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With suspect in custody, spotlight returns to 1988 bombing

Sunday’s announcement that a Libyan suspected of bombing an airliner in 1988 has been taken into US custody has shed light on the notorious terror attack and long-running efforts to prosecute those responsible.

The suspect, Abu Agela Mas’ud Kheir Al-Marimi, is accused of building the bomb that destroyed a Pam Am flight over the Scottish town of Lockerbie. The attack killed all 259 people aboard the aircraft and 11 on the ground. The majority of those killed were Americans.

Thirty-four years later, public memories of the attack have largely faded, despite developments in the case which have returned it intermittently to the headlines. Here’s a throwback:

HOW DID THE LOCKERBIE ATTACK HAPPEN?

On December 21, 1988, a bomb planted on board Pam Am Flight 103 exploded less than half an hour after the plane departed London’s Heathrow Airport, bound for New York.

The attack destroyed the jet, which was carrying citizens of 21 countries. Among the victims were 190 Americans. Among them were 35 students from Syracuse University in upstate New York who were returning home from a semester abroad. To date, the bombing remains the deadliest terrorist attack ever on British soil.

Investigators quickly linked the bombing to Libya, whose government had engaged in long-standing hostilities with the United States and other Western governments. About two years before the attack, Libya was accused of bombing a Berlin nightclub that killed three people, including two American soldiers, and injured dozens more.

WHO WAS HELD RESPONSIBLE?

In 1991, the United States accused two Libyan intelligence officers of planting the bomb aboard the plane. But the country’s leader, Colonel Muammar Gaddafi, refused to hand them over. After lengthy negotiations, Libya agreed in 1999 to hand them over to be prosecuted by a panel of Scottish judges sitting in the Netherlands.

One of the men, Abdel Baset Ali al-Megrahi, was convicted and sentenced to life imprisonment. The other, Lamen Khalifa Fhimah, was found not guilty. Scottish authorities released Al-Megrahi on humanitarian grounds in 2009 after he was diagnosed with prostate cancer. He died in Libya in 2012.

The families of those killed, meanwhile, have filed charges against Gaddafi and his regime, demanding that they be held accountable. In 2003, Gaddafi and Libya agreed to a settlement, formally accepting responsibility for the attack, renouncing terrorism and paying compensation to the families.

Despite a rapprochement with the US government, the prosecution of others responsible for the attack largely stalled, until Gaddafi’s ousting from power in 2011.

WHAT LEADED INVESTIGATORS TO MASUD?

After Gaddafi’s fall, Masud, a longtime explosives expert for the country’s intelligence services, was arrested by Libyan law enforcement. In 2017, US officials received a copy of an interview with Masud conducted by Libyan authorities shortly after his arrest.

In that interview, US officials said, Masud admitted to building the bomb used in the Pan Am attack and working with the two men tasked earlier with placing it on the plane. He said the operation was ordered by Libyan intelligence and that Gaddafi thanked him and others after the attack, according to an FBI affidavit.

In late 2020, the US Department of Justice announced charges against Masud. With Masud in Libyan custody, however, his prosecution has remained largely moot. US and Scottish officials have pledged to work for his extradition, so that he can stand trial.

It was unclear on Sunday how Masud was taken into US custody. He would be the first to appear in US court for the prosecution of the attack.


The Independent Gt

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