Exclusive: The near-three-decade-old Pan Am 103 case — a plane bombing over Lockerbie, Scotland — shows how a dubious “group think” of Official Washington not only withstands scrutiny but can become the foundation for further allegations and become “history,” as John Ashton describes.
By John Ashton
On Oct. 15, Scotland’s prosecuting authority, the Crown Office, announced that two Libyan men are being treated as suspects in the 28-year-old Pan Am 103 bombing case. They were widely reported to be Abu Agila Masud, an alleged bomb-maker, and Abdullah Senussi, Muammar Gaddafi’s former security chief. Both were associates of the only person convicted of the bombing, Abelbaset al-Megrahi, who died in 2012.
The development came almost 15 years after Megrahi’s trial, but only two days after the broadcast by PBS Frontline of a three-part documentary My Brother’s Bomber. Trailed by a long article in the New Yorker, the film was made by Ken Dornstein, a former Frontline staffer whose older brother David was one of 270 who died when Pan Am 103 was destroyed over the Scottish town of Lockerbie on Dec. 21, 1988.
The documentary reveals that Masud was named by a German judge (Detlev Mehlis) as the technical expert responsible for the 1986 bombing of the La Belle nightclub in Berlin. That attack, which killed three, including two U.S. servicemen, and injured many more, led to the U.S. air strikes on Libya, for which Libya allegedly took revenge with the bombing of Pan Am 103.
Megrahi flew with Masud from Malta to Libya on the morning of the Lockerbie bombing having, according to the prosecution, placed a suitcase containing a bomb on an Air Malta flight to Frankfurt. The unaccompanied suitcase was allegedly transferred to a feeder flight to London Heathrow and again at Heathrow on to Pan Am 103.
Megrahi denied knowing Masud, yet the two men were on other flights in the run-up to Lockerbie and, according to the film, Masud was in the car that met him on his return to Libya in 2009, following his release from prison in Scotland.
Before I comment, a declaration of interest. I worked for Megrahi for three years as a researcher and following his return to Libya, and, at his request, wrote his biography. I was also a paid consultant during the early stages of Ken Dornstein’s production and, although I disagree with his conclusions, am on good terms with him.
There is no doubt that Libya supported terrorist groups and that at least one Libyan, Musbah Eter, who was an official at the Libyan People’s Bureau in East Berlin, was involved in the La Belle bombing. Eter was convicted for his role following a confession in which he implicated his co-accused, Palestinian Yassar Chraidi, Lebanese-born German Ali Chanaa (both of whom worked at the People’s Bureau) and Chaana’s wife Verana.
He implicated a number of others, including Masud, whom he described as a bomb technician. Masud was never apprehended for the bombing and when German prosecutor Dethlev Mehlis went to Libya to interview witnesses all denied his existence — as did the Libyan witnesses in the Lockerbie case.
There is also no doubt that the La Belle case is far less straightforward than portrayed in the film. At the time of the bombing, the Reagan administration was involved in a large, secret and dirty war against Libya. From the time Reagan took office in 1981 his government exaggerated the country’s role in terrorism, which it claimed — falsely — was central to a Soviet-directed global conspiracy against the West.
At the same time, the Reagan administration downplayed the role of equally active terrorist states Syria and Iran. There were two reasons for this: firstly, those countries held far greater strategic power in the Middle East than Libya; and secondly, their militant proxies held U.S. hostages in Lebanon. The hostages’ safe return was an obsession that led the administration into the Iran-Contra scandal.
Under the direction of CIA’s rabidly neocon director, William Casey, the Agency launched a massive covert campaign against Libya, aimed at toppling Gaddafi. It was run from the National Security Council by the same people who ran the Iran-Contra operation, including Oliver North.
Libyan agent Ali al-Megrahi, who was convicted by a Scottish tribunal for the bombing of Pan Am 103 over Lockerbie, Scotland, in 1988. Megrahi, who always asserted his innocence, died in 2012.
Disinformation was central to the campaign. In 1981, the CIA put out a false story that Gaddafi has sent a hit squad to the U.S. to assassinate Reagan. The White House played along using an unmarked car to drive Reagan while decoy limousines were used to dupe the non-existent gunmen.
