After 34 years, US says Libyan who built deadly Lockerbie plane bomb in custody

Justice Department gives no details on how it detained Abu Agela Masud Kheir Al-Marimi, wanted for alleged part in 1988 downing of Pan Am flight over Scotland that killed 270

Unidentified crash investigators inspect the nose section of the crashed Pan Am flight 103, a Boeing 747 airliner in a field near Lockerbie, Scotland, December 23, 1988. (Dave Caulkin/AP)
Unidentified crash investigators inspect the nose section of the crashed Pan Am flight 103, a Boeing 747 airliner in a field near Lockerbie, Scotland, December 23, 1988. (Dave Caulkin/AP)

WASHINGTON — A Libyan intelligence official accused of making the bomb that brought down Pan Am Flight 103 over Lockerbie, Scotland, in 1988 in an international act of terrorism has been taken into US custody and will face federal charges in Washington, the Justice Department said Sunday.

The arrest of Abu Agela Masud Kheir Al-Marimi is a significant milestone in the decades-old investigation into the attack that killed 259 people in the air and 11 on the ground. American authorities in December 2020 announced charges against Masud, who was in Libyan custody at the time. Though he is the third Libyan intelligence official charged in the US in connection with the attack, he would be the first to appear in an American courtroom for prosecution.

The New York-bound Pan Am flight exploded over Lockerbie less than an hour after takeoff from London on Dec. 21, 1988. Citizens from 21 different countries were killed. Among the 190 Americans on board were 35 Syracuse University students flying home for Christmas after a semester abroad.

The bombing laid bare the threat of international terrorism more than a decade before the September 11 attacks. It produced global investigations and punishing sanctions while spurring demands for accountability from victims of those killed.

The announcement of charges against Masud on Dec. 21, 2020, came on the 32nd anniversary of the bombing and in the final days of the tenure of then-Attorney General William Barr, who in his first stint as attorney general in the early 1990s had announced criminal charges against two other Libyans intelligence officials.

The Libyan government initially balked at turning over the two men, Abdel Baset Ali al-Megrahi and Lamen Khalifa Fhimah, before ultimately surrendering them for prosecution before a panel of Scottish judges sitting in the Netherlands as part of a special arrangement.

In 2001, al-Megrahi was convicted of bombing the flight. He is to date the only person convicted over the attack, with Fhimah cleared. Al-Megrahi lost one appeal and abandoned another before being freed in 2009 on compassionate grounds because he was terminally ill with cancer. He died in Libya in 2012, still protesting his innocence.

A man looks at the main memorial stone in memory of the victims of the bombing of Pan Am flight 103, in the garden of remembrance near Lockerbie, Scotland, December 21, 2018. (Scott Heppell/AP)

His family have continued to fight a legal battle to clear his name, claiming the bomb was made by a Syria-based Palestinian proxy of Iran.

The Justice Department said Masud would appear soon in a federal court in Washington, where he faces two criminal counts related to the explosion.

US officials did not say how Masud came to be taken into US custody, but in late November, local Libyan media reported that Masud had been kidnapped by armed men on Nov. 16 from his residence in Tripoli, the capital. That reporting cited a family statement that accused Tripoli authorities of being silent on the abduction.

In November 2021, Najla Mangoush, the foreign minister for the country’s Tripoli-based government, told the BBC in an interview that “we, as a government, are very open in terms of collaboration in this matter,” when asked whether an extradition was possible.

Torn by civil war since 2011, Libya is divided between rival governments in the east and west, each backed by international patrons and numerous armed militias on the ground. Militia groups have amassed great wealth and power from kidnappings and their involvement in Libya’s lucrative human trafficking trade

A breakthrough in the investigation came when US officials in 2017 received a copy of an interview that Masud, a longtime explosives expert for Libya’s intelligence service, had given to Libyan law enforcement in 2012 after being taken into custody following the collapse of the government of the country’s leader, Col. Muammar Gaddafi.

In that interview, US officials said, Masud admitted building the bomb in the Pan Am attack and working with two other conspirators to carry it out. He also said the operation was ordered by Libyan intelligence and that Gaddafi thanked him and other members of the team after the attack, according to an FBI affidavit filed in the case.

Abdelbaset al-Megrahi, who was found guilty of the 1988 Lockerbie bombing and sentenced to life imprisonment, is greeted by Libyan leader Muammar Gaddafi, in Tripoli, Libya on Friday, Aug. 21, 2009 following his release on compassionate grounds because he had terminal cancer. He died in May 2012 (AP Photo/Jamahiriya Broadcasting via APTN)

That affidavit said Masud told Libyan law enforcement that he flew to Malta to meet al-Megrahi and Fhimah. He handed Fhimah a medium-sized Samsonite suitcase containing a bomb, having already been instructed to set the timer so that the device would explode exactly 11 hours later, according to the document. He then flew to Tripoli, the FBI said.

In announcing charges against Masud in 2020, Barr said the US and Scotland would use “every feasible and appropriate means” to bring him to trial.

“At long last, this man responsible for killing Americans and many others will be subject to justice for his crimes,” Barr said at the time.

This December 1988 file photo shows wrecked houses and a deep gash in the ground in the village of Lockerbie, Scotland, after the bombing of the Pan Am 103 in the village of Lockerbie, Scotland. (AP-Photo/Martin Cleaver, File)

Scotland’s Crown Office and Procurator Fiscal Service on Sunday announced the arrest as well, saying in a statement that “the families of those killed in the Lockerbie bombing have been told that the suspect is in US custody.”

The statement added that “Scottish prosecutors and police, working with UK government and US colleagues, will continue to pursue this investigation, with the sole aim of bringing those who acted along with al-Megrahi to justice.”

The Lockerbie bombing is suspected to have been retaliation either for 1986 US strikes in Lybia that killed dictator Muammar Gaddafi’s stepdaughter, or for the accidental downing of an Iranian passenger jet by a US Navy missile in July 1988 that killed 290 people.

Al-Megrahi’s family have sought for British authorities to declassify documents they believe allege that Iran used a Syria-based Palestinian proxy — the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine-General Command (PFLP-GC) — to build the bomb that downed the Boeing 747.

The PFLP-GC has been designated a terrorist group by several countries, including Britain and the United States.

Weeks before the Lockerbie blast, four devices similar to the one that would soon be utilized on Flight 103 were found in the possession of PFLP-GC members arrested in a Frankfurt suburb. That PFLP-GC cell was reported at the time to have been planning to blow up planes heading to the US and Israel. A fifth bomb in the Frankfurt cell’s possession was said to have disappeared, and some believe this was the device that blew up Flight 103.

The truth of the matter remains contested.

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