April 5, 2023

The La Belle Discotheque Bombing

The La Belle Discotheque Bombing

April 5, 1986. A bombing at a discotheque in West Berlin kills three and injures hundreds, leading the US to launch retaliatory airstrikes against the accused sponsor of the terrorist attack, Libya.


Cold Open

It’s 2 AM on April 15th, 1986.

Colonel Arnie Franklin is strapped into the cockpit of a F-111, one of America’s top-of-the-line combat aircrafts. Sitting next to him is a weapons-system officer. They are flying in complete darkness.

But Colonel Franklin is not alone. He is just one of the eighteen F-111s out on a covert mission to bomb Tripoli, the capital of Libya.

As the planes fly over the inky black waters of the Strait of Gibraltar, the Colonel feels his pulse quicken. He is closing in on his target - the house inside Central Tripoli, home to Libyan dictator Muammar Gaddafi.

Off the coast of Libya, Colonel Franklin brings his craft down until it's just 200 feet over the water.

60 seconds away from the target, the F-111’s computer locks onto the coordinates of the site. Countdown begins and Colonel Franklin watches the screen intently as it ticks ever closely to the moment in which he presses a button and the bombs plummet below.

Then Colonel Franklin sharply pulls the nose of the F-111 up as they rapidly climb higher to avoid the explosion. Meanwhile, the weapon-service officer uses a laser to guide the bombs to the target.

As explosions erupt around the city, air defense forces in Libya desperately scan the skies for attackers. But the planes’ lights are all off and another fleet of American crafts is hard at work jamming their radars. The Libyans are left blindly firing missiles into the night sky. 

And as Colonel Franklin flies his F-111 back toward the coast, he sends a message to the command center — “Tranquil Tiger,” a code that the US airstrikes against Libya have been a success.

In 1967, a 27-year-old Arab nationalist Muammar Gaddafi led a military coup to overthrow the Libyan monarchy. Since seizing control, Gaddafi has ruled the country with an iron fist, and by the 1980s, many suspect he is seeking to expand his influence beyond Libya’s borders through several brutal acts of terrorism.

The airstrikes against Libya in 1986 were America’s way of fighting back against Libya’s suspected terrorists. The retaliation comes after years of simmering tensions came to a head just ten days earlier, when a likely Libyan-sponsored bombing ravaged a West Berlin discotheque and sent the Western world into uproar on April 5th, 1986.


From Noiser and Airship, I’m Lindsay Graham and this is History Daily.

History is made every day. On this podcast—every day—we tell the true stories of the people and events that shaped our world.

Today is April 5th, 1986: The La Belle Discotheque Bombing.

Act One

It’s a little after 9 AM on December 27th, 1985 in Rome’s Leonardo da Vinci Airport.

Victor Simpson clutches his young daughter’s hand as they make their way through the crowded lobby. His nine-year-old son follows close behind.

An American journalist working in Italy, Victor is flying back home with his family. As they near the check-in counter, he stops and rummages through his bag to gather their passports and tickets. As he does, he notices his daughter, Natasha, glancing around the airport, her eyes wide and fearful. Victor pauses and asks what’s wrong. Eleven-year-old Natasha looks up and tells him she hopes that their plane isn’t hijacked.

Victor frowns. He wants to reassure his daughter that they will be fine, but there is some merit to her concern. In recent years, several terrorist attacks have scarred Italy. Americans have been among the most targeted by extremist groups.

Still, Victor tries his best to assure his daughter, puts his arm around her, and leans down. But before he can get any words out, a deafening explosion rips through the bustling airport. For a split second, Victor is numb — he can't make sense of what is happening. Then, the harsh sound of gunshots jerks him back to reality. All around Victor, people fall to the ground screaming. In the distance, four young men with assault rifles walk over freshly killed bodies, blood, and broken glass — firing bullets indiscriminately.

Victor throws himself on the floor, his arms around his son and daughter as hordes of people desperate to escape rush over and around them.

Piercing cries ring through the air. As Victor pulls his children closer, he can feel them trembling. Then, suddenly, he hears a loud crack. His daughter’s body stiffens in his arms. Blood soaks through his clothes — Natasha has been shot. A desperate panic takes over Victor — he has to do something to save her. He finds and presses down on the wound, but there’s too much blood already. He’s in a race against time — but one he cannot win. Tears stream down his cheeks as he feels her breath grow weaker and weaker.

