Saturday, 19 October 2019

Far from a final answer

[On the occasion Syracuse University's annual Week of Remembrance for its 35 students who died in the Pan Am 103 tragedy, the website of central New York State's Spectrum News has published a long article on the Lockerbie disaster. The following are excerpts:]

Soon after the bombing, police and military fanned out on foot. They’d eventually scour hundreds of square miles.

It was the largest murder investigation in British history. In the end, it all came down to a piece of evidence so tiny it would fit on a fingertip.

After initially focusing on a possible Iranian connection, more attention was turning to Libya and its leader, Moamar Qaddafi. The pattern of Libyan action and US response had been building throughout the 1980s.

In 1989, investigators in Scotland discovered some clothing fragments. Embedded in them was a tiny piece of what had been a circuit board commanding a timer that set off the explosion aboard Pan Am 103. It was a brand of timer sold to Libya.

Forensics experts traced the clothing to a shop in the island nation of Malta. The owner of the shop identified the man who had purchased the clothes. He turned out to be a low-level operative in Libyan intelligence named Abdel Basset al-Megrahi.

A second Libyan charged was Khalifa Fhima, a former official of Libyan airlines at Malta’s Luqa Airport. (...)

It took years and tough United Nations sanctions, but Libya’s government eventually handed over al-Megrahi and Fhima for an unusual trial.

“I wanted to kill them. If I could have gone and sat there with an Uzi, I would have shot them dead on the spot,” said Susan Cohen, the mother of a Flight 103 victim. “No regrets, even if I got shot for it. And you want to know something? I still feel the same way.”

When the final verdict came 12 years after the bombing, the three-judge Scottish panel found al-Megrahi guilty and acquitted Fhima. Al-Megrahi would be handed a life sentence in Scottish prison. (...)

In 2015, the BBC reported that the Scottish government had named two new suspects, both reportedly behind bars in Libya at the time. Abdullah al-Senussi is the former Libyan intelligence chief under Gaddafi. Mohammed Abouajela Masud is a suspected bomb maker. Tracking them has been a challenge. (...)

But not everyone is convinced they’re on the right trail. Over the years, an entirely different theory has emerged about whom, and which country, were responsible.

In July 1988, a US warship came under attack by Iranian gunboats in the Persian Gulf. In the midst of the confrontation, the crew aboard the USS Vincennes spotted what it believed to be an approaching Iranian fighter jet closing in on their position. The US response was lethal.

It wasn’t long before the Vincennes crew realized they had made a tragic mistake. It was not an Iranian fighter jet, but an Iranian passenger jet — with 290 people onboard.

There was a quick promise of Iranian revenge.

In the months to come, intelligence agencies would report a series of meetings, organized by a leading Iranian government radical named Ali Akbar Mohtashami-Pur. Among those in attendance was Ahmed Jibril, leader of a splinter Palestinian group known as the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine-General Command (PFLP-GC). Jibril was a close ally of Syrian President Hafez Assad.

Jibril's deputy was Hafez Dalkamoni, a man being closely watched by German police. Police knew of a plot to bomb aircraft flying out of Frankfurt. When they made their move, Dalkamoni and several others were arrested. Weapons were found, including a bomb hidden in a radio cassette player. There were indications that five bombs were produced. Only four are recovered.

A man with close ties to the PLFP-GC was Mohammed Abu Talb. Talb had visited Frankfurt and was later spotted in Malta, shortly before the Lockerbie bombing. At his home, police later found a calendar with the date — December 21, 1988 — circled.

Did Iran pay the PFLP-GC to exact its revenge? An airliner for airliner? (...)

The man who headed the Scottish side of the case against Libya says it’s possible the Libyan agents, knowing of the Frankfurt arrests, may have used details of that plot to cover their own moves, including housing the bomb in a Toshiba cassette player.

Relatives of those who died in Lockerbie sense that the case against the two Libyans was far from a final answer.

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