By the mid-1980s, the White House hardliners were hungry for an excuse to attack Libya and NSC staff drew up plans to provoke Libya in to a response that would provide the excuse they needed. Naval exercises were conducted off the Libyan coast in which Libyan vessels were hit and territorial water repeatedly violated.
Gaddafi appeared not to take the bait. Then, on April 5, 1986, came the La Belle bombing. The White House soon announced that it had irrefutable evidence of Libya’s involvement. Nine days later came the air strikes against Libya, which came within a whisker of killing Gaddafi.
The “irrefutable evidence” was intercepts of incriminatory messages sent between the Libyan government and the East Berlin People’s Bureau. Libyan intelligence traffic was normally processed and evaluated by a group known as G-6 at the National Security Agency, before being forwarded elsewhere.
An investigation by Seymour Hersh for the New York Times established that the La Belle intercepts were never sent to G-6. An NSA official told him “The G-6 section branch and division chiefs didn’t know why it was taken from them. They were bureaucratically cut out and so they screamed and yelled.”
Another explained, “There is no doubt that if you send raw data to the White House, that constitutes misuse because there’s nobody there who’s capable of interpreting it. . . . You screw it up every time when you do it –– and especially when the raw traffic is translated into English from a language such as Arabic, that’s not commonly known.”
The eventual prosecution of Eter and his three co-accused was reliant upon Eter’s confession and corroborating material from the files of the former East German security service, the Stasi. (Chaana also confessed but his evidence was not considered as important and Eter’s.) The Stasi had a number of informants within Berlin’s Arab communities, including Chaana, and kept a close watch on the East Berlin Libyan People’s Bureau.
During the 1980s, Berlin was a pit of Cold War double-dealing. The Stasi files indicate that among the Arab communities survival and personal advancement often trumped loyalty to any particular cause. The information relayed to the Stasi by its Arab informants might be cast iron, but against this background it’s also possible that they were recycling each other’s inventions.
The East Berlin Libyan People’s Bureau, in particular, hosted numerous personal rivalries and little mutual trust. Eter was one of the more interesting vipers in the nest. According to the Stasi and a 1998 investigation by the German TV channel ZDF, he was a CIA asset. ZDF discovered that, at the time he made his confession in 1996, he was running a CIA front company in Malta.
The year before La Belle he was named as a suspect in the assassination in West Germany of a Libyan dissident called Jibril el-Dinali. (Der Spiegel reported at the time that dissidents believed that the German federal police, the BKA, had supplied their secret addresses to Libyan officials in return for intelligence about the German terrorist group the Red Army Faction, which had received Libyan support.)
Eter is Ken Dornstein’s key witness and will be central to any prosecution of Masud and Senussi. According to the film, since Dornstein made contact, he has told the FBI that Masud and Megrahi were pivotal to the Lockerbie plot. He claims that Masud told him personally that he was responsible for both the Lockerbie and La Belle bombings.
Unfortunately for anyone tasked with prosecuting at a trial of the new suspects, the CIA connection and his murderous past leave Eter with a credibility problem. So too does the fact that he waited 19 years after confessing to talk about Lockerbie.
Other Stasi informants involved in the case had a relationship with the CIA, as did some of those originally implicated in the bombing. One was a close associate of Chraidi’s, Mahmoud Abu Jaber, who with his brother Mohamed ran a freelance Palestinian terrorist cell that was mistrusted by other Palestinians.
The Stasi learned that the CIA knew that Mahmoud Abu Jaber and another cell member, Khaled Shatta, were involved in the bombing. They mixed regularly with the Chraidi and the other defendants and hours before the attack they travelled to West Berlin. They were watched by the Stasi and KGB, both of which concluded that they were working for Western intelligence.
One declassified KGB document suggested that Mahmoud Abu Jaber was a CIA agent provocateur, who was used to create a case against Libya. Group member Mahmoud Amayiri, who was both Shatta’s brother and Mahmoud Abu Jaber’s right-hand man, confirmed to ZDF through his Norwegian lawyer that he had been working for Mossad. He had fled Germany for Norway in 1990, following the issuing of an arrest warrant, which was later dropped.