Natasha Simpson is one of five Americans killed when seven gunmen simultaneously attack the international airports at Rome and Vienna on December 27th, 1985. In the wake of the killings, a Palestinian terrorist group called the Abu Nidal Organization claims responsibility. But there’s soon speculation that they were supported by Libya. The country’s dictator, Muammar Gaddafi, has long held an agenda against Western nations that has linked him to terrorist groups. Gaddafi only adds fuel to the fire when he publicly praises the terrorists.

With five Americans dead in the attack, the United States looks for an opportunity to stand against Libya. Many in the government think a show of America’s formidable military strength would warn Gaddafi not to continue his support of terrorism. And three months after the attacks in Europe, the Americans make their move. The world watches anxiously as the American navy exercises its right to conduct operations off Libya’s northern coast, in the disputed Gulf of Sidra.

The 150-mile northern edge of this part of the Mediterranean Gulf is what Gaddafi infamously calls the “Line of Death.” According to him, everything to the south of this line — the entire Gulf of Sidra —  is Libya’s exclusive territory. But the line is far in excess of international maritime borders. Still, Gaddafi has threatened to shoot any plane, ship, or person that dares to cross it. But now, the US is prepared to challenge that claim and assert their dominance.


On the night of March 23rd, 1986, an American Navy fighter jet glides over the Mediterranean Sea. Inside the cockpit, the pilot’s attention is drawn toward the navigation system just as his aircraft crosses the “Line of Death” into the Gulf of Sidra. He is expecting trouble. His eyes dart across the sky and he rechecks the plane’s controls. It’s all systems go — the fighter is ready to open fire, if necessary.

The next few hours are tense. The pilot is sure that Libya’s tracking radars are on, closely following the movements of the American jet. So through the night, he stays on high alert, wary of even the smallest sign of movement or the tiniest blip on his radar. And when the first rays of sunlight finally spill onto the calm waters below, the pilot feels a sense of relief. But the exercise is not over just yet.

Later that day, three American warships also cross the Line of Death. This time, Libya counters. Two missiles streak across the afternoon sky toward the Americans. They miss their target. And in response, U.S. fighter jets flood the sky, fending off any further Libyan attempts to engage US forces. 75 hours later, the American naval exercise finishes with no American losses, while Libya reels from a number of casualties, and destroyed planes and vessels. 

The United States of America will brand the naval operation a success. Humiliated, Gaddafi will try to save face by publicly making false claims about shooting down American aircraft. But seeking further retribution, the Libyan dictator will attack the US with more than just words taking revenge in a far more sinister manner.

Act Two

It's the early hours of April 5th, 1986 in a popular nightclub in West Berlin — the La Belle Discotheque.

19-year-old Katja Bahadori moves her body to the pulsing beat of the music. As the night wears on, the dance floor becomes crowded. The air is thick with the scent of sweat and perfume. Katja sees many familiar faces around her — mostly off-duty American GIs. Large numbers of soldiers have been stationed in West Berlin since the Cold War started, Katja’s boyfriend is one of them. They often meet here at La Belle.

As the DJ plays a new song, the floor vibrates to the sound of the powerful bass. A cheer goes up from the dancers. For a moment, Katja loses herself in the music. Everyone on the dance floor is moving together in rhythm.

It's right at this moment when everything for Katja suddenly goes black. A bomb hidden under a table near the DJ booth explodes, splintering the dance floor and throwing its occupants into the basement below.

The force of the blast slams Katja to the ground, knocking the air out of her lungs. Her chest heaves as she struggles to breathe through the smoke and dust. Coughing, she tries to pick herself up, but her leg crumples. A searing pain courses through her body. She slumps back down into the debris. She can barely see through the darkness, but Katja knows that she is not alone. She can feel the floor shaking with the frenzied footsteps of others trying to flee. She wants to call out to them, ask for help — but she doesn’t have the strength. So Katja closes her eyes wondering if this is how she will die.

A pair of strong arms soon help Katja up. She limps horribly leaning on the shoulder of her rescuer as they slowly stumble out of the rubble. People in torn, bloody clothes push past, waving their arms hysterically, their faces contorted with pain and horror. She's dazed, still trying to figure out what just happened when she realizes someone is trying to speak to her. Katja can see their lips move, but she can’t hear what they are saying. The flashing sirens, the slamming car doors, and screaming people have all turned into a muffled, dull hum. Katja feels like she has been plunged underwater, watching chaos unfold around her.

Soon, a military police car screeches to a halt outside the decimated remains of La Belle. The officer inside looks at the carnage in disbelief. U.S. intelligence had alerted them about the possibility of a terrorist attack targeting Americans in West Berlin. Officers had been immediately deployed to warn GIs. But they were 15 minutes too late.

