Opinion: The fluke that helped investigators solve the Lockerbie bombing
Editor’s note: Peter Bergen is a CNN national security analyst, vice president of New America, and professor of practice at Arizona State University. Bergen is the author of “The Cost of Chaos: The Trump Administration and the World.” The opinions expressed in this commentary are his own. See more opinion on CNN.
A few days before Christmas in 1998, Pan Am Flight 103 from London to New York exploded over Lockerbie, Scotland, killing 270 people, including 190 Americans. Thirty-five victims were Syracuse University students returning home for vacation after studying abroad. It was the deadliest terrorist attack against American civilians until the September 11, 2001 attacks.
On Sunday, the US Department of Justice announced that it had arrested a Libyan, Abu Agila Mohammad Mas’ud Kheir Al-Marimi, who was allegedly involved in making the bomb that detonated the airliner. The DOJ described him as a former senior intelligence officer under the regime of Libyan dictator Muammar Gaddafi.
Al-Marimi did not plead guilty in this case. Another Libyan intelligence officer working for Gaddafi, Abdelbaset al-Megrahi, was convicted in 2001 of the Pan Am 103 bombing. Megrahi died in 2012.
Almost three and a half decades have passed since the fall of Pan Am 103, and many may be wondering why Gaddafi and his intelligence officials carried out this attack and why they thought they could get away with it.
The background to the Pan Am 103 bombing was that the administration of former President Ronald Reagan and Gaddafi were at war – not a declared conventional war, but a war nonetheless – waged with terrorist bombs by the Libyans and with airstrikes by the Reagan administration.
Gaddafi was a Soviet military client who espoused an obscure revolutionary philosophy, which made him anathema to the Reagan administration.
At the start of his first term in May 1981, Reagan ordered the closure of the Libyan Embassy in Washington, D.C., and the expulsion of Libyan diplomats to the United States due to “Libyan provocations and misconduct, including the support for international terrorism”.
On April 5, 1986, a bomb exploded in the La Belle nightclub in Berlin, frequented by off-duty American soldiers. The attack killed two American soldiers and a Turkish woman, and injured more than 200 others.
The Reagan administration quickly determined that Libyan intelligence agents most likely carried out the attack. In response, Reagan ordered the bombing of several targets in Libya, telling the American people in an address from the Oval Office on April 14, 1986: “At 7:00 p.m. United launched a series of strikes against headquarters, terrorist installations and military assets that support Muammar Gaddafi’s subversive activities.
Gaddafi has claimed that his infant daughter was killed in these strikes (although in recent years this claim about his daughter has been questioned). Other members of the Gaddafi family were reportedly injured in the strikes, one of which hit one of the dictator’s residences.
It took more than two years for Gaddafi to take revenge on the United States. Meanwhile, Libyan intelligence agents have assembled a sophisticated bomb hidden in a radio cassette player.
The bomb ran on a timer and was hidden in a suitcase. In the days leading up to tight airport security, the bomb-filled suitcase was placed by a Libyan agent on a flight from Malta to Frankfurt, and the suitcase was then “routed to a feeder flight in Frankfurt. bound for Heathrow Airport in London, where she was eventually loaded onto the doomed jet,” according to the FBI.
The terror plot unfortunately worked very well for the Libyans, but for one crucial detail: the bomb was on a timer, and when it exploded the Pan Am 103 was still flying over land rather than the Atlantic. If the plane had exploded a little later, the jet would have flown over the ocean, making a forensic investigation at the crash site nearly impossible.
Instead, Scottish authorities painstakingly reassembled every part of the plane and its contents that they were able to recover from their soil. This led investigators to the suitcase that had contained the bomb and, in amazing detective work, eventually led them to the Libyan intelligence agents who had overseen the bombing.
On Sunday, the US Department of Justice announced that Al-Marimi, the alleged bomb maker, is now in American custody. He will make his first appearance in a Washington, DC court almost exactly 34 years after Pan Am 103 exploded over Lockerbie, Scotland, killing all on board and eleven others on the ground.