The idea that some of the La Belle plotters were western agents provocateur is not far-fetched. A 1997 investigation by British Channel 4 TV’s Dispatches series revealed that the CIA-funded anti-Gaddafi terrorist group Al-Burkan was involved in the 1984 murder of police officer Yvonne Fletcher, who was killed when staff at the London Libya People’s Bureau opened fire on a crowd of anti-Gaddafi demonstrators.
A member of a Berlin criminal gang connected to Al-Burkan described transporting the murder weapon to London and handing it over to an Al-Burkan member. The program uncovered evidence that the fatal shot was fired from a building adjacent to the People’s Bureau used by the UK intelligence services. It also claimed that Al Burkan had moles within the People’s Bureau.
The U.S. government was reluctant to share its intelligence about La Belle with the Germans and it was not until 1996 that it did. It appeared to be convincing and included transcripts of intercepted messages, allegedly between Tripoli and the East Berlin Libyan People’s Bureau. Among other things, these suggested that senior Libyan intelligence official Said Rashid, a friend and relative of Megrahi’s, coordinated the attack.
The U.S. government may well have believed the intercepts to be genuine, but, according to former Mossad agent Victor Ostrovsky, they were an elaborate hoax. In his 1994 memoir, The Other Side of Deception, he claimed that the messages were in fact part of a Mossad disinformation operation codenamed Trojan.
Ostrovsky said that a few weeks before the bombing Israeli commandos secretly installed special communications equipment in an apartment near Colonel Gaddafi’s headquarters, which was subsequently used to broadcast phony terrorist orders. Neither German prosecutor Mehlis, nor the FBI, contacted Ostrovsky about his claims.
While none of this rules out Libyan sponsorship of La Belle, it does flash a warning that we should treat the official account with caution.
An even thicker fog surrounds Lockerbie. The CIA’s campaign against Libya did not end with the 1986 raids, indeed a few months after them President Reagan signed a secret National Security Decision Directive, which, according to a leak to Watergate journalist Bob Woodward, ordered “covert, diplomatic and economic steps designed to . . . bring about a change of leadership in Libya.”
In view of what we now know about Lockerbie, it’s not outlandish to suggest that those covert steps may have included manipulating the investigation behind the backs of the police and prosecutors.
Declassified U.S. intelligence documents state as fact that the bombing was not Gaddafi’s revenge for the 1986 raids, but was rather Iran’s for the U.S. Navy’s accidental shoot-down of Iran Air flight 655 over the Arabian Gulf, which killed 290 people six months before Lockerbie.
According to the documents, the Iranians contracted out the job to the Syrian-based Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine — General Command, which had a track record of blowing up aircraft. One document, from 1991, stated, without naming the PFLP-GC, that the Iranian interior minister Ali Akbar Mohtashemi paid the bombers $10 million.
Former CIA agent Robert Baer has provided some of the details of the Iranian/PFLP-GC plot and another, Richard Fuisz, revealed in a court deposition that he was told by numerous senior Syrian officials closely connected to the PFLP-GC that the group carried out the attack.
Two months before Lockerbie members of the group were arrested in Germany, including bomb-maker Marwan Kreesat, who had made the bombs used in previous attacks. He admitted building bombs into Toshiba BomBeat radio cassette players — the same brand that housed the Lockerbie bomb —and said the group was planning to strike a western airliner. Other members of the group and at least one of his bombs evaded detection.
A Strange Warning
Less than three weeks before the bombing, the State Department’s Office of Diplomatic Security (ODS) warned that unnamed radical Palestinians in Europe were planning to target Pan Am. The warning came three days before the better known and entirely separate warning received by the U.S. embassy in Helsinki that an attack on Pan Am was imminent.
Whereas the Helsinki warning was written off as a hoax, the ODS warning, which was not revealed until seven years after the bombing, has never been adequately explained.
