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Pan Am Flight 103

On 21 December 1988, Pan Am Flight 103, en route from London to New York, exploded over Lockerbie, Scotland just half an hour after departure, killing 259 passengers and crew and 9 people on the ground. A bomb was suspected, and authorities recovered the “black box” (the flight voice recorder and data recorder) and examined radar evidence. Britain’s Air Accident Investigation Branch (AAIB) and Scottish detectives collected 35,000 photographs and interviewed 15,000 people, but it was the discovery of an electronic timer circuit board, which had been placed in a Toshiba cassette player and then loaded into a piece of Samsonite luggage, that provided the necessary clues as to the source of the plane’s destruction.

The subsequent investigation, as with the later crash of TWA Flight 800, produced endless analysis, suspicion, claims, and counterclaims. Victims’ families wanted someone to blame; politicians wanted to establish whether the event was an attack; and conspiracy theorists tried to insert the event into existing theories of global politics. Although the explosion occurred while George Bush was president, links were quickly made to President Ronald Reagan, and then, during the investigation and trial, to President Bill Clinton. Ultimately, a vast array of individuals and organizations were implicated in some way or another to the explosion.

The AAIB, led by forensic expert James Thomas Thurman, found the small circuit board in the debris, and could trace the scrap of the circuit board to a Swiss manufacturer. This, in association with specimens from two types of chemicals used to manufacture Semtex, a plastic explosive, convinced authorities there was a bomb aboard the plane that was triggered by a timing device. In 1989, the 350 tons of debris was reassembled at an army base near Carlisle. Investigators then examined the evidence and concluded that it was a bomb, or, in their words, an “intentional explosive device.” The cockpit voice recorder verified a tremendous sound just prior to the aircraft going down, and burn marks on luggage indicated that something exploded in the luggage compartment.

Although at first Iran was suspected of what the authorities viewed as a bombing—although the word “bomb” did not appear in the actual report, but rather “improvised explosive device”—the timer shifted the investigation to two Libyan intelligence agents, Abdel Basset al-Megrahi and Lameen “The Egg” Fhima, who were indicted in 1991 and named by both British and U.S. governments as the culprits.

There were, however, numerous other theories and suspects:

• Ahmed Jibril, head of the General Command of the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine (PFLP-GC). Supported by Syria, the PFLP hated Israel and wanted to punish the United States for its support of the Jewish State. Conspiracy theorists claim that Jibril, however, could not be brought to justice because Palestine is not a sovereign state or a member of the United Nations. This conspiracy theory is also tied to Iran, which supposedly bankrolled the operation, but Syria could not be implicated because, by the time the United States learned all the details, it was involved in the Gulf War and President George Bush needed Syria as part of the coalition to defeat Saddam Hussein.

• Iran. One of the most widely held conspiracy theories is that Iranian agents blew Pan Am 103 out of the skies in retaliation for an incident that occurred in July 1988 when the USS Vincennes, mistaking an Iranian passenger aircraft for a hostile plane over the Straits of Hormuz, shot down the Iranian plane filled with civilians, killing 290. Iranian leaders vowed to “avenge the blood of our martyrs.”

• Drug runners and/or the CIA. In this version of events, “rogue” CIA agents in the Reagan administration, working through Oliver North, were attempting to free U.S. hostages in the Middle East. The middlemen in the operation were heroin runners from Syria who transported drugs to the United States through Frankfurt, Germany. According to one “informant,” a smuggler (with the CIA’s knowledge) would check luggage onto a plane and an accomplice in the baggage department would substitute an identical bag containing narcotics. (There is no explanation for the need for two people here, or why anyone with access to the baggage department would not be able to just plant the bogus bag himself.) At any rate, Monzer al-Kassar, a Syrian drug smuggler, who was behind the operation, learned that a hostage rescue team had discovered the smuggling operation, and that the team was aboard Pan Am 103. PBS’s television program Frontline claimed in January 1990 that these “intelligence officials” were a “strong secondary target.” At that point, the various theories reach a confluence of sorts, with Jibril handling the actual details of the bombing, switching a suitcase bomb for the drug luggage.

