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In the 25 years that have passed since Pan Am 103 blew up in the sky over Lockerbie, one of the only facts that has remained uncontested is that a bomb concealed in a Samsonite suitcase exploded at 7.02pm on December 21, 1988, causing the loss of 270 lives.
From the day Dumfries and Galloway Constabulary, the UK’s smallest police force, began investigating the country’s worst terrorist atrocity, the truth about who was responsible has been hidden by a fog of political agendas, conspiracy theories and unreliable evidence.
The 2001 conviction of the Libyan suspect Abdelbaset al-Megrahi, (and the acquittal of his co-defendant Khalifah Fhimah) only served to raise more questions than were answered. Quite apart from a number of problems with the prosecution’s case was the question of who else took part in the plot. All sides agreed that Megrahi had not acted alone, even if he was guilty.
Yet some of the investigators who sifted through the wreckage of the Boeing 747 and studied intelligence dating from the months before the attack have never wavered in their belief that it was Iran, not Libya, that ordered it, and that a Syrian-based terrorist group executed it.
Now, following a three-year investigation by a team of documentary-makers working for Al Jazeera television, a new and compelling narrative has emerged, in which previously troublesome evidence suddenly fits together like the parts of a Swiss clock.
It begins in Malta nine months before the bombing and winds its way through Beirut, Frankfurt and London leaving a trail of evidence that pointed to Iran, before a phone call from George H W Bush to Margaret Thatcher allegedly switched the focus of the investigation to Libya.
The bombing of Pan Am 103 claimed 270 lives and remains Britain’s worst terrorist attack
In March 1988, intelligence officers from Iran, Syria and Libya met in the back room of a baker’s shop owned by Abdul Salaam, the head of the Malta cell of the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine-General Command (PFLP-GC).
They shared a common cause, and agreed to “join together in a campaign against Israeli and American targets”, according a witness who was at the meeting.
Classified US intelligence cables obtained by Al Jazeera suggest America was aware of the meeting. A Defence Intelligence Agency signal said that “Iran, Libya and Syria have signed a co-operation treaty for future terrorist acts”. At that stage they did not have a specific target in mind, but three months later, on July 3, 1988, Iran’s hatred of America reached a new high after Iran Air flight 655 was shot down by the USS Vincennes, which was protecting merchant shipping in the Persian Gulf during the Iran-Iraq war.
During a skirmish with Iranian gunboats the American warship mistook the Airbus A300 on its radar for a fighter jet, and fired two radar-guided missiles which downed the aircraft in the Strait of Hormuz, killing all 290 people on board, including 66 children. Iran’s leaders were convinced the aircraft had been shot down deliberately, and proclaimed that there would be “a real war against America”.
By the time the Iranian, Syrian and Libyan plotters next met in Malta in October 1988, their target was clear: to blow up an American airliner as payback for Flight 655. A source who was present at the meetings was tracked down by Jessica de Grazia, a former Manhattan District Attorney who was hired by Megrahi’s defence team to explore alternative theories over the bombing. Her findings would have formed the basis of Megrahi’s appeal hearing, which he abandoned after he was released from Greenock prison in Scotland on compassionate grounds in 2009.
Abdelbaset al-Megrahi, who died in 2012, was the only person convicted of the bombing, which killed 11 people on the ground as parts of the Boeing 747 gouged huge craters in Lockerbie
She said that among those present were “hard core terrorist combatants” trained in explosives, guns and military matters”.
One of those present was Mohammed Abu Talb, who headed the Swedish cell of PFLP-GC, and would later become one of the prime suspects in the Lockerbie bombing before the focus shifted to Megrahi.
Robert Baer, a CIA agent who investigated the Lockerbie bombing, told Al Jazeera that the PFLP-GC and Iran quickly became the main suspects. He claims that six days after Flight 655 was downed by the USS Vincennes, at a meeting in Beirut representatives of the Iranian regime turned to Ahmed Jibril, a former Syrian officer and head of the PFLP-GC, and tasked him with bringing down five American jets.
Jibril, who enjoyed the protection of the Syrian regime, had masterminded aircraft bombings in the past, and the DIA was aware of his mission. According to another cable obtained by Megrahi’s defence team: “The execution of the operation was contracted to Ahmed Jibril…money was given to Jibril upfront in Damascus for initial expenses – the mission was to blow up a Pan Am flight.”
Jibril placed one of his most trusted deputies, a Palestinian PFLP-GC member called Hafez Dalkamoni, in charge of the terrorist cell, and he travelled to Germany to prepare the attack with Marwan Khreesat, an expert bomb-maker.
While Khreesat busied himself making his devices, Dalkamoni flew to Malta for another meeting in the baker’s shop. Also present was Abu Talb. Their presence in October 1988 was reported by a Maltese newspaper, tipped off that members of the PFLP-GC were in town.
According to the witness spoken to by Miss de Grazia, the meeting was convened to discuss how to get a bomb on board a US passenger jet.
Malta would also become key to the prosecution case against Megrahi, after the suitcase containing the Lockerbie bomb was found to contain clothes bought in a shop in Malta.
One of the key prosecution witnesses at Megrahi’s trial was Tony Gauchi, owner of Mary’s House boutique, who identified Megrahi as buying clothes from him before the bombing. His evidence was later thrown into doubt after it emerged he had seen a picture of Megrahi in a magazine before he picked him out at an ID parade. He was also paid $2 million by the US Department of Justice.
On his deathbed, Megrahi said: “As God is my witness, I was never in that shop. This is the truth.”
Intriguingly, the papers assembled by Megrahi’s defence team for his aborted appeal show that before Megrahi was ever in the frame, Mr Gauchi identified another of his customers from a list of initial suspects. That man was Abu Talb, who bears a clear resemblance to an artist’s impression of a dark-skinned man with an afro hairstyle which was drawn from Mr Gauchi’s initial recollections.
