Mass Murder Over Scotland
people died when Pan Am 103 was blown out of the sky over Lockerbie, Scotland
on December 21, 1988. It was the worst-ever act of airline terrorism against the
United States. It's also been called the world's biggest unsolved murder.
Finally, after 11 years of investigation, political stalemate, and legal delays, two Libyan men prepare to face trial for the Lockerbie bombing starting May 3, 2000, in the Netherlands.
But many observers - including legal and law enforcement officials close to the case - say the trial may not produce a satisfying answer to the question of who bombed Pan Am 103.
In this special report, journalists Ian Ferguson and John Biewen of American RadioWorks explore the case against the Libyans - its strengths and weaknesses.
They also examine the evidence against other suspects, most notably the Iranian government and a terrorist group based in Syria. Some experts, and people who lost loves ones on Pan Am 103, question whether the most likely culprits are going on trial.
Pan Am 103 climbed into the dark English sky at 6:25 in the evening on December 21, 1988. It headed northwest from London's Heathrow Airport toward Scotland and the North Sea and, ultimately, scheduled destinations in New York and Detroit. The Jumbo Jet carried 259 passengers and crew. The majority were Americans, many of them returning for holiday gatherings with family and friends. But just 38 minutes into the flight, as the 747 cruised at 31,000 feet over the border from England into Scotland, something in the cargo hold exploded. It blew a hole the size of a large dinner plate in the airliner's skin. The loss of air pressure caused a powerful rush that broke the plane to pieces. Six miles below, in the Scottish border town of Lockerbie, a woman looked up at the sky.
"There was this absolutely massive sort of red glow in the sky that went firstly upwards and then out," the woman told a TV interviewer later that night. "We thought it was some sort of, like, nuclear explosion."
But then things began to fall like violent rain from some nightmare: airplane parts, suitcases and their contents, packages gift-wrapped for the holidays. Tons and tons of aviation fuel. And people.
In one Lockerbie neighborhood, a 60-foot section of fuselage, with 60 bodies inside, landed between two rows of houses, miraculously missing them all. Across town a jet engine the size of a small truck landed like a small meteor in the parking lot of an apartment building, leaving a crater but injuring no one. Bodies rained on a golf course. Amid the near-misses, one tragic strike: a wing of the 747 fell directly on three houses, creating a fireball that burned so hot it vaporized the homes and the eleven people inside them.
270 dead, and at least that many families devastated by the loss of loved ones. 189 of the victims were Americans - more than died later in the 1994 Oklahoma City bombing.
"You are, you know, permanently changed in some ways," says Paul Hudson, a New York lawyer whose 16-year-old daughter, Melina, died on Pan Am 103. Melina was a high-school exchange student on her way home from Exeter. For her father, as for many other victims of the Pan Am bombing, Lockerbie became an obsession. Paul Hudson now runs the Aviation Consumer Action Project, a non-profit group devoted to improving airline safety and security.
Across the Atlantic, in the English Midlands, parents of another young victim were equally devastated. Flora Swire was a gifted and vivacious 23-year-old medical student flying to New York to visit her American boyfriend when she died on Pan Am 103. "We would like to know before we die the background and the reason and who did this terrible crime," says Flora's mother, Jane Swire.
Mrs. Swire is a soft-spoken woman who gives few interviews, but her husband Jim has waged an 11-year public campaign to keep Lockerbie in the public eye and bring the bombers to justice. Swire recently left his medical practice in order to attend the trial in the Netherlands full-time.
"It's like, for us, any other murder would be," he says. "Somebody has murdered our daughter. Brutally, premeditated murder, a horrible death. Can you imagine being hurled into the sub-zero, dark skies over Lockerbie, with a gale raging ...? Someone should be brought to justice for that."
At Last, a Trial
Many families of Pan Am 103 victims hope justice is finally coming. The trial of two alleged members of the Libyan Intelligence Service is scheduled to start in May, 2000. The defendants, Abdelbaset al-Megrahi and Al Amin Khalifa Fhimah, are in custody at a former US air base in the Netherlands. The unusual plan to hold the trial in a neutral country was agreed to last year by Scotland, the US, and Libyan leader Muammar Qadhafi. The trial will be held in Holland but under Scottish law before a panel of three Scottish judges. The defendants insist they're innocent.
The investigation that produced the charges against the Libyans was a joint effort by British and American authorities. Current government officials in the two countries won't discuss Lockerbie; British law forbids public discussion of a pending criminal case, and the US Justice Department says the indictment of the two Libyans speaks for itself. Several former investigators who worked on the case say the evidence against the Libyans is solid.
"I believe it is an absolutely airtight case," says former FBI Assistant Director Oliver "Buck" Revell, who oversaw that agency's Lockerbie investigation until 1991. "The panel of judges will clearly see that the evidence is compelling and overwhelming and could only lead to one conclusion."
The conclusion, according to the indictment: that on the morning of December 21, 1988, the two Libyans entered Luqa airport on the Mediterranean island of Malta. They placed a brown Samsonite suitcase, with a bomb hidden inside, on an Air Malta jet bound for Frankfurt. That suitcase was then transferred to Pan Am flights in Frankfurt and London before blowing up over Lockerbie. Libyan leader Qadhafi is not named in the indictment, but former investigators say they believe he personally ordered the bombing of Pan Am 103.