The only thing left of La Belle is a tangled mess of debris and human remains. Three people are dead and over 200 are injured. And as news of the tragedy spreads, the question on everyone’s mind is the same — who is responsible for the attack?

Quickly, the United States and West Germany will each launch an investigation into the bombing. Speculation is rife that Libya is behind the attack. But for the next few days, the German authorities remain tight-lipped, adamant that no clear answers have emerged.

But the United States government believes it's found the smoking gun. Soon after the attack, American intelligence intercepts and decodes chilling radio messages between Tripoli and Libya’s embassy in East Berlin. One sent right after the explosion reads: “At 1:30 in the morning one of the acts was carried out with success, without leaving a trace.”

The message is enough to convince the US government of Libya’s guilt. And immediately, President Ronald Reagan moves to retaliate. At the beginning of his first term in office in 1980, Reagan promised the American public that he would take swift action against acts of terrorism. Six years later, the President now has an opportunity to make good on that oath. 

On April 15th, 1986 America will carry out punitive airstrikes against Libya. The attacks will hit several military centers near Libya’s capital, Tripoli, and its second-largest city, Benghazi. But the main target will be Gaddafi’s residential compound. The bombings will take the Libyan military completely by surprise. And within a matter of minutes, an estimated 60 Libyans will die, including Gaddafi’s recently adopted 15-month-old daughter.

The attack will be conducted just 10 days after the bombing of the La Belle discotheque. But it will take German courts over a decade to formally bring the culprits of the West Berlin bombing to justice.

Act Three

It’s November 14th, 2001, fifteen years after the La Belle discotheque bombing.

Inside a packed courthouse in Berlin, security guards escort three men and two women to seats behind bulletproof glass. Hushed whispers ripple through the crowd as they identify the arrivals as the suspects connected to the 1986 West Berlin bombing.

Today’s court date has been long-awaited. After years of investigation back in the 80s, German prosecutors failed to find any strong leads in the attack on La Belle. But just when it looked like the case had gone cold, the Berlin Wall fell — giving prosecutors access to valuable information held by the East German secret service. This finally led investigators to today’s defendants who are about to discover their fates.

As Judge Peter Marhofer calls the room to order, a tense silence settles. He glances at the paper in front of him then clears his throat and lists the charges against the supposed mastermind of the attack, a Palestinian national who worked at the Libyan embassy in East Berlin. Finding him guilty, the judge reads out the sentence — 14 years of imprisonment.

Then the judge turns his attention to Verena Chanaa. The German woman is found guilty of planting the bomb in the nightclub and she is also sentenced to 14 years. Without stopping, Judge Marhofer reads the charge against two more accomplices — Verena’s husband and another former employee of the Libyan embassy in East Berlin. The judge sentences both to 12 years of imprisonment for attempted murder.

Murmurs spread across the room. As the voices in the crowd grow louder, the judge calls the court to order again. He waits a few moments.

And when there is silence again, he reads out the name of the last defendant — Andrea Haeusler. Andrea had accompanied her sister Verenaa to the nightclub the day of the bombing. But the judge declares that there is not enough proof that she knew about the attack. She is the only suspect Judge Marhofer finds not guilty.

While these four will be found guilty in a court of law, the extent of Muammar Gaddafi’s role in the 1986 bombing will remain uncertain. The German court will find that the bombing had been planned by the Libyan secret service and the Libyan Embassy workers in East Berlin. But the prosecution will fail to convince Judge Marhofer of Gaddafi’s direct involvement.

Three years after the trial’s conclusion, Libya will agree to compensate the bombing’s victims in an effort to improve its international relations. In August 2004, the country will funnel $1.5 billion into a compensation fund for the victims of terrorist attacks blamed on Libya. This will include $283 million that will go to the victims of the La Belle bombing. In return, US President George W. Bush will restore the Libyan government's immunity from terror-related lawsuits and dismiss its pending US compensation cases. Two years later, America will remove Libya from the list of countries sponsoring terrorism — twenty-seven years after it was first included. But even despite these measures, Libya will never formally accept responsibility for the bomb that exploded in the La Belle Discotheque on April 5th, 1986.


Next on History Daily.April 6th, 1909. Explorer Robert Peary leads an expedition to the Arctic and declares himself the first man to reach the North Pole.

From Noiser and Airship, this is History Daily, hosted, edited, and executive produced by me, Lindsay Graham.

Audio editing by Muhammad Shahzaib.

Sound design by Mollie Baack. 

Music by Lindsay Graham.

This episode is written and researched by Rhea Purohit.

Produced by Alexandra Currie-Buckner.

Executive Producers are Steven Walters for Airship, and Pascal Hughes for Noiser.