by Timothy Chilman
At 7:03pm on the bitterly cold evening of 21 December 1988, a bomb detonated aboard Pan Am Flight 103, almost directly below the “P” in “Pan Am,” as it flew over Scotland. The aircraft splintered into thousands of pieces, many aflame, which rained onto the town of Lockerbie below. Debris was strewn for miles around. Burning fuel was spread over a divided highway, incinerating autos. One wing plowed through the village, killing everyone in one street. All 259 passengers and crew and eleven of the town’s residents were killed. 66 of the dead were children. The victims included 189 Americans returning to the United States for Christmas.
An investigation published in 2007 by The Firm, Scotland’s independent law journal, found evidence that the airliner had been destroyed by the accidental detonation of illegally carried explosives on the aircraft. Others have speculated that the cause was an electrical fault, as with other crashes of Boeing 747s. On television on 22nd December 1988, Scottish Secretary Malcolm Rifkind described Lockerbie as an “accident,” but let’s not go there.
No organization took responsibility for the blast, but the Federal Bureau of Investigation and Federal Aviation Authority eventually came up with the names of Abdelbaset Ali Al Megrahi and Lamin Khalifah Fhimah, two Libyan intelligence officers, as the guilty men. Megrahi had been chief of security for Libyan Arab Airlines, putting him in a position to carry out the bombing. For eleven years, Colonel Qaddafi resisted all entreaties to turn the men over, and faced United Nations trade sanctions as a result. In addition to the $48 billion dollar cost of these, Libyans were prevented from traveling abroad, overseas Libyan bank accounts were frozen, and the import of spare parts required by the nation’s oil industry was forbidden.
Then, on 5 April 1999, after extensive backroom diplomacy involving South African president Nelson Mandela, Qaddafi agreed that Libya would pay $2.7 billion without admitting guilt and surrender the men to be tried under Scottish law in a neutral country – Holland. The money amounted to $10 million for each victim, with the final payment made in 2008. Lawyers took a third of it. In February 2004, the Libyan prime minister said $2.7 billion was the “price of peace.” After a trial that lasted 18 months and cost $80 million, Fhimah was found innocent and Megrahi, guilty. Was Megrahi truly guilty?
In July 1988, the USS Vincennes had shot down Iran Air Flight 655, believing it to be a suicidal Iranian F-14, although no records justify this. 254 people died and crew-members received Combat Action Ribbons. Two days later, Iranian minister of the interior Ali Akbar Mostashemi said that “blood would rain down from the skies” in retaliation. The threat was less than idle given that Mostashemi had been ambassador to Damascus from 1982-84 and had established close relations with terrorists, particularly Abu Nidal of the Fatah Revolutionary Council and Ahmed Jibril of the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine – General Command.
The CIA acknowledged that it possessed intelligence stating that Ahmad Jibril, leader of the Syrian-based PFLP-GC, had met with Iranian government officials and proffered his services in the gaining of revenge. Since the 1970s, the methodology of the PFLP-GC had been the planting on airplanes of bombs cleverly concealed in transistor radios which were triggered by a barometric pressure switch. In 1986, Jibril had declared “There will be no safety for any traveler on an Israeli or U.S. airliner”.
CIA Middle Eastern specialist Robert Bauer worked on the early stages of the Lockerbie investigation. He said in the press and on television that “Grade A intelligence” showed Iran requesting and funding a bombing: Ahmad Behbahani, a former member of the Iranian National Revolutionary Guard, personally admitted to meeting with Hafez Dalkamoni, Jibril’s right hand. A retired CIA agent said on record that two days after the bombing, a bank transfer of $11 million from Iran to the PFLP-GC occurred.
On 27 October 1988 in the course of what Germany’s internal security service, the Bundesamt für Verfassungsschutz, called Operation Herbstlaub (Autumn Leaves) arrests were made of PFLP-GC cell-members. Dalkamoni and known IED-maker Marween Khreesat were arrested as they visited electrical shops in Frankfurt. In the trunk of Dalkamoni’s car was a Toshiba cassette recorder containing Semtex connected to a time delay and barometric switch mechanism. U.S. Intelligence officials later confirmed that group members had been observing Pan Am’s facilities at Frankfurt airport. Dalkamoni admitted that bombs had also been built into a second Toshiba unit, a TV monitor and two radio tuners, and the last three of these devices were recovered in German police raids four months after Lockerbie. Dalkamoni was sentenced to 15 years in jail, of which he served eight. Startlingly, Khreesat was released, ostensibly for lack of evidence. Later it was revealed that he was acting for both the CIA and the Jordanian GID.
