Lockerbie: The Alternate Theories

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October 6, 2015
by
Katie Worth Tow Journalism Fellow, FRONTLINE/Columbia Journalism Fellowship

The only person ever convicted for the bombing of Pan Am Flight 103 over Lockerbie, Scotland was Libyan. And although the former Libyan dictator, Muammar Qaddafi, never accepted personal blame for the attack, in 2003 his government took responsibility “for the actions of its officials” and agreed to pay $2.7 billion in compensation to families of the bombing’s 270 victims.

But the case against Libya has never been universally accepted. Nearly 30 years since the attack, some victims’ family members, journalists, and investigators dispute the prosecution’s version of events. Among those who have found fault with the case include a United Nations observer to the Lockerbie trial, the trial’s legal architect and an independent review commission established by the Scottish government.

Over the years, alternative theories have proliferated, as have books and documentaries that purport to present the “real story” of what was one of the worst terrorist attacks against Americans before 9/11.

QUESTIONS ABOUT LIBYA

Two men were originally indicted for the Lockerbie attack: Abdel Basset al Megrahi, who was convicted in 2001, and a second Libyan, Lhamen Fhimah, who was acquitted. Over the course of their months-long trial, prosecutors alleged that Megrahi, a man U.S. investigators identified as a member of Libyan intelligence, and Fhimah, a station manager for Libyan Arab Airlines, were responsible for getting the suitcase believed to have carried the bomb onto Flight 103. The bomb was built into a Toshiba cassette recorder, and tucked inside a brown Samsonite suitcase with clothes that Megrahi was said to have purchased.

The court accepted the prosecution’s arguments against Megrahi and sentenced him to life in prison, but it acquitted Fhimah, stating that there was “insufficient corroboration” of the evidence against him.

This outcome was emphatically criticized by the United Nations observer to Megrahi’s trial, Hans Kochler, who in 2001 stated in his official report that the court’s decision was “exclusively based on circumstantial evidence and on a series of highly problematic inferences,” and that the guilty verdict “appears to be arbitrary, even irrational.”

The outcome was similarly decried by the man credited with creating the unique legal framework of the trial — a non-jury trial under Scots Law held in the neutral country of Netherlands — Edinburgh University emeritus law professor Robert Black. He has spent years blogging about his disagreement with Megrahi’s conviction, which he says was unwarranted considering the evidence, and would not have been replicated in a jury trial.

In 2007, the Scottish Criminal Cases Review Commission, after more than three years of investigating, validated several of these misgivings, concluding that “some of what we have discovered may imply innocence” and referred Megrahi’s case to an appeal court in the interests of avoiding “a miscarriage of justice.”

The commission rejected several points of contention raised by critics, saying they found no signs that evidence had been tampered with, that the Libyans had been framed, or that there had been “unofficial CIA involvement” in the investigation. But other points were worrying enough that the case merited an appeal.

One point of concern for the commission involved a key witness for the prosecution — a shopkeeper from Malta named Tony Gauci, who testified that Megrahi had purchased the clothes that accompanied the bomb from his shop.

However, the commission found Gauci’s testimony problematic. He said it was raining the day Megrahi went shopping, but weather reports show it was likely not raining when Megrahi was in Malta. And Gauci said that Christmas lights on his streets were not yet on, when there is evidence that they were.

Gauci also identified Megrahi from a lineup as the man who came into his shop — but only after being shown a picture of him in a magazine. The commission said this detail “undermines the reliability of his identification” of Megrahi.

Megrahi’s defenders say there is still more to consider. In an interview with FRONTLINE filmmaker Ken Dornstein, John Ashton, who worked as a defense investigator during Megrahi’s first appeal and has written three books arguing that Megrahi was innocent, said the origin of the timer used in the bomb is questionable. According to metallurgists hired by the defense in 2009, the timer’s circuit board was a different color and coated in a different substance than those designed by MEBO, the Swiss company that the timer was linked back to and that had a relationship with the Libyans. This discrepancy “breaks the link with those timers, breaks the link with Libya, breaks the link with Megrahi,” said Ashton.

Ashton has also dismissed the prosecution’s allegation that the suitcase originated from Malta and travelled through Frankfurt, pointing to research conducted since the trial that he writes, “effectively proved that the bomb originated from Heathrow,” where Flight 103 departed from.

During his first appeal in 2002, Megrahi’s defense pointed to a host of evidence suggesting that the suitcase did not originate from Malta, including reports of a security breach at Heathrow 18 hours prior to the attack. But the appeal panel rejected this argument as grounds for a retrial.

Many of the points argued by Ashton and others have never seen their day in court, because Megrahi abandoned his second appeal right before he was released from Scottish prison in 2009 on compassionate grounds due to ill health.

