Lockerbie 32 years on: imperialism, framings and cover-ups

Just before Christmas, outgoing US Attorney General Bill Barr announced additional charges relating to the bombing of Pan Am Flight 103 over Lockerbie in 1988. This announcement is clearly politically motivated, and is symbolic of how the entire investigation has been focused on imperialist interests, rather than a genuine desire to bring the perpetrators to justice.


On 21 December, exactly 32 years on from the Lockerbie bombing, it was announced that Abu Agila Masud, the man accused of building the bomb, would face charges in the US. The timing was extremely suspect, given that US Attorney General Bill Barr would be leaving office only days later. It drew criticism from some of the families of the victims, who believed that it was timed to give maximum political benefit, while deflecting away from a day to remember those lost.

The case against Masud relies on a ‘confession’ obtained eight years ago, while in prison in Libya. The confession has numerous flaws and contradictions, and the case against Abdelbaset al-Megrahi, the only person ever convicted of involvement in the bombing, has never been weaker. Given this, and the fact that the original investigation uncovered strong evidence of the actual perpetrators, it is not difficult to see how the sole focus has been defending imperialist interests, rather than seeking to gain justice for the victims and their families.

The bombing

The attack took place on the evening of 21 December 1988. Pan Am Flight 103, which was flying the London to New York leg of a Frankfurt to Detroit route, suddenly broke up in mid-air following an explosion in the hold. All 259 passengers and crew died. 11 residents of the Scottish town of Lockerbie were also killed when part of the aircraft fell on a residential street and destroyed several houses. With 270 dead, it remains the deadliest act of terrorism committed in British history.

The bombing, and its effects, were no doubt shocking. But it would not have come as a surprise to US security services. Just over two weeks before the attack, an anonymous caller had contacted the US embassy in Helsinki, claiming that a Pan Am flight from Frankfurt to the US would be bombed in the next two weeks. Likewise, numerous other (less specific) warnings were issued to the US that Pan Am aircraft in Europe would be targeted. These warnings all had one factor in common – they were issued by people claiming to be linked to Palestinian nationalist groups.

PFLP-GC involvement

Lockcassette Image MaltesedogThe legal proceedings around Lockerbie have been clearly driven by political interests rather than the pursuit of justice / Image: Maltesedog

Forensic investigations into the wreckage of Flight 103 found that the bomb had been hidden in a Toshiba radio-cassette player and had been wrapped in clothing, which was traced to a shop in Malta. This, along with the warnings mentioned above, pointed the finger in one direction: the Syria-based Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine – General Command (PFLP-GC), which had close ties to the Syrian government.

A terrorist cell linked to the PFLP-GC in Frankfurt had been under surveillance by West German police, during which time they were seen monitoring Pan Am facilities at Frankfurt Airport. When several were arrested eight weeks before the attack, they were in possession of a bomb hidden in a Toshiba radio-cassette player. Months later, the cell’s bomb-maker, Marwan Khreesat, admitted that he had built another four similar devices. Three were later recovered, but one was never found. Given this evidence, it is not a surprise that the investigators strongly suspected that the missing device had been the one that brought down Flight 103.

Additionally, Abu Talb, who had links with the PFLP-GC and would later be jailed for terrorism offences in Sweden, was arrested for unrelated offences in 1989. In his apartment, a 1988 calendar was found with the date 21 December circled, along with Maltese clothing. The Maltese shopkeeper, Tony Gauci, would initially identify Talb as being the man who bought the clothing that was wrapped around the Flight 103 bomb.

It has been widely suggested that the PFLP-GC were probably acting on behalf of the Iranian government, carrying out the bombing as revenge for the shooting down of Iran Air Flight 655 in July 1988 by the US military, who claimed they had mistaken it for a military aircraft.

The sudden switch to Libya

To the amazement of many, three years later it was announced that Libyan intelligence officers Abdelbaset al-Megrahi and Lamin Khalifah Fhimah would be charged with the attack. It was declared that the evidence pointing to the PFLP-GC was totally coincidental, and that those within the Libyan secret service had acted alone. Even Vincent Cannistraro, the former head of counter terrorism at the CIA who led the investigation for the first year, spoke out on how absurd and ridiculous this claim is.

Although it would be over eight years before Libya leader Muammar Gaddafi handed Megrahi and Fhimah over for trial, it would be at this point that the political-motivated nature of the case became clear. The case against Megrahi was very flimsy before the trial, and was virtually non-existent against Fhimah. However, as the trial progressed, it became farcical.

The only direct evidence against Megrahi and Fhimah was the witness evidence of Abdulmajid Gialka, who worked alongside Megrahi but was a double agent for the CIA. It was revealed that he had already received $320,000 from the CIA, and stood to receive up to $4 million if the pair were convicted. In the end, his evidence at the trial was so full of holes, contradictions, and downright lies that the Scottish judges were forced to reject his entire evidence as “not credible and reliable”.

The pattern of unreliable witnesses being rewarded with financial incentives continued. Edwin Bollier, the owner of a Swiss company that supplied timer devices, was asked to identify the remains of a timer device as being one exclusively sold to Libya. Bollier stated that the timer had not exclusively been sold to Libya, and that the one shown to him in court was different to the one that had been shown on TV by the FBI, which itself was one that had never been supplied to Libya. Finally, he claimed that the timer fragments shown in court could not have been attached to a bomb, as they had no traces of solder. Like other witnesses, Bollier said that he had been offered $4 million if he gave evidence that supported the prosecution’s case. An employee of Bollier’s, Ulrich Lumpert, would later admit to stealing one of the timers and giving it to the Lockerbie investigators.