Interpol distributed warnings of the PFLP-GC bombs on 9 November 1988. Heathrow Airport issued a warning telling security staff that it was “imperative that when screening or searching radios, radio cassette players and other electrical equipment, staff are to be extra vigilant.”
Warnings were received ahead of the bombing. One read “team of Palestinians not associated with PLO intends to attack U.S. targets in Europe. Time frame is present. Targets specified are Pan Am Airlines and U.S. military bases.” The PFLP-GC is not associated with the PLO.
The U.S. Air Force warned its civilian contractors that Iran was expected to strike “in a tit for tat fashion” in such a way as to inflict “mass casualties.” The warning said Europe was the most likely target because there were so many Americans and “established terrorist infrastructures.”
Sixteen days before the bombing, a man telephoned the U.S. embassy in Helsinki, Finland, to deliver a coded warning of a bomb on a Pan Am airplane flying from Frankfurt to the United States. The 1990 U.S. President’s Commission report on aviation security stated that “thousands of U.S. government employees saw the Helsinki threat.” Many staff of the U.S. embassy in Moscow customarily traveled by Pan Am to return to the States for Christmas. Per the British Guardian newspaper, every single one canceled their booking after a note was posted warning of a terrorist threat. Flora Swire, traveling to New York to spend Christmas with her boyfriend, found it unusually easy to obtain a ticket, as did 32 students of New York’s University of Syracuse.
The German newspaper, Die Zeit, reported that South Africa’s foreign minister, Pik Botha, had intended to fly on Pan Am 103 but was warned off and flew on an earlier flight. Die Zeit‘s story has never been proven wrong or right, but Botha called it “absurd and far-fetched”. Bengt Carlsson, UN negotiator for Angola, was not warned, possibly because Washington disliked him.
At the scene of the crash, funny business was afoot. On the night of the disaster, volunteers searching the area found a large object beneath a red tarpaulin. Upon approaching it, there were warned off by a gunman in the doorway of a hovering, unmarked helicopter, one of a number to be observed.
The day after the crash, two coach-loads of American personnel arrived at the scene, many of whom were in plain clothes and knew little of Pan Am or aircraft. Among their baggage was a coffin which has never been explained. A local doctor had identified and labeled 59 bodies but the Americans had re-labeled and tagged only 58. U.S. agents removed items found.
Farmer Innes Graham was warned by U.S. investigators to stay away from a small, wooded area several miles east of the crash site.
Farmer Jim Wilson discovered amongst the debris in his fields a suitcase jam-packed with cellophane packets of white powder. A local police officer told him it was undoubtedly heroin. He surrendered the suitcase but never received an official explanation. It later transpired that the name seen on the suitcase by Mr. Wilson was not present on Flight 103’s passenger list. More heroin was reportedly found on Lockerbie’s golf course. Officially, no drugs turned up, beyond a small amount of cannabis.
Major Charles McKee was one of four CIA operatives returning to the United States from an abortive hostage rescue mission. He was vehemently anti-drugs. Time magazine, newspapers including the British Daily Telegraph and Guardian and Toronto’s Sunday Star, and the New York corporate investigative company Interfor reported that McKee and another CIA operative, Matthew Gannon, the deputy CIA station chief for Beirut in Lebanon, were going to report that legitimate or rogue elements of the CIA were permitting drug smuggling from Europe to the United States in exchange for help in releasing U.S. hostages. The Star’s article was informed by ten unnamed sources from the intelligence organs of four governments.
The undertaking was named Operation Corea. The leading Pan Am investigator, ex-Mossad agent Juval Aviv, claimed the CIA protected certain suitcases from airport security, allowing the bomb to get on board. Gannon’s suitcase was in the same baggage holder – 4041 – as the bomb.
McKee’s suitcase was found to have had a hole cut in its side after the crash, and the clothes within showed no trace of explosives. Months later, reports emanated from Lebanon to the effect that McKee’s travel plans had been passed to terrorists. McKee’s mother’s final conversation with him convinced her that his superiors were not aware of his return.
At least four large quantities of U.S. dollars were discovered, and it has been suggested that McKee’s team – himself, Gannon and two bodyguards – would have possessed large cash amounts to pay informants. When barnstorming Member of Parliament Tam Dalyell asked a parliamentary question about the cash in 1995, Lord James Douglas-Hamilton, a government minister, told him that only “what might ordinarily be regarded as personal money” had been found.
