The early suspicion that Mohammed Abu Talb was involved in the PA103 bombing was based on bomb-blasted clothes allegedly bought on Malta in late 1988, ties to one or another force capable of such grand terrorism, and circumstantial clues pointing to something important happening on December 21, 1988. The same and similar clues would later point to Libyan Abdelbaset al-Megrahi. It’s quite curious, in fact, how these two very different suspects wound up fitting the same clues.
For what it's worth, Abu Talb wound up being exonerated for Lockerbie but found guilty of other bombings, and like Megrahi protests his innocence of all charges. This blogger for one is half-inclined to believe him, at least on the larger charge.
A Week of Sundays in '89
Writing for the Murdoch-owned Sunday Times and working from insider police reports, David Leppard wrote a widely-read series of six articles on the Lockerbie investigation, leading up to the one-year anniversary in December 1989. Paul Foot summarized these for his 2001 book Lockerbie: The Flight From Justice.
The first installment from 29 October announced “Disaster Trail Leads to Malta,” based on the Frankfurt printout and Maltese clothes found at the scene. The trail still led to a PFLP-GC cell there, working with Dalkamouni’s German cell acting out Iran’s vengeance for IA 655. It would be a week before Talb’s role was introduced in the second article of November 5. As Foot summarizes:
"Dalkamoni and “another Palestinian terrorist” called Abu Talb. then went to Malta and “instructed the cell to plant the bomb on an Air Malta flight bound for Frankfurt.” This second article ended with some criticism of the German police for the bungling of the investigation, and especially for the release of the bomb-maker Khreesat. In a huge, rather repetitive, article Khreesat was said to be suspected of being “a triple agent” who intended to bomb Flight PA 103. The chief suspects, therefore, were Dalkamoni, Khreesat, Talb and a Libyan explosives expert known as The Professor."November 12 saw the third part, informing its readers that the indomitable Scottish police were planning to visit Abu Talb in his jail cell in Sweden, where he was charged for an unrelated string of pointless bombings. "The detail of the story was shifting all the time," Foot noted, "probably because of new information available to Leppard’s security sources."
The fifth article (on 5 December 1989) was finally certain about one of the main suspects. LOCKERBIE TRIAL FOR ‘BOMB MAN’ was the headline over a Leppard article from Uppsala, Sweden, which stated boldly that Abu Talb was about to be extradited from Sweden to Britain to stand charges over the Lockerbie bombing: “The Sunday Times which first named Talb as a suspect last month, can reveal that he has been positively identified as the person who bought the clothes from a shop in Malta which have been linked by British forensic scientists to the suitcase bomb.As explained in a separate post, such an identification either didn't happen or was entertained only briefly. On 5 December Leppard was reporting a positive ID by the shopkeeper, but it was established later at Camp Zeist that "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."
Leppard, who was presumably present outside the court, then reported: “During a 90-minute closed court session Ulf Forsberg the Uppsala district prosecutor told the presiding magistrate that the owner of a boutique in Sliema, Malta, had identified Talb as the man to whom he sold the clothes.”
And behind the scenes, we can now see, it was the Times' own prior reporting that would only later give the shopkeeper the idea that the "BOMBER" Abu Talb might have been the man. The Zeist Judges noted "at about the end of 1989 or the beginning of 1990 [Gauci's] brother showed him an article in a newspaper ... there was a photograph of a man with the word “Bomber” also across it," which Tony thought might be "the man who had bought the [clothing] articles from him." With some help from irresponsible investigators and Swedish prosecutors, it would seem, Leppard's reportage would keep trying to come full-circle as a self-fulfilling prophecy.
The Birthday Suspect
Just as this series was wrapping up the dramatic finale of Abu Talb's imminent indictment, a Swedish paper also revealed some damning clues. The New York Times reported from Uppsala Sweden, on the anniversary of the bombing, that Talb was “convicted today along with three co-defendants,” all convicted for three alleged attacks in the region in the mid-80s, and all four “acquitted in a fourth incident in Stockholm in 1986.”
Abu Talb was sentenced to life in prison, expected as 20 years followed by expulsion. “ The verdicts were delivered on the first anniversary of the bombing of Flight 103 over Lockerbie,” and a Swedish newspaper, Dagens Nyheter, “said today that new evidence had come to light linking Mr. Abu Talb to the attack, including a calendar found in his apartment with the date Dec. 21 circled.”
Well what kind of timing is that, getting the ‘guilty of terrorism’ seal plus Lockerbie clues right on the red-circled anniversary? It was later reported this was the date his sister was due to deliver a baby, and the Zeist Judges decided the actual delivery happened just past midnight on the 22nd, in Sweden. This gives Mohammed a tentative approximate alibi (watching the kids as his wife helped the delivery) for the planting of the bomb at Malta, or London. But thanks to this curious timing, Abu Talb was bound to stick in our minds as the certain villain.
The date emphasis certainly does seem a nice coincidence, on top of the Maltese clothes, much like the ones that would later link Megrahi to the bombing. The article explained the garments seized in Sweden were flown to Malta for analysis, but apparently “Scottish detectives were disappointed with the results of the examination in Malta,” a faint suggestion that this line would not last.
However, the Times added:
“[Dagens Nyheter reported] Mr. Abu Talb's wife also was recorded in a wiretapped telephone call warning another Palestinian, who was not identified, to "get rid of the clothes immediately." The police later seized a suitcase from the family she had called, the paper added.”Apparently nothing further came of this supposed warning. And apparently no one warned the wife to get rid of the clothes in her own home that would be found right there to incriminate her husband. It seems just as likely that she was urging an acquaintance to help them sell (get rid of) these clothes Mohammed had burdened them with. But someone else on the Swedish end of things was clearly trying hard at that point to make it all come together.
The One Leads to the Other
Ultimately Mr. Abu Talb’s alleged central role faded from view, and he was replaced with the Libyan al-Megrahi. It was the shift of attention to Malta - enabled by the scorched clothes, the Frankfurt printout, and Abu Talb – that finally “led” to Megrahi. Or was it the other way around?
The clothes traced to that Maltese shop were only much later decided to be bought by Megrahi. That was the nail in the coffin, which was itself built much earlier, mostly in 1989. Libyan defector A.M. Giaka was already on file, with his assignment to Malta’s Luqa airport. He made his knowledge of Megrahi and his supposed accomplice Fhimah known to the CIA even before the bombing of PA103. Megrahi was soon after that found to be at Luqa, under a pseudonym, on the morning of the bombing. Later, in August 1989, the Frankfurt printout emerged, suggesting an apparent unaccompanied bag destined for PA103, and coming off a flight that left Luqa during Megrahi’s clandestine presence there.
It’s entirely possible, given the mysteries surrounding the printout, that it was custom-made to point at Megrahi. Eventually Giaka and Gauci would be compelled (perhaps by the promised multi-million dollar reward) to add details fleshing out Megrahi as the main actor in the plot. He was seen with the suitcase and with the clothes that went in it!
My study of this case reveals or at least suggests duplicity, cover-up, and misdirection, at every turn. The real perpetrators were to be ignored in favor of the cover-up, and this went back to the beginning, as the clues of Heathrow origin were denied, skewing the whole investigation horribly and necessitating a false narrative sooner or later.
Given this, it stands to reason that any "primary suspect" in this case the CIA/FBI/Scottish/Swedish police ever publicly pointed to is suspect in a different way. Given the intensive denial of truth in operation, investigators would not want to point, even then, at someone they genuinely believed was involved.
They pointed at Abu Talb, and the main effect was that it helped them get closer to Megrahi.