Lockerbie and Justice

December 21, 2020

IT’S FUNNY how an airline that went out of business almost thirty years ago still makes the news from time to time. So it goes when the airline is Pan Am.

On Monday, American authorities announced they were bringing formal charges against Abu Agela Mas’ud Kheir Al-Marimi, a former Libyan intelligence officer. Al-Marimi is alleged to have been responsible for manufacturing the suitcase bomb that destroyed Pan Am flight 103 over Lockerbie, Scotland, in 1988. Monday, the day of the winter solstice, marked the 32nd anniversary of the bombing, in which 270 people were killed.

Al-Marimi, who reportedly has confessed to making the bomb, is currently in Libyan custody. It is unknown how, will, or if he will be extradited or might otherwise stand trial. He is thought to have participated in the 1986 bombing of a Berlin discotheque as well.

The announcement was made by U.S. Attorney General William Barr. Now in his second tenure, Barr had been Attorney General at the time of the bombing. In the 1990s, his team, led by a hard-nosed investigator named Robert Mueller (yes, the same Robert Mueller), charged two other Libyan men, Abdelbeset Ali Mohmed al Megrahi and Al Amin Khalifah Fhimah, for roles in the bombing. The men were put on trial by Scottish prosecutors in the Netherlands, where Fhimah was acquitted and Megrahi was convicted. Megrahi was sentenced to 27 years in prison, only to be released on humanitarian grounds in 2012 after becoming ill. He died about two years later.

Flight 103, a Boeing 747 named Clipper Maid of Seas, was bound from London to New York, when it blew up in the evening sky about a half-hour after takeoff. All 259 passengers and crew were killed, along with eleven people in the town of Lockerbie, where an entire neighborhood was virtually demolished. Debris was scattered for miles. Until 2001, this was the deadliest-ever terror attack against American civilians. A photograph of the decapitated cockpit and first class section of the 747, lying crushed on its side in a field, became an icon of the disaster, and is perhaps the saddest air crash photo of all time.

In 2003, as part of an attempt to curry favor and normalize relations with other countries, including the United States, Libyan leader Mohammar Khaddafy admitted to directing the Lockerbie attack, and agreed to a $2.7 billion settlement for the victims’ families. He also took responsibility for the 1989 destruction of UTA flight 772, and paid a blood money settlement for that one too.

Few Americans remember the UTA incident, but it has never been forgotten in France (UTA, a globe-spanning carrier based in Paris, was eventually absorbed by Air France). A hundred and seventy people were killed when an explosive device went off in the forward luggage hold of a DC-10 bound from Congo to Paris. The wreckage fell into the Tenere region of the Sahara, in northern Niger, one of the planet’s most remote areas. (Years later, a remarkable memorial, incorporating a section of the plane’s wing, was constructed in the desert where the wreckage landed.)

Assistant Attorney General Robert Mueller, and Attorney General Bill Barr, in 1991.

The Lockerbie investigation was — and continues to be — one of the most fascinating and intensive in history. Much of the early footwork took place on the Mediterranean island of Malta, where the explosive device, hidden inside a Toshiba radio and packed into a suitcase, was assembled and sent on its way. Al-Megrahi and Fhimah had been employees of Libyan Arab Airlines. Fhimah was the station manager there in Malta. During my vacation to the island a few years ago, it was a little eerie when I found myself walking past the Libyan Airlines ticket office, which is still there, just inside the gate to the old city of Valletta.

There’s lots to read online about flight 103, including many ghastly day-after pictures from Lockerbie. But instead of focusing on the gorier aspects, check out the amazing story of Ken Dornstein, whose brother perished at Lockerbie, and his dogged pursuit of what really happened. (Dornstein, like me, is a resident of Somerville, Massachusetts, and he lives within walking distance.)


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5 Responses to “Lockerbie and Justice”
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  1. Rolf Taylor says:

    I am a long time reader that misses you in Salon. I do check your website, and have linked to it on various occasions.

