Pan Am 103: Libya and a case unclosed

The death of the Libyan official convicted over the Lockerbie bombing in December 1988 will not end the question of responsibility for the atrocity.

The death on 20 May 2012 of Abdelbaset Ali Mohmed al-Megrahi, the only person convicted of the bombing of a passenger airplane over the Scottish town of Lockerbie on 21 December 1988, has been followed by calls for a renewed enquiry into the circumstances of and responsibility of the tragedy. The focus of these calls is thus very different from the controversy over al-Megrahi's release from custody by the Scottish government in August 2009 on medical grounds, for it relates to the murders of the 259 people on Pan Am 103 and the eleven townspeople who died in Lockerbie itself.

This may seem a fine distinction, since the "compassionate" release in 2009 provoked fierce international criticism of the Scottish government's decision; not least because of suspicions that it was linked to potential oil deals between the British government in London and the then Libyan regime of Colonel Gaddafi. Scotland's first minister Alex Salmond stoutly denies any such hidden agenda, and points out that the case remains under police investigation; for, whatever the extent or otherwise of al-Megrahi's guilt, few people, whatever their views, believe that he acted alone.

The doubts over the case revolve around several areas, but at the outset it is worth bearing in mind two things:

* Abdelbaset Ali Mohmed al-Megrahi was one of two people tried for the attack; the other, Lamen Khalifa Fhimah, was cleared, released and returned to Libya

* Al-Megrahi's case was itself up for consideration by the Scottish Criminal Cases Review Commission in 2007 following the raising of issues about his conviction, a review process that ceased on his release.

But the core issue regarding the Lockerbie attack goes much further than details of legal proedure, important though these are. It concerns the question of Libyan involvement as a whole. This has been pursued by a number of people, most notably the families of some of the British passengers who were among the 270 people killed when Pan Am 103 exploded over Lockerbie.

A different scenario

Many press articles and broadcast documentaries have examined the background. A recent, detailed analysis is by Davina Miller in a leading academic security journal (see "Who Knows About This? Western Policy Towards Iran: The Lockerbie Case", Defense and Security Analysis, 27/4, December 2011). The intention of Miller's paper is not to reach a firm conclusion, but to use numerous sources (including United States and United Kingdom legal documents and intelligence-agency sources) to examine the argument that there is a convincing alternative narrative to the official one.

In the most compressed terms, the proposition at the heart of this narrative is that the attack was sponsored by Iran in retaliation for the deaths of 290 passengers and crew of Iran Air Flight 655 when this craft, an Airbus 300, was shot down in July 1988 over the Persian Gulf by the American guided-missile cruiser USS Vincennes.

The case does not claim that Iranian officials were directly involved in the Lockerbie bombing, but that they sponsored the Damascus-based PFLP-GC Palestinian paramilitary group to conduct the attack. This group both had the expertise and was known at the time to be working towards attacking western aircraft.

At first sight the idea seems far-fetched. After all, why would Libya surrender the two defendants for trial (in April 1999) and offer compensation of $2.7 billion to the bereaved families (in August 2003)? The counter-argument is that these moves were predicated on easing and even ending international sanctions, and that their timing was connected to Libya's effort to "come in from the (geopolitical) cold".

That aspect of the whole affair may still be problematic. But it has to be set alongside substantial problems with the case against al-Megrahi that Davina Miller analyses.

There are four elements involved:

* Luqa Airport in Malta, where the bomb was apparently put on a feeder flight, was regarded as a particularly secure airport and one that presented considerable difficulties for any individual or group that wanted to get a bomb onto a plane

* Al-Megrahi was identified as buying clothing in Malta, fragments of which were found among the remains of the suitcase containing the bomb; but there were serious doubts about the reliability of the identification

* Al-Megrahi used a false passport in Malta, though this was apparently common practice among Libyan security people (al-Megrahi was actually known to the CIA as a Libyan "technical communications expert")

* There were some problems with the forensic evidence presented at the trial, evidence that became very much more problematic after it when some of the forensic personnel were discredited for reasons of incompetence.

If al-Megrahi was not responsible for the Lockerbie attack, this still leaves the question of why the investigation focused on Libya and so neglected the possibility of Iranian involvement.

The argument here is that the Lockerbie attack came at a time when there was a need to improve relations between the United States and Iran, because of the influence Tehran had on the release of western hostages being held by its Shi'a allies in Lebanon. To focus systematic blame for Lockerbie on the Iranians would, it is argued, have made release of the hostages much less likely.

Perhaps the strongest aspect of the whole matter relates to the starting-point: that one of the two people tried for the mass murder was found not guilty, and even al-Megrahi's guilt was sufficiently problematic for his case to be up for review.

The major political changes in Libya in 2011-12 make it possible that further evidence may emerge there, though the hatred of the current leadership for the Gaddafi regime may make them more than willing for him to continue to take the blame. The answer, instead, may actually lie in Tehran, and might in due course be confirmed, but there is little probability of that in the near future.

What remains is the unsatisfactory situation that has received fresh attention with al-Megrahi's death. But Davina Miller's investigation does present copious evidence of exactly why the situation is unsatisfactory. This at least makes it less likely that the matter will now fade from view. 

About the author

Paul Rogers is professor in the department of peace studies at Bradford University, northern England. He is openDemocracy's international-security editor, and has been writing a weekly column on global security since 28 September 2001; he also writes a monthly briefing for the Oxford Research Group. His books include Why We’re Losing the War on Terror (Polity, 2007), and Losing Control: Global Security in the 21st Century (Pluto Press, 3rd edition, 2010). He is on twitter at: @ProfPRogers

A lecture by Paul Rogers on sustainable security, delivered to the Quaker yearly meeting on 3 August 2011, provides an overview of the analysis that underpins his openDemocracy column. It is available in two parts and can be accessed from here

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Paul Rogers is professor in the department of peace studies at Bradford University, northern England. He is openDemocracy's international-security editor, and has been writing a weekly column on global security since 28 September 2001; he also writes a monthly briefing for the Oxford Research Group . His books include Why We’re Losing the War on Terror (Polity, 2007), and Losing Control: Global Security in the 21st Century (Pluto Press, 3rd edition, 2010). He is on twitter at: @ProfPRogers