"There's a lot of evidence, as well as intelligence ... which indicates that the regime was involved," says David Shayler, who headed the Libya Desk for Britain's intelligence service, MI5, in the mid-1990s. Qadhafi's motive, according to Shayler: revenge. In April, 1986, two-and-a-half years before the downing of Pan Am 103, US warplanes bombed Libya's two largest cities, Tripoli and Benghazi, to punish Qadhafi for alleged terrorist attacks in Europe. An estimated 100 Libyans died in the attack, including Qadhafi's 2-year-old adopted daughter.
Among law enforcement and legal experts who've looked closely at the Lockerbie case, there's an array of skeptics who question that the Libyans are the real culprits, or the most important ones. Those skeptics include several of the United Kingdom's top legal experts, and the Maltese and German governments. Malta and Germany are the other two countries where the bomb that destroyed Pan Am 103 allegedly traveled before blowing up over Britain. Neither government subscribes to the charge against the Libyans.
Another prominent skeptic is Noel Koch, who headed anti-terrorism efforts for the US Defense Department from 1981 to 1986 and still works on contract for the US State Department as an anti-terrorism expert. "It was decided by the two governments, by the United States and the United Kingdom, that Libya had been responsible for the bombing of Pan Am 103," Koch says. "I have never believed that, and I don't believe the case will stand against the Libyans."
The real bombers, in Koch's view? "My own conviction from the outset was that the Syrians and Iranians were pre-eminently responsible for this."
Back in the early years of the Lockerbie case, British and American investigators seemed to share that conviction. In 1989 and 1990, Lockerbie investigators were talking with near-certainty, not about a Libyan plot, but one by another set of suspects: the Iranian government headed by Ayatollah Khomeini, and a Syria-based terrorist organization headed by a notorious terrorist named Ahmed Jibril.
The Early Suspects: Iran and Syrian Terrorists
Because Pan Am 103 blew up over British soil, and the jet and most of its passengers were American, the United Kingdom and United States teamed up to lead the enormous international investigation - arguably the largest criminal investigation in history. Those on the ground in Scotland faced a huge and painstaking job: gathering and sorting tons of potential evidence scattered by the explosion and the wind across more than 800 square miles of countryside.
While Scottish police launched into that task, early suspicion focused on one radically anti-American government: Iran. Officials thought it likely that the government of Ayatollah Khomeini had sponsored the bombing, and that Ahmed Jibril and his Syria-based terrorist organization, the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine - General Command (PFLP-GC), had carried it out.
The evidence for that scenario did seem compelling, starting with a fresh motive, and a direct threat less than six months before the destruction of Pan Am 103. During a tense skirmish with Iranian gunboats in the Persian Gulf, the navy cruiser USS Vincennes shot down an Iranian passenger jet, which was carrying pilgrims to Mecca. 290 Iranians died. The US military insisted the shoot-down was a tragic mistake. But Iran's Islamic fundamentalist leaders promised to "retaliate to the maximum," and to "avenge the blood of our martyrs."
And the Ayatollah's government meant it, according to former intelligence officials. Top figures in the Iranian government held a series of meetings in Beirut with leaders of Ahmed Jibril's terror group, the PFLP-GC, says Vincent Cannistraro, the CIA's chief of counter-terrorism at the time. "There was a conclusion made in the intelligence community that the Iranians were intending to sponsor the PFLP-GC's operations to attack American targets as part of a revenge operation," Cannistraro says.
Following its meetings with Iranian officials, Cannistraro says, the PFLP-GC set up a bomb-making operation centered in the West German town of Neuss. But the West German government was watching. In October, 1988, two months before Pan Am 103 exploded, the German federal police launched what they called Operation Autumn Leaves: they raided more than a dozen homes and businesses, rounding up seventeen men, including several high-ranking associates of PFLP-GC leader Ahmed Jibril.
They also found Semtex plastic explosive and a barometric detonator designed to go off at high altitude ó an airplane bomb. It was packed in a Toshiba cassette recorder called a Bombeat. The man who allegedly built the bomb had been surveilled carrying a brown Samsonite suitcase, according to West German police documents. Police jailed two leaders of the bomb-making group, but a judge ordered the rest released. Still, the West Germans boasted they'd successfully broken up a terrorist plot. Until two months later, when Pan Am 103 blew up over Lockerbie.
Forensic investigators in Lockerbie determined that the bomb had been hidden in a cassette player and suitcase similar to those seized from the PFLP-GC in Germany: a Toshiba Bombeat and a brown Samsonite. The focus on the PFLP-GC intensified a couple of months later. The man who admitted building bombs for the group, Marwan Khreesat, turned up in Amman, Jordan. Khreesat told authorities that while in Germany he'd built five bombs, not just the one the police had seized.
In the spring of 1989, West German police went back to Neuss to search for the four remaining bombs. At the apartment of the fruit merchant they found three. And the bombs were wired and ready: one blew up and killed a police technician. Still, one bomb went unaccounted for.
Cannistraro, then head of the CIA's Lockerbie investigation, says authorities focused on the likelihood that Marwan Khreesat's fifth bomb had blown up the Pan Am 747 over Lockerbie. "The immediate feeling was: we've missed someone. That someone in that [PFLP-GC] cell had escaped with one of the explosive devices and succeeded in planting it on Pan Am 103."
The Investigation Turns
Given the early consensus that the Jibril group and the Iranian government had conspired to blow up Pan Am 103, many experts and relatives of Pan Am 103 victims were stunned when British and American officials finally announced an indictment in the fall of 1991. The joint indictment by Scottish and American authorities named only the two Libyans, Megrahi and Fhimah. Officials of the two governments said that while the evidence against Iran and the Jibril group had seemed powerful at first, it simply did not stand up. According to a US State Department fact sheet explaining the turn in the investigation:
It was discovered in June 1990 that the Pan Am 103 bomb had been activated by a sophisticated electronic timer, in contrast to the PFLP-GC bombs, which had altimeter switches and relatively crude timers.
