Q&A with ‘My Brother’s Bomber’ Filmmaker Ken Dornstein on Lockerbie Bombing Updates
Thirty-two years to the day after the bombing of Pan Am Flight 103, the U.S. Department of Justice announced charges Monday for terrorism-related crimes against a new suspect in the decades-old case: Abu Agela Mas’ud.
The name was familiar to filmmaker Ken Dornstein, who had set out in search of those responsible for the 1988 terrorist attack — one of the deadliest attacks on Americans before 9/11. Dornstein was 19 years old when he lost his older brother, David, in the bombing, which also killed 269 others, including 189 American citizens.
My Brother’s Bomber, a three-part FRONTLINE documentary series that aired in 2015, was the product of Dornstein’s years-long hunt for answers.
While filming the series, Dornstein uncovered fresh information about Abu Agela Mas’ud, suspected to be a Libyan explosives expert with a role in the Lockerbie bombing.
In a press conference Monday, U.S. Attorney General William Barr said the new criminal complaint alleged Agela built the bomb that exploded on Pan Am Flight 103 and that Libya’s former leader Muammar Qaddafi thanked Agela for a successful attack on the United States.
Dornstein answered questions via email after news of the pending charges broke. This interview was edited for clarity and length.
How did you find out about the possible criminal charges against Abu Agela Mas’ud?
A reporter from The New York Times contacted me out of the blue after he heard that the [Department of Justice] was going to make an announcement on a big, old terror case. After a little going back and forth, we were satisfied that the DOJ must be talking about Lockerbie. A reporter from CNN also called around the same time. She’d also heard the same rumors.
It was very much a blast from the past. Back in 2016, I gave my papers away to an archive at Syracuse University, and I’ve been working these last few years on projects that couldn’t have been more different than trying to solve an international terror case.
What was your reaction when you first heard about the charges? Were you reacting as a brother or as a journalist?
I reacted as a journalist. What new information did the FBI learn that turned Mas’ud from a person of interest, in the weeks after My Brother’s Bomber aired, to becoming the subject of a criminal complaint? Did they get Mas’ud’s fingerprint and match it to the Air Malta landing card that I’d found in the evidence? [Editor’s note: Neither Barr nor Acting United States Attorney for the District of Columbia Michael Sherwin mentioned fingerprints during Monday’s press conference, although they did cite travel records.] Did they get a confession? [In the press conference, officials cited an interview between Agela and a Libyan law enforcement officer in September 2012.] If so, can we sure that a confession made under present conditions in a Libyan prison would be reliable?
Looking back on your years of investigating, and all the time and energy you spent making the three-part documentary, how does it feel to have this result?
I wish there was a simple answer to that question. I know that it’s always a good feeling to see something come out of your reporting. I’m mainly feeling grateful to the small team of people who were with me on the ground in Libya and Berlin and Zurich and elsewhere: [co-producer and director of photography for My Brother’s Bomber] Tim Grucza and [camera person] Rachel Beth Anderson and [associate producer] Suliman Ali Zway.
At the very beginning of this, we ran around Libya at a dangerous time, pursuing a Libyan bombmaker, relying on little more than a name in some old papers — a name that, for all we knew, may have been made up, a name that could have gotten us in trouble with anyone who knew who we were talking about. And yet Tim, Rachel and Suliman were willing to go where the story took us — and to keep going, despite the frequent dead ends. It’s the support of people like that, as well as my family that’s put up with this for so many years, that’s the top story for me, personally, at this moment.
I’m also thinking about the other family members and people with a personal connection to this case. I know what it’s like to be getting on with your life, and then suddenly something happens to bring it back into the public eye, resurfacing all of those old feelings.
I’d hate to think that my efforts to settle this case, once and for all, would ultimately yield a moment of renewed attention to the case that’s unwelcome for some people. In the end, it was not in my control. I published what I knew, and the DOJ took it from there, and we’ll all have to make our meaning out of it.
What is your hope for how this turns out? What would mean justice for your brother David and all the others?
The DOJ is in charge of finding justice in this case, and I’ll wait with everyone else to see how that goes. For me, personally, there’s an old saying: The best revenge is living well.
My Brother’s Bomber | Episode 1
My Brother’s Bomber | Episode 2
My Brother’s Bomber | Episode 3
This story was updated to make the interview timing clearer.