U.S. Charges New Lockerbie Suspect After FRONTLINE Filmmaker Helped Connect the Dots
When dozens of Muammar Qaddafi-era officials went on trial after the 2011 revolution in Libya, "My Brother's Bombing" filmmaker Ken Dornstein received a photo from a source showing someone who might be Abu Agela Mas’ud sitting among the defendants.
December 21, 2020, update: At a press conference today, U.S. Attorney General William Barr announced the filing of criminal charges for terrorism-related crimes against a third conspirator, Abu Agela Mas’ud, in the 1988 bombing of Pan Am Flight 103 over Lockerbie, Scotland. The charges — jointly brought by the U.S. Attorney’s Office in the District of Columbia and the Counterterrorism section of the Justice Department’s National Security Division — were announced on the 32nd anniversary of the terrorist attack.
Barr said Agela built the bomb that destroyed Pan Am Flight 103 in 1988, according to the criminal complaint affidavit. “The affidavit also alleges that the operation had been ordered by the leadership of Libyan intelligence, and that after the downing of the aircraft, [Libya’s former leader Muammar] Qaddafi had personally thanked [Abu Agela] Mas’ud for the successful attack on the United States.”
“At long last, this man, responsible for killing Americans and many others, will be subject to justice for his crimes,” Barr said.
Days before the 32nd anniversary of the bombing of Pan Am Flight 103 over Lockerbie, Scotland, the Department of Justice is widely expected to unseal criminal charges against a third suspect in the ongoing global terrorism investigation. New information about the subject was uncovered in a 2015 FRONTLINE film.
The 1988 bombing, one of the worst attacks on Americans before 9/11, was the subject of a three-part FRONTLINE documentary series, My Brother’s Bomber, from filmmaker Ken Dornstein. Dornstein was 19 years old when his older brother David became one of 270 people killed in the bombing. One hundred and eighty-nine of the victims were American citizens. Two Libyan men stood trial for the terrorist act, but only one was convicted.
Dornstein set out on a quest for answers after that man, Abdel Basset el Megrahi, was given a compassionate release from prison in 2009 due to cancer. In the course of making the FRONTLINE series, Dornstein uncovered new information about a third suspect, a Libyan explosives expert, Abu Agela Mas’ud, who may have played a role in the bombing. Dornstein also learned that Agela was still alive.
The DOJ’s case relies in part on Dornstein’s investigation, according to The New York Times. U.S. officials told The Wall Street Journal the case was based largely on Agela’s travel and immigration records and a confession he gave Libyan authorities in 2012.
Officials also told the Journal that the outgoing U.S. attorney general, William Barr, is expected to announce the charges in a press conference in the coming days, before he leaves office. Barr held the same position three decades ago, under the George H. W. Bush administration, when he announced the charges against the first two Libyan suspects in the Lockerbie case.
The DOJ declined to comment when reached by FRONTLINE.
In FRONTLINE’s 2015 documentary, Richard Marquise, a now-retired FBI special agent who led the agency’s Lockerbie investigation, said the FBI knew about Agela.
Agela’s name “came from the CIA,” Marquise said. “I think the information that we’d gotten [was] that he was a technical guy. Maybe he’s the guy that hooked up the bomb. But he’s one of those guys that we could never identify.”
In the film, Dornstein found a Libyan man — convicted for a separate bombing — who told him that Agela had helped assemble a bomb that exploded in a Berlin disco in 1986. The FBI spoke to the Libyan, Musbah Eter, after Dornstein’s investigation, and he gave them new information. Eter said he had no doubt Lockerbie was carried out by Libyan intelligence; that Megrahi was a key member of the plot; and that Agela personally told him that he’d helped carry out the bombing.
Dornstein noted in the film that the original Lockerbie investigators had found an airline landing card with Agela’s fingerprints on it. The card showed Agela had entered Malta, where the bomb that blew up Flight 103 was believed to have originated, a week before the attack. A passenger list also put Agela and Megrahi on the same flight back to Libya, from Malta, on the day of the attack. But during the Lockerbie case, the original investigators didn’t have the connection that Dornstein’s reporting uncovered.
Marquise, who worked on the Lockerbie investigation from its inception, told FRONTLINE in 2015 “the Libyans never acknowledged that [Agela] existed.”
In the aftermath of the fall of Libya’s former leader Muammar Qaddafi in 2011, Agela was apprehended and sentenced by a Libyan court to 10 years in prison for bomb making unrelated to the Lockerbie case.
On Oct. 15, 2015, just days after Dornstein’s investigation first aired on FRONTLINE, news broke that Scottish and American authorities were seeking to question two new suspects in the Lockerbie bombing. A U.S. official confirmed to The Washington Post at the time that Agela was one of the men being sought for questioning.
Related film: My Brother’s Bomber | Episode 1
A brother’s search for the terrorists who blew up Pan Am Flight 103 over Lockerbie.