• Yet another version involved Oliver North and the CIA, especially as it related to another aircraft explosion, over Gander, Newfoundland, in December 1985. In this iteration, a group of special operations forces smuggled a small nuclear “backpack” bomb aboard the aircraft in Cairo, which they originally were to have transported to Iraq to blow up the Iraqi nuclear weapons development facility under the guise of a nuclear accident. Supposedly, when these soldiers understood that their mission was a suicide mission, they backed out, but to keep them quiet, the government ordered their Arrow Air DC-8 destroyed by a bomb, which caused the aircraft to crash at Gander, killing 248. The connection to Pan Am 103 is that supposedly the same timing device was found at each site, and in a letter to the U.S. House Intelligence Committee in 1998, the president of the firm that made the timers claimed that the circuit board in both explosions was made for the CIA.

• There was no bomb at all. As in the case of TWA 800, which exploded in 1996, one theory maintains that there was no bomb at all. This theory suggests that there was an explosion, which has been attributed to, among other things, a shotgun or a flare gun going off, a structural defect in the airplane causing the cabin door to rip free, or an electrical fault. Like other theories, this theory hinges on the absence of bomb fragments at the crash site, and, as with TWA 800, this version mostly arose from passengers in litigation who wanted to prove negligence by the aircraft manufacturers. In particular, rapid decompression theories emphasized the location in both Pan Am 103 and TWA 800 of the nose section as having fallen off before the aircraft finally crashed, indicating an explosion separated the front section of the aircraft from the aft. Carl A. Davies, author of Plane Truth, and John Berry Smith, a British investigator, comparing tests of Pan Am 103, TWA 800, and Air India 182, found no evidence of bombtype explosions that totally demolished the section in which a bomb was located in controlled bomb tests. Other “explanations” have included an “electromagnetic high-energy slug” either deliberately or accidentally fired from Alaska.

• The Mossad. A view popular with antisemites, this version maintains that the Mossad planted a bomb to kill Americans so as to “discredit” Palestinian Liberation Organization chairman Yassir Arafat’s “peace initiative.” This version lacks the details of most of the other explanations, but still manages to place blame on President George Bush.

• The Palestinians. National Public Radio’s All Things Considered program produced a “confession” in 1994 by Youssef Shaaban, a Palestinian who was standing trial for the killing of a Jordanian diplomat. Many observers, however, considered his confession a desperate attempt to gain a stay on a sure death sentence.

• In addition to possible guilty individuals or groups, charges were also leveled at Pan Am and/or airport security for weak security measures in England.

Due to the fact that the incident occurred over Scottish airspace, the trial took place under Scottish law, but because of the international nature of the bombing, with multiple possible locations and passengers of all nationalities, the trial was held at Camp Zeist in the Netherlands by way of treaty agreement between Libya, the United Kingdom, and the United States. In May 2000, the court under Scottish High Court judge Lord Ranald Sutherland convened. The following January, the court delivered a mixed verdict of guilty for Abdel Basset al-Megrahi and an acquittal for Lameen Fhima. Al-Megrahi immediately appealed. Meanwhile, the families of the Pan Am 103 flight had begun a long quest to sue Libya for damages, overturning a traditional principle of international law. Allan Gerson, a former diplomat, took the case for the families and, partly as a result of changes in antiterrorism legislation following the Oklahoma City bombing, in 1996 the Foreign Sovereign Immunities Act was amended to permit lawsuits like Gerson’s to proceed. In 1998, a federal appeals court ruled that lawsuits against Libya could proceed. Among the victims was twenty-year-old Theodora Cohen, whose parents waged a campaign to sue Libya, calling the attack a “ghastly act of war.” Susan and Daniel Cohen, Theodora’s parents, who wrote Pan Am 103, claimed that Clinton administration efforts at “normalizing” relations with Khaddafi’s Libya had interfered with prosecution of the case against the terrorist state.