The plane broke into four million pieces

Even if not everyone shares the conclusions reached by the investigators - the American FBI and the Dumfries and Galloway police - it is considered an unrivalled reliability model in investigating air accidents, especially since the task was really challenging. The remains of the plane that fell from an altitude of 9,400 meters were scattered over an area of 2,000 square kilometres

A year ago, a man was arrested in the United States. His name is Abu Agila Mohammad Mas'ud Kheir Al-Marimi, but his fancy name is shortened to Abu Agila Masud for media coverage. He is Tunisian but has lived in Libya for many years and had its citizenship. How he ended up in America has not been established. Maybe he was extradited by the Libyan authorities, or maybe kidnapped by US agents?

No one reveals this because the matter is sensitive. Unlike the accusations against Masud because these are of the highest calibre. Masud - as the then US Attorney General William Barr announced in December 2020 when officially formulating the accusations - is the man who constructed the bomb and helped smuggle it onboard the plane. The explosion killed 270 people and was the largest terrorist attack in European history.

There would be nothing strange about Masud's arrest because when committing such a crime if proven, it deserves punishment. Something else is astonishing: 35 years have passed since the crash of the Pan Am plane that fell in the Scottish town of Lockerbie. The persistence with which the American authorities have tried to find the truth for so many years is admirable. Will anyone want to devote so much attention to the Smolensk disaster after 35 years? Just a sad reflection

The prosecutor's office, the police and secret services are looking for the truth about Lockerbie. In addition to the official investigation, a second, private one has been ongoing for years. It is run by Jim Swire, an English doctor who in the disaster lost his eldest daughter Flora. However, the conclusions he reached - and which are shared by many specialists - are in stark contrast to official findings. According to Jim Swire, an innocent man was convicted for the attack. This means that the perpetrators remained unpunished.

Frankfurt - New York, flight 103

"The streets were burning. The remains of the plane were scattered everywhere - pieces of twisted steel. However, two types of feelings remain most vividly in my memory. First, the smell – the sweet smell of jet fuel. Secondly, peace - there was only the crackle of fire, no sirens or screams. It was only at dawn the next day that the enormity of the destruction caused by the plane falling from the sky could be seen - this is how Alan Clements from BBC Scotland described the Lockerbie drama in the Daily Telegraph. He was one of the first journalists to reach the city.

SIGN UP TO OUR PAGE It was December 21, 1988, at 7:03 p.m. Thirty-eight minutes earlier, American Pan Am Boeing 747 Flight 103 to New York had taken off from London Heathrow Airport. The bomb exploded as the plane entered Scottish airspace. The remains of the burning machine, torn apart in flight, fell on Lockerbie. Two hundred forty-three passengers died, most of whom were Americans (179) and British (31), 16 crew members and 11 town residents.

Even if not everyone shares the conclusions reached by the investigators - the American FBI and the local police from Dumfries and Galloway - it is considered an unrivalled reliability model in investigating aircraft accidents, especially since the task was exceptionally difficult given the circumstances. The explosion's force caused the plane's remains - which fell from a height of 9,400 meters - to be scattered over an area of 2,000 square kilometres. It's hard to believe that they managed to explore this entire area and collect everything down to the smallest crumbs - four million pieces in total!
Thanks to this, it was possible to determine precisely that the explosive charge was placed in a brown Samsonite suitcase, in a Toshiba radio cassette recorder wrapped in clothes, and that it was equipped with a time fuse. If the plane had been already flying over the Atlantic at the time of the explosion - and this is believed to have been the perpetrators' intention - it would have saved the inhabitants of Lockerbie. However, such a scenario would make tracking the explosive device difficult or even impossible.

