The bombing of Pan Am flight 103 over Lockerbie, Scotland, on December 21, 1988, remains the worst act of terrorism ever carried out in Britain. More than 30 years after the downing of the Boeing 747, with the loss of all 259 on board and 11 more on the ground, the question of who was responsible has never been fully and satisfactorily resolved.
Only one man has ever been convicted in the case, a Libyan intelligence agent named Abdel Baset al-Megrahi, who was jailed for life on 270 counts of murder by a Scottish court in 2001, released in 2009 because he had terminal cancer, and died in 2012. The court found that Megrahi purchased clothing in Malta that was packed into the Samsonite suitcase in which the bomb — a barometric pressure device built into a Toshiba radio-cassette recorder — was hidden, and that he placed the suitcase on a flight from Malta to Frankfurt, from where it was transferred to London’s Heathrow. At Heathrow, the suitcase was transferred, again, to the New York-bound Pan Am flight, and the explosives then detonated a little more than half an hour after takeoff. His alleged Libyan co-conspirator Lamin Fhimah was acquitted in the 2001 trial. Nobody has been convicted for making the deadly device.
Megrahi went to his grave protesting his innocence, and his family continues to fight to clear his name. This week, Scotland’s highest criminal court is hearing his relatives’ latest appeal against his conviction, after an independent review determined that he might have been the victim of a miscarriage of justice. Among other flaws, the defense is highlighting that the Maltese shopkeeper who identified Megrahi as the man who purchased the incriminating clothing in the suitcase, and whose evidence has always been controversial, was paid for his testimony, a fact that was not disclosed to the defense in the original trial.
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I have followed the Lockerbie case since the time of the bombing, when I was working for The Jerusalem Post as its London correspondent, and when I happened to see material in the early stages of the investigation that pointed not to Col. Gaddafi’s Libya, but rather to Iran and the Palestinian terrorist organization PFLP-GC — the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine-General Command. Earlier in 1988, 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.”
The PFLP-GC was believed to have been paid $10 million to carry out the Lockerbie bombing; it certainly had the bomb-making expertise, having become notorious in the 1970s for a series of terrorist attacks on airplanes.
Just weeks before the Lockerbie blast, four devices strikingly similar to the one that would soon be utilized to such devastating effect on Flight 103 had been 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. Its bombs, like those the PFLP-GC had used in the past, and like the Lockerbie device, were detonated by a barometric pressure device and timer, activated when a plane reaches a certain altitude. A fifth bomb in the Frankfurt cell’s possession was said to have disappeared; this was presumed to be the device that blew up Flight 103.
The Lockerbie investigators were initially following these leads; then they shifted their focus to Libya. In 2003, Gaddafi accepted responsibility for the bombing — though he denied ordering it — and paid compensation to the victims’ families, in accordance with UN demands for the lifting of sanctions on his country.
The PFLP-GC’s bombmaker
Almost seven years ago, a colleague of mine at The Times of Israel noticed that a man named Marwan Khreesat, a Jordanian national, maintained an Arabic-language Facebook page in which he had taken to posting pictures of the Lockerbie bombing. Khreesat was the PFLP-GC’s bombmaker-in-chief, the alleged maker of those barometric-pressure devices. He was one of those who was arrested by the German authorities in Frankfurt, only to be inexplicably released soon afterward. Now he was promising to reveal the truth about Lockerbie — to “write about Pan Am 103,” including “who was on the flight and the circumstances of the incident.”
In his posts, Khreesat also connected himself to the bombing of an El Al plane from Rome to Tel Aviv in 1972, describing that attack as “a challenge to the Israeli intelligence agents who are responsible for searching luggage and everything that goes on a plane.” The 1972 El Al bomb — another barometric-pressure device — had been hidden in a record player that two British women were duped into carrying by two Arab men who were later arrested. Although the bomb exploded, the pilot was able to make an emergency landing. “It was a successful blow against the Israeli enemy,” Khreesat wrote in a March 14, 2014, Facebook post, in which he also described spending time with PFLP-GC chief Ahmed Jibril in Rome as they waited for the attack to unfold.
In several 2013-4 Facebook posts relating to Lockerbie, Khreesat recalled his arrest two months before the bombing. He posted pictures of the destroyed cockpit of the 747 after the explosion, the painstakingly reconstructed parts of the plane wreckage, and a radio-cassette recorder like the one that held the bomb. He also asked a series of unanswered questions about the attack. “Who did the operation?” he mused in a post on the 25th anniversary of the blast. “Israel? Iran? Libya? Who carried the Toshiba explosive device [in which the bomb was hidden]?… Did the explosive device come from Malta airport like the American intelligence agencies say?… When will these riddles be solved.”
This week’s appeal by the Megrahi family was green-lighted by the Scottish Criminal Cases Review Commission in part because of “nondisclosure” of evidence to the defense team in the original trial. Some of that documentary evidence is widely reported to have been provided by Jordan’s late King Hussein and to not only to implicate the PFLP-GC in the Lockerbie atrocity, but to specify that Marwan Khreesat built the bomb.
On Friday, however, the head of the Scottish judiciary, Lord Carloway, ruled that the documents must still be withheld on the grounds of national security. Accepting a secrecy order signed by British Foreign Secretary Dominic Raab, Carloway explained, “[Raab’s] clear view is [that the release of the documentation] would cause real harm to the national security of the UK because it would damage counter-terrorism liaison and intelligence gathering between the UK and other states… The documents had been provided in confidence to the government. Their disclosure would reduce the willingness of the state, which produced the documents, to confide information and to co-operate with the UK.”
It was ‘clear that Jibril prepared the operation’
All manner of conspiracy theories surround the Lockerbie bombing, some of which do not rule out the involvement of Libya and Megrahi, most of which revolve around the fact that nobody has been prosecuted for making the bomb, and many of which focus on the PFLP-GC and Marwan Khreesat.
Over the years, I’ve had the opportunity to raise the question of the Lockerbie bombing with several former Israeli intelligence figures, who were in office at the time of the bombing and well aware of the activities of the PFLP-GC at the time. Two of them insisted without elaboration that “Libya did it” and brushed away further questions. A third, by contrast, told me it was “clear that Jibril prepared the operation.”
Israel was “listening in” on the PFLP-GC during the months prior to Lockerbie, he said, and hearing about preparations for what “we thought was a plan to target an Israeli plane.” There was a “huge alert” in the Israeli security establishment because of indications that the PFLP-GC was about to strike, this source went on. “We told the British and the Americans what we knew, which was that there was an intention to hit an Israeli plane… We didn’t warn about a British or an American plane because we didn’t know that,” he said.
The new appeal hearing is expected to conclude this week, with a ruling at a later date. “It is submitted in this case that no reasonable jury, properly directed, could have returned the verdict that it did, namely the conviction of Mr. Megrahi,” the defense lawyer Claire Mitchell told the judges on Tuesday. But that argument will be harder to make without those “Jordanian” documents, which the defense has said are central to the appeal. If his relatives fail to have Megrahi’s conviction overturned, their allegation of a miscarriage of justice will linger.
Marwan Khreesat died in 2016.
His Facebook page is still online.
But he never did tell the truth about Lockerbie.
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