The State Department also said that, on closer inspection, the Toshiba Bombeat cassette player that housed the Lockerbie bomb differed from the Toshiba Bombeat used by the PFLP-GC; one had stereo speakers, the other mono.
Some relatives of victims said those seemed like flimsy reasons to absolve Iran and Syria. Notably, the skeptics also included the man once in charge of the CIA's Lockerbie investigation, Vincent Cannistraro, who retired in late 1990, a year before the indictments.
"The US Justice Department ... contends that these were two separate independent operations both targeted against an American airliner but independent of each other and not known to each other - two separate tracks if you will," Cannistraro says. "That's always seemed a bit difficult to accept, that two major terrorist groups were targeting the same airliner out of the same location, Frankfurt, Germany, at the same time."
And that both hid their bombs in Toshiba Bombeat cassette players and placed them in brown Samsonite suitcases.
Nonetheless, Cannistraro says he is persuaded that the Libyans are guilty. He says Qadhafi's government was in touch with the PFLP-GC and had, in fact, subsidized the group. But Cannistraro says he's convinced Qadhafi's men were hired to finish the Pan Am bombing only after the West German police broke up the PFLP-GC's operation. "I do think the Libyans carried it out. But I believe more it was a hand-off from the PFLP-GC after their own operational cell was compromised."
So, who conspired to bomb Pan Am 103? Iran, Syria, the PFLP-GC, or the Libyans? Cannistraro's answer is: maybe all of the above. But the Lockerbie indictment of 1991 pointed the finger only at the Libyans. In a comment shortly after the indictment, President Bush explicitly exonerated Damascus. "The Syrians took a bum rap on this," Bush said.
US and British officials said that new evidence turned investigators away from Iran and Syria and toward Libya. In the years since the indictment, several news organizations and legal experts have suggested the evidence against the Libyans appears strikingly weak. Others advise caution about drawing such conclusions prior to trial. "We haven't yet heard one word of testimony, and it's always very easy to debunk evidence in advance of a trial," says John Grant, until recently a dean at Glasgow University Law School.
That said, a close look at the evidence that investigators have touted over the years suggests the prosecution case may be flawed.
In announcing the indictment of the Libyans in 1991, officials said they began looking at Libya in earnest after the discovery of a tiny fragment of plastic circuit board. They said it was found in the Kielder forest east of Lockerbie. The fragment, no bigger than a child's fingernail, was part of the timing device that triggered the bomb, forensic experts concluded. And eventually, investigators said, the timer led straight to the Libyan government.
Among the mysteries surrounding the fragment is how, when, and by whom it was found. "A lover and his lass" found the fragment while strolling in the forest, according to one police source close to the case. A man found the fragment while walking his dog, according to another version. Or, in yet another story from a former investigator, police found it while combing the ground on their hands and knees.
In any case, an FBI forensic specialist named Tom Thurman was publicly credited with figuring out the fragment's evidentiary importance. Thurman, who then worked in the FBI's Washington DC laboratory, told ABC News in 1991 that he'd matched the Lockerbie timer fragment with one confiscated in West Africa from Libyan agents. "When that identification was made, of the timer, I knew that we had it," Thurman told ABC in 1991. Thurman's feelings about his discovery? "Absolute, positively euphoria. I was on cloud nine."
But Thurman was later discredited as a forensic expert. A 1997 report by the Justice Department's Office of the Inspector General found that in a number of cases other than Lockerbie, Thurman re-wrote lab reports, making them more favorable to the prosecution. The report also recommended Thurman be reassigned to a non-scientific job because he lacked a background in science.
"He's very aggressive, but I think he made some mistakes that needed to be brought to the attention of FBI management," says Frederic Whitehurst, a former FBI chemist who worked alongside Thurman for 12 years and filed the complaints that led to the Inspector General's report. Based on his observations of work done by Thurman and others in the FBI lab, Whitehurst says he concluded that "We're not necessarily going to get the truth out of what we're doing here."
Tom Thurman is out of the FBI now; he's teaching in Kentucky. He says Scottish prosecutors and the Justice Department have asked him not to do interviews.
Thurman is just one of the problems prosecutors will face in presenting the timer fragment. Another is the man who allegedly made and sold the timer. At the press conference announcing the indictment in 1991, then-Acting Attorney General William Barr said of the fragment: "Scientists determined that it was part of the timing device and traced it to its manufacturer, a Swiss company that had sold it to a high-level Libyan intelligence official."
Behind the scenes though, Edwin Bollier, a partner in the Zurich-based electronics company, MEBO, was telling a different story. In 1990 police had shown him a photograph of the circuit-board fragment. He agreed that it had come from a circuit board made by his company - a model MST-13. At first Bollier told investigators he'd sold MST-13 timers only to the Libyan government.
The Swiss businessman, however, soon changed his story. He said an employee had reminded him that he'd sold several prototypes of the MST-13 to an institute in Bernau. This institute acted as a front for the former East German secret police, the Stasi. The Stasi were known suppliers and supporters of terrorist groups, including Ahmed Jibril's PFLP-GC, the Syria-based group first suspected in Lockerbie.