The key question was where and how the bomb was loaded. There were many possibilities for this operation. The plane was flying from Frankfurt; it only had a stopover in London. In Frankfurt, however, the plane boarded the so-called passengers-connected flight from Malta. Therefore, attention was forwarded to that direction. And it was established, among other things, which shop in Malta sold the clothes in question (Tony Gauci, the shop owner, was one of the main prosecution witnesses in the later trial). This led investigators to two Libyan intelligence employees working at a Maltese airport. They were supposed to put the suitcase on the plane to Frankfurt, which then was transferred to the Pan Am machine as a shipment to New York. Let us add that Malta - today an exemplary European Union country - at that time was a faithful ally of Libya and its leader, Muammar Gaddafi.

Everyone had a motive

Only years later, and under the pressure of sanctions imposed on Libya, the authorities in Tripoli decided to extradite both officers. Still, they did not agree to have them tried in Great Britain. After long deliberation, a solution that satisfied all parties was chosen: the trial was carried out on neutral ground, at the Camp Zeist base in the Netherlands, but under Scottish law. Abdelbaset al-Megrahi was sentenced to life imprisonment to be served in Scotland. The Co-defendant, Al-Amin Khalifa Fhimah, was acquitted.

The Libyan trace was not the only one. In the initial phase of the investigation, various possibilities were considered. The main thread was hatred towards America, an essential aspect of Palestinian and generally Middle Eastern terrorism in the 1970s and 1980s. In addition to Libya, investigators considered Iran and Syria due to the type of explosives used.

Libya and Iran had a motive. Both countries wanted to take revenge on America. Libya for American airstrikes on its territory in the spring of 1986. This is how the Americans punished Libya for organising a bomb attack on the La Belle club in West Berlin, where only two American soldiers were killed, but several hundred people were injured. Iran for the so-called "Vincennes" case. An American cruiser of that name that was stationed in the Persian Gulf in the summer of 1988 accidentally shot down an Iranian passenger plane, which was mistaken for an incoming missile. 290 Iranian pilgrims flying to Mecca died.

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Among other clues, let's note the South African thread. Bernt Carlsson, the main negotiator, was flying to New York to sign the agreement on Namibian independence. The issue of Namibia aroused heated emotions and strong resistance in South Africa, and suspicions were strengthened by the fact that the South African delegation that was to travel on this plane changed their reservation to an earlier flight on the same day. Another thread was related to the presence of CIA officers returning from the Middle East, sent there to investigate suspicions that American soldiers were involved in drug trafficking.

Let us add that Iran, Libya and Syria could easily find contractors. All of those three countries had many potential terrorists to choose between, as they sheltered extremist group members of all stripes.

Libya never formally admitted to organising the attack. Nevertheless, the fact that it handed over its citizens and agreed to put them on trial was perceived as a tacit admission of guilt. The payment of considerable compensation was a piece of even stronger evidence. Victims' families received a total of $2.7 billion. Why would Libya incur such costs if it had nothing to do with the attack?

Well, according to experts on the subject, there was a reason. Libya wanted to get out of the isolation it found itself in after the Lockerbie bombing - and there was no other way. The expected economic benefits outweighed the reputational damage, which Colonel Gaddafi was never particularly concerned about.

One mistake after another

Politics - if those who do not believe in Libya's guilt are right, and there are many of them - have become much more involved in this matter than it might have seemed. They claim Libya was accused because the real perpetrator had to be spared for important reasons, and the culprit had to be found to satisfy public opinion expectations. In their speculations, the perpetrator came from Iran. If the American authorities had allowed themselves to accuse Iran directly, they would have issued a death sentence to the American hostages imprisoned in Lebanon at that time.

There are serious names among the doubters. It was primarily the Scottish lawyer Robert Black who invented the formula of a trial on neutral ground. Years later, he expressed regret that this had happened and that he had encouraged the Libyan authorities to hand over Megrahi and Fhimah. There is also the Austrian Hans Köchler, an observer of the trial on behalf of the UN, and - at one time - the late Nobel Prize winner Desmond Tutu.

