20 Years Later, the Lockerbie Terror Attack Is Not as Solved as We Think

The book should not be closed on the Lockerbie attack, Nathan Thrall writes.

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Twenty years after Pan Am 103 exploded over Lockerbie, Scotland, killing all 259 passengers and crew, as well as 11 residents of the town below, it appears that resolution has finally come to the decades-long mystery surrounding the worst terrorist attack in British history and the deadliest attack on American civilians before 9/11.

A Libyan intelligence officer has been convicted of murdering Lockerbie's 270 victims; the Libyan government, in a letter to the United Nations, has "accepted responsibility for the actions of its officials"; and less than two months ago, Libya completed payments of $1.5 billion to victims of terrorism, including Lockerbie's 189 American victims (35 of them Syracuse University students returning home from study abroad). Sanctions against Libya have been lifted, the United States has granted Libya immunity from further terrorism-related lawsuits, and the Senate confirmed the first U.S. ambassador to Libya in 36 years.

"We're proud to announce we won, and Libya has been held accountable," Sen. Frank Lautenberg, a New Jersey Democrat, said at a November news conference with the families of victims. One of the victims' relatives added, "We are free now to close this chapter in our nightmare."

But though a chapter may have closed, the Lockerbie case is today further from resolution than it has been since the investigation began 20 years ago.

An official Scottish review body has declared that a "miscarriage of justice may have occurred" in the conviction of the Libyan intelligence officer, Abdelbaset al-Megrahi. The reviewers examined a secret document, provided to the United Kingdom by a foreign government and seen during Megrahi's trial by only the prosecution, that they said cast serious doubts on Megrahi's guilt. A new appeal of Megrahi's conviction is scheduled for this coming spring. The U.N. special observer appointed by Kofi Annan to Megrahi's trial, Hans Koechler, has declared that Megrahi was wrongfully convicted, as have the legal architect of his special trial, Prof. Robert Black, and a spokesperson for the families of the British victims, Jim Swire.

Piece by piece, the major elements of the prosecution's case are falling apart. A high-ranking Scottish police officer has said vital evidence was fabricated. One of the FBI's principal forensic experts has been discredited. The lord advocate—Scotland's chief legal officer—who initiated the Lockerbie prosecution has called the credibility of the government's primary witness into question, stating that the man was "not quite the full shilling...an apple short of a picnic." Another prosecution witness now claims, in a July 2007 sworn affidavit, to have lied about the key piece of evidence linking Libya to the bombing.So if the case against Megrahi and his government is so thin, why would Libya pay compensation to the families of Lockerbie's victims?

One answer came from Libya's prime minister. He told the BBC that his government took no responsibility for Lockerbie and had merely "bought peace," agreeing to pay compensation to the families of victims because it was the only means of ending the far more costly sanctions against his country. Saif al-Qadhafi, the Libyan leader's son and one of the regime's most prominent spokespersons, recently told CNN that Megrahi "had nothing to do with Lockerbie." When asked why his government would pay the victims of a terrorist act in which they played no role, Qadhafi responded, "There was no other way around. Because there was a resolution from the Security Council, and you have to do it. Otherwise, you will not get rid of the sanctions. It was very political. Very political."

Megrahi has been diagnosed with prostate cancer and may not live to see his second appeal. If he does live and his appeal succeeds, a new and independent international investigation—as has been called for by the U.N. observer to the Lockerbie trial—may commence. If it does, the investigators will return to the primary suspect of the first year and a half of the original investigation: a cell of the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine-General Command, whose bank account, according to a CIA officer involved in the investigation, received a transfer of $11 million two days after Lockerbie and whose leaders the investigators believed had been contracted by Iran to avenge America's inadvertent shooting down of an Iranian civilian airliner carrying 290 passengers and crew.

Corrected on 01/12/09: An earlier version of this article misstated the number of American victims of the 1988 bombing of Pan Am Flight 103 over Lockerbie, Scotland. There were 189 American victims.