Mohammed Abu Talb, left, and a sketch of a man described by Tony Gauchi
So was Abu Talb, who Tony Gauchi said had bought clothes in his shop, the man who put the bomb on Pan Am 103?
According to the judges who found Megrahi guilty, the bomb was placed on a flight from Luqa airport in Malta to Frankfurt, and then transferred onto a feeder flight from Frankfurt to Heathrow, where it was finally transferred onto Pan Am 103. But there was another problem for the prosecution: they acknowledged that they had no evidence of Megrahi putting the bomb on board the Air Malta flight at Luqa.
John Bedford, a Heathrow baggage handler, told the Megrahi trial that after he took a tea break on the day of the bombing, he recalled seeing a brown hard-shell case on a cargo trolley that had not been there when he left. He saw the case an hour before the flight from Frankfurt landed at Heathrow. There had also been a break-in at Heathrow the night before: security guard Ray Manly told Megrahi’s appeal that he found a padlock on a baggage store cut.
Cell leader Dalkamoni and bomb-maker Khreesat had been arrested by the time of the bombing, after German police rounded up terrorist suspects in two cities. But Talb was still at large.
The Lockerbie bomb was contained in a Samsonite suitcase like this one
When Talb was arrested the following year over unrelated terrorist offences police who searched his home found clothing bought in Malta, circuitry and other potential bomb-making materials. For now, his exact role, if any, remains a mystery.
Dalkamoni and Khreesat had been kept under surveillance by German police, who were aware of their terrorist connections, and when the police raided 14 apartments in Frankfurt and Neuss in October 1988 the two men were among 17 suspects who were held.
The police discovered an arsenal of guns, grenades and explosives, and in the back of a Ford Cortina driven by Dalkamoni found a bomb hidden inside a Toshiba radio cassette player.
The bomb was specifically designed to bring down an aircraft, as it had a barometric switch which would set off a timer when the aircraft reached a certain height. Its design had a striking peculiarity: the plastic explosives had been wrapped in silver foil from a Toblerone chocolate bar.
The German police found four bombs in total, but had reason to believe there had been five.
Was the fifth bomb placed on board Pan Am 103? Bomb fragments recovered from the crash site showed that the bomb had been concealed in a Toshiba radio cassette player identical to the one found in Germany.
Even more strikingly, the bomb fragments included tiny pieces of silver foil from a chocolate bar.
A German forensic officer told the Megrahi trial that the timer on the Lockerbie bomb was not switched on until seven minutes into the flight, suggesting a barometric switch had been used to set it off.
Despite so many pointers to Khreesat being the bomb-maker, he has never been charged over Lockerbie because the judges at the Megrahi trial said that there was “no evidence from which we could infer that [PFLP-GC] was involved in this particular act of terrorism”.
The suggestion of a barometric trigger did not fit the prosecution’s version of events, as they said Megrahi, the head of security for Libyan Arab Airlines, smuggled the bomb on board an Air Malta flight. But if a barometric switch had been used, the bomb would have detonated on take-off from Malta. Instead, the prosecution said the bomb was triggered at 31,000ft by a straightforward timer switch.
The forensic evidence against Megrahi depended on a tiny fragment of the bomb’s timer recovered from the crash site and said to be identical to a batch of 20 timers known to have been purchased by Libya.
But when Megrahi’s defence team obtained the bomb fragment and sent it to a metallurgist to be tested, he showed it was not one of the timers sold to Libya.
On December 5, 1988, a man with an Arab accent called the US Embassy in Helsinki, Finland, warning that a bomb would be planted on a Pan Am flight in two weeks time. Despite the warning, the bombers managed to smuggle their device on board Pan Am 103. Another DIA cable obtained by Megrahi’s defence team stated that in early 1989 a cheque from the Iranian Central Bank was written out by an Iranian minister and handed to a middle-man who gave it to Ahmed Jibril. The pay-off was $11 million (£6.5m), according to former CIA agent Robert Baer.
When Dumfries and Galloway Constabulary began its investigation into the bombing, it believed the PFLP-GC was involved. A report written in 1989 by Supt Pat Connor identified 15 members of the organisation he wanted arrested and questioned, and the then Transport Minister Paul Channon invited selected journalists to an off-the-record briefing to set out the case against Iran and the PFLP-GC, adding that arrests were imminent.
But by the middle of 1989 the investigation had suddenly changed tack, reportedly following a phone call between President George H W Bush and Baroness Thatcher in March 1989. The two leaders, it is claimed, were anxious not to antagonize the PFLP-GC’s guardian, Syria – a key strategic power in the Middle East – and decided that Libya, which had taken part in the meetings in Malta, should be the focus of the investigation.
The following year Syria joined forces with the US and Britain to drive Saddam Hussein out of Kuwait during the Gulf War.
Mr Baer said the FBI began investigating Libya “in complete disregard to the intelligence” and suggested Libya’s pariah status made it a convenient scapegoat.
Al Jazeera tracked down alleged bomb-maker Khreesat to Amman in Jordan, where he is kept under surveillance by Jordanian intelligence. He refused to discuss the affair on camera but a source close to him later told Al Jazeera that the attack had indeed been commissioned by Iran and that the bomb was put on board at Heathrow.
Abu Talb now lives in Sweden, having been released from prison four years ago following a 20-year sentence for unrelated terrorist acts. His son said he had “nothing to do with Lockerbie”.
For the families of the Lockerbie victims, the wait for the truth goes on.
Lockerbie: What Really Happened? is on Al Jazeera English at 8pm on Tuesday, March 11, Freeview 83, Sky 514.