Lockerbie – 20 Years On
On 21st December, 1988 Pan-Am flight 103 from London to New York crashed into the small Scottish town of Lockerbie, killing all 259 people onboard and 11 people on the ground, just 38 minutes after take-off. We take a look at the Lockerbie crash twenty years on.
The Pan-Am 747 was flying at approximately 31,000 feet when a bomb on board the plane – planted by Libyan terrorists and meticulously traced to a specific suitcase in the plane’s forward luggage compartment – exploded. Initially, investigators did not know what caused the crash, but on Christmas Eve, the darkest fear of investigators came true when they found evidence that a bomb brought the plane down. The area becomes the largest crime scene in the world. Like a giant puzzle, every piece of the wreckage is reassembled in a warehouse.
In 1991 after a three-year investigation, Scotland's chief law officer, the Lord Advocate, obtained a warrant for the arrest of two Libyans, Abdel Baset Ali Mohamed al-Megrahi and Al-Amin Khalifa Fhimah. Abdelbaset ali Mohmed al-Megrahi was jailed for life in January 2001, while his alleged accomplice, Al Amin Khalifa Fhimah, was found not guilty.
Two years later in 2003, the Libyan government ultimately accepted responsibility and paid a $2.7 billion settlement. For the role it played in the disaster, Pan Am was eventually found guilty of wilful misconduct for failing to ensure that every piece of luggage was matched to a passenger on the plane.
The Air Crash Investigation
When a plane crashes in the UK it immediately comes under the jurisdiction of The Air Accidents Investigation Branch (AAIB), which is responsible for the investigation of civil aircraft accidents and serious incidents within the UK. An AAIB team arrived on the site the night of the crash and an investigation begun. The wreckage of the crash was scattered over 2,000 square kilometres and AAIB investigators were confronted by a massive jigsaw puzzle in trying to piece the plane back together. In total 4 million pieces of wreckage were collected and registered on computer files.
Early analysis of the wreckage showed signs of an explosion in the front left luggage hold of the plane, indicating that if it was a bomb that had caused the explosion then it had to have been loaded in Frankfurt. Weeks into the investigation and after running various tests on all the evidence, minute traces of the chemical RDX and PETN – associated with Semtex explosions, were found. The criminal investigation began in earnest.
Catching the Bombers
The Lockerbie investigation was the largest murder inquiry in British history, involving local police, Scotland Yard, the FBI and a host of other agencies from around the world. Prior to the 9/11 attacks, Lockerbie was the single biggest terror attack on US citizens; 189 of the 270 dead had been American.
Detailed investigation work and analysis of all the wreckage produced conclusive evidence that the crash had been caused by a bomb explosion, but it would take more than 15,000 interviews conducted in over 20 countries, 35,000 photos and 180,000 pieces of evidence before reaching a productive end to the investigation.
In November, 1991, Scotland's chief law officer, in conjunction with the FBI, pinned the blame solely on Libya and called for a warrant for the arrest of two Libyans, Abdel Baset Ali Mohamed al-Megrahi and Al-Amin Khalifa Fhimah. The Lockerbie attack was supposedly Libya’s response to an attack on the country in 1986. Libya rejected calls to hand over the terrorists and then suffered from a UN embargo until they finally agreed to hand over the accused in 1999.
The trial eventually began in May 2000 in the Netherlands – a neutral country - as part of the rules set out in the Libyan handover, but it was carried out under Scottish law.
The Lockerbie trial was one of the largest in UK legal history and some of the figures make the mind-boggle. In total there were 230 witnesses and 85 days of evidence covering 10,000 pages of transcript. The final bill for the case was more than £60 million. In January 2001 a decision was reached under Scottish Law: Abdelbaset ali Mohmed al-Megrahi was jailed for life in January 2001, while his alleged accomplice, Al Amin Khalifa Fhimah, was found not guilty.
Did They Catch the Right Man?
Since the announcement back in 1991 that the main suspects were Libyan, suspicions have been raised suggesting that the targeting of Libya was more out of political necessity than culpability.
Critics of the trial suggest that those responsible were Palestinian terrorists acting on behalf of Iran, with Syrian support. Indeed, the German link in the investigation does suggest Palestinian involvement. The argument goes that Iran wanted attack the US in a pre-meditated response to the attack which occurred earlier that year when US warship USS Vincennes, in July 1988, shot down an Iranian passenger plane over the Persian Gulf, killing 290 Iranian citizens. It has been suggested that Libya – already out of favour with the West – was the scapegoat due to the political necessity of the time which meant that the UK and US governments needed the support of Syria in 1990/91 for the invasion of Saddam Hussein’s Iraq in the first Gulf War.
Claims that the wrong man may be behind bars were given further weight in 2002 when it emerged that a leading Palestinian terrorist Abu Nidal was reported to have admitted that he had been responsible for the attack.
In 2008, speculation surrounding the trial continued when the UK Foreign Secretary David Miliband signed a public interest immunity certificate, which was held up by the Lord Justice General, Lord Hamilton, forbidding the release of secret papers that Abdelbaset Ali Mohmed al-Megrahi’s lawyers believe would have exonerated him.
There have also been questions raised surrounding the validity of some of the evidence used in the trial, particularly around one of the key witnesses, Maltese shopkeeper Tony Gauci. Gauci was so crucial to the prosecution case because he identified Al-Megrahi as the person who bought clothes from his shop which were packed into the suitcase along with the bomb, effectively pointing the finger at Al-Megrahi. However, when the trial finished it was later claimed that Gauci was offered as much as $2 million from the United States to give evidence, raising significant questions of how legitimate his evidence could be.
Claims that key witnesses at the trial were bribed - The key prosecution witness in the Lockerbie bombing trial was allegedly offered a $2m reward in return for giving evidence, raising fresh doubts about the safety of the case.
Lawyers for Abdelbaset Ali Mohmed al-Megrahi, the Libyan convicted of murdering 270 people on board Pan Am Flight 103, have evidence that detectives investigating the bombing recommended that Tony Gauci, a shopkeeper from Malta, be given the payment after the case ended.
Mr Gauci's testimony at the trial was crucial to al-Megrahi's conviction.
20 years have now passed since the tragic events unfolded over Lockerbie in December, 1988, devastating a community and destroying hundreds of families worldwide, but still many questions are left unanswered. Due to the complexity of the investigation and the political machinations involved, perhaps we will never know the answers to these burning questions; however, one thing is certain, Lockerbie will always be remembered as one of the worst tragedies to have taken place in the latter half of the twentieth century, and the lessons learned by aviation experts and airport security never forgotten.