Decades After Lockerbie Bombing, US Charges Libyan as 3rd Conspirator

Police and investigators look at what remains of the nose of Pan Am 103 in a field in Lockerbie, Scotland, on Dec. 22, 1988, a day after the crash. (AP Photo/Martin Cleaver, File)

WASHINGTON (CN) — Thirty-two years to the day of a 1988 jet bombing that killed 270 people over Lockerbie, Scotland, the Justice Department unsealed charges Monday against a third conspirator. 

Abu Agila Masud, of Libya, is accused of having helped build the bomb that was hidden in a portable cassette and radio player stowed aboard a suitcase on Pan Am Flight 103. 

The Boeing 747 plane was en route from London to New York at 31,000 feet when it exploded over Lockerbie, killing all aboard and 11 on the ground. Of the 190 Americans on board, 35 were a group of study-abroad students from Syracuse University returning home to spend Christmas with their families.

“The Lockerbie bombing remains the single deadliest terrorist attack in the United Kingdom and the second deadliest in American history,” Attorney General William Barr said at a Monday morning press conference, referencing the September 11 attacks as the first. He said the 1988 attack was clearly aimed at the United States.

Masud has been in Libyan custody for nearly a decade, apprehended it seems following the fall of the regime of former Libyan leader Muammar Gadhafi in 2011. In Washington, FBI Special Agent Rachel Otto signed affidavit in support of a criminal complaint that says Masud admitted to the building the Lockerbie bomb in a 2012 interview with Libyan authorities.

Charging Masud is one of Barr’s last acts before he departs the Justice Department Wednesday, having resigned just before the end of President Donald Trump’s single term. Fittingly, it was also Barr who announced the first round of charges related to the Lockerbie bombing in 1991. As the attorney general under President George H.W. Bush, Barr opened prosecutions against Libyan intelligence operatives Abdel Basset Ali al-Megrahi and Lamen Khalifa Fhimah. 

Libya gave up both men under Gadhafi after the U.N. Security Council imposed arms sales and air travel sanctions in 1992. The country sent them to be tried before a panel of Scottish judges in a Netherlands court. While al-Megrahi was convicted, Fhimah was acquitted of all charges.

Barr said Monday he is hopeful that Libya will turn Masud over to the U.S. to face justice.

“We think that the prospects are very good,” Barr said.

Agent Otto’s affidavit notes that Masud was considered a suspect in the original investigation but agents could not identify him.

“The big breakthrough came when the interview that was done by the Libyan law enforcement of Masud was provided to us and then there was some additional evidence,” Barr explained today.

It was not until 2017 that the FBI received a copy of the Libyan interview, Otto wrote.

She quotes Masud as having said in the interview that he had worked in the technical department of Libya’s External Security Organization, an intelligence service the country used to conduct acts of terrorism against other nations.

“During Masud’s time with the Technical Department, he handled Semtex explosives and built bombs on behalf of that department,” Otto wrote. “When asked whether he had participated in any operations in Libya or outside of Libya, Masud initiated a response that he had participated in the ‘Lockerbie airplane bombing,’ among others.”

Barr acknowledged that many Americans alive today are either too young to remember the attacks or weren’t born yet, but, “for those of us who do remember the tragic event, this is forever seared in our memories.”

“At long last this man responsible for killing Americans and others will be subject to justice for his crimes,” Barr continued.

Acting U.S. Attorney Michael Sherwin compared the evidence against Masud in the case to something “out of a Tom Clancy novel.”

“When that debris hit the ground, thousands of foreign agents combed every blade of grass looking for evidence in the case,” Sherwin said at the conference Monday, explaining that FBI agents used the remnants of a Samsonite suitcase that they say held the bomb to link Masud to the bombing.

The suitcase was only sold in the Middle East at the time, and there was residue of 13 personal items in the suitcase — some of which investigators could trace back to a shop in the Republic of Malta where Masud, al-Megrahi and Fhimah all flew into before the bombing. The bomb was transferred to Pan Am Flight 103 through feeder flights, and investigators say the conspirators placed the bomb on an Air Malta aircraft, from which it was transferred at Frankfurt airport to another feeder flight headed to London’s Heathrow airport — the airport Pan Am Flight 103 flew out of.

Kara Weipz also spoke Monday as a representative for family members killed in the event. Her brother was one of the passengers killed on board the flight.

“Our patience and persistence has proved fruitful with this decision today,” Weipz said. “Today confirms what we believe to be true and a step forward in holding all those responsible.”

She thanked all the federal officials who have worked hard over the last three decades on this case.

“We will continue to pursue justice for all who are responsible for this bombing,” she said.

The Lockerbie bombing was a source of major tension between Libya and the West. The U.S. lifted sanctions on Libya in 2006, a few years after the country took blame for the attack and reached a settlement deal with victims’ families for $2.7 billion. Libya was also removed from the state sponsors of terrorism list by the Bush administration in 2006.

Robert Mueller, now widely known for his former role as FBI director in the Trump administration and the Mueller report, also was the Justice Department’s criminal chief at the time the first set of charges against Lockerbie bombing conspirators were announced.

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