Two PFLP-GC personnel and a great number of western intelligence sources claim the bomb was in the baggage of Khalid Jaafar, a Lebanese-American. Ten days after the disaster, the story found its way onto the front page of the British Daily Express newspaper, citing “FBI and Scotland Yard” sources. The Interfor report also identified Jaafar as the bomb’s carrier. Jaafar, 20, was said to have been a member of a drug-producing family in the Bekaa Valley who was instructed by Hezbollah to carry heroin to the United States. This would explain the Hezbollah T-shirt allegedly found at the crash scene. One theory holds that the PFLP-GC swapped his suitcase for the one with the bomb.
In March 1989, less than three months later, the British Secretary or State for Transport, Paul Channon, lunched with five journos at the Garrick club. Indiscreetly, he revealed that expert detective work by Britain’s smallest police force, Dumfries and Galloway, would shortly lead to arrests for the Lockerbie bombing. The next day’s newspapers spoke of “a cabinet minister” who had said that the identity of those who perpetrated the bombing had been determined and they could look forward to imminent arrest.
It was reported by the Washington Post that at exactly the same time, President George I had discussed Lockerbie with Margaret Thatcher and advised her to keep the matter “low-key,” to avoid hindering negotiations with Iranian and Syrian-backed groups which held Western hostages in Lebanon.
Three months following the bombing, Dumfries and Galloway police published a report which concluded that is was the work of the PFLP-GC.
The families of victims established UK Families Flight 103, which clamored for a genuine inquiry into the bombing. The group met with Channon’s immediate replacement, Cecil Parkinson, who promised a full judicial inquiry. As he went out the door, as an afterthought, he added, “Just one thing. I must clear permission for a public inquiry with colleagues”. He was overruled by Thatcher, and returned shame-facedly two weeks later to tell of it, as he recounted in a television interview five years later. Instead of a judicial inquiry, there was a Fatal Accident Inquiry lacking the power to subpoena, which declined to address how the bomb made its way onto the aircraft on the grounds that it would interfere with police efforts.
Toward the end of 1989, an arrest again appeared imminent. The British Sunday Times newspaper is known to be close to police and the security service. It reported that “the net was closing” on the Lockerbie bombers and said definitively that the bombing was committed by the PFLP-GC cell in Germany.
The guilty party was Abu Talb, a member of Dalkamoni’s PFLP-GC cell who was then awaiting trial for other offenses in Sweden. The Sunday Times predicted his extradition. This report was the first to say the bomb was put aboard in Malta, where Flight 103 originated, rather than Frankfurt. Clothes made in Malta had been in the suitcase where it was believed the bomb was planted, and a search of Talb’s home found Maltese clothes in his possession. The Sunday Times said two documents had been recovered: a breakdown of the process of automated baggage handling for Flight 103 in Frankfurt, and a handwritten page from one of the stations from which baggage entered the system. Being official information, journalists must have obtained it from investigators.
An NBC news report of October 30 1990 said that Pan Am flights from Frankfurt had been used previously and repeatedly by the Drug Enforcement Agency as part of a sting operation to apprehend dealers in Detroit. The report said that the DEA was looking into the possibility that a young man who resided in the United States and regularly visited the United States – Khalid Jaafar, sort of thing – had unknowingly brought the bomb aboard Flight 103.
For a while, Iranian and PFLP-GC responsibility for Lockerbie accorded well with United States and United Kingdom Middle East foreign policy. The two countries had broken ties with Syria for its persistent sponsorship of terrorism and both had supported Iraq in its war with Iran. Things changed, however, in August 1990, when Saddam Hussein invaded Kuwait and threatened Saudi Arabia and the Gulf Sheikhdoms. Nearly 10 percent of U.S. oil supplies were endangered. The Syrians had to be brought on board, which was accomplished: Syrians joined Western Troops in the retaking of Kuwait. Libya, meanwhile, was the only country to support Iraq.
The trial took place at Camp Zeist, a disused U.S. Air Force base. Forensic scientists determined that the 20lb bomb had been in a black, single-speaker Toshiba Bombeat 453 radio/cassette player in a brown Samsonite briefcase containing a pair of men’s checked, brown trousers whose label was that of Mary’s House, a small shop in a narrow street close to the seaside in Sliema, Malta. A central pillar of the prosecution case was the identification of Megrahi by Tony Gauci, who managed the shop in conjunction with his brother and had sold a shirt whose remnants were found at Lockerbie.
