Wednesday, 28 October 2015

Libya, Iran and the riddle of Lockerbie

[This is the headline over an article published yesterday on the Libya Business Info website.  It reads as follows:]

The evening of the 21st December 1988 was thick with gloom and chill. At London’s Heathrow airport, a myriad of humanity meandered and milled around the terminals. It was the holiday season, and the cosmopolitan crowds coursing through Heathrow were heading home. The mostly American passengers on Pan Am Flight 103 boarded their 747 and settled into their seats, expecting that in six or so hours’ time their jet would be kissing the tarmac in New York. Surely, as the plane gently pushed back from its gate, no one on board would have guessed that within the next hour, all on board would be dead.

As the twenty-seventh anniversary of the Lockerbie disaster approaches, the official story of events remains embroiled in doubt and disbelief. The Libyan Abdelbaset al-Megrahi, who died maintaining his innocence, was sentenced to life imprisonment in 2001, after being found guilty of planting the suitcase bomb that detonated above the Scottish borders. Allegedly enacted on the orders of Muammar Gaddafi, the Lockerbie bombing has been touted as an act of revenge for US actions in Libya during the 1980s. A succession of tit-for-tat events occurred throughout the decade, including the Libyan-sponsored bombing of a West German nightclub frequented by US servicemen and the American backing of Chadian troops against Libyan militias, which culminated in the former’s capture of the Aouzou Strip.

The support offered to Chad by the US lingered on Gaddafi’s mind, already soaked with anti-Western, anti-imperialist vitriol. Certainly, the notion that the maverick North African leader, with his support for terrorist groups across the globe, could have ordered the bombing of an American airliner in the run up to Christmas. In fact in 2011, in the midst of the Libyan Civil War, the former Libyan Justice Minister claimed he held proof that Gaddafi had personally ordered the bombing (to date, however, he has not released it).

Last week saw the first real developments in the Lockerbie narrative since the trial some fifteen years ago. Scottish and American investigators released the identities of two Libyans wanted for questioning. Mohammed Abouajela Masud and Abdullah al-Senussi are suspected of having acted with al-Megrahi, and like that man, both held positions of power in Gaddafi’s regime. Senussi was Gaddafi’s brother-in-law, and is currently in jail awaiting execution, whilst Masud is serving a sentence for bomb-making. Documentation from the initial investigation places both men in the same circles as Megrahi, and Masud was apparently in Malta at the same time as he was. This is very relevant, as the testimony of one Tony Gauci, a Maltese shopkeeper, identified Megrahi as the man who purchased clothing from his establishment that was later found in the suitcase the bomb had been planted in: it is thought that the bomb entered the air freight system at Malta’s Luqa airport, with the help of Libyan Arab Airlines’ station controller there.

This news is pivotal for more than just the fact that two men, who may very well have been connected with the deaths of two-hundred and seventy people, have been identified and are now wanted for questioning. For some time, there has been scepticism about who is really behind Lockerbie. The people holding these views are not just run of the mill conspiracy theorists, who refute official government explanations as a modus operandi. Rather, some relatives of the deceased have stated that they do not believe Megrahi was behind the atrocity, and there are doubts over whether Libya was the ultimate perpetrator: some point to Iran as the true instigator of the attack.

In July this year, high court judges in Edinburgh ruled against an appeal launched by twenty-six British relatives of victims who, alongside the Megrahi family, believed that a miscarriage of justice had been carried out in his conviction. Senior Scottish prosecutors have held up their judgement of Megrahi’s guilt, and American victims have supported this decision. Previous appeals, in particular one held in 2007 after a four-year review of the original trial, outlined some of the main contentions with the verdict. Amongst them, Gauci was purportedly paid some $2million to provide testimony against Megrahi; the withholding of vital documents relating to the Mebo (a Swiss firm) timer that was supposed to have detonated the bomb and the fact that the head of the company was apparently offered a $4million bribe by the FBI to testify that the timer debris belonged to a device supplied to Libya; and finally the fact a Mebo employee swore he had stolen a timer and backhandedly supplied it to Lockerbie investigators the year after the bombing. All in all, some decide that Megrahi, and perhaps Libya, were scapegoats.

Those who hold such opinions lean toward Iran as the masterminds of the attack. Two years before Lockerbie, the USS Vincennes, an American warship, shot down an Iran Air flight from Tehran to Dubai, killing all on board. This was doubtless an atrocity also, especially considering the aircraft was in Iranian airspace, over Iranian waters and following its standard flight path. Many journalists, and (possibly) even Margaret Thatcher, thought the Iranian revenge motive more plausible than the Libyan slake for blood following the aforementioned tensions with the USA. Potential further evidence came in the form of the former head of Iranian intelligence in Europe, whom, upon defecting to Germany, elaborated that his former country had contracted Libya and a Palestinian guerrilla to carry out the attack.

The waters of international affairs are some of the murkiest, and no one would be surprised to learn of political manoeuvring on behalf of the US to paint perceived hostile nations as responsible for atrocities. Certainly, there is more to this story than meets the eye, although if Iran had ultimately ordered the attacks, questions remain as to why the investigators never followed that path when that country’s government was an obvious suspect. Regardless, the naming of two new suspects may present new hope for the families of the victims in pinpointing who exactly is to blame for the murder of their loved ones. One can only hope, in the current Libyan climate, those two men can be reached and give their testimonies. It could change the face of the investigation after all these years of scepticism.


  1. "Two years before Lockerbie, the USS Vincennes, an American warship, shot down an Iran Air flight from Tehran to Dubai, killing all on board". Two years? How about five and a half months.. The second sentence in para 3 also makes no sense grammatically.

  2. For a long time journalists have just re-written other journalists' pieces about this, with added errors. "New" information (like the SCCRC findings, the metallurgy discrepancy on PT/35b and the Heathrow introduction) seldom find their way into this closed shop.