By Naval History and Heritage Command
Twenty-eight years ago on April 5, 1986, two women, Verena Chanaa, and her sister, Andrea Haeusler, departed a nightclub called La Belle, frequented by American servicemen. They left behind a travel bag containing a two-kilogram bomb packed with plastic explosives and shrapnel. It exploded at 1:45 a.m. inflicting horrific casualties.
The bag was left beneath the disc jockey’s table, near the dance floor which was ripped to shreds by the explosion. Army Sgt. Kenneth T. Ford, who was 21, was instantly killed. Two months later, Army Sgt. James E. Goins, 25, died from his wounds in the hospital. The attack also claimed the life of a Turkish woman. Out of the 230 injured that night, 79 were American servicemen. Some suffered ruptured ear drums and were permanently disabled, with the loss of limbs from the explosion.
An intense investigation followed and ten days later, President Reagan authorized Operation El Dorado Canyon to bomb Libya’s capitol, Tripoli, as well as Benghazi in retaliation for the attack. The mission began April 15, 1986 at two in the morning, almost at the same time the bomb exploded at the West Berlin night club.
It was the latest escalation in tensions between the U.S. and Libya. In the month prior to the bombing, U.S. Navy planes operating in international waters were attacked by six surface-to-air missiles from Libya. The Navy destroyed the Libyan missile site, sank a patrol boat, and disabled another. No U.S. Sailors were hurt. The White House called the attack “entirely unprovoked and beyond the bounds of normal international conduct.”
On April 15, the aircraft carriers USS Saratoga (CV 60), USS America (CV 66) and USS Coral Sea (CV 43) operating in the U.S. Sixth Fleet were already on station in the Gulf of Sidra north of Libya. The three aircraft carriers together launched 24 A-6 Intruders and F/A-18 Hornets and dropped 60 tons of munitions. They bombed radar and antiaircraft sites in Benghazi before bombing the Benina and Jamahiriya barracks. The joint operation involved the Navy, the Marine Corps and the Air Force. They were so quick, the attack only lasted 12 minutes with only two American casualties when an F-111 was shot down by a Libyan surface-to-air missile (SAM) over the Gulf of Sidra. In fact, some Libyan soldiers abandoned their positions, and Libyan officers failed to give orders. Libya lost 45 soldiers and government officials, as well as multiple transport aircraft 14 MiG-23s, two helicopters and five major ground radars.
Never one to publicly embrace reality, Gaddafi claimed he had “won a spectacular military victory over the United States.” In fact, Libya responded by firing two Scud missiles missing the U.S. Coast Guard station on the Italian island of Lampedusa. The Scuds passed over the island and landed in the sea.
Although the evidence linking Libya to the bombing of the nightclub was quickly established, finding the perpetrators of the attack proved more difficult. However, as East and West Germany were reunited, newly opened files of STASI, the East German intelligence agency, led to several arrests and convictions. Verena Chanaa was the German wife of a Palestinian, Ali Chanaa, who had placed the bomb in her bag and was working for STASI. The material that made the bomb had been brought into East Berlin in a Libyan diplomat’s bag. No one would have suspected the two women were terrorists; they were both German and blended seamlessly with the crowd and appeared to be there to dance and have fun with American soldiers.
The German government later placed a plaque on the building now called Roxy-Palast where the club existed. In German the plaque reads, “In diesem haus wurden, AM 5 April 1986, junge menschen durch einen, verbrecherischen, bomenanschlag emordet.” The translation couldn’t be more appropriate as well as more heartbreaking: “On April 5, 1986, young people were killed inside this building by a criminal bombing.”