Finally, and perhaps most farcically, the previously mentioned shopkeeper Tony Gauci would give an extremely weak identification of Megrahi as the purchaser of the clothes from the suitcase. Aside from the fact that he initially gave a description that did not match Megrahi (over 6-foot-tall and around 50 years of age, when Megrahi was extremely short and in his mid-30s in 1988), he also failed to identify Megrahi 19 times when shown pictures by investigators. In the court, he was asked five times whether the person he sold the clothes to was in the room. In the end, when Megrahi was pointed out to him, he simply said that he bore a resemblance to the man who bought the clothing! There were other serious flaws in Gauci’s evidence, including claiming that he remembered selling the clothes due to heavy rain at the time, when it did not rain on the only day that Megrahi could have bought them. Again, Gauci would receive a $1 million reward for his evidence.

The fact that Megrahi flew from Malta back to Tripoli on the day of the bombing also presented a problem. This was ‘solved’ by saying the suitcase must have been put on another flight to Frankfurt unaccompanied. The fact that it couldn’t be shown how and when this happened, nor why every bag on the only possibly connecting flight had been traced and accounted for, was simply dismissed by the Scottish judges.

Imperialist interests

          The true perpetrators of this attack will probably never be known. And the real culprit for all terrorism – capitalism and the rot and violence it fosters – will not be tried by a bourgeois court / Image: Chris Upton

Despite the non-existent case and the farcical trial, Megrahi was convicted of the bombing. Fhimah was acquitted as it was accepted that he had an alibi, so couldn’t have been at Malta Airport on the day of the bombing. The fact that this wasn’t discovered during the ‘investigation’ is surely an indication of how in-depth it was! Many have spoken out on the verdict, including some of the families of the victims, who strongly believe in Megrahi’s innocence. Even Professor Robert Black, the Scottish legal academic who drafted the legal change to allow the trial to take place in the Netherlands, has declared Megrahi’s conviction to be “the most disgraceful miscarriage of justice in Scotland for 100 years”.

The United Nations observer at the trial, Professor Hans Köchler, also attacked the verdict. Köchler surprisingly identified the real reasons behind it – power politics in the Middle East and North Africa. 

At the beginning of the investigation, it probably was the case that pointing the blame at the PFLP-GC, and by extension the Iranian and Syrian governments, would have fit with the imperialist interests of the US and UK. By 1990, with Iraq’s invasion of Kuwait sparking the Gulf War and threatening Western capitalist interests, a significant shift in loyalties had occurred. Iran and Syria became necessary and important allies against Saddam Hussein, so blaming a major terror attack on a group linked to them would have done little to ensure their loyalty. 

Meanwhile, relationships between the West and Gaddafi’s regime had always been frosty due to Gaddafi’s refusal to open up Libya for imperialist exploitation. Accusing Libya of the Lockerbie bombing gave the US the cover to impose economic sanctions on the grounds of combatting terrorism, which in reality was economic blackmail to force Gaddafi to carry out counter reforms and privatisations, while opening up Libya’s oil fields to multinational corporations.

Even after the trial, the ulterior motives were still on show. Nine years into his prison sentence, Megrahi was diagnosed with prostate cancer, which was found to be terminal. Given around 18 months to live, the Scottish and UK governments initially refused to release him. Eventually, Megrahi was released on compassionate grounds and returned to Libya, where he would die in 2012, just under three years after his release. With a release for someone serving a sentence for such a serious crime being unusual, along with it being agreed at the same time as numerous oil deals with the Libyan government, it was fairly clear that the two were connected. Despite this being denied by both the Scottish and UK governments, oil multinational BP would later admit to extensive lobbying to ensure the release of Libyan prisoners, including Megrahi, to avoid Gaddafi potentially pulling the plug and threatening their commercial interests.

Masud’s charge and the fight for justice

The recent charges against Abu Agila Masud rely on a confession made by him. He claims that Megrahi and Fhimah had approached him with the bomb and asked him to fit a timer to it, while giving him $500 to buy clothes to put in the suitcase with it. He then admitted to meeting them both at Malta Airport on the day of the bombing, and watching them load the case onto the baggage belt. There are two obvious problems with this confession. The first is the finding of the Scottish court that Fhimah had an alibi so couldn’t have been at Malta Airport. The second is that the entire prosecution case against Megrahi was that he was the one who had bought the clothes, yet Masud is ‘confessing’ to buying them.

With Gaddafi dead since 2011, and the current Libyan government being a US ally, this announcement does not seem to be motivated by similar interests. It should be noted, however, that a posthumous appeal against Megrahi’s conviction has just concluded in the Scottish courts, with the judgment expected to be handed down soon. Although it is far from certain that the conviction will be overturned, despite the overwhelming evidence of Megrahi’s innocence, it is entirely possible that this announcement is an attempt to ‘save face’ on the part of the US government should this occur. 

Whatever the motivation of the latest announcement, it is clear that the Lockerbie investigation has been solely motivated by imperialist interests. Fighting terrorism is at best secondary, and the US and UK governments are more than happy to align with any reactionary force should it suit their interests. This can still be seen today, with Saudi Arabia being seen as a Western ally despite its proven links to terrorist groups.

It is likely that the truth about those responsible for the shocking attack on Flight 103 will never be known. Certainly, the real causes of the attack will not be raised in any trial. Namely, imperialist wars and the capitalist system that causes them. Terrorism will ultimately not be defeated in the courts, but by the destruction of the system that causes the poverty and misery, which creates its breeding ground.