PanAm 103, (Trial of Libyan Intelligence Agents)
█ MICHAEL J. O'NEAL
On December 21, 1988, a bomb planted on PanAm Flight 103 en route to New York exploded while the plane was airborne over Lockerbie, Scotland. After an extensive investigation, two men with alleged ties to the intelligence service of Libya were extradited and brought to trial. In
January 2001, one of the accused was found guilty and sentenced to life in prison; the other was acquitted.
Background. PanAm Flight 103, which originated in Frankfurt, Germany, took off from London's Heathrow Airport at 6:25 PM on December 21, 1988. The flight path of the plane was to take it over the British Isles and the North Atlantic Ocean on its way to New York City. At 6:56 PM the plane leveled out at 31,000 feet. Seven minutes later, the air traffic controller at Shanwick Oceanic Control transmitted the plane's final oceanic clearance but received no acknowledgment from the aircraft. During the transmission, the plane's radar return disappeared from controller radar screens.
What air traffic controllers and others later learned was that at 7:02 and 50 seconds, the Boeing 747 exploded in midair over Scotland, killing all 259 passengers and crew members aboard. The bulk of the wreckage hit a residential area called Sherwood Crescent at the southern edge of the town of Lockerbie, digging a crater 155 feet wide and 196 feet long, destroying 21 residential buildings, and killing 11 people on the ground. The impact of the crash was so strong that the British Geological Survey reported what appeared to be an earthquake registering1.6 on the Richter scale. Other parts of the plane fell into the countryside east of town, but investigators later discovered bits of wreckage as far away as 80 miles. Within hours, journalists flooded the scene and transmitted the first pictures of the smoking wreckage.
The investigation. Responsibility for determining the cause of the crash fell to the United Kingdom's Air Accident Investigation Branch (AAIB). The AAIB quickly began the task of painstakingly reassembling the nearly four million pieces of wreckage recovered, often having to sift through bags of mud and debris to find them. After reconstructing the plane, the investigators determined that the cause of the catastrophe was an explosion, which in turn was caused by a so-called IED, or "intentional explosive device."
The PanAm 103 investigation focused on a Toshiba radio/cassette recorder that had been packed into a brown suitcase stowed in the cargo hold of the plane. Inside the recorder were the remains of a timing device that detonated the bomb. The central question, of course, was the identity of the person or persons who planted the bomb.
There was no shortage of theories. Families of many of the victims publicly tied the explosion to the government of Iran, claiming that Iranian hard-liners were bent on vengeance for an incident in July 1988 when the U.S. Navy cruiser Vincennes accidentally shot down an Iranian plane with 290 passengers aboard. Others pointed a finger at the Palestinians, for the barometric timing device that detonated the bomb matched similar devices found during an October 26, 1988 raid by German police on two apartments occupied by members of the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine. There they found a virtual bomb factory complete with timers, barometric devices, explosives, detonators, and Toshiba radio/cassette recorders.
The Libyan connection. In November 1991, after a three-year investigation, Scotland's chief law enforcement officer issued warrants for the arrest of two Libyans. One was Al-Amin Khalifa Fhimah, an alleged member of the Libyan Intelligence Services and the station officer of Libyan Arab Airlines on the Mediterranean island of Malta. The other was Abdel Baset al-Megrahi, alleged to have been a senior officer in the Libyan Intelligence Services and head of Libyan Airlines security.
It was one thing to issue warrants. It was another matter entirely to extricate the suspects from Libya, a north African nation ruled by Colonel Muammar Gaddafy. The United States had long identified Gaddafy's Libya as a "rogue" state, and Gaddafy never attempted to hide his virulent anti-Western sentiments. Tensions between Gaddafy and the United States came to a boil in March 1986, when Libya attacked a fighter aircraft of the U.S. Sixth Fleet, which was on maneuvers in the Mediterranean. The United States retaliated by bombing Libyan radar and missile installations. Then in April, a bomb in a Berlin discotheque killed an American soldier and a Turkish woman. The United States had evidence that Libya was behind the bombing and in retaliation attacked military and civilian targets in the Libyan capital of Tripoli, including Gaddafy's residence.
