The world of transnational violence can be a confusing place. Often the time lag between actions and reactions can be so great that the two basic questions, who did an act of terrorism and why can be hard to answer.
On Dec. 21, 1988, a terrorist bomb brought down Pan Am flight 103, over the Scottish town of Lockerbie. 259 passengers and crew members and 11 people on the ground were killed.
From the first, American and other western intelligence agencies were sure the attack, made using a bomb in a suitcase packed into the baggage compartment of the Pan Am 747, was an act of retaliation.
But for what? The first answer was, American intelligence sources told PBS Frontline investigative reporter W. Scott Malone, that this was revenge commissioned by the government of Iran as payback for the mistaken U.S. Navy missile attack that had destroyed Iran Air Flight 655 and killed 290 people on board some five months earlier, on July 3, 1988.
“Who done it?” Who took the Iranian commission? Malone’s inside sources told him it was agents of the Beirut-based terrorist group, the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine-General Command, a.k.a. PFLP-GC. They cited an intercepted communication shortly after the Pan Am 103 bombing, in which Iranian leaders were reported to have congratulated the head of the PFLP-GC for an operation well done.
And there was supporting information – that the PFLP-GC might well have penetrated the baggage area at Frankfurt airport where the bomb-carrying suitcase was put on a London-bound flight, tagged to go interline onto Pan Am 103 from London to New York.
The bomb and suitcase had gotten to Frankfurt on a flight from Malta, where investigators believed a shirt used to wrap the bomb inside the suitcase had been purchased.
The proprietor of a Maltese shop told investigators he had sold the shirt in the suitcase to a man linked to Libyan intelligence, Abdel Basset Ali al-Megrahi. Suddenly, the theories of perpetrator and motive changed. The Pan Am bombing was now theorized to be revenge commissioned by Libyan leader Muammar Qaddafi for the 1986 American air attack on one of his residences. In a special Scottish Court in The Netherlands, Al-Megrahi became the one man convicted of the terrorist crime.
He served almost eight years in prison, was granted compassionate release after developing cancer and died, three years later, in 2012. He always protested his innocence and his family has pressed an appeal to the Scottish Supreme Court, which recently completed hearings on his case. Their verdict on the appeal is awaited.
Meanwhile, in the same case in which Abdel Baset Ali al-Megrahi was convicted, his alleged accomplice, Lamen Khalifa Fhimah was acquitted, a fact that did not stop U.S. Attorney General William Barr from announcing the indictment of a man, Abu Agila Mas’ud, he called the third member of the terrorist team.
Mustafa Fetouri is a Libyan academic and freelance journalist. He is a recipient of the EU’s Freedom of the Press prize and writes regularly for Middle East Monitor.