Gauci was interviewed 17 times by Scottish and Maltese police and often gave conflicting testimony: he said Megrahi “had been to the shop before and after”; “had been there only once’; that he ‘saw him in a bar months later.” Gauci said the man he saw was 6’0” and 50 years old, when Megrahi was 5’8” and 37. At first, Gauci did not recognize a photograph of Megrahi, but later pointed him out and said he was “similar” but “younger” to the man he saw. During a line-up at Camp Zeist immediately before the trial, Gauci pointed to Megrahi and said, “Not exactly the man I saw in the shop…”
Gauci said Megrahi was “perhaps like him but not fully like him,” “similar but not identical,” and most alarmingly, “like the man in the Sunday Times.” That man was Mohammed Abu Talb, the Palestinian terrorist whom the defense claimed was the real bomber and whose photograph Gauci’s brother had shown him. Gauci told police that Talb “looks like him” (the clothes-buyer). The CIA traced a payment of $500,000 to Talb on April 1989. Talb testified that he was in Sweden on 7 December but could not prove that he was also there on 23 November. He was given lifelong immunity from prosecution in return for his testimony at Camp Zeist.
Police transcripts show Gauci’s brother, Paul, recalling to investigators that the probable date of purchase of the clothes was November 23. He remembered staying home in the evening to watch a soccer game between Dresden and Rome, which occurred on that date. Giving testimony, Gauci said the clothing was purchased on either 23 November or 7 December. The prosecution insisted on 7 December. Gauci testified that Megrahi had purchased clothes before Christmas decorations were mounted, but the then-Tourist Minister, Michael Refalo, said he switched the lights on one day before the alleged purchase. Gauci said it was raining heavily at the time of the purchase and the clothes-buyer had also bought an umbrella. The defense called nearby Luqa airport’s chief meteorologist to say there was no rain on 7 December but there was on 23 November. Megrahi was outside Malta on 23 November.
On 23 October 2005, Lord Peter Fraser, then Scotland’s Solicitor General, the chief law officer, said “Gauci was not quite the full shilling. I think even his family would say (that he) was an apple short of a picnic. He was quite a tricky guy, I don’t think he was deliberately lying but if you asked him the same question three times he would just get irritated and refuse to answer.”
A Strathclyde Police Witness Protection Report of June 10 1999 said Gauci had “a clear desire to gain financial benefit from the position he and his brother are in.” On October 3 2007, the Guardian reported that Gauci was offered $2 million in advance by U.S. authorities for his testimony This is supported by the diary of police officer Detective Chief Inspector Harry Bell. A letter of April 19 2002 spoke of a meeting with the U.S. Department of Justice where a $2 million reward was again mentioned. When considering an appeal by Megrahi, the Scottish Criminal Cases Review Commission said that both Gaucis were paid under the DoJ’s “Rewards for Justice” program. The brothers are now believed to have been re-settled in Australia.
The other central feature of the prosecution was the bomb’s timer. It was manufactured by MEBO, a Swiss company which claimed it sold them only to Libya. MEBO shared offices in Zurich with the Libyan company, ABH, and the two were closely involved. Edwin Bollier, the manager of MEBO, was called to state that such boards had only been sold to Libya. Sales to other parties were uncovered. The defense described Bollier as an “illegitimate arms dealer with morals to match.” He was connected to many intelligence services, including those of Libya and the United States. The judges declared that Bollier’s testimony was “self-contradictory” and “inconsistent.”
After the trial, evidence emerged which would have been used in an appeal by Megrahi: a former MEBO employee who testified, Ulrich Lumpert, told a Swiss court that in 1989 he stole a timing board from MEBO and passed it to a person involved in the Lockerbie investigation. He said he was offered $4 million if he could link the timer to Libya.
Bollier confirmed Lumpert’s story in an interview with RFI in 2007. He added that that particular timing device was not sold to any customers as it was defective. In 2005, a former Scottish police chief signed an affidavit claiming that the timer fragments had been planted by the CIA.
A fragment of a circuit board was found in a piece of shirt collar and analyzed by Thomas Thurman of the FBI. This was from the bomb’s timer. Thurman boasted of his role on television on 15 November 1991, one day after indictments against the two Libyans were issued.
The expert quality of Thurman’s testimony is attested to by his disbarment from work as an expert witness: a review of a generous number of criminal investigations by Michael Bromwich, the U.S. inspector general, found that Thurman possessed no formal scientific qualifications, had circumvented procedures, had fabricated evidence, and had testified in areas of expertise for which he was unqualified.
