From our December 2000 issue:

The Libyan “Hit Squad” Hoax

By Andrew I. Killgore

Soon after President Ronald Reagan took office in 1981, breathless articles about Libyan “hit [assassination] squads” began to occupy the front page of The Washington Post. For three weeks, Post readers—and the U.S. government—were obsessed with these squads, which reportedly originated in the Middle East, had reached Europe, and were currently in Canada, where they were poised to cross into the United States like a swarm of northern killer bees.

Just how a group of supposed assassins could be so easily tracked made the hit squad story ridiculous on its face. Suddenly, however, heavy concrete barriers surrounded the White House, Capitol Hill and the Department of State—where they remain today.

The hoax began to collapse when The Post assigned names to police-style composite drawings of the “assassins.” Arabic-language specialists recognized the names as those generally used by Shi’i Muslims. As this religious group had reason to dislike Qaddafi at the time, a chorus of doubts arose that the Libyan leader could ever have induced them to work for him.

Suddenly the hit squads disappeared from The Post, never to return. Five years later, a two-line item in The Post told the truth. The item appeared in a story, not about the hit squads, but about the Iran-Contra scandal, the worst foreign policy scandal in U.S. history.

Manucher Ghorbanifar, a small-time Iranian exile working in Washington for Mossad, Israel’s secret intelligence service, confessed in 1986 that he had dreamed up the hit squads. Why? “To hurt Libya, an enemy of Israel.” 


Andrew I. Killgore is the publisher of the Washington Report on Middle East Affairs.

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