The key evidence that led the investigators away from Iran and PFLP-GC towards Libya was a small piece of circuit board known as PT/35(b), found within a blast-damaged piece of a Maltese-made shirt. The prosecution case at Megrahi’s trial was that it matched boards made to order for Swiss company Mebo by its supplier Thüring.
Crucially Mebo used the boards in timers called MST-13s, which it had designed and built 20 for the Libyan intelligence service. Megrahi was a partner in a Libyan company that rented part of Mebo’s Zurich offices.
Well before Lockerbie, the CIA had an MST-13 timer that had been seized in Togo in 1986 and photos of the one seized in Senegal in 1988. Prosecution statements by a CIA technical expert, disclosed six years after Megrahi’s conviction, revealed that the Agency was also aware before Lockerbie that the timers had been made by Mebo and supplied to Libya.
The Agency had a backchannel to Mebo boss Edwin Bollier via the Swiss police, so it’s likely that it knew of Megrahi’s connection to Mebo via his company ABH. (The Stasi, who had a relationship with Bollier from at least the early 1970s, were convinced by the late 1980s that he was a direct CIA asset.)
The story of the PT/35(b) fragment is ridden with evidential anomalies. Megrahi’s trial team highlighted a number of discrepancies concerning the fragment, including the fact that the handwritten description on the police label attached to the piece of shirt had been surreptitiously changed from “Cloth” to “Debris.”
There were numerous other discrepancies not raised at trial. These included German documents that reported that the Scottish police had told the German federal police that PT/35(b) had been found in January 1990, seven months after it was officially found.
In his memoir Scotbom: Evidence and the Lockerbie Investigation, the head of the FBI’s Lockerbie investigation, Richard Marquise, revealed that he and his Scottish counterpart, Stuart Henderson, speculated that the fragment was a CIA plant. They dismissed the suggestion on the grounds that “Neither of us believed the CIA or any government official would do such a thing.”
However, Marquise also revealed that their Swiss police counterpart suspected it was a plant. This is especially interesting in view of a claim made in an affidavit by Mebo technician Ulrich Lumpert, who designed the boards and produced prototypes, that a year before the Lockerbie investigators had linked PT/35(b) to Mebo the Swiss police visited him and took with them a prototype board.
Shortly before Megrahi’s trial, the Scottish prosecutors received information from witnesses in the U.S. suggesting that an electronics company in Florida had made replica MST-13s for the CIA, but the lead was not properly investigated.
A Miscarriage of Justice
Documents unearthed by Scottish Criminal Cases Review Commission (SCCRC) — the statutory body that investigates alleged miscarriages of justice in Scotland — highlighted more anomalies. They included a police memo stating that PT/35(b) had been tested for explosive residues and found to be negative, which contradicted the court testimony of the Crown’s forensic experts, who said that no such tests had been done.
As Frontline’s documentary, My Brother’s Bomber, points out, the SCCRC investigated Bollier’s claim that the fragment was fabricated and found it to be baseless. However, the film fails to mention that both the SCCRC and Bollier missed the most important discrepancy concerning PT/35(b), which only emerged during preparations for Megrahi’s second appeal in 2009.
Metallurgical analysis showed that the fragment’s copper circuitry was plated with pure tin, whereas the boards made by Thüring, which were used in the timers supplied to Libya, were plated with a tin-lead alloy. Crown scientists had speculated that the explosion had changed the plating, but tests commissioned for the appeal disproved the theory. The work demonstrated beyond doubt that the Lockerbie fragment was not, as the court had accepted, a match for the Libyan MST-13s.
Other important forensic items had a dubious provenance. Among them was a collection of small charred circuit board fragments that apparently originated from a Toshiba BomBeat RT-SF16 radio cassette player.
A large proportion of the global production total of the model had been bought by the Libyan General Electrical Company, which was run by Said Rashid. The fragments appeared to be compelling evidence of Libyan involvement in the bombing, but, like PT/35(b), their origin is questionable. They were discovered by an air accident investigator within a folded piece of aluminum from the luggage container that housed the bomb suitcase.