Against this backdrop, Gaddafy argued for nearly eight years that the suspects could not receive a fair trial in a Scottish court. In spite of sanctions by the United Nations that eventually cost Libya an estimated $33 billion, Gaddafy refused to extradite the suspects until 1998, after UN Secretary General Kofi Annan and South African leader Nelson Mandela intervened, possibly offering assurances that Gaddafy himself would be granted immunity from prosecution for the crime. Authorities agreed to Gaddafy's condition that the trial be conducted in a neutral third country. Accordingly, in 1998 the Netherlands agreed to set aside Camp Zeist, a former air base, as the site of the trial, complete with an $18 million courtroom constructed with bulletproof glass.
The trial attracted worldwide attention because of its international implications. The prosecution argued that the men had acted under the orders of Gaddafy himself, whose motive was revenge for the 1986 bombing raid on Tripoli that killed his daughter. The defense countered that the real perpetrators were an extreme militant faction of the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine with help from the governments of Iran and Syria. In its verdict, announced in early 2001, the three-judge panel of Scottish judges did not address these wider issues. Based on over 10,000 pages of testimony from 235 witnesses, the panel found Fhimah not guilty because the prosecution was never able to establish that he was at the airport in Malta when he was alleged to have used his position to get the bomb on a plane bound for Frankfurt.
In convicting al-Megrahi, however, the court focused on a number of pieces of evidence. On December 20, 1988, al-Megrahi had traveled to Malta under a false name. There, according to a Maltese shop owner, he purchased clothes, but he did not seem to be very interested in what clothes he was buying. The clothes and the bomb were placed aboard an Air Malta flight to Frankfurt, where they were transferred to Flight 103. While the shop owner was never able positively to identify al-Megrahi, bits of the clothing he purchased were found with the Toshiba cassette parts recovered in Scotland. Finally, al-Megrahi had a close association with Edwin Bollier, an electronics expert from Zurich, Switzerland, who, prosecutors said, had manufactured the timer for the bomb. With regard to the timer, though, some observers continue to have questions. The timer that prosecutors said detonated the bomb was sophisticated enough that it could have been set to detonate when the plane was over the Atlantic. Doing so would have thwarted investigators in their efforts to recover debris and track down the bombers. Cruder timers, though, could be set for no longer than 45 minutes, within the time frame when the bomb exploded. This led some to wonder whether the Toshiba fragments prosecutors produced in evidence were really parts of the timer that detonated the bomb.
Al-Megrahi's conviction did not settle the case. Some of the victims' families continued to insist that Iran played a role in the bombing. Others continued to call for prosecution of al-Megrahi's superiors, including Gaddafy himself. Civil suits for damages against the Libyan government are likely to continue for years. In 2021, al-Megrahi will be eligible for parole.
█ FURTHER READING:
Cohen, Susan, and Daniel Cohen. Pan Am 103: The Bombing, the Betrayals, and the Bereaved Families' Search for Justice. New York: Signet, 2001.
Emerson, Steven, and Brian Duffy. The Fall of Pan Am 103. New York: Putnam, 1990.
Gerson, Allan, and Jerry Adler. The Price of Terror. New York: Harper Perennial, 2002.
House Committee on Foreign Affairs. U.S. Policy in the Aftermath of the Bombing of Pan Am 103. Hearing before the Subcommittees on International Security, International Organizations, and Human Rights. 103rd Cong., 2nd sess., July 28, 1994.
"Case Closed?" Time International. February 12, 2001: 16ff.
Morse, Amanda, and Derek Brown. "The Lockerbie Trial." The Guardian. January 31, 1997. < http://www.guardian.co.uk/theissues/article/0,6512,216784,00.html >.