In a statement issued after he was released on compassionate grounds from a Scottish jail in August 2009, Abdel Baset al-Megrahi, the only man ever convicted in the 1988 bombing of Pan Am Flight 103 over Lockerbie, Scotland, was predictably anxious to reassert his innocence. “I say in the clearest possible terms, which I hope every person in every land will hear: All of this I have had to endure for something that I did not do.”
Whether or not Megrahi played a major role, a minor role or any role at all in the worst terror attack ever carried out in Britain will be debated forever. But the idea that this low-level Libyan intelligence official was the key player in the bombing that killed 270 people, and that his conviction in 2001 and his death now represent some kind of closure in the case, is an abiding insult to the victims.
Megrahi, the so-called “Lockerbie bomber,” died in Libya on Sunday. But the Lockerbie orchestrators have never been brought to justice.
Conspiracy theorists have had a field day with Lockerbie – chiefly because the explanation that those investigating the blast themselves advanced in the first weeks and months remains the most credible.
Investigators at the time made no secret of their contention that the bomb that brought down Flight 103, killing all 259 people on board and 11 on the ground, had been hidden in a Toshiba radio-cassette recorder.
Just weeks earlier, four similar devices had been found in the possession of members of the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine-General Command, who were arrested in a Frankfurt suburb.
That PFLP-GC cell was reported to have been planning to blow up planes heading to the US and Israel. Its bombs, like the Lockerbie device, were detonated by a barometric pressure device and timer, activated when a plane reaches a certain altitude. A fifth bomb was said to have disappeared – presumably the bomb that blew up Flight 103.
US intelligence reports indicated that the PFLP-GC had been paid $10 million by Iran to carry out the Lockerbie bombing. Iran had a motive: Five months earlier, the US Navy’s guided-missile cruiser USS Vincennes had shot down an Iran Air Airbus in the Persian Gulf, killing all 290 passengers and crew, in a tragic case of mistaken identity. The US said it had misidentified the civilian airliner as a fighter jet. Iran had promised to avenge the deaths. Ayatollah Khomeini had vowed that the skies would ‘rain blood.’
Only as months turned into years did the Iranian-Palestinian case inexplicably recede, and Libya emerge as the new chief culprit. Here the ostensible motive was rather vaguer. Libya had supposedly orchestrated the Lockerbie blast as part of its 1980s confrontations with the United States, which also saw it bomb a Berlin nightclub used by US troops, in a series of attacks that saw the US hit targets in Benghazi and Tripoli in 1986, including a strike on the personal quarters of Col. Muammar Gaddafi in which his adopted daughter was killed.
Under relentless pressure, including harsh UN sanctions, to hand over the alleged Lockerbie perpetrators, Gaddafi finally gave up two Libyan nationals – Megrahi and Lamin Khalifah Fhimah, a Libyan Airlines employee at Malta’s Luqa Airport, where it was now alleged that the suitcase with the bomb had begun its journey.
But while Megrahi was convicted by a Scottish court of planting the bomb, his alleged co-conspirator Fhimah was acquitted – an almost farcical development. Three years later, in 2004, Libya’s prime minister would tell the BBC that Gaddafi had only handed over the pair for trial, and paid compensation to the Lockerbie victims, because “we thought it was easier for us to buy peace.”
The conspiracy theorists tend to claim that Libya was a convenient Lockerbie scapegoat. They sometimes assert that that the whole probe was skewed so that the US-led coalition taking on Saddam Hussein in the first Gulf War could avoid irritating Iran. But the idea that the British and American governments would and could mount so extensive a cover-up beggars belief. Most of those killed on Flight 103, it is worth recalling, were Americans.
And yet, as Hans Koechler, a UN Security Council-appointed observer throughout the Lockerbie legal proceedings, told this writer some years ago, the fact is that Britain and the US have never gotten to the bottom of the Lockerbie case – and don’t seem to have tried relentlessly to do so. “Only a child could believe that a lone intelligence officer” – Megrahi – “could have planned and carried out Lockerbie,” said Koechler. “Yet they have not looked for others.”
This writer has asked inside sources at every opportunity in various countries since 1988 to help shed light on the incomplete Lockerbie probe… and been brushed aside time after time with all kinds of vague statements.
In this respect, the failure of the Lockerbie investigation is worth comparing to the success of Argentina’s investigation of two 1990s bombings that shattered its national security – the 1992 attack on the Israeli Embassy that killed 29 people, and the 1994 attack on the AMIA Jewish community headquarters that killed 85. Argentina, with certainly no better investigative resources at its disposal, ultimately traced responsibility for those blasts all the way back not merely to Iran, but to specific Iranian officials who are now on Interpol watch lists.
The conspiracy theorists argue that Scotland’s bizarre release of Megrahi in 2009 — a monstrous terrorist let go on health grounds? — was designed to avert further appeals processes at which the flaws in his conviction would become still more apparent. That, too, will now be debated forever.
What is beyond dispute, however, is that the case of the Lockerbie bombing was not resolved by Megrahi’s conviction and is not concluded by his death. Whatever role he did or not play in the atrocity, he was patently not acting alone.
Which means the other perpetrators and orchestrators may still be at large. As it has been throughout the two decades and more since Pan Am Flight 103 was blown out of the sky, the concern is that they and their government sponsors have felt, and still do feel, free to orchestrate further such murderous outrages.