“The appeal, had it gone forward, would have dragged the Scottish criminal justice through the mud,” Ashton said. “I believe they wanted this buried.”

EARLY THEORIES

The Libyans weren’t initially on investigators’ radar, according to a 1991 fact sheet released by the U.S. State Department: “The dominant hypothesis of the early stages of the Pan Am 103 investigation focused on indications that the bombing was the outcome of joint planning by the Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) and the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine – General Command (PFLP-GC).”

This theory stemmed from what the fact sheet described as “reliable intelligence” that indicated those groups were planning to attack a U.S. target in retaliation for an incident in which American warship USS Vincennes accidentally shot down an Iranian Airbus in July 1988, five months before Lockerbie.

Further, the bomb that exploded on Pan Am 103 was strikingly similar to one found in the car of a PFLP-GC militant during a raid in Frankfurt, Germany less than two months earlier. Both were concealed in a Toshiba radio and consisted of similar explosives. The PFLP-GC was also reportedly in possession of flight schedules. And the Frankfurt connection — the Pan Am 103 flight came from Frankfurt before landing in Heathrow and then departing for New York — seemed unlikely to be coincidental, some have said.

But investigators eventually turned away from this theory. Per the State Department, the Toshiba radios were different in appearance and used different bomb technology.  The PFLP-GC’s bomb used an altimeter for activation, while the bomb on Pan Am 103 used a sophisticated timer. And even though the origin of the suitcase that is believed to have carried the bomb onto Flight 103 would later raise questions, investigators said that it was most likely transferred from Malta to Frankfurt. This, the State Department memo said, pointed investigators’ attention to the Libyans, who had been traveling in and out of Malta.

Though investigators say they never found hard evidence of an Iranian-Palestinian conspiracy, last year, an Iranian defector to Germany gave the theory new life when he claimed the attack was ordered by Iran’s Supreme Leader Ayatollah Khomheini “to copy exactly what happened to the Iranian Airbus” that had been shot down by the U.S. warship.

This theory has proved durable and, for many, convincing. In its 800-page review of the Lockerbie evidence, the Scottish Criminal Cases Review Commission said the evidence found in the Frankfurt raid shortly before the Lockerbie bombing — including the Toshiba bomb and the flight timetable — led it to determine that “there was some evidence that could support an inference of involvement by” Palestinian terrorists.

Dr. Jim Swire, whose daughter was one of the 270 victims of Flight 103, is among those who believe Megrahi was innocent. Swire has repeatedly told reporters that he believes Iran was primarily responsible for the attack, and that the U.S. did not pursue this angle because officials wanted  “to blame somebody, anybody, rather than Iran.”

Investigating the Iran link, says Swire, would have caused diplomatic problems at a time when Americans were negotiating over hostages in Lebanon.

“It seems to me that by far the most likely explanation for the blaming of Libya was to secure the release of Terry Waite and other hostages from Beirut,” Swire told The Telegraph in 2013.

A MULTINATIONAL CONSPIRACY?

The main competing theories of who was behind the attack — Libyans or a cohort of Iranian and/or Palestinian extremists — are not mutually exclusive for some of those who’ve looked into the case. After all, Libya, Iran and Palestinian terrorist groups had close ties, and had worked together in previous attacks.

Two years before Lockerbie, the State Department reported that Qaddafi had provided “safe haven, money and arms” to the PFLP-GC and had also announced a “strategic alliance” with Iran, which he hoped to “use as a foundation for joint operational planning for terrorist attacks against various regional foes.”

Nor did he express qualms about using these links to attack American targets. During a speech in 1985, Qaddafi remarked that “we have the right to fight America, and we have the right to export terrorism to them.”

Syria may have also been involved, according to some theories. Libya, Iran and Palestinian extremists all had links in Syria, and according to the State Department’s fact sheet, Syria was the primary political sponsor of PFLP-GC, and “was at least broadly aware” of the group’s alliances and operations.

So did the leaders Libya, Iran, Syria and a Palestinian extremist group collaborate to bring down Pan Am 103? The State Department did not dismiss the possibility in its 1991 memo.

“We cannot rule out a broader conspiracy between Libya and other governments or terrorist organizations,” the fact sheet stated. “Despite these links, we lack information indicating direct collaboration.”

Today, nearly 30 years after the attack, many such questions around Lockerbie have yet to be definitively answered. For some at least, that means the bombing will remain a mystery.

Editor’s note: An earlier version of this story incorrectly said that the theory that the suitcase bomb believed to have taken down Flight 103 originated from London was based on evidence of a security breach at Heathrow Airport. However, this theory has been argued independent of the suspected breach.

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