Early in 1991, months before the Lockerbie indictments, Bollier told Scottish investigators that from a photograph alone he couldn't tell from which batch the timer fragment had come. He made repeated requests to examine the fragment itself, in person. Scottish authorities said no, citing "the need to protect the integrity of the evidence," as police put it in a letter to Bollier. In November, 1991, Scottish and American officials indicted the Libyans, citing the timer fragment as a key piece of evidence, without ever having allowed Bollier to examine the fragment up close.
Bollier says he now knows why: his conclusion, he claims, would not have suited the case the British and American governments were building.
In 1998 Bollier obtained what he says is a blown-up photograph of the printed circuit (PC) board fragment that Thurman showed ABC in 1991. Bollier describes the fragment's unfinished edge and a white line with wavy edges that he says proves it was made by hand and a not a machine. "This fragment of PC board is from a prototype timer," Bollier says. "It was made by Mr. Lumpert, an engineer here in our labs. Two of these PC boards eventually became complete timers, and these two I took to what at the time was East Germany."
In other words, Bollier insists, Thurman's fragment perhaps should have strengthened the case against the Syria-based terrorists, the PFLP-GC. It should never have pointed investigators toward Libya at all.
Former CIA official Cannistraro concedes that Bollier sold MST-13 prototypes to the Stasi. He simply dismisses Bollier's claim that the timer that triggered the Pan Am 103 bomb was part of that batch. Don't trust Bollier, Cannistraro says. The Swiss merchant not only had business with the Libyan government, he once rented office space in Zurich to one of the Pan Am 103 defendants, Abdelbaset Megrahi, an alleged Libyan intelligence agent. "Given the fact that [Bollier] has an investment with the Libyans, he's been a supplier of devices that are only used for lethal purposes, and the fact that he has provided cover facilities for Libyan intelligence, I don't know how much you can believe Mr. Bollier," Cannistraro says.
The hostile relationship between Bollier and Lockerbie investigators took a bizarre turn in September of 1999. With a trial finally approaching, the Scottish prosecutors who had refused for eight years to show Bollier the circuit board fragment suddenly invited him to Scotland. As Bollier tells it, a prosecutor, surrounded by four policemen, brought in the fragment in an unmarked plastic sleeve and placed it before him on a table. He says he'd brought his own magnifying glass. "I was surprised at how small it was...."
Bollier says the fragment, just two millimeters by three in size, was different from the one the FBI displayed on television back in 1991. This one, he claims, was machine-made, like the ones he sold to the Libyan government, but now had a new problem: it didn't show traces of solder, which Bollier says should have been present if an electrical relay had ever been attached to the circuit board. In other words, he says, the fragment could never have been used in a bomb.
"As far as I'm concerned, and I told this to [Scottish Prosecutor Miriam Watson], this is a manufactured fragment," Bollier says. "A fabricated fragment, never from a complete, functional timer." Bollier insisted on making a written statement to that effect; the statement was signed by Scottish police witnesses.
The next day, Bollier says, prosecutors brought out the fragment again. This time, he says, it had the soldering traces you'd expect on a used timer. Bollier switches to English to drive home his point, that the soldering points had apparently been added overnight. "It was different. I'm not crazy. It was different!"
Bollier demanded to make another written statement saying that the timer fragment had been tampered with during his visit to Scotland.
At the Lockerbie trial the Scottish judges will have to sort out the charges and counter-charges with the help of forensic scientists.
Former Lockerbie investigators insist that at trial, the evidence will show the Libyan government bought the timer that blew up Pan Am 103. But sources close to the Libyans' lawyers say the defense team isn't worried about the timer. Even if the Libyan government did buy the timer in 1985, the defense will argue, that does not directly link the two Libyan defendants to the bomb that destroyed the Pan Am jet three years later.
Independent legal experts agree. To get a conviction, they say, Scottish authorities must prove something much more specific: that the defendants themselves, Megrahi and Fhimah, planted the bomb that killed those 270 people. The indictment suggests that most of the evidence for that charge is in Malta.
The Malta Connection
The tiny island of Malta sits in the southern Mediterranean, south of Sicily and less than 200 miles off the coast of Libya. In 1988, both of the Libyan defendants lived and worked on the island as managers for Libyan Arab Airlines. To convict the pair, prosecutors must show that the bomb that blew up Pan Am 103 started its deadly journey in Malta, and that Megrahi and Fhimah themselves conspired to build or acquire the bomb and place it on Air Malta Flight 180 on the morning of December 21, 1988.
Air Malta Flight 180
At the time of the Pan Am 103 bombing, Abdelbaset Megrahi was Station Manager for Libya Arab Airlines at Malta's Luqa airport. The other defendant, Fhimah, had been head of security for the Libyan airline until September of 1988, when he left his airport job to begin launching a travel-related business of his own. The conspiracy charge against the pair says all of their jobs were covers for their real work with the JSO, the Libyan Intelligence Service.
The indictment says that on the morning of the 21 December, 1988, the two men placed aboard Air Malta Flight 180, from Malta to Frankfurt, a brown Samsonite suitcase containing the bomb that ultimately blew up Pan Am 103. The prosecution will argue that the deadly suitcase was then transferred as unaccompanied baggage, first to Pan Am Flight 103A at Frankfurt, then to Flight 103 at London, before blowing up over Lockerbie.
Some terrorism experts argue that that scenario is implausible on its face. One such skeptic is Noel Koch, who headed the US Defense Department's anti-terrorism efforts from 1981 to 1986. Sophisticated Middle East terrorists who wanted to blow up a plane over the North Atlantic, Koch insists, would not plant their bomb nearly a thousand miles away and rely on two successful luggage transfers by airline workers.
