Among those who question or reject Abdelbaset al Megrahi's guilt, perhaps the most prevalent suspect for the bombing of PA103 is Egyptian-born Mohammed Abu Talb. Among his recommendations are alleged active links to the PFLP-GC, known possession of clothes made on Malta, the presence of other Maltese clothes found at the bombing site, and the "identification" of him as the buyer of said Maltese clothes, in November 1988, at the store they were traced to.
This post will deal with the last point, Mr. Abu Talb's fingering by Maltese shopkeeper Tony Gauci. It's been widely reported that he was there around the original date of purchase (November 23), despite having taken home a batch of clothes from the island in late October. Although Talb was a leading suspect at the time, the evidence that the terrorist was on Malta after October is conflicting and inconclusive, as explained in a separate post. For this post however, we'll consider this no problem and focus on the actual comparison of the buyer and this early suspect.
Gauci's initial description of the buyer was six feet or more in height, and 50 years old roughly. There's no data available on the Egyptian's height, but given the average male height there is 5'7" it's unlikely he's a much better fit that 5'8" Megrahi.
The older man Gauci reported compares poorly to later suspect al Megrahi, who was 36 at the time (b April 1 1952). Abu Talb was younger yet, at 34 (b 27 June 1954). In one of his many statements, Gauci told investigators Megrahi was "a bit older other than the one my brother showed me (Abu Talb)." With only two years difference, that's a fine-tuned eye, considering either man was at least 10 years too young to be the man he said both "resembled."
The Camp Zeist judges’ explanation of the “identification” of Abo Talb as they callhim, is not a compelling one. From their Opinion of the Court, paragraph 61:
Mr Gauci had been shown on 6 December 1989 a selection of photographs which included a photograph of Abo Talb, but he made no identification of anyone from these photographs. [...] By the time he gave his statement on 10 September 1990 Mr Gauci had been shown many photographs but he said in that statement that he had never seen a photograph of the man who had bought the clothing.Between failing to single out Abu Talb and explaining that he'd never identified anyone, there was a brief course-change. As Paul Foot put it in his Flight from Justice booklet in 2001:
Gauci’s brother Paul showed him an article in the Sunday Times series which featured a photograph of the Sunday Times’ chief suspect, Abu Talb, under the headline BOMBER. Gauci told his brother: “I thought that was the man who bought the clothes from me. His face and hair were similar.”The Judges, again from paragraph 61:
At about the end of 1989 or the beginning of 1990 his brother showed him an article in a newspaper about the Lockerbie disaster. As he recalled, there were photographs of two people in the article. Across the photograph of the wreckage of Pan Am 103 there was printed the word “Bomber”. In the top right corner of the article there was a photograph of a man with the word “Bomber” also across it. Mr Gauci thought that one of the photographs showed the man who had bought the [clothing] articles from him.However, it seems there was never a point where investigators got him to identify Mr.Abu Talb in a photo lineup. He had a chance once and passed it up, perhaps because "bomber" wasn't attached that time. After seeing it that way just weeks later, he was eager to see the photo again and point to it, but the offer was apparently not taken up. It may have been just a bad start to an identification, or it may be that by early 1990, investigators were done pursuing that suspect and entering the long lull until the new track sorted itself out. Certainly by September 1990, as noted above, Gauci himself was not claiming to have identified anyone yet. Six months later he'd be pointing at Megrahi.
A Better Identification?
Some revisionists have implied that Gauci's identification of Mohammed Abu Talb is more sure or more reliable than that of Megrahi. For example, Maltese journalist Joe Mifsud commented on Gauci's evidence shortly after the trial. After relating the weakness of the Megrahi "identification," Mifsud contrasted it against our current subject:
But when Gauci saw the photograph of Palestinian terrorist Abu Talb, whom the defence is incriminating and is currently serving a life sentence in a Swedish prison, the Maltese shop owner said, “yes, he resembles him a lot”. Abu Talb’s photo was shown to Gauci in the trial and he again confirmed after being asked by the defence if he resembles the person who both the clothes.
And a 2007 article from the Express (Scotland) stated:
While the SCCRC said there is dubiety over whether Gauci had correctly identified al-Megrahi, documents show the shopkeeper had no such problems identifying Abu Talb.
In fact, this characterization is doubtful. Comparing the wording between some statements, one may be able to make out a verbal distinction favoring Abu Talb, but there may be another explanation for that. Any difference in eagerness between the two fingerings could just as well be explained by their timing relative to each other. In the period around the one-year anniversary, and seeing the buyer first IDd as the bomber, Gauci was confident in his ability to make this witness fit his differing description and help secure a conviction.
Another year later, with that version having failed, he repeated the exercise with a different man on a different day (December 7). It should be little surprise after having the rug yanked from beneath him once, perhaps wondering if he'd have to ID a third suspect one day, he may have been more guarded and vague the second time around.
The long and short of it is that Talb is no better fit for the mystery shopper than Megrahi. That Gauci tried to identify the reported bomber as the buyer, irrespective of this, is troubling. That he was most likely aware of the $2 million reward for information leading to a conviction in the bombing may explain his certainty in both cases. Therefore, his fingering of Abu Talb is just as questionable as his later pointing at Megrahi.