Questions Remain Unanswered Two Decades After Plane Bombing Over Lockerbie

By Patrick Goodenough | December 22, 2008 | 5:45 AM EST

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)

( – Twenty years after a terrorist bomb brought down an American Boeing 747 over the Scottish town of Lockerbie, relatives of the victims marked the anniversary Sunday amid still-unanswered questions and continuing doubts about whether justice has been served.
Pan Am Flight 103 from Frankfurt, Germany to New York via London, blew up at 31,000 feet on December 21, 1988, less than 40 minutes after taking off from Heathrow. All 259 people onboard died, as did 11 people on the ground.
Memorial services were held in Lockerbie; at Heathrow Airport; at Arlington National Cemetery in Virginia; and at Syracuse University, 35 of whose students were killed in the bombing.
The only person convicted and imprisoned for the attack, Libyan national Abdelbaset Ali al-Megrahi, is in a Scottish prison awaiting the outcome of an appeal while fighting prostate cancer which doctors say is terminal.
Last year a Scottish legal review commission, after a three-and-a-half year investigation, identified problems with the conviction, paving the way for Megrahi – who denied guilt throughout his lengthy trial – to mount a fresh appeal.
The problems raised by the Scottish Criminal Cases Review Commission included the non-disclosure to the defense of a top secret document from an unnamed foreign country; and questions about the unreliability of a key prosecution witness.

Tributes are left on wreaths at the Garden of Remembrance in Lockerbie, Scotland on Sunday, Dec. 21, 2008, the 20th anniversary of the Pan Am Flight 103 terrorist attack. (AP Photo)

Megrahi was convicted in 2001 after a trial in the Netherlands. A second Libyan accused, Lamin Khalifah Fhimah, was acquitted. The Libyan government later paid a total of more than $2 billion in compensation to victims’ families, in return for the lifting of 11 years of U.N. sanctions.
Some family representatives are backing Megrahi’s appeal, far from convinced that he is guilty of perpetrating the deadliest terrorist attack on British soil. They include the Rev. John Mosey, who lost his daughter, Helga, 19, and Dr. Jim Swire, whose 23-year-old daughter Flora also was on the plane.
A group called U.K. Families Flight 103 continues to appeal to anyone with information that could shed new light on the affair, saying that it “does not accept that the full and true facts of the bombing have been satisfactorily explained.”
Iran’s revenge?
Among various theories held about the bombing, the one that arose at the outset and has yet to be authoritatively discounted holds that a Syrian-based Palestinian terrorist group carried out the attack at the behest of the Iran.
The contention was that Iran wanted to punish Americans to avenge the accidental shooting down by a U.S. warship, the USS Vincennes, of an Iranian passenger Airbus over the Straits of Hormuz earlier that same year, and contracted the mission out for a fee to the cash-strapped Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine-General Command (PFLP-GC).
(The PFLP-GC, led by Ahmed Jibril, split in 1968 from the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine, which was in turn a breakaway from Yasser Arafat’s PLO. The group is still based in Damascus.)
The Iran/PFLP-GC theory not only was put forward by defense lawyers during the Libyans’ trial, but it also was the focus of early U.S. and British investigations, was widely circulated among Middle East and terrorism experts, and has featured in numerous publications on terrorism.
“It is generally believed that the bombing attack was carried out in retaliation for the accidental downing by an American naval cruiser of an Iranian airliner over the Persian Gulf on July 3, 1988, and that it was only one in a series of attacks planned by the organization at the behest of Iran,” David Tal of Israel’s Jaffee Center for Strategic Studies wrote in a paper on the PFLP-GC in 1989.
“The PFLP-GC reportedly received a large sum of money from Iran and Libya in payment for perpetrating the operation, in addition to a monthly financial stipend.”
Tal wrote that substantive evidence was found in the possession of a PFLP-GC cell captured in West Germany, including bombs similar in design to the one used in the Pan Am explosion.
According to published accounts, when police busted the cell just months before the Lockerbie bombing, they discovered bombs planted inside a Toshiba radio-cassette player not unlike one in which the Pan Am bomb was allegedly hidden.
The PFLP-GC enjoyed Libyan support and patronage for many years, but a year after Lockerbie, Muammar Gaddafi expelled the organization from the country, saying he was renouncing international terrorism.
In 1997, a senior dissident Iranian told German law enforcement officials that Iran had ordered the bombing to avenge the Vincennes incident.
The Iranian, Abolghassem Mesbahi, who called himself a co-founder of the Iranian intelligence agency, told police then Foreign Minister Ali Akbar Velayati asked Libya and Palestinian terrorists to help blow up an American airliner. Mesbahi was not able to provide evidence to back up the claim, which Iran dismissed as false.
Another Iranian defector later also claimed to have knowledge about the issue. In June 2000, CBS television’s 60 Minutes reported that an alleged senior Iranian intelligence official named Ahmad Behbahani, in protective custody in Turkey, said Iran had approached PFLP-GC and Libya to carry out the operation.
Behbahani said he had fled to Turkey after escaping arrest which he linked to a high-level power-struggle at home. Tehran dismissed the claims, calling Behbahani a “dubious individual.”
Unaccompanied bag
The evidence against Megrahi during the trial revolved around claims he bought clothes from a store in Malta that were contained in the suitcase allegedly containing a bomb.
The prosecution said Megrahi and Fhimah, both intelligence agents, used covers as the head of security for Libyan Arab Airlines and station manager for the airline at Malta airport.
The unaccompanied bag containing the clothing and bomb was supposedly checked onto a flight from Malta to Frankfurt on December 21. There the suitcase was loaded onto a feeder flight to Heathrow, where it was transferred to Flight 103, which took off later that night bound for JFK.
Investigators traced fragments of a timer to a Swiss company with links to Libya. Fragments of a tape recorder were found in clothing bought in Malta, and a Maltese store owner named Tony Gauci identified Megrahi as the man who bought the clothing.
Gauci is the prosecution witness whose reliability has been called into doubt by the Scottish Criminal Cases Review Commission.
Patrick Goodenough
Patrick Goodenough
Spencer Journalism Fellow