"I can tell you this much that I know about terrorism: it's simple," Koch says. "You don't complicate life. Life's complicated enough as it is. If you've got a target you want to get as close as you can to it and you don't go through a series of permutations that provide opportunities for failure, that provide opportunities for discovery. It doesn't work that way."
A former British Intelligence official disagrees. "You could say there is good reason for putting up a bomb suitcase on three planes, because it makes it that much more difficult to trace," says David Shayler, who headed the Libya Desk for MI5 in the mid-1990s.
The challenge for the prosecution will be to demonstrate that Megrahi and Fhimah actually placed that bomb. But first, the Scottish prosecutors must show solid evidence for the Malta Connection itself - that there was in fact a bomb-laden suitcase aboard Air Malta 180 on the morning that Pan Am 103 exploded. If lawyers for the Crown can't prove that beyond reasonable doubt, says Scottish legal scholar John Grant, "the Crown case is dead in the water."
At the time of the indictment, a US State Department fact sheet pointed to a baggage list found at the Frankfurt airport in 1989, which appeared to show that at a suitcase unloaded from the Air Malta flight was in the baggage system at the time workers were loading baggage on Pan Am 103A. The State Department report said the records "show that an unaccompanied bag was routed from Air Malta Flight 180 ... to Frankfurt, where it was loaded onto the Pan Am 103 feeder flight to London."
But behind the scenes, that assertion was disputed by investigators themselves. An internal FBI memo from October of 1989 said it's "misleading" to conclude from the Frankfurt airport records that any bag, let alone one carrying a bomb, was transferred from the Air Malta flight to the Pan Am plane. It said there's "no concrete indication" of that.
In fact, Air Malta and Maltese law enforcement officials say Air Malta Flight 180 did not carry any unaccompanied luggage on the day that Pan Am 103 blew up. Maltese officials insist that all 55 bags checked onto the Flight 180 that day were claimed by passengers - and that Scottish and American investigators found as much in their interviews with passengers. The bags "tallied completely," says Maltese Police Commissioner George Grech.
Malta's Minister of Home Affairs, Tonio Borg, makes a more sweeping claim. "We have no proof that these two Libyan suspects were involved in anything illegal in Malta regarding this case, particularly the placing of this bomb on Air Malta Flight ... 180," Borg says.
A German court agreed. A German investigating magistrate produced a report saying he could find no evidence of a bag switch from the Air Malta plane to Pan Am 103A at Frankfurt on December 21, 1988. In 1992 the German government suspended prosecution of the Libyan defendants, citing a lack of evidence.
The key physical evidence purportedly linking the two defendants to the bomb is a scrap of clothing found in Lockerbie. Forensic scientists determined the clothing fragment was part of a pair of men's checked, brown trousers. That garment, they found, was packed along with other clothes in the brown Samsonite that held the bomb. A fragment of a tag showed the trousers had been purchased at Mary's House, a small shop on a narrow street near the seaside in Sliema, Malta. We went to ask the proprietor of Mary's House, Tony Gauci, who bought those trousers, but Gauci long ago grew tired of reporters asking that question. He threw us out of his shop.
It's not surprising that Gauci dreads the prospect of clarifying his past statements. He gave 19 statements to Scottish police between September of 1989 and February, 1991. Those statements are riddled with ambiguities and contradictions. Legal observers say it's unlikely that Gauci will be of any help to the prosecution in the Netherlands.
The indictment says Gauci implicated defendant Megrahi as the man who bought the clothing in the fall of 1988. But according to his police statements, Gauci's identification of the Libyan defendant is ambiguous at best. Police showed Gauci a photo of Megrahi in February of 1991. The Scottish police transcript quotes Gauci as saying:
"He would perhaps have to look about 10 years or more older and he would look like the man who bought the clothes. . . . I can only say that of all the photographs I have been shown, this photograph. . . . is the only one really similar to the man who bought the clothing, if he was a bit older . . . other than the one my brother showed me."
That last remark, about the photo shown to Gauci by his brother, is an apparent reference to another suspect whom Gauci had previously described as resembling the shopper. Eleven months before police showed Gauci the photo of Megrahi, Gauci volunteered for police that his brother had shown him a newspaper photo of a Palestinian terrorist named Mohammed Abu Talb. Talb had been convicted in the 1985 bombing of a Northwest Airlines office in Copenhagen. In that earlier statement, according to the police transcript, Gauci said:
"I think the photograph in the newspaper may have been the man who bought the clothing. He looks like him."
At the time, Talb was in fact a leading suspect in the bombing of Pan Am 103. He had alleged ties to the terror group first suspected in the Lockerbie bombing, the PFLP-GC. His accomplice in the Copenhagen bombing was seen coming and going from a PFLP-GC safehouse in Germany, according to West German police documents. Airport records showed that Talb visited Malta in the fall of 1988. A raid of his apartment in Uppsala, Sweden turned up an appointment book with the date, December 21, circled. At one point, Lockerbie investigators had so much evidence against Mohammed Abu Talb they sought to extradite him from Sweden.
"Was there compelling reason to look at Abu Talb? Absolutely," says Vincent Cannistraro, who headed the CIA's Lockerbie investigation at the time. "And we did do that. Did the law enforcement folk on both sides of the ocean have enough compelling evidence to go before a judge? I'm told they did, but I don't know the nature of that, and I can't speak to it."
Talb refused requests for an interview. He's serving a life sentence in Sweden for the Copenhagen bombing. Lockerbie investigators cleared him of the Pan Am bombing for reasons US and British officials say they can't discuss.
