London (CNSNews.com) - A British specialist on terrorism has warned against jumping to conclusions about who's responsible for the 1988 PanAm bombing over Lockerbie, saying the trial of two Libyans suspected of involvement would finally test the "spin" that has characterized various theories that have emerged over the last decade.
Tim Ripley, who heads a terrorism research project at the Center for Defense and International Security Studies, was responding to reports that lawyers representing the Libyans were planning to base their defense on claims that the airliner was actually bombed by a Palestinian terror group.
"The positions have changed so often, that one thinks, 'what are people playing at here?'" Ripley told CNSNews.com.
The new twist was expected, he said. "We're in that phase of the case - classic American pre-court case spin."
The whole affair, he said, had been "characterized by spin on all sides, [leaving] public perceptions twisting in the wind."
PanAm Flight 103 from Frankfurt to New York via London exploded in midair as it flew over the Scottish village of Lockerbie, killing 270 people in the plane and on the ground. Most of those killed as a result of the bombing were Americans.
Two Libyan intelligence officials were identified as key suspects, and UN sanctions were imposed after Libya refused to hand them over for trial. In a deal struck earlier this year, the two were surrendered for trial in a special Scottish court, which is scheduled to convene in the Netherlands next year.
But an earlier theory investigators explored - and apparently discarded - held that Iran contracted with the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine-General Command (PFLP-GC) to carry out the bombing, in retaliation for the accidental shooting down of an Iranian airliner by a U.S. warship five months earlier.
In a High Court pre-trial hearing in Edinburgh last week, the Libyans' lawyers applied for access to documents held by the government. Those documents are believed to incriminate a member of the Damascus-based PFLP-GC, currently serving a life sentence in Sweden for another terrorist bombing.
The Palestinian, Mohammed Abu Talb, was an original suspect in the case. He was arrested in 1989 and jailed for his role in a 1985 Copenhagen airport bombing.
According to published accounts, police captured a PFLP-GC cell in West Germany months before the Lockerbie bombing, and discovered bombs similar to the one that brought down flight 103, planted inside a portable stereo system identical to the one in which the PanAm bomb apparently had been hidden -- a Toshiba "BombBeat".
When Talb was arrested in Sweden, police reportedly found a calendar at his home with the date of the Lockerbie bombing - December 21, 1988 - ringed.
The lawyers apparently hope to use the documents to implicate Talb, and thus get their Libyan clients, Abdel Basset al-Megrahi and Al-Amin Khalifa Fahima, acquitted.
Ripley said it would be "quite healthy all round for all the spin to be tested" in court. He suggested there were probably some who hoped the case would never come to trial, so they could continue to point fingers at various supposed culprits, for political reasons.
Some of theories that have been mooted over the years have been convoluted. One, for instance, suggests the Israeli Mossad had planted the bomb to kill members of the U.S. Defense Intelligence Agency onboard who were returning to the U.S. with evidence of a CIA-Mossad drug-smuggling operation in Lebanon linked to efforts to free American hostages in Beirut.
Early in the investigation, the Iran/PFLP-GC theory was circulated widely among terrorism experts, who said there was evidence Iran had paid the cash-strapped Palestinian faction to carry out the attack.
Two days after the Pan Am bombing, the Interior Ministry in Tehran reportedly sent a message to a Middle East Iranian embassy, congratulating the ambassador on a "successful operation" and giving instructions to hand over the remaining funds promised to the PFLP-GC.
A U.S. Air Force signals intelligence unit report in 1991 accused Iran of paying the Lockerbie bombers $10 million to carry out the attack. It mentioned the PFLP-GC by name.
In a paper written a year after Lockerbie, a researcher at Israel's Jaffee Center for Strategic Studies linked the Palestinian group, Iran and Libya to the attack, and said Syria "also apparently approved."
Ripley recalled it was later theorized that the U.S. and Britain decided to move the spotlight onto Libya for reasons of political expediency.
In 1997, a senior Central Intelligence Agency source told the German newsmagazine Focus that the CIA was aware of PFLP-GC's role in the bombing, but that President George Bush was reluctant to blame Syria - which oversees PFLP-GC activities - lest this upset his Middle East peace efforts.
A former senior Iranian intelligence chief told German police in 1997 that Iran had asked Libya and Palestinian terrorists to help blow up an American airliner. Iran dismissed the allegation.
The PFLP-GC enjoyed Libyan support and patronage for many years, but a year after Lockerbie, Muammar Gadaffi expelled the organization from the country, saying he was renouncing international terrorism.
(Over the weekend, Libya criticized a U.S. decision to maintain an 18-year-old ban on American citizens visiting the country. U.S. sanctions against Tripoli also remain in place.)