Giving evidence at Megrahi’s trial, the investigator could not suggest how the blast could have caused the fragments to become trapped within the aluminum. He was sure that the fold had not occurred at the time of the explosion, which suggested that someone had placed the fragments within the aluminum after the blast.
Also of great importance to the prosecution case was a fragment of brown checked trousers containing a sewn-in label of a Maltese manufacturer called Yorkie. The item led the police to a shop in Malta called Mary’s House, where the proprietor, Tony Gauci, recalled selling a bundle of clothes — including brown checked trousers and other items found among the Lockerbie debris — to an oddly behaved Libyan a few weeks before the bombing.
Two years later, Gauci picked out Megrahi from a photo line-up, although he was considerably younger, smaller and lighter skinned than the man described by Gauci.
When the trouser fragment was first examined, the Yorkie label was seen by neither the forensic examiner nor the police officer present despite being easily visible. When questioned about it by the Scottish Criminal Cases Review Commission, both said they could not have missed it, which suggested that the label appeared after the examination.
The CIA not only knew before Lockerbie that Mebo had supplied MST-13 timers to Libya, they also knew that Megrahi regularly travelled to Malta, that he was related to Said Rashid and others high up within Libyan intelligence and security, and that Rashid was the head of the Libyan General Electrical Company. Much of this knowledge it attempted to conceal.
According to the former deputy chief of the U.S. State Department’s counterterrorism division, the Diplomatic Security Service, Fred Burton, a CIA official told him before New Year in 1988 that the bomb was in a Maltese-originating brown Samsonite.
Burton is no Lockerbie dissident — he believes Megrahi and Libya were guilty — but, if true, his indiscretions throw a big wrench into the prosecution narrative, which held that the evidence to support the claim was uncovered by the police well in to 1989.
A number of rescue volunteers have described to me arriving in Lockerbie within two hours of the bombing to find a group of American agents already present. According to the official narrative, this never happened and the first U.S. government staff only arrived three hours later.
Police officers reported concerns that Americans had unsupervised access to the crash site and a British helicopter crew member told me that the day after the bombing his crew ferried CIA agents around the site.
Some potentially significant forensic items found at the crash site disappeared, among them an AA battery with a piece of wire soldered to one of its terminals. German police photographs of the PFLP-GC’s Toshiba bomb showed that it incorporated AA batteries with wires soldered to their terminals.
Anyone raising these evidential anomalies gets branded a conspiracy theorist by the supporters of the official narrative, yet that narrative and the one newly minted by My Brother’s Bomber are themselves elaborate conspiracy theories.
When the theories and counter-theories are cast aside in favor of hard facts, the official narrative is no longer tenable. Not only did PT/35(b) not originate from one of the timers supplied to Libya, but Megrahi was clearly not the man who bought the clothes for the bomb suitcase and that purchase took place when he was not in Malta. New analysis of the baggage evidence demonstrates that the bomb suitcase originated from London Heathrow, rather than Malta.
Perhaps the hardest fact of all for the defenders of Megrahi’s conviction — which has barely been reported in all the coverage generated by My Brother’s Bomber — is that in 2007 the conviction was referred back to the appeal court by the Scottish Criminal Cases Review Commission on no fewer than six grounds.
One of these was that the trial court judgment, delivered by three of Scotland’s most senior judges, was unreasonable. Four of the other grounds concerned non-disclosure by the prosecution of important evidence.
The terminally ill Megrahi abandoned the appeal in the belief that it would aid his application for compassionate release from prison. Sadly, the commission this month rejected an application by family members and relatives of some of the British victims of Pan Am 103 for a further review of the conviction.
It may be that the only way to re-test the evidence against Megrahi will be a trial of the two newly announced suspects. If that happens, don’t hold your breath for a guilty verdict.
John Ashton is a British writer and researcher. From 2006 to 2009 he worked with the legal team fighting to overturn Abdelbaset al-Megrahi’s conviction for the Pan Am 103 bombing. He is the author of Megrahi: You are My Jury – The Lockerbie Evidence (pub. Birlinn 2012) and Scotland’s Shame: Why Lockerbie Still Matters (pub. Birlinn 2013).