It was 1:50 a.m., and La Belle disco was jumping with young revelers when about 6 pounds of plastic explosive, packed with shrapnel, blew up just off the dance floor. The club’s disc jockey was hurled through the floor and into the basement amid what he called “a picture of horror": flames, broken bricks, shattered phonograph records and the torn-off limbs of the young Germans and American servicemen who just moments earlier had been dancing the night away.
Three people were killed and more than 200 maimed, burned or otherwise injured, making the April 1986 blast the worst terrorist attack in Cold War West Berlin. It also was the act that prompted a first in U.S. history: the bombing of another country--Libya--in an attempt to preempt further acts of terrorism.
Today, more than 11 years after the disco bombing, the attack and the U.S. response are still draped with questions. Who planted the bomb at the club, a favorite nightspot for the 6,000 young Americans stationed in West Berlin? Did Libyan leader Moammar Kadafi--denounced by then-President Reagan as the “mad dog of the Middle East"--really order the blast? If he did, did the massive retaliatory airstrikes accomplish anything?
Finally, beginning today, the German Justice Ministry promises to deliver at least some answers to those questions. After 11 years of running down false leads, arresting the wrong people and calling off trials for lack of evidence, officials say they have cracked the case. Five suspects--one Libyan, one stateless Palestinian and three German nationals--will be accused, variously, of murder, attempted murder and being an accomplice to murder in a trial expected to last two years.
The goal is to get five individual convictions, of course.
But German prosecutors also hope to prove a broader case of “state terrorism” against Libya--at a time, coincidentally, when the U.S. and Britain are trying to stage a Libyan state terrorism trial of their own, in the 1988 bombing of Pan Am Flight 103 over Lockerbie, Scotland.
The trial will also coincide with Kadafi’s efforts to clean up his image in the world, efforts that have already won him the consideration of respected figures such as South African President Nelson Mandela.
Prosecutor: ‘The U.S. Was Right’
“I don’t know whether it was right to bomb Libya. That was a political decision,” said one prosecutor in the case. “But according to our investigation, the United States was right: The bombing was organized by Libya.”
Libya has consistently denied responsibility for the attack.
The German defense lawyers, meanwhile, appear poised to argue that the spy-ridden wilderness that was Cold War-era Berlin was, and remains to this day, a perfect harbor for reasonable doubts about the defendants’ guilt.
“All of the secret services that were active in this city of secret services have played a role in this case,” says Hans-Christian Stroebele, lawyer for Yasser “Yousef” Chraidi, the lead defendant.
Chraidi, who faces life in prison if convicted, denies any involvement in the bombing. “What really happened on the night of April 5, 1986, will be nearly impossible to find out,” his lawyer says.
To recall the bombing of La Belle is to return to a time when the world seemed a far more dangerous place for Americans abroad than it does now. It was a time when many U.S. officials were sure that Kadafi was behind much of the organized violence trained on American citizens and interests overseas. All they lacked was smoking-gun proof.
In December 1985, terrorists armed with submachine guns opened fire on passengers at the TWA and El Al counters at the Rome and Vienna airports, killing 19. Washington, in response, imposed economic sanctions on Libya and mounted military exercises in the Gulf of Sidra, which Kadafi was claiming as territorial waters.
Those maneuvers led to a brief armed exchange in which two Libyan ships were sunk. Kadafi intensified his anti-U.S. rhetoric.
In early April, a bomb exploded in the cabin of a TWA jet as it approached Athens; four Americans were killed. In Paris, a plot was uncovered to attack people standing in the visa line at the U.S. Embassy; two Libyan diplomats were expelled for suspected involvement.
And then, the La Belle attack.
Reagan’s ‘Swift, Effective Retribution’
A frustrated Reagan, who had promised “swift and effective retribution” against terrorists in his first week in office but had not yet delivered on his threat, now went on television to claim he had the evidence he had been waiting for: a pair of intercepted cable transmissions from the Libyan People’s Bureau--its embassy--in East Berlin.
The first cable, Reagan said, had been sent to Kadafi’s headquarters in Tripoli the day before the nightclub blast and boasted that an attack was imminent. The second, he said, was sent just hours after the bombing, and it gloated that the attack had been a success.
Europeans were skeptical of this “proof,” however. Though then- Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher of Britain was sufficiently persuaded to let the United States stage “Operation El Dorado Canyon” from air bases in Britain, France refused to let the U.S. warplanes use its airspace; Italy urged America to stop short of military retaliation; German officials said their own La Belle evidence pointed at Syria, not Libya.
But nine days after the disco blast, the airstrikes against Tripoli and the port city of Benghazi commenced, killing at least 15 people, including Kadafi’s 15-month-old daughter. To this day, some critics suspect the Reagan administration faked the cables as an excuse to bomb “Mad Dog” Kadafi.
German authorities say they believe that the Libyan cable traffic was legitimate--but that they don’t really need it as evidence anyway. They added a much more effective prosecutorial weapon to their La Belle arsenal in 1990, they say, in the form of Rainer Wiegand.
