Twenty-five years after Pan Am Flight 103 was blown up over Lockerbie, Scotland, with the loss of all 259 passengers and crew and 11 people on the ground, new evidence suggests that Iran was behind the bombing, not Libya.
A former Iranian intelligence officer who defected to Germany in the 1990s has revealed to Al Jazeera that Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini, the first supreme leader of Iran, ordered the attack on Flight 103 in retaliation for an accidental US navy strike on an Iranian commercial plane six months earlier.
In a new documentary set to air on Tuesday, Abolghasem Mesbahi, who once reported directly to former Iranian president Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani, said to Al Jazeera, “Iran decided to retaliate as soon as possible. The decision was made by the whole system in Iran and confirmed by Ayatollah Khomeini.”
“The target of the Iranian decision-makers was to copy exactly what happened to the Iranian Airbus. Everything exactly the same, minimum 290 people dead,” he added, according to a report in The Telegraph.
Documents obtained for the film, titled “Lockerbie: What Really Happened?”, suggest that the bombers themselves belonged to the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine-General Command.
A similar conclusion was relayed to The Times of Israel in December, when a former senior member of the Israeli security establishment said he was certain the bombing was carried out by Ahmed Jibril’s PFLP-GC.
The Israeli source, who spoke on condition of anonymity, said Israel was “listening in” during the months prior to the December 21, 1988 bombing on preparations for what “we thought was a plan to target an Israeli plane” and that it was “clear that Jibril prepared the operation.”
Those comments came ahead of the 25th anniversary of the worst terrorist attack ever carried out on British territory, and the worst terror attack on American civilians with the exception of 9/11. The anniversary prompted another slew of conspiracy theories as to who was responsible.
Among the claims that have come to the fore in various newspaper reports, TV documentaries and new books recently are allegations that the bomber was Palestinian terrorist Mohammed Abu Talb, who carried out a series of bombings in Copenhagen and Amsterdam in 1985; that the CIA subverted the investigation; and that a fair-minded examination of the evidence demonstrates that the bomb, rather than beginning its fateful journey in Malta, was smuggled onto Flight 103 via a baggage container at Heathrow Airport.
The Israeli source who spoke to The Times of Israel in December did not dispute that Col. Muammar Gaddafi’s Libya, which in 2003 accepted responsibility for the bombing and paid compensation to victims’ families, had commissioned the attack. And he said that while an Iranian role made sense, Israel had found no proof of Iranian involvement. (Iran, a prime orchestrator of international terrorism, had pledged to avenge the July 1988 accidental downing by the USS Vincennes of Iran Air Flight 655 in the Persian Gulf, with the loss of all 290 people on board.)
The source, who was a senior figure in the Israeli military intelligence hierarchy at the time of the Lockerbie blast, said there was a “huge alert” in the Israeli security establishment in the months before the bombing, because of indications that the PFLP-GC was about to strike. “We told the British and the Americans what we knew, which was that there was an intention to hit an Israeli plane,” he said. “We didn’t warn about a British or an American plane because we didn’t know that,” he said.
The only man ever convicted for the bombing was a Libyan intelligence officer, Abdelbaset al-Megrahi, who was found to have placed a suitcase containing the bomb on a flight from Malta to Frankfurt, from where it was transferred to a flight to London’s Heathrow, before detonating on Flight 103 a little more than half an hour after the Pan Am plane took off for New York. Megrahi, who was jailed in 2001 after a trial in which his fellow alleged Libyan conspirator, Lamin Fhima, was acquitted, went to his death in 2012 insisting on his innocence.
Evidence examined for the Al Jazeera documentary appears to support Megrahi’s claims.
The former Israeli official also expressed he was “not at all sure” that Megrahi had anything to do with bombing. “Megrahi was the man who was persuaded to say he did it, for the Libyan national interest. Beyond that, I can’t say.”
Initial UK-US investigations into the bombing indicated that
Jibril’s pro-Syrian PFLP-GC had carried it out. Jibril, who is today believed to be in Syria, was born south of Tel Aviv but his family settled in Syria after the establishment of Israel. Once a leading Syrian army bomb-maker, his PFLP-GC had a history of hijacking and blowing up airplanes, and he had publicly warned two years before the Lockerbie blast that “there will be no safety for any traveler on an Israeli or US airliner.”
As early as 1970, Jibril had smuggled barometric pressure devices onto airliners, claiming responsibility for blowing up a Swissair flight to Tel Aviv in this fashion in February, 1970, with the deaths of all 47 people on board.
Two months before the Lockerbie bombing, Jibril’s right-hand man Hafez Dalkamouni was arrested by German police along with other members of a PFLP-GC cell found to be in possession of several barometric pressure explosive devices, built into Toshiba radio-recorders, similar though not identical to the device that investigators subsequently established was used in the Lockerbie bombing.
Unexpectedly, however, the British-American investigation subsequently shifted focus to Libya, largely on the strength of a tiny fragment of a timing device ostensibly discovered among the bombing debris, a device which Megrahi’s trial was told had been incontrovertibly traced to Libya.
The allegation that this timing device was suspect, and that the investigation was skewed because of realpolitik considerations — such as a desire to avoid implicating Syria at a time when the US was building a coalition against Saddam Hussein, or to placate Iran and thus secure the release of Western hostages — is at the heart of many of the conspiracy theories surrounding the bombing.
Then-trade minister Ariel Sharon declared three months after the blast that Israel — one of whose citizens, Daniel Browner, was killed in the bombing — believed Jibril to have carried out the attack.
The source who spoke to The Times of Israel asserted that the trial at which Megrahi was convicted, held at Camp Zeist in the Netherlands, “did not rule out” that Jibril organized the bombing on Gaddafi’s behalf.
Although other reports have suggested that both Jibril and Dalkamouni visited Tehran after the Iran Air plane was downed and ahead of the Lockerbie bombing to discuss carrying out the attack, and that Jibril was paid $11 million by Iran days after the bombing, the Israeli source said Israel had “no proof” of an Iranian role.
Jibril has always denied any part in the Lockerbie bombing. In December, too, a PFLP-GC spokesman reiterated the denial.
Libya’s Justice Minister Salah Margani has said that his government would allow US and British investigators to question Abdullah al-Senoussi, Gaddafi’s intelligence chief — who is facing trial in Libya for crimes under the Gaddafi regime — over allegations of complicity in the Lockerbie bombing.