Besides his vague identification of Megrahi as the man who bought clothes for the bomb suitcase, Tony Gauci gave statements that directly contradict the prosecution's case. The Mary's House proprietor told police he remembered the sale of the brown trousers because the man who bought them also purchased an odd array of items, seemingly with little regard to their size or desirability: a baby's sleeping garment; a tweed jacket that had languished on the rack for five years. "It was as if anything I suggested he buy, he would take it," Gauci is quoted as saying in a police statement.
Gauci could not remember exactly when he'd made the sale to the strange-behaving Arab, but he told police he did recall a couple of facts that could be helpful in pinpointing the date. It was raining, Gauci recalled; that's why the customer bought an umbrella. Gauci recalled that the Arab had come in just before his shop's 7 p.m. closing time, and that he, Tony, was alone in the shop that evening; his brother, Paul, who ordinarily worked evenings too, was home watching a soccer game on TV.
According to police transcripts, Gauci's brother, Paul, told investigators that the most likely date of the purchase was November 23, 1988, four weeks before the bombing of Pan Am 103. He recalled staying home one evening to watch a soccer game between Rome and Dresden; a schedule showed those two teams played on the evening of November 23. And Maltese weather data confirms Tony Gauci's memory: rain fell that evening.
But the indictment of the Libyans says defendant Megrahi bought the clothes at Mary's House not on November 23 but on December 7,1988. The problem: the Rome and Dresden soccer teams played in the early afternoon, not in the evening, on December 7. And Malta did not get a trace of rain that evening.
When asked about apparent weaknesses in the evidence against the Libyans, former investigators have often said: wait - there's an eyewitness.
His name is Abdul Jiacha, and he worked at Libyan Arab Airlines in Malta along with his fellow Libyans, the defendants, Megrahi and Fhimah. Former investigators say Jiacha saw one or both of the defendants with a brown Samsonite suitcase at the Malta airport on the morning of the Lockerbie bombing.
Jiacha starts with serious credibility problems. He's been given protection and haven in the United States' witness-protection program since 1992. British legal experts say courts in the United Kingdom look with a skeptical eye on so-called "supergrasses," or informants who stand to gain financially or otherwise in return for their testimony.
But, credibility problems aside, the prosecution's star witness has all but fallen flat, according to two sources with access to the defense team's depositions. In a pre-trial statement to defense lawyers, Jiacha could only say he saw a man, "possibly" the defendant Megrahi, carrying a suitcase in the Malta airport "sometime in December," 1988, the sources say.
In total, the publicly-touted evidence against the Libyans is profoundly flawed, say several respected legal experts in Britain. British law bans public discussion of a pending criminal case. But when top British attorney Michael Mansfield could speak freely, back in 1997, he summarized the Malta evidence this way for BBC Scotland:
So far as the Maltese connection is concerned, the clothing, the identification ... all of that, I think add up to a situation in which were it to be presented to a court in the United Kingdom, it probably wouldn't even get past the doors. It would be declared at some point or another inadmissible ... because it is so fatally flawed at the very root.
Pressed to respond to that kind of characterization, former Lockerbie investigators retreat to broad assertions that the evidence is in fact strong, despite appearances to the contrary.
"What I do know is that the investigation finally led to conclude that that bomb was placed on an Air Malta flight and fed into Pan Am 103 in Frankfurt," says former CIA official Vincent Cannistraro.
"You asked my opinion and my opinion is that the evidence is overwhelming and compelling, and. . .that the Scottish judges will see it that way," says "Buck" Revell, formerly head of the FBI's Lockerbie investigation.
Both officials suggest there might be evidence against the Libyans that emerged after they left their respective agencies and of which even they are not aware.
That's theoretically possible, legal experts say. But some observers point to signs of desperation - of a prosecution team grasping at the barest circumstantial evidence.
In late summer, 1999, Scottish police gathered information at a hearing in Malta about a finding of Semtex plastic explosive on the island in the mid-1980s. George Grech, now Malta's Police Commissioner, was a district supervisor in 1985, when he found a quantity of Semtex buried alongside a murder victim near a stone tower in northern Malta. The Semtex was wrapped in an Arabic-language newspaper. Grech says Scottish investigators knew about the find as early as 1989, when they were first examining the Malta Connection. Lockerbie investigators showed little interest in the Semtex at the time, Grech says - and appropriately, he adds, since in his view there is no evidence whatever linking that found explosive to the Lockerbie bombing or the Libyan defendants.
Nonetheless, with the trial approaching, Scottish police went back to Malta last summer and incorporated Grech's discovery of Semtex as circumstantial evidence into the pre-trial indictment of the Libyans. The new indictment refers to the defendants having high performance plastic explosives in their possession between 1 January 1985 and 21 December 1988 "in an area of ground near Ghallis Tower, Malta," the area where Grech found the explosives in 1985.
The generally self-contained Grech gets animated when expressing his puzzlement that prosecutors would try to link that Semtex to the destruction of Pan Am 103.
"I myself argued this question with them," Grech says. "Don't tell me somebody had already conceived to down an American airplane in 1985 already!"
A senior legal expert in Scotland who has followed the Lockerbie case closely is sharply critical of the investigation itself. "This case has been handled very badly, and certainly not in accordance with expected standards," said the source, who spoke on the condition he not be named because of Britain's ban on public comment of a pending criminal case. "It's normal to investigate first and then indict. In this case, they have come to a conclusion and then investigated only events which fit their conclusion."
