U.S. officials believe the Pan Am 103 bombing was part of a larger operation by Libya to retaliate for the Reagan Administration attack on Moammar Gadhafi’s headquarters more than three years earlier. Revelations about the revenge attacks contradicts the conventional wisdom that the April 1986 attack on Libya discouraged Gadhafi’s terrorist campaign against America.
IN INTERVIEWS — buttressed by little-known documents obtained by NBC News — the officials say the retaliation campaign began three days after the Tripoli bombings, continued for nearly four years and even included the attempted recruitment of a Chicago street gang, the El Rukns, to shoot down U.S. airliners using shoulder-fired weapons.
Among the revenge attacks U.S. officials believe were in response to the bombing of Tripoli and Benghazi were the Pan Am Flight 73 hijacking in Karachi, Pakistan, in September 1987 in which 22 people were killed; the Pan Am Flight 103 bombing which killed 270 people in December 1988 over Lockerbie, Scotland; and the UTA French airline bombing over Chad in September 1989, which killed 171 people.
In addition, the Libyans contracted out some of the attacks to the Abu Nidal militant group, which in turn subcontracted some jobs to the Japanese Red Army. The Red Army, for example, launched a rocket at the U.S. Embassy in Indonesia not long after the attack.
Officials say the discovery of such an elaborate response by the Libyans is important because it contradicts the popular belief that the April 1986 U.S. attack against Tripoli suppressed Libyan terrorism. In fact, says a 1997 defense department document, new information shows the attack spurred a “revenge campaign” by the Libyans.
“It is our working theory that Pan Am 103 was in retaliation for the bombing of Tripoli, when Gadhafi’s daughter was killed,” said one senior U.S. intelligence official. On that night, U.S. Air Force jets pounded Tripoli, including Gadhafi’s headquarters, killing his adopted 4-year-old daughter.
At the time, President Ronald Reagan announced the attack by saying of Gadhafi, “You can run, but you cannot hide.”
The United States said then that the attack was in turn a response to the Libyan role in the bombing of the LaBelle disco in Berlin, in which two American soldiers were killed and many others wounded.
But the attack was followed immediately, say officials, by revenge against American and other Western targets, including Pan Am Flight 103.
“If you look at the dates of when things started in terms of planning, it all fits,” said one official of the operation to blow up Pan Am 103.
Details of the retaliation campaign are laid out in “Department of Defense Responses to Transnational Threats,” an October 1997 Defense Science Board document on the threats posed by a number of “transnational actors,” including terrorism, attacks on infrastructure, and information warfare. The Defense Science Board acts as an internal Pentagon think tank.
The little-known document laid out what U.S. intelligence learned about the Libyan response in the years after the attack.
“The popular belief for years was that this attack suppressed Libyan activity in support of terrorism. However, an examination of events in subsequent years paints a different picture,” said the report’s authors. “Instead, Libya continued, through transnational actors, to wage a revenge campaign over a number of years.
InsertArt(1444889)“Three days after the U.S. attack, Libyan retaliation began. An American hostage in Lebanon was sold to Libya and executed. In September 1987, Abu Nidal, working for Libya, hijacked Pan Am 73, causing the death of several Americans. The following April, the Japanese Red Army, under contract to Nidal, bombed the USO in Naples, killing a U.S. soldier. While attempting to coordinate activities, a member of that group was arrested in New Jersey with pipe bombs targeted for New York City. The December 1988 bombing of Pan Am 103 ... was a Libyan-sponsored act. A year later, in September 1989, a UTA French airliner was destroyed over Chad by the same group.”
LIBYAN ACTIVITIES IN CHICAGO
In addition, the report noted that Libya was also responsible for assassinations of various dissident Libyans in the United States and “recruited a Chicago street gang to attack U.S. airliners with shoulder-fired weapons — a move that was interdicted.”
In the late 1980s, U.S. law enforcement indicted and convicted several members of the El Rukns street gang for conspiring to commit terrorist acts on behalf of Libya. As part of the conspiracy, one of the gang’s leaders purchased an inert light anti-tank weapon from an undercover FBI agent.
Describing the revenge campaign as “retaliation while avoiding consequences,” the Defense Science Board concluded “Gadhafi sponsored this series of attacks, using surrogates for plausible denial. While these acts involved the backing of a nation state, Libya, it did not involve traditional material military forces.”
Robert Windrem is an investigative producer for NBC News.