A barometric timer has the advantage that it will not operate if the airplane is delayed. Seven or eight minutes would elapse before air pressure dropped sufficiently for the device to operate. The Toshiba bomb of the Frankfurt PFLP-GC cell, when tested, ran for 30 minutes after initiation. Flight 103’s bomb exploded 38 minutes after take-off. It is unlikely that terrorists would risk a premature explosion by putting the package onto an Air Malta flight.
Thomas Hayes, a scientist from the Royal Armament Research and Development Establishment, did not perform the standard test for explosive on the timer fragment or make the customary drawings. At first he said the bomb had been on the second layer of a luggage container within the airplane, and so must have come from Frankfurt. This was supported by the testimony of Heathrow’s chief baggage handler, John Bedford, but Hayes revised his opinion at the trial. Hayes had been prominent in high profile trials for IRA bombings that resulted in wrongful convictions. When the first parliamentary investigation into RARDE’s conduct at these trials was announced, Hayes became a chiropodist. The results of these investigations were published in 1992 and 1996. In the case of the Maguire Seven, it was found that Hayes deliberately withheld a notebook from the court and was involved in the ignoring of forensic tests showing the Maguires’ innocence, In the case of Judith Ward, data was withheld or misrepresented to create “a false and distorted picture.”
The judges found it proven that the suitcase with the bomb came from Malta and escaped detection at three airports. The British Granada television company broadcast a documentary asserting this as fact, showing a dramatic reconstruction where a bag was loaded onto an Air Malta airplane by a suitably evil-looking Arab. Air Malta litigated. Granada settled out of court.
Another prosecution witness was Abdulmajid Gialka, formerly a colleague of the accused pair, who testified that he had seen them handling the bomb. He also said he had seen Semtex in a desk drawer in Megrahi’s office, but only disclosed this to the CIA after two-and-a-half years. The prosecution could present no evidence to substantiate his claims. At the time of the trial, Gialka was living under witness protection in the United States. He had already been paid $320,000 by his American keepers and stood to gain $4 million in the event of a conviction. His CIA connections went back to earlier than 1988. His evidence was dismissed.
The judges accepted the identification of Megrahi by Gauci, although they considered it “not absolute.” When Megrahi was found guilty, Dr. Hans Köchler, the United Nations observer, called the verdict “incomprehensible.” Köchler said the verdict was ‘arbitrary, even irrational’ and that it carried an “air of international power politics.”
MP Tam Dalyell said, “My deep conviction, as a ‘professor of Lockerbie studies’ over a 20-year period is that neither al-Megrahi nor Libya had any role in the destruction of Pan Am 103.” He thought, instead, that the U.S. Government wished to avoid complications with Iran and Syria. Another high-profile MP, George Galloway, said, “I’ve always been close to the Palestinian cause, so I know what I’m talking about when I say the Pan Am airliner was downed by a Palestinian splinter-group, the PFLP.”
The highly-esteemed Professor Robert Black, QC, emeritus professor of Scots Law at Edinburgh University and the man who concocted the trial at Camp Zeist, called the conviction “an absolute and utter outrage.” He said that it was extremely hard to believe a Scottish judge would convict anybody, “even a Libyan,” on the basis of “a very, very weak circumstantial case.”
On February 4, the Scottish Sunday Herald newspaper said, “Last week you would have been hard-pressed to find an Edinburgh lawyer willing to bet on any guilty verdict being reached at Camp Zeist. The same belief was evident, it is reported, in Whitehall.”
Michael Scharf, a law professor at the New England School of Law, is quoted in the New York Times of 2 February saying, “It sure does look like they bent over backwards to find a way to convict, and you have to assume the political context of the case influenced them.”
UK Families Flight 103 chairman Jim Swire, whose daughter Flora died in the bombing, said, “I don’t believe for a moment that this man was involved.”
An appeal on behalf of Megrahi in 2001 claimed that a newly-revealed break-in at Heathrow Airport the night before the bombing allowed for the possibility of planting a bomb. The appeal was rejected. When the Scottish Criminal Cases Review Commission referred Megrahi’s second appeal to the High Court, the grounds were Gauci’s identification, the prosecution’s failure to disclose certain information, and issues concerning the forensic evidence. A second appeal would have included the information that no trace of explosive had been found on the bomb’s timer.
While it is highly incongruous to find the words “Libya” and “innocent” in the same sentence, it would appear that the guy from Libya was innocent.
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