The Political Context
British and US officials say the Lockerbie investigation has been steered by just one thing: the evidence.
But some relatives of those killed on Pan Am 103 and expert observers have speculated that Middle East politics played a role in that decision, too. The early suspects, members of the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine-General Command (PFLP-GC), had close ties to Syrian intelligence agencies. "Having the PFLP-GC under the microscope also meant having the Syrian government under the microscope," says former CIA counter-terrorism chief Cannistraro.
But while investigating the PFLP-GC, the West was actively courting the man who gave that group haven, Syrian President Haffez Assad, for his help in the Middle East peace process. Then, in August, 1990, a new crisis erupted - the Gulf War - giving the administration yet another reason to do business with Damascus.
After Iraq invaded Kuwait, the Bush Administration rallied an international coalition to confront Iraqi President Saddam Hussein. Syria joined the alliance and sent troops for Operation Desert Storm - a step of crucial symbolic importance in building support for the alliance among Arab countries, analysts say. Secretary of State James Baker rewarded Assad by visiting him in Damascus in the fall of 1990. Critics suggested the visit sent the wrong message on terrorism. Baker bristled: "We are not embracing Syria and everything that Syria has done with which we disagree."
Nonetheless, when the Bush Administration cleared the Syria-based terrorists in the Lockerbie bombing a year later, some relatives of Pan Am 103 victims wondered out loud if a deal had been done. That suspicion was heightened by the release, four days after the indictments, of prominent Western hostages Terry Waite and Thomas Sutherland, who'd been held in Beirut by Hizbollah terrorists under the control of the Syrian government.
Jim Swire, whose daughter died on Pan Am 103, says it was plainly in the interests of the British and American governments to absolve Syria and accuse Libya instead.
"That doesn't mean that Libya or Libyan citizens are guilty or not guilty," Swire says. "It merely undermines my faith as an individual in what governments are telling me because it is so extremely convenient for them."
"Certainly had the evidence led to Syria at that time, it would have been extremely inconvenient and very, very complicated in the US diplomacy," says Middle East expert Shibley Telhami of the University of Maryland. "So if evidence later came that implicated Libya, that certainly would lead to a sense of relief that it was not Syria."
Telhami says he assumes that the turn in the Lockerbie investigation was made in good faith. Another expert thinks otherwise.
Noel Koch, the former counter-terrorism chief at the Pentagon, says his opinion about Lockerbie is based on a reading of the evidence - he finds the case against the Libyans thoroughly unpersuasive - and on his inside observations of the Reagan/Bush Administration's approach to state-sponsored terrorism. In the 1980s, Koch sat on an anti-terrorism task force headed by then-Vice President Bush. He was constantly frustrated, he says, by what he describes as the administration's unwillingness to take firm action against all Middle East nations that sponsored terrorism.
"Whenever you got to the point where you needed to take some overt action to demonstrate you were actually doing something about terrorism, Libya was the preferred target," Koch says, "simply because Colonel Qadhafi himself was viewed in the Islamic world as an apostate, in the Arab world as a pariah. Nothing much was lost by going after him. A great deal could be lost by going after Syria or Iran or Iraq or other countries that had an involvement in terrorism and which were, in fact, known by the United States to be involved in terrorism."
Koch says he's convinced that, two years after he left the Pentagon, the administration of then-President Bush repeated the pattern of scapegoating Libya in the case of Pan Am 103.
Former President Bush and his Secretary of State James Baker both declined to be interviewed for this report.
Buck Revell, who oversaw the Lockerbie investigation for the FBI until six months before the Libyans were indicted, denies suggestions of political influence. "There was never any indication from President Reagan or thereafter President Bush - any interjection of any geopolitical concerns." Revell adds that if either president had tried to influence the investigation, "We would have had to end up with a special prosecutor."
A Provocative, Persistent Claim: US Covert Operations on Pan Am 103?
Pre-trial hearings have made it clear that lawyers for the Libyan defendants are prepared not only to assert their clients' innocence, but to suggest an alternate version of events: that the Iranian government and the Syria-based terrorists, the PFLP-GC, conspired and carried out the bombing. There are also signs that an even more provocative claim will get resurrected in the courtroom: that covert US government drug operations may have provided the bombers an opening to blow up Pan Am 103.
In the early 1990's, Time magazine and TV networks on both sides of the Atlantic produced major stories exploring that claim. Their most important source: a private investigator who'd been hired by Pan Am to investigate who blew up Flight 103 and how they did it. The investigator, Juval Aviv, emerged from his investigation with a remarkable claim: that members of the PFLP-GC took advantage of a controlled drug-smuggling route involving US agents to slip the bomb on the Pan Am jet. Government officials vehemently denied the assertion, and still do.
In response to Aviv's report, Pan Am filed subpoenas with several US intelligence and law enforcement agencies, seeking documents to confirm or refute the private investigator's findings. The government refused to release the documents on grounds of national security.
Some government officials attacked Aviv's credibility, calling him a fabricator who had lied about his background. The specifics of that accusation against Aviv don't appear to stand up to scrutiny.
Appearing on Britain's Channel Four in 1994, former FBI Director of Investigations "Buck" Revell was asked if US agents ran operations in cooperation with Middle East drug dealers around the time of the Pan Am attack. "There was intelligence being gathered," Revell replied. "DEA [Drug Enforcement Administration] assets were tasked by orders from the National Security Council to try to develop intelligence information on the American hostages in Lebanon. They were not used in conjunction with Pan Am 103. That entire operation had been closed down."