After the Lockerbie terrorist attack, Jim Swire resigned from his medical practice, became a spokesman for the families of the British victims of the disaster and devoted his life to searching for the truth about the Lockerbie catastrophe. Therefore, he went to the Netherlands to observe the trial at Camp Zeist. He fainted in the courtroom when Megrahi was sentenced to life imprisonment in January 2001. He believed that such a verdict was an insult to justice because it protected the real perpetrators.
Relatives of the victims of the attack came to the District of Columbia courthouse, where Abu Agila Masud's preliminary hearing took place a year ago. Photo MICHAEL REYNOLDS/EPA/PAP
Jim Swire was not the only one to think so. Many lawyers see Megrahi's conviction as a classic miscarriage of justice. Many mistakes were made in conducting the investigation, collecting evidence and presenting the case in court. One of the biggest and most evident flows was to believe the testimony of Gauci, who revealed that he had seen Megrahi's image in a newspaper before he was interrogated, and this, according to experts, makes his account less credible. There was even a piece of circulating information - later denied - that Gauci received remuneration for helping with the investigation. The fact that he lived near Gauci's shop in Malta was taken as evidence against Megrahi - another serious mistake.

However, the cardinal error is related to determining where the suitcase with the bomb landed on the plane. In Frankfurt, says the FBI. Others believe it happened while the plane was parked at Heathrow when passengers' luggage was unattended. The interrogated airport employee testified that after returning from a short break, he noticed a brown suitcase among the luggage, which - he was sure - had not been there before.

Nonsense from beginning to end

Since the suitcase was placed on the plane in London, Megrahi could not have had anything to do with loading it. That's why Jim Swire believed in his innocence from the beginning, visited him in prison, and when in 2009 Megrahi was released - because he had prostate cancer and, according to doctors, had only a few months to live - he also visited him in Tripoli. He also attended the funeral when Megrahi died three years later. "After all" - he explained - "if I had been convinced about his guilt, I would have never done it".

Many family members of the British disaster victims perceive this matter in the same way as Jim Swire. They joined forces long ago in the organisation called Justice for Megrahi. Its work was supported by many people, e.g. former Scottish Police Superintendent Iain McKie, who just like Swire, lost his daughter in the attack. Other people, such as Desmond Tutu, were not personally involved but believed in the triumph of justice.

British families are different from American families in this respect. Americans trust investigators and welcomed Abu Massoud's arrest, and are now seeking to be able to observe the trial, at least remotely.

Jim Swire does not believe that Masud is guilty, as he did not admit anything during his interrogation in America. "It's not him," he stated in a conversation with the journalist of the Daily Telegraph. Now, on the occasion of the 35th anniversary of the tragedy, the newspaper has devoted an extensive report to his private investigation. He added, "What we're being told about Lockerbie is absolute nonsense from beginning to end".

In this reportage, Jim Swire also revealed, for the first time, the words with which Megrahi said goodbye to him before his death: "I'm going where I hope to meet Flora soon. And I will tell her that her father is my friend".

The investigators ignored the testimony of the Heathrow employee, the same as they neglected the information in the calendar of the Egyptian Abu Talba - who was detained in Sweden a few weeks before the attack and was associated with the radical faction of the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine - where a border surrounded December 21. According to Jim Swire and others, Abu Talb could have delivered the bomb at Iran's request.

However, another signal that the American Embassy in Helsinki received at that time was not ignored. An anonymous caller informed by phone that an attack would be carried out on an American plane before Christmas. This information was kept secret from the public, but embassy employees and senior officials were quietly advised to avoid American Airlines.

The huge jumbo jet, flying to New York three days before Christmas, was half empty when planes were always crowded at that time. As a result, Flora Swire easily bought a ticket. Therefore, those who concealed such important information are also to be blamed.

– Teresa Stylińska

TVP WEEKLY. Editorial team and journalists

– Translated by Katarzyna Chocian
Main photo: In the attack over Lockerbie, 243 passengers of the plane, 16 crew members and 11 residents of the town died. Photo PAP/PA
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