Tuesday 29 August 2017

Abu Nidal and Pan Am 103

[What follows is the text of an article published on the website of Al-Ahram Weekly on this date in 2002:]

Abu Nidal is reported to have said that his organisation was behind the Lockerbie bombing. The news emerged after a series of interviews with Atef Abu Bakr, a one-time aide to the terrorist mastermind, published by the Arabic-language Al-Hayat newspaper last week. Abu Nidal was found dead in Baghdad last week. In 1988, Pan Am Flight 103 was blown up over Lockerbie, Scotland, killing 270 people.

Abu Bakr is a former spokesman for the group and was one of Abu Nidal's closest aides between 1985 and 1989. He subsequently split with him over management of the organisation. "Abu Nidal said during an inner-circle meeting of the leadership of the Revolutionary Council, 'I will tell you something very important and serious, the reports which link the Lockerbie act to others are false reports. We are behind what happened,"' Abu Bakr was quoted by the newspaper as saying.

Abu Nidal's organisation has been blamed for many terrorist attacks in the 70s and 80s, in which hundreds were killed or wounded.

Abu Nidal set up his organisation's headquarters in the Libyan capital, Tripoli, in 1987. He was put under house arrest when the Libyan leader, Muammar Gaddafi, came under pressure to crack down on militants after the Lockerbie bombing.

Abu Bakr's statements are shocking because, if true, they jeopardise the verdict given by a Scottish court, in the Netherlands, which sentenced Libyan Abdel-Basset Al-Megrahi to life in prison in 2000. Another Libyan suspect, Lamine Khalifa [Fhimah], was acquitted. In March this year, a Scottish appeals court upheld the murder conviction of Al- Megrahi.

Commenting on the new revelations, Tam Dalyell, the longest serving member of Britain's parliament, called on the government to investigate Abu Bakr's allegations "as a matter of the utmost urgency". He said that "if these allegations are true they blow everything relating to Lockerbie out of the water, including the trial in Holland."

If Abu Bakr's statements prove to be true, they would also demonstrate the unfairness of sanctions imposed on Libya, in 1992, for its failure to hand over its two suspects. The United Nations, supported by the US and Britain, imposed sanctions on air travel and arms sales to Libya in 1992. The sanctions were suspended, but not lifted, in 1999, when Gaddafi handed over Al-Megrahi and Khalifa.

Abu Bakr's accounts were surprising but not new. After the bombing took place on 21 December 1988, the US State Department said that an unidentified person had telephoned the US Embassy in Helsinki, Finland, on 5 December, saying there would be a bombing attempt within two weeks against a Pan Am aircraft flying from Frankfurt to the United States. The caller claimed to belong to the Abu Nidal group, the State Department said at the time.

Also in 1995, Youssef Shaaban, a Palestinian member of Abu Nidal's group confessed responsibility for the bombing before judicial authorities in Lebanon, where he stood trial for the assassination of a Jordanian diplomat in Beirut.

However, Shaaban's words were not taken seriously. The investigating magistrates did not document his confession. The US and Britain reacted by saying that they had clear evidence against the Libyan suspects. Even the Libyan suspects' defence team never made use of Shaaban's statements or the State Department's Helsinki evidence.

British MP, Dalyell, has long argued that the Libyans were not behind the attack and that it was carried out by Abu Nidal.

Accordingly, relatives of the Lockerbie victims have renewed their calls on Friday for an independent inquiry into the attack.

Indeed, many of the relatives and legal observers who attended the trial, echoed their dissatisfaction with its outcome. They claim that many questions remain unanswered.

Jim Swire, a spokesman for the families of British victims, said the reports bolstered calls for an independent inquiry into the bombing, lapses in airport security and why Britain had not acted on warnings that an attack might occur.

Swire added that Palestinian militant Abu Nidal's possible involvement was "one more of the many questions which we feel absolutely demand an independent inquiry into Lockerbie". Swire, whose daughter Flora was killed in the bombing, has long demanded an independent inquiry into Lockerbie to uncover how much British intelligence services knew about the attacks.

"We certainly have part, or all, of at least eight intelligence warnings, all of which were received in good time, some of them incredibly detailed. I think we have a right to know why these didn't lead to any form of special protection for our loved ones," he said.

The same view was echoed by Hans Koechler, one of five UN observers who followed the trial as part of the deal with Libya. He believes that Abu Bakr's comments underline the urgency of calls he has made for an independent public inquiry into the entire Lockerbie case.

"The fact that Libya had hired a defence team that grossly neglected its professional duties and chose not to use most of the legal means available to Al-Megrahi's defence requires an explanation," Koechler said in a statement released in Vienna this week.

Koechler also criticised the legal proceedings and documented his remarks. He argued in his report that in the aftermath of the original verdict, the trial did not proceed fairly and was not conducted in an objective manner.

Ibrahim Legwell, former head of the Libyan consortium of jurists, acknowledged the poor performance of the defence team. However, he urged them not to ignore the new evidence. "Al- Megrahi's defence team should investigate claims [by any member of Abu Nidal's group]. If they find new evidence they should demand that the Scottish crown refer the case to the Scottish case review commission."

However, Al-Megrahi's lawyer, Eddie MacKechnie, has a different view. He said he was applying to the European Court of Human Rights to challenge Al-Megrahi's life sentence.

According to him, the allegations about Abu Nidal's involvement offered little new evidence for his client's legal battle.

"I'm not aware of there being any usable evidence arising from this second-hand confession, although I do know that Abu Nidal was thought to have links to the Lockerbie bombing right from the very beginning," MacKechnie said.

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