But it appears defense lawyers at the Lockerbie trial may try to prove otherwise that some kind of DEA operation was in fact underway in late December, 1988.
Two men who were high-ranking security managers with Pan Am at the time told us they've given statements to the defense team claiming that they were told of a US government drug operation on their airline, through Frankfurt, at the time Pan Am 103 was destroyed.
Jim Berwick was the London-based Manager of Corporate Security for Pan Am in 1988. He says at a quarterly meeting a couple of months before the bombing of Pan Am 103, Phillip Connolly approached him during a break. Connolly was one of the highest-ranking investigators in British Customs and a 20-year acquaintance of Berwick's.
"And it was at that time that [Connolly] gave me the indication that he had been the British Customs representative at a meeting in Germany, where there were representatives of German Customs and also DEA, and where it became known to Phil that Pan Am in actual fact was being used as a conduit or a route on which drug shipments were being allowed from Europe to the U-S."
Another Pan Am security manager at London's Heathrow Airport, Mike Jones, says he too was present when Connolly told the story.
Jones says Connolly then phoned a few days after Pan Am 103 blew up and asked if Jones had considered the possibility that 'the bag' had been switched at the Frankfurt airport.
"And I took that to mean it was a gentle hint that, had we thought about a substitution of the controlled drugs bag," Jones says.
The man whom Jones says made that call, Phillip Connolly, is now retired from British Customs. We couldn't reach him for comment. A source close to lawyers for the Libyans says Connolly has given a deposition and may be called as a witness at the trial.
Spokespersons for British Customs in London declined to comment on the claims by Berwick and Jones. A US Justice Department spokesman said the department would not respond to questions about drugs on Pan Am 103.
"If there was...even a smell of government involvement in [the bombing of] Pan Am 103, I'd be the first one up snitching on the government," says Michael Hurley, who was the DEA's top official in Cyprus in 1988. Even if government agents were running a controlled drug route from the Middle East through the Frankfurt airport, he says, that would not create an opportunity for terrorists. "When you do a controlled delivery, you have control of the drugs from the point of origin to the destination," Hurley says.
Support for the drug claims, however, comes from one more surprising direction. A senior source responsible for overseeing the Lockerbie investigation for the German government told us that if we wanted to get closer to the truth about Lockerbie, we should "go back and look at the drugs." The source spoke on the condition that he not be named. The remark is striking given that the German government, according to the claims by Aviv and others, cooperated with US and British agents in the controlled drug operation through Frankfurt. So the Germans would share in any embarrassment if it were discovered that such an operation helped to facilitate the bombing of Pan Am 103.
Conclusion: Elusive Justice?
"It's quite difficult to come back and picture what it was like," says Bill Parr, his gentle voice barely audible above the soft rumble of his Land Rover. "You allow your mind to ... shade out the horrors."
Parr is a long-time resident of Lockerbie, a horse-lover and chemist for the local government. He's also a volunteer search-and-rescue worker. So he and his dog spent the night of December 21, 1988, finding and marking dozens of the 259 bodies that fell from the sky. On a driving tour of the places he went that night, he looks out the window at the rolling green of a municipal golf course on the edge of Lockerbie. His voice falters and his eyes fill up. "I hadn't realized. I thought I'd managed to put a lot of it behind. But it's all these hills at the back here. This is where the large number of bodies were found."
Parr says he's haunted by images of those bodies - some gruesome, some poignant. He recalls finding the bodies of two young women sitting in a field, completely intact, still strapped to their seats. Their arms were wrapped tightly around one another, their fingers crossed. It's one of the hardest things to face, Parr says: the implication that those two young women were conscious during their long fall to earth.
Parr says that night planted a seed of anger that flourishes inside him to this day. "There were a lot of us, and I wasn't alone, but I'll stand there and I'll say it: If somebody had said, 'Here's a gun, these are definitely the people who did it,' I would have pulled the trigger, even though I know it [would be] wrong," Parr says. "Looking back now, I think that would have been too good for them."
Parr admits his anger, though deep and lasting, is only that of an unlucky volunteer forced to confront the mayhem. The young women whose bodies he found were strangers to him. They were someone else's daughters.
Jane and Jim Swire, whose daughter Flora died over Lockerbie, say they yearn to see someone punished - but it must be the right people.
"Whatever [the Libyan defendants] are accused of, however horrendous their deeds are alleged to have been, they are entitled to a presumption of innocence, unless and until they're found guilty," Jim Swire says.
The Swires spend their summers on Scotland's Isle of Skye, a couple of hundred miles from Lockerbie. The family's vacation home overlooks windswept coastland dotted with sheep, highland cattle, and crofts - small stone houses painted white. Flora Swire loved Skye, says her mother, Jane. "Whenever I see the sea sparkling and the mountains purple and the sky shot with tangerine and blue, I think, Flora should be seeing this. She should be here to enjoy this, with her family. And I know she never can. And that just highlights the cruelty and the sadness."
If Abdelbaset Megrahi and Al-Amin Fhimah killed Flora and 269 other people, the Swires say, they hope that will become clear at the trial. But Jim Swire says his grief is made worse by a suspicion that the main culprits behind the bombing got away.
"Overwhelmingly, the one thing that matters and keeps coming to the surface is our loss and more importantly Flora's loss. She lost the rest of her life, we've lost her lovely company for the rest of our lives. But, yes, the failure to get to the root of it has kept my anger burning."
The Lockerbie bombing has been called the world's biggest unsolved murder. Some who lost loved ones on Pan Am 103 say they're afraid that won't change - no matter what the verdict in the Netherlands.