Wiegand was an East German secret police specialist in Middle Eastern affairs. With the East German regime collapsing around him in 1990, he apparently started to worry that he would soon be prosecuted for various crimes of the Communist era. Instead of simply vanishing, like other members of the feared and hated East German secret police--known as the Stasi--Wiegand left his wife, loaded his car with Stasi files and ran off with his secretary through the newly breached Berlin Wall.
There, he offered his information to the West German foreign intelligence agency in exchange for prosecutorial immunity. “They sucked him out like an orange,” says Stroebele, who received a copy of the voluminous declaration from Wiegand, who later was killed in a car crash.
Wiegand’s defection gave new life to the bogged-down La Belle investigation. Among other things, he told the West German authorities who could help them wrap up the case: a Stasi informant code-named “Alba.”
With the help of police officers of the former East Germany, La Belle investigators eventually identified “Alba” as Ali Chanaa, a German national of Palestinian origin. He had spent the later years of the Cold War shuttling back and forth between East and West Berlin, as one of the Stasi’s top informants on matters Libyan.
Now that the Stasi was gone, Chanaa was making a living in a Berlin pizzeria.
He was brought in for questioning and quickly set about fingering some of his best old Palestinian and Libyan friends, including Chraidi, a stateless Palestinian who had worked at the Libyan People’s Bureau in East Berlin under a fake name as a Libyan citizen.
Chraidi was the mastermind, said Chanaa. Asked who actually planted the bomb, Chanaa named another man, a Palestinian. On the basis of his account, arrest warrants were drawn up.
A Lucky Break From Lebanon
Case closed? Not quite. For one thing, Chraidi had already vanished from Berlin, and no one knew where to find him. Then there were suspicions about Chanaa’s mysterious Palestinian bomb-planter; police eventually decided he was a fabrication.
But in 1992, investigators got a lucky break: Police in Lebanon picked up Chraidi in Sidon, for car theft. When they realized whom they had, they notified German authorities.
A three-year tug of war began over whether Chraidi should be extradited. Lebanon, it turned out, had never extradited a Palestinian to Germany before--certainly not a Palestinian who would then stand trial for killing Americans. Lebanese officials may have feared riling their own Palestinian population by sending Chraidi off.
Just as a judge was about to rule on dismissal of the extradition request, along came another big break for the prosecution: Musbah Eter, a Libyan who had also worked in the Libyan People’s Bureau in East Berlin, turned up at the German Embassy in Malta, confessing he had watched the La Belle bombing from his diplomatic perch--in a relatively innocent, observer role, he claimed--and that Chraidi was, indeed, the mastermind.
Eter was a convincing witness, German investigators say. He spoke authoritatively about bomb-related cable traffic between East Berlin and Tripoli, describing transmissions that matched what Reagan had mentioned, as well as others intercepted but never publicized. He said the sender in East Berlin was a Libyan diplomat named El Amin, now believed to be in Libya.
Eter named the cables’ recipient as Said Rashid, a senior member of the Libyan secret service who has been named by Washington in connection with the Lockerbie bombing. Eter said Rashid had sent orders for the bombing. Germany issued an arrest warrant for him, as well as El Amin and two other Libyans, all believed to be in their homeland.
Finally, Eter told those debriefing him that Chanaa--far from being the detached Stasi informant he was pretending to be--had handled the bomb himself. Eter said he paid Chanaa about $4,000 to plant it and even helped put it together at Chanaa’s kitchen table.
Arrests and Partial Confessions
Armed with this testimony, Germany finally won Chraidi’s extradition from Lebanon. German police also arrested Chanaa, who now made a belated partial confession, saying the bomb was put together in his kitchen but claiming he had only stood by and watched while others built it.
Also arrested was Chanaa’s former wife, Verena Chanaa; the court file alleges that Ali Chanaa got cold feet at the prospect of planting the bomb himself and sent his wife instead. Verena Chanaa then joined the chorus of partial confessions, with a statement that she had carried the bomb into the club in a handbag but didn’t know it would be as lethal as it was.
She took along her sister for moral support that night, prosecutors say. The sister, Andrea Haeussler, is to be the fifth defendant.
Key to all this were Eter and his appearance in Malta, seemingly out of the blue, advancing the La Belle case so spectacularly after nine years of silence. Why did he do it?
German authorities say it was for love. Eter had married an East German woman during his years at the Libyan People’s Bureau, and the couple had children. In 1988, Eter tried taking his family home to Libya, but his wife hated it there and returned to Berlin. Germany denied Eter permission to return with her. He is said to have grown so desperate to rejoin his family that he caved in and turned on his former colleagues in hopes of getting a light sentence in a German court and an eventual reunion with his wife.
Defense lawyer Stroebele belittles this story, suggesting Eter was manipulated by some unspecified foreign intelligence service into coming to Malta to frame Chraidi.
Just months after rejoining his wife in Berlin, Eter took off again, without leaving a forwarding address. He was later picked up by the police in Rome with another woman and then flown to Berlin.
But investigators say Eter’s strange behavior doesn’t weaken their La Belle case. His testimony, they say, has since been confirmed by others, particularly the Chanaas. And there are those secret police files, pointing again and again toward not Syria, but Libya.