    I like the way you write, and for that reason I recently bought your book. Reading it, I was reminded of a question I have had for many years:

    Am I correct in assuming (and I understand assuming isn’t a good idea) that tampering, disabling or otherwise destroying any part of the aircraft is against FAA regulations and federal law, not just the lavatory smoke detectors?

    I am pretty religious about the watching the safety briefing out of respect for the crew. But I find this part particularly amusing and find it hard not to laugh or blurt out “or any other part of the aircraft “ due to the absurdity of this statement (though I understand why it was added).

    If my assumption is incorrect what part of the aircraft are not protected by FAA and Federal law? Perhaps the tray tables and the seat back? Seat cushions that are NOT designed to be flotation devices.

    I thought you would enjoy this question. Thanks for all the humor and information over the years Patrick! Glad you are back to the work you love!

  2. S. says:

    Patrick mentioned the UTA bombing, which few in the U.S. remember. There’s a good book I read a few years ago on it by the lawyer who represented some of the victims’ families in civil litigation against Libya filed in U.S. federal court. The book is “The Forgotten Flight: Terrorism, Diplomacy and the Pursuit of Justice” by Stuart Newberger. It’s good reading, especially if you’re interested in both aviation and law, like I am.

    What a youthful looking Robert Mueller in the picture above. Not only does Mueller’s role in Lockerbie seem like forever ago, but even his 2019 ‘Mueller Report’ report now seems like ancient history given all that’s transpired in the meantime. In light of last week’s horrible events at the Capitol, I wish that Robert Mueller had chosen to pursue Trump as tenaciously as he did the Lockerbie bombers.

  3. Bruce says:

    Growing up in the North of England, with Scottish parents and lots of relatives in Central Scotland, I was a very regular visitor to Lockerbie in my youth.

    The Tower Fish Bar is the last fish and chip shop on the road to England where you can get deep-fried haggis and deep-fried Scotch pies. These are Scottish delicacies that my parents really missed in England, so we’d always time our trips home to be sure we were in Lockerbie at dinner time.

    So the disaster really came as a shock to us: it was a town we knew well. A few days later, we were due to visit my Gran in Glasgow, and we had to drive past Lockerbie: the crater actually took a gouge out of the highway, so it was a horrible thing to have to drive past.

    Friends in Lockerbie and elsewhere in Scotland – including within the legal community – had serious doubts about the al-Megrahi conviction. It always seemed that Gadaffi’s admission of Libyan involvement was more about normalising relations with the US and UK than it was about any actual facts, and that al-Megrahi was a convenient fall guy.

    Whether there’s any truth around the al-Marimi case remains to be seen. A confession made by a former Gadaffi official in the custody of one of the current Libyan governments doesn’t seem to me to be something that necessarily holds a lot of weight.

    I’d very much like whoever is guilty of this atrocity to be brought to justice. But whatever the truth might be, I’d be surprised if we were ever to find it.

  4. Carol says:

    I’m reading Confessions of a Bookseller, written by a used-book seller in Scotland. He mentions driving through Lockerbie to buy books. That and your posts remind me of working at a Boston-area newspaper in 1988. My editor told me about the crash and asked if I knew anyone, since several of the victims were Syracuse University students so he was looking for a local angle. “We can only hope,” he joked. I didn’t, but I had been part of that same study-overseas program they attended just the year before. And in 1986, I recall touring Europe by train. Brits and Europeans were in an anti-U.S. mood after the U.S. bombing of Libya. There was a protest in London. Americans were sewing Canadian flags on their backpacks to avoid confrontations. I faked an accent at an Italian hostel just to avoid the heavy vibe.
    Wow, the Wikipedia article on this flight is fascinating. I remember few of these facets of the story.

  5. Milan says:

    Why did they wait this long to bring the formal charges against Abu Agela Mas’ud Kheir Al-Marimi?