Friday 30 November 2018

Lockerbie files: Bombing originally thought to be revenge by Iranian terrorists

[This is the headline over a report in today's edition of The Times. It reads in part:]

At the end of an eight-month trial that heard from 230 witnesses and pored over 621 pieces of evidence it took the presiding judge, Lord Cullen, seconds to announce the verdict. [RB: The presiding judge at the Lockerbie trial was Lord Sutherland. Lord Cullen's first involvement was to preside over the first appeal.]

Abdul Baset Ali al-Megrahi, a Libyan intelligence agent, was unanimously found guilty of the bombing in 1988 which led to the deaths of 270 people when Pan Am’s Flight 103 exploded over Lockerbie. On January 31, 2001, at a specially convened Scottish court in the Netherlands, he was sentenced to life imprisonment. (...)

The verdict was hailed by the White House and Robin Cook, the former foreign secretary, who described the attack as “among the most brutal acts of mass murder” but added “at last those relatives know that in a fair trial, before an open court, justice has been done”.

However, declassified documents seen by The Times reveal that the British and American governments originally believed that the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine-General Command (PFLP-GC), an Iranian-sponsored terrorist group based in Syria, was behind the atrocity, and that Flight 103 had been destroyed in revenge for the US downing an Iranian Airbus with 290 people on board.

Six weeks before the bombing, a West German anti-terrorist operation raided the Syrian terrorist cell, led by Hafez Dalkamoni, a Palestinian militant. It was to prove valuable to the investigation.

On February 6, 1989, Lord Fraser of Carmyllie, Margaret Thatcher’s chief legal officer in Scotland, wrote to Douglas Hurd, the home secretary, saying “Evidence has been obtained which has led to the firm conclusion that the bomb was contained in a radio cassette player of Toshiba make.

“A very similar radio cassette player of the same make was discovered by the German police during an operation last October when they raided a flat in Frankfurt occupied by Hafez Kassem Dalkamoni, who is said to be a member of the PFLP-GC. In that flat, plastic explosives were discovered and in his car the police found a Toshiba radio cassette player containing plastic explosive and sophisticated circuitry.”

On July 26, Lord Fraser went further, telling Hurd: “While there is, as yet, no direct evidence of Dalkamoni’s involvement in the Pan Am 103 bombing there is some information and circumstantial evidence of his complicity in its preparation.”

Dalkamoni was in custody at the time of the Lockerbie bombing but one of the five known Toshiba devices created by his cell has never been recovered. He was jailed in Germany, for separate terrorist offences, before being extradited to Syria in 1995.

A secret Ministry of Defence (MoD) briefing paper stated: “Those with the closest interests were the PFLP-GC.”

Some months earlier, on March 29, 1989, details of a meeting with Brent Scowcroft, the US national security adviser, and Lawrence Eagleburger, the deputy US secretary of state, were sent to the UK. It was noted: “Neither Eagleburger nor Scowcroft ruled out action against PFLP-GC bases. I urged them to keep in touch with us before developing ideas too strongly and Scowcroft agreed to do so.”

On May 29, an MoD document detailed the reports of a discussion with Alvin P Adams Jr, deputy director for counterterrorism at the US State Department, noting: “Adams indicated that there were a number of people in Washington who firmly believed that the Iranians had inspired the attack on Pan Am 103 and who wanted action taken against them.

“It was argued that the Iranians knew that they were responsible and that they knew that the Americans had a shrewd idea that this was the case.

“The possibility of military action against the Iranians should not be excluded. For example, a strike against the Iranian navy would have a significant effect on their capabilities.” It noted that Mr Adams also wanted measures to be taken against Syria but cautioned that he reflected “the more hawkish wing of opinion in Washington”.

A letter sent on behalf of William Waldegrave, a Foreign Office minister, hoped America could be persuaded to resist launching reprisals for Lockerbie. It suggested the European view was that Iran had acted in revenge for an “unjustified US attack”.

After the raids in 1988 the West German authorities had warned the British and Americans that radio cassettes could be used to blow up passenger planes. Tom King, the defence minister, feared this would be highlighted if the government agreed to a public inquiry,

In a letter he wrote: “The terms of reference would need to be drawn up with extreme care, so as to avoid the risk of classified matters of high sensitivity becoming disclosed publicly.”

John Major, the foreign secretary who would succeed Mrs Thatcher as prime minister within months, also privately lobbied against a public investigation into the disaster.

The Americans later discounted the Iranian/PFLP-GC connection and instead focused on Libya, whose leader, Colonel Gaddafi, was unabashed over his financial support for global terrorist groups, including the IRA.

The suggestion that the need for a new suspect was prompted by the Iraqi invasion of Kuwait and subsequent Gulf War, which required the tacit compliance of Iran and Syria, has been strongly rejected by successive British and US administrations.

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