reagan went on network television to justify the raid. Chomsky also argues that the attack was ‘the first bombing in history staged for prime-time television’ (Chomsky op cit: 127). Administration press conferences soon after the raid ensured ‘total domination of the propaganda system during the crucial early hours’. Chomsky continues: ‘One might argue that the administration took a gamble in this transparent public relations operation, since journalists could have asked some difficult questions. But the White House was justly confident that nothing untoward would occur and its faith in the servility of the media proved to be entirely warranted.’

Yet the main purpose of the raid was to kill the Libyan President – dubbed a ‘mad dog’ by Reagan. David Yallop quotes ‘a member of the United States Air Force intelligence unit who took part in the pre-raid briefing’: ‘Nine of 18 F-111s that left from the UK were specifically briefed to bomb Gadafi’s residence inside the barracks where he was living with his family’ (Yallop 1994: 713). In the event, the first bomb to drop on Tripoli hit Gadafi’s home killing Hana, his adopted daughter aged 15 months – while his eight other children and wife Safiya were all hospitalised, some with serious injuries. The president escaped. David Blundy and Andrew Lycett report (1987: 22):

The attack on Gadafi’s Aziziya compound was a military failure. Gadafi himself was deep underground. The administration building, where he lives, was missed by two bombs which fell thirty yards away, knocking out the windows but doing no structural damage. The tennis courts received two direct hits and a bomb fell outside the front door of the building where Gadafi’s family lives. Blasts tore through the small bedrooms to the right of the living room, injuring two of Gadafi’s sons and killing his fifteen-month old adopted daughter, Hana. Hana was publicly acknowledged only in death. During interviews only a month before Gadafi had said, sadly, that he had only one daughter, eight-year-old Aisha, and wished that he had more. He did not say that his wife had adopted a baby girl ten months before.

Consider the outrage in the Western media if a relative of Reagan had been killed by a Libyan bomb. There was no such outrage over the Libyan deaths. In November, the UN General Assembly passed a motion condemning the raid. Interestingly, Israel was one of the few countries to back the US over the raid. Yet when the Israeli representative came to justify his country’s stance, he used evidence of Gadafi’s alleged commitment to terrorism taken from the German mass-selling newspaper Bild am Sonntag and the London-based Daily Telegraph (Yallop op cit: 695).

Following the April 1986 attack, reports of US military action against Libya disappeared from the media. But away from the media glare, the CIA launched by far its most extensive effort yet to spark an anti-Gadafi coup. A secret army was recruited from among the many Libyans captured in border battles with Chad during the 1980s (Perry op cit: 166). And, as concern grew in MI6 over Gadafi’s alleged plans to develop chemical weapons, Britain funded various opposition groups in Libya including the London-based Libyan National Movement.

Then in 1990, with the crisis in the Gulf developing, French troops helped oust Habré and install Idriss Déby as the new president in a secret operation. The French government had tired of Habré’s genocidal policies while the Bush administration decided not to frustrate France’s objectives in exchange for their co-operation in the war against Iraq. Yet even under Déby the abuses of civil rights by government forces have continued.[3]

Attempts to oust Gadafi also continued. David Shayler, a former MI5 agent, even alleged that MI6 were involved in a plot in 1996 to assassinate the Libyan leader (Hunter op cit). His motorcade was attacked by dissidents with Kalashnikovs and rocket grenades but while Gadafi escaped six bystanders were killed. Shayler claimed MI6 paid the Islamic Fighting group £100,000 to carry out the attack (see Dorril op cit: 793-794; Machon op cit: 172; Jaber 2010).

Following Libya’s decision after the 9/11 US terrorist attacks to build closer ties with the West and renounce all efforts to develop nuclear weapons, UN sanctions against the country were lifted in 2003. The demonisation of Col. Gadafi predictably declined and members of the political, financial and academic British elite lined up to welcome the Libyan leader back into the ‘international community’.

The recent rising against the authoritarian Gadafi regime has changed all that. And the Western elites (assisted by a compliant mainstream media) are seizing the new opportunities in their increasingly desperate attempts to eliminate the Libyan leader.


[1] The role of the CIA in the coup is disputed. Blundy and Lycett (1987: 69) report the former Libyan Prime Minister, Abdul Hamid Bakoush, saying: ‘The Americans had contacts with Gadaffi through the embassy in Tripoli. They encouraged him to take over. There were dozens of CIA operatives in Libya at that time and they knew what was going on. The Americans were frightened of the senior officers and the intelligentsia in Libya because they thought that these people were independent and could not be run as puppets.’ But Blundy and Lycett add (ibid): ‘Bakoush’s refusal to give names that might corroborate his theory does not help his credibility.’

[3] See http://www.amnesty.org/en/region/chad/report-2010, accessed on 1 January 2011



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