Lockerbie for Beginners

Understanding the Official Story and its Legacy
Posted 11 June 2010
last updated 1 March 2011

This dedicated page will serve to fill in the newbie with the basics of the Lockerbie bombing and how Megrahi/Libya came to be blamed and for just what. Please note throughout that the allegations below are not mine. I haven’t burdened this summary with the million questions that plague each item below (nor even the links, usually). This is, in essence, the official story and nothing more.  

Flight 103 basics:
> Date & time: December 21, 1988, 7:03 pm GMT
> Aircraft: Boeing 747, named Clipper Maid of the Seas, carrying 243 passengers and 16 crew, primarily of U.S. nationality, from London to New York ahead of Christmas.
> Event: Over southern Scotland, a bomb hidden in luggage ruptured the forward hold.
The plane broke apart and plunged to Earth, in and around the town of Lockerbie. All aboard the plane and eleven on the ground were killed. Total death toll: 270. The Lockerbie/Pan Am 103 bombing was the deadliest terror attack ever in the U.K., and the most American civilians killed prior to 9/11. Various other firsts and measures of the event’s scale can be read here.

The Accused
Two presumed Libyan agents were indicted, by U.S. and U.K. authorities in November 1991.
> Abdelbaset Ali al-Megrahi: connvcited in 2001 for his role (see below)
> Lamin Khalifah Fhimah: acquitted of all charges in 2001
There is much conjecture and even certainty about sponsorship higher than these two - JSO chief Abdullah Senoussi, Gaddafi himself. There was however no direct evidence presented by anyone on any but these two. 

The Official Investigation
Scottish police of the tiny Dumfries and Galloway constabulary were the official investigating body for the bombing. For such a large task, the D&G did accept a lot of help from other police forces, British agencies, the American FBI, and others. The FBI’s own investigation was dubbed SCOTBOM (headed by Oliver Revell and later Richard Marquise), and the CIA ran a parallel investigation as well (headed by Vincent Cannistraro).

The first lines of inquiry were based on the fairly obvious premise that Iran had ordered the bombing in retaliation for the U.S. destruction of an Iranian airliner (killing 290) in July 1988. The hard-line PFLP-GC group seemed to have taken a payment from Iran and had commissioned five altimeter bombs, designed to kill aircraft. A cell in West Germany (as it was then called) produced these in October, using a double-agent bomb maker. The cell was busted by the German feds in the “Autumn Leaves” operation, but indications were one live bomb had slipped away.

This line never ceased making sense in itself, but got tangled and stalled in 1989 and '90 as clues pointing to Malta emerged. The PFLP-GC lead was by 1991 obscured by some pretty compelling clues pointing to Libyan involvement (in addition to or instead of Iran has never been clearly established, but 'instead' tends to predominate). This evidence accumulated behind the scenes, so many were surprised when indictments were read out in November 1991 against the two “Libyan agents,” al-Megrahi and Fhimah.

How it was Done/The Bomb Route/The Places
1 – Plans from Tripoli, capitol of Libya, ruled by Muammar Gaddafi, considered an insane and tyrannical anti-American leader who supports terrorism. To avenge a supposedly Libyan bombing that killed 3 American soldiers in April 1986, President Reagan instantly ordered bombs on Libya, killing scores, including a young adopted daughter of col Gaddafi. It’s alleged that two members of Gaddafi’s JSO intelligence agency (equivalent of CIA) were ordered to carry out the bombing of Flight 103 a couple years later in revenge.

2 – Europe accessed via Malta, a tiny Island nation with a strong Libyan presence. Alleged JSO bomber Megrahi and accomplice Fhimah both had links with Libyan Arab Airlines (LAA) and Luqa airport on Malta. On December 20, 1988, the story goes, the two arrived back on the island together from Tripoli - with the bomb in a brown hardshell Samsonite case. The next morning, Megrahi (on a false passport) returned to Tripoli. On his way out he passed the bomb case - tagged for New York via Pan Am 103, on stolen Air Malta tags - to Fhimah. Using his airside pass, Fhimah snuck the bag past Luqa’s security and onto Air Malta flight 180 (KM180). The bomb was armed and the timer running, set for 7:03 pm, or a bit short of the Scottish coastline, barring delays.

