How the whole world was sold a monstrous lie over Lockerbie: Author claims it WASN’T Libya who bombed the 747 jumbo jet – and the prime suspect is alive and living in Washington
- Iran’s former interiror minister authorised and finaced the hit, the US claimed
- Ahmed Jibril was founder and commander of Palestinian group that did bombing
- Bomb maker Marwan Khreesat built the device hidden in radio-cassette player
- Abdelbaset al-Megrahi was senteced to life in 2001 but was released in 2009
It was just a few days before Christmas, and Pan Am flight 103 was at cruising altitude, packed with students heading home to America. Maid of the Seas, a 747 jumbo jet, had left on schedule from Heathrow at 6.25pm, the start of a long journey through the night to New York, Detroit and the holidays.
As she approached the Solway Firth 38 minutes into the flight, the crew had started serving drinks – and it was then that, far below, Alan Topp, an air traffic controller at Glasgow’s Prestwick Airport found himself blinking in disbelief. The single green box on the screen in front of him that marked the location of Pan Am 103 had disappeared.
Briefly, it was replaced by five new boxes, representing the nose cone, the wings, the main fuselage and the tailplane. These, too, then vanished as they fell below the radar horizon while bodies, luggage and debris spilled out into the void six miles above the Scottish borders.
DOUGLAS BOYD claims that the Lockerbie bombing was carried out by Iran
It was two minutes before they hit Lockerbie.
The worst damage in the town came from the wings containing 20,000 gallons of aviation fuel, which exploded on impact and gouged a crater 30ft wide, 100ft long and 30ft feet deep in Sherwood Crescent. Two houses were completely obliterated along with their inhabitants.
It is a tragic irony that Flight 103 had become a sort of ‘student special’ after a terror threat to US airlines was relayed to all American diplomats in Europe with the result that many cancelled their reservations.
The empty seats were offered at cheap rates by student travel agencies. More than half of the passengers, 137, were under 30 and many had called their parents excitedly before they boarded, saying how lucky they had been to get a cheap seat just before Christmas.
That is how Dr Jim Swire, a Worcestershire GP, and his wife Jane learned that their daughter Flora was booked on the flight, heading across the Atlantic to see her boyfriend.
With a loss of 259 lives on board and 11 more on the ground, the destruction of Maid of the Seas, blown up by a terrorist bomb on December 21, 1988, was the worst civil aviation disaster in British history. Yet 30 years later, we still do not officially know who is responsible for mass murder high in the air above a small Scottish market town preparing for Christmas.
Iran’s former interior minister Ali Akbar Mohtasamipur authorised and financed the bombing, according to the US
It is nothing short of a scandal.
There was, of course, a fall guy. Eleven years after the atrocity, a 47-year-old Libyan Arab Airlines security officer called Abdelbaset al-Megrahi was convicted on a tissue of lies which centred on the evidence of a Maltese shopkeeper who claimed to remember him buying clothes similar to those that may have been in the suitcase with the bomb that would rip through the fuselage.
A low-level Libyan CIA ‘asset’ called Abdul Majid Giaka said he recalled seeing al-Megrahi collect a brown Samsonite suitcase from the Arrivals carousel in Malta’s Luqa airport on December 20, 1988. On the following morning, he alleged, the unaccompanied suitcase was loaded on to a flight to Frankfurt, from where it would be transferred to London on a Pan Am ‘feeder flight’ and loaded aboard Flight 103 – before then exploding.
A further 11 years later, al-Megrahi was sentenced to life imprisonment at an extraordinary trial held in a disused American air base near Utrecht, Holland.
After years investigating the Lockerbie disaster and its background, I have found that little of the evidence against him can be taken at face value. Instead, a very different story has emerged from the morass of lies, one that should have been apparent from the very start.
It is a story of incompetence, vengeance, political expediency and then a cover-up orchestrated from the very highest levels in London and in Washington – where the real bomber is said to live today, under the cover of an American witness protection scheme.
In the days and months after the crash, thousands of police, military personnel and specialised investigators from Britain’s Air Accidents Investigation Branch scoured southern Scotland, finding debris over an area of 1,500 square miles. Investigators from the US Federal Aviation Authority and the FBI took part.
Representatives of the CIA were present for reasons not divulged. Charred material said to have been found some weeks after the bombing in woods near Lockerbie was sent for analysis to Fort Halstead in Kent, the Ministry of Defence research establishment, where senior scientific officer Thomas Hayes identified bits of black plastic, metal and wire mesh as parts of a Toshiba radio-cassette player.
It had contained a bomb and a small piece of circuit board that Hayes believed to be the remnants of a timer. After three years of the joint British/US investigation, this and other evidence pointed in one clear direction: an obscure terrorist group called the People’s Front for the Liberation of Palestine – General Command (PFLP-GC).
Sleeper cells from the organisation