Megrahi’s Death Leaves Lockerbie Questions Unanswered

By Patrick Goodenough | May 20, 2012 | 9:19 PM EDT

Police and investigators examine the remains of the flight deck of Pan Am 103 on a field in Lockerbie, Scotland on Dec. 22, 1988. (AP Photo/File)

( – The death of Abdel Basset al-Megrahi, the former Libyan intelligence officer convicted in the Lockerbie bombing, closes one chapter in the 1988 atrocity but some victims’ families hope it will prompt a new investigation into an attack many suspect originated in Iran.

Megrahi was found guilty in 2001 under Scottish law of loading unaccompanied baggage containing a bomb onto a plane in Malta that was routed via Frankfurt and London onto Pan Am Flight 103. The New York-bound Boeing 747 blew up en route to New York over the Scottish town of Lockerbie, killing all 259 people onboard and another 11 on the ground. One hundred and eighty-nine of the dead were Americans.

Sentenced to life imprisonment, he contracted what doctors said was terminal prostate cancer and in August 2009 British officials – against the urging of the Obama administration – sent him home on compassionate grounds. Given just months to live, he survived for almost three years before his brother announced his death on Sunday.

Megrahi outlived by seven months Muammar Gaddafi, the veteran Libyan leader whose regime took responsibility in 1999 for the bombing and handed over Megrahi and a second Libyan accused, Khalifah Fhimah, for trial – thereby securing an end to international isolation and sanctions that had cost the country $30 billion – but later disavowed the earlier admission, saying it had been designed to get sanctions lifted. (Fhimah was acquitted,)

Megrahi himself always insisted he was not guilty of the worst terror attack ever on British soil. He was given leave to appeal after a lengthy investigation by a Scottish legal review commission identified problems with the conviction, including questions about the unreliability of a key prosecution witness, and concluded that a “miscarriage of justice” may have occurred.

He abandoned his appeal two days before being allowed to fly home.

Abdel Baset al-Megrahi arrives in Tripoli on Aug. 20, 2009 after being released from a life prison sentence due to sickness.(AP Photo, File)

Meghahi’s early release and repatriation triggered a range of reactions from victims’ families and other parties involved, including anger over Britain’s decision to ignore Washington’s appeals – worsened by suspicions that Britain had freed him to facilitate a massive BP oil deal in Libya – as well as concerns in some quarters that the dropping of the appeal would make it less likely that the full story of Lockerbie would ever come to light.

“Justice for Megrahi,” a campaign group that includes families of victims, prominent legal figures and others, said it would not rest in its efforts.

“However long it takes, the campaign seeking to have Mr. al-Megrahi’s conviction quashed will continue unabated not only in his name and that of his family, who must still bear the stigma of being related to the ‘Lockerbie Bomber’, but, above all, it will carry on in the name of justice,” it said in a statement following his death.

“If Scotland wishes to see its criminal justice system reinstated to the position of respect that it once held rather than its languishing as the mangled wreck it has become because of this perverse judgement, it is imperative that its government act by endorsing an independent inquiry into this entire affair.”

Numerous Lockerbie conspiracy theories have arisen over the years, but one theory that continues to resonate was among the earliest official lines of inquiry – that the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine-General Command (PFLP-GC) terrorist group was commissioned by Iran to carry out the attack to avenge the accidental shooting down by a U.S. warship, just months earlier, of an Iranian passenger plane over the Persian Gulf.

The Iran/PFLP-GC theory, which did not discount Libyan involvement altogether, was the focus of early U.S. and Britain investigations and has featured in numerous expert publications on terrorism. It was also raised by defense lawyers during Megrahi’s trial.

In a paper on the PFLP-GC in 1989, David Tal of Israel’s Jaffee Center for Strategic Studies wrote that the cash-strapped Palestinian group had “reportedly received a large sum of money from Iran and Libya in payment for perpetrating the operation, in addition to a monthly financial stipend.”

Months before the Lockerbie bombing, West Germany police captured a PFLP-GC cell, and found bombs near-identical in design to the one used in the Pan Am explosion. A PFLP-GC member in an alleged death bed confession also reportedly claimed that the bombing was the work of his own group.

In 1997, a senior dissident Iranian, Abolghassem Mesbahi, told German law enforcement officials that Iran had ordered the bombing to avenge the Persian Gulf incident.

A wreath laying ceremony at the Garden of Remembrance in Lockerbie, Scotland on Sunday, Dec. 21, 2008 marked the 20th anniversary of the Pan Am Flight 103 terrorist attack. (AP Photo)

Another Iranian defector who claimed to have knowledge about the issue, an alleged senior intelligence official named Ahmad Behbahani, was reported in a June 2000 CBS 60 Minutes program to have said that Tehran had approached PFLP-GC and Libya to carry out the operation. Iran denied both defectors’ claims.

Fresh claims of an Iranian link were aired in a 2010 book by an Iranian secret agent who spied for the CIA, Reza Khalili. He wrote that an Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps operative, with links to the supreme leader’s office, had shortly after the bombing revealed to him details of the plot that would only become public knowledge months later.

A bill introduced in the U.S. Senate last September requires the post-Gadaffi Libyan government to cooperate with any U.S. investigation into the Lockerbie affair and ties the release of frozen Libyan assets and future U.S. financial aid to Tripoli’s cooperation.

It also requires the U.S. administration to issue a report six months after the legislation is enacted, and then annually, describing efforts to get to the bottom of the Lockerbie plot, and assessing the Libyan cooperation.

“Although Megrahi alone was convicted of conspiracy for planting the bomb that brought down Pan Am Flight 103, it has always been known that he did not act alone,” the bill’s author, Sen. Robert Menendez (D-N.J.) said when introducing the legislation.

“We still do not know who ordered the bombing, who collected the intelligence to carry out the plan, who made the bomb and who – in addition to Megrahi – bears responsibility for this and other heinous attacks.”

A timeline of the Lockerbie investigation, trial and subsequent events (with links) can be found here.

Patrick Goodenough
Patrick Goodenough
Spencer Journalism Fellow