3 – A switch at Frankfurt, West Germany followed KM180’s landing there mid-day on December 21. There is a record that shows what seems to be an item (but no a passenger) transferred from KM180 onto PA 103A. This was a feeder (or first leg) for Flight 103, a Boeing 727, that would bring about 25% of the passengers that would go on to new York. After passing through an abysmal security system unseen, the bomb departed for London on the 103A.

4 – A final switch at London’s Heathrow Airport followed PA103A’s late arrival. The 727 landed at 5:37 GMT, and has its New York-bound luggage piled into container AVE4041. This and its passengers were loaded onto PA103, which departed without incident on schedule at 6:25 pm. Clipper Maid of the Seas was directed out on a northerly departure due to weather, essentially flying around Ireland before beelining it for New York. (the graphic here is not precise by any measure, just gives a general idea)

5 – Above Lockerbie, Scotland (approximately), Flight 103 reached cruising altitude, 31,000 feet, just before the bomb detonated at 7:03. This only punched a small hole in the plane's fuselage, starting a chain reaction of increased drag and violent cross winds that tore the plane in half in a matter of seconds. For the next 2-3 minutes its pieces plummeted nearly six miles. Sadly, most passengers died only at the end of that, while the few Lockerbie victims crushed by the bulk of the 747 expired more suddenly just where they sat.

The Evidence Against Megrahi and Fhimah
I must remind the reader who might be tempted by this arguably impressive list that there are legitimate questions with each and every one of these points. The alleged evidence then, in chronological order of appearance, is: 

> False passport: Megrahi was on Malta the morning of the bombing, under a false name for some mysterious purpose. When this was learned by investigators in unsure, but the CIA probably learned it early on, in pat from their man Giaka (see below). This suspect behavior plus his presence as KM180 was loading made Megrahi an obvious suspect, but KM 180 wouldn't be singled out for months.   
> Clothing: The first clues to emerge that would later point to the accused were clothes found scorched around Lockerbie from December and into 1989. Made and sold mostly in Malta, these led investigators to look for clues there in the spring, with no luck. 
> Radio model: By the summer of 1989, investigators decided the bomb was inside a radio model Toshiba BomBeat RT-SF16. This was largely (about 76% of models) sold to a single Libyan company perhaps linked to the JSO. But that wouldn’t mean much for a while.
> The Frankfurt printout: In August 1989 investigators in Scotland finally got a copy of the data from Frankfurt airport showing the (apparent) transfer from Air Malta KM180 to PA103A. Attention focused again on Malta. This time they followed a better clothes lead and found a seller (see Gauci) who recalled the purchase and the man who stood across the counter. 
> PT/35(b): A piece of circuit board found in May 1989 was identified in June 1990 as from a Mebo MST-13 timer. There were only 20 of these made, all sold to the Libyan intel agency JSO. There's nothing directly linking Megrahi to these, aside from this bombing, even though he had separate business dealing with its makers, Mebo. 
> Tony Gauci identifies Megrahi: In September ’89 the Maltese shopkeeper said he could recall the Libyan man who bought the clothing, but no one knew to ask if it were Megrahi. Only in February 1991 did he point to a photo of Megrahi as resembling the purchaser, especially in the face, which he had never described before. This would be a breakthrough moment 
> Abdul Majid Giaka tells what he saw: A Libyan defector with Malta links at Luqa airport, on file with the CIA since August 1988, Giaka had mentioned both Megrahi and Fhimah as suspicious prior to the bombing. In mid-1991 the FBI was ready to take him as a witness, and he added details he hadn't before. Besides the explosives the two kept at the airport, Megrahi had shown interest in a report on bombing a “British plane,” and with Fhimah had brought a suitcase to Malta on December 20, matching the style that held the bomb. 
> “Take Taggs”: Fhimah wrote in his diary, on December 15 “take taggs [sic] from Air Malta.” [Taggs was in English, the rest Arabic like usual] Found upon a police search of his office, this was taken to mean 'steal a tag to help send the bomb on to 103.' 
> The Denial: Megrahi was interviewed in 1992 by Pierre Salinger and denied being on Malta on December 21, and had no alias "Abdusamad." These statements were lies, and that denial has been widely seen as supporting his guilt.  
> Various lesser points ... 

1992-1999: The Long Road to Camp Zeist 
Following the credible-seeming indictments, the United States and the U.K. insisted the two accused be handed over for a trial in the U.S. or Scotland. Along with France (miffed at Libya for blowing up one of their own planes nine months after Lockerbie), the Brits and Americans led the UN Security Council to impose economic sanctions on Libya until it complied. Gaddafi refused this demand, but did try to arrange a trial in Libya, or in an Arab country, or  a compromise trial in a European third country. Sanctions were tightened throughout the 1990s, including a total ban on air travel in or out of Libya. Both sides held to their positions, creating an impasse. Gaddafi says thousands of preventable deaths occurred from the sanctions. No independent assessment has shown this to be false.

Scots law professor Robert Black helped arrange a compromise the U.S. eventually agreed to in late 1998, after much pressure from world leaders from Nelson Mandela to Tony Blair. The trial would happen under Scots (Scottish) law, but in the Netherlands. In April 1999 Gaddafi allowed Megrahi and Fhimah to be flown north, all hopeful of being cleared with such a chance.  The site was an old US/NATO base called Camp Zeist, and the two were arrested there and held as prisoners while the epic trial was set up.  UN Sanctions were then suspended, but the U.S. maintained its own unilateral ones.

Trial, Rulings, and After
This section could get very complicated, but it won't. Three judges, Scottish lords all, heard the case without a jury (at the defense's request). The trial lasted from May 2000 to January 2001. They ruled on all the above evidence, with the exception of Giaka's clues, which thy dismissed wholesale due to their unreliability. And their reading of the "taggs" evidence was apparently more forgiving than the prosecution's. The unanimous verdict, issued January 31, was guilty, not guilty. Fhimah flew home, and Abdelbaset al Megrahi was jailed in Scotland to the European version of life imprisonment - at least 27 years in this case.

Megrahi appealed the conviction in 2002, but this was rejected by a five-judge panel. He was denied another appeal until a 2007 review by the Scottish Criminal Case Review Commission. The SCCRC found several reasons to suspect a "misacarriage of justice," and ordered a second appeal be allowed. The process was delayed for over a year before the appellant was diagnosed, in 2008, with aggressive prostate cancer.

On 3 August 2009 a prognosis was produced suggesting Megrahi might die within three  months. This led to Scotland's Justice Secretary making the decision, in accordance with usual practice, to release the prisoner on compassionate grounds. He flew home to die on August 20. Obviously the diagnosis was imperfect or not as descriptive as it should have been, as Megrahi is still alive (but not well) over a year later.

Notably, Megrahi also dropped his second appeal in the release process, dooming himself to permanent legal guilt for unclear reasons. Some take it as an admission of guilt, but to be fair his accompanying letter to Scotland doesn't seem to support that. 


Patrick Haseldine said...

I'm easily confused as you know, Adam, and cannot work out what the significance is of "Lockerbie 101" in the above title.

If you're referring to Pan Am Flight 101 (which departed Heathrow on 21 December 1988 at 11:00hrs GMT and landed at JFK at 13:45hrs EST) you can obtain further information concerning the flight and its passengers here.

Caustic Logic said...

Apologies. I presumed it was more universal, but perhaps it's only in the United States that college courses are numbered that way. 101 is introductory level, the course you must complete before taking the 202 level.

Patrick Haseldine said...

That's not how it works in the UK, I'm afraid.

In 1971, the inaugural year of The Open University (now the UK's biggest) I enrolled for the OU Science Foundation Course S100. And in 1974, I graduated with a shiny new BA(Open) degree. (They didn't offer the BSc in those days).

So if I were you, I would retitle the article (eg Pan Am Flight 101: Making Sense of Lockerbie). In rewriting the article, you are welcome to draw upon Lockerbie: Ayatollah's Vengeance Exacted by Botha's Regime (with the appropriate attribution, of course).

Caustic Logic said...

not a bad idea, Patrick. The above also works for those (mostly Americans) who could use a brush-up on the general history.