Last month, Abdel Basset Ali al-Megrahi, the former Libyan intelligence officer convicted in the 1988 bombing of Pan Am Flight 103 over Lockerbie, Scotland, died in his home in Tripoli. With his burial, the engrained mistrust between Libya and the West, epitomized by Lockerbie’s enduring political potency, should be interred as well. It is time to move on. (...)
In the wake of the Lockerbie bombing – at the time the deadliest terrorist attack in history, and still the deadliest on British soil – British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher and US President Ronald Reagan united in isolating Libya. They and their successors used Lockerbie as a pretext to press for the adoption of crippling UN sanctions. Indeed, from 1992-1999, Libya was literally cut off from the world: international flights to and from the country were banned. Meanwhile, GNP fell by more than a third; oil infrastructure rusted; and many Libyans grew up in a cocoon of Qaddafi’s anti-imperialist rhetoric.
Eventually, economic sanctions compelled Qaddafi to distance himself from international terror and to turn over Megrahi – as well as another suspect, Lamin Fhima, who was later acquitted – to face a Scottish tribunal at Camp Zeist in Holland. But there was never any conclusive evidence that Megrahi was involved in the Lockerbie bombing. In fact, most experts still believe that he was convicted using fraudulent evidence, and that the CIA bribed witnesses.
Furthermore, Libya formally accepted responsibility for the bombing, agreeing to pay more than $2 billion to victims’ families, and to abandon its weapons of mass destruction program. Yet, despite Qaddafi’s hope for a warmer embrace from Western leaders (and a flood of investment), the relationship remained plagued by mutual suspicion and frequent backsliding.
Anger over Scotland’s decision in 2009 to release Megrahi, who had been diagnosed with terminal cancer, ostensibly on humanitarian grounds, further poisoned Libya’s relations with the West. In Libyan diplomats’ eyes, Western countries had no right to chastise them; after all, they had paid reparations, and it was not their decision to release Megrahi. But skeptics claim that his release was intended to secure a favorable contract in Libya for British Petroleum, and Qaddafi’s erratic behavior, like declaring jihad against Switzerland in 2010, did little to build confidence.
If Megrahi was a powerful symbol of a century of mistrust between Libya and the West, his death can open the door to a new era of cooperation. In today’s Libya, French, American, and British flags abound, and young people dream of mastering a foreign language. Many members of the National Transitional Council were educated abroad and are eager for more Western capacity-building assistance. And Libya has officially requested that the UN monitor its elections next month.
But minor diplomatic breakdowns continue to threaten the relationship. To avoid reverting to old patterns, Western governments and companies must respect that there is a uniquely Libyan way of doing things, and understand that imposing Western norms simply will not work. At the same time, they should avoid grandstanding about Megrahi’s passing, and sensationalist Western media must not try to reinvigorate the controversy. Conversely, Libyans must stop seeing conspiracies behind every move in international diplomacy.
The Lockerbie tragedy is a dark chapter in Libya’s past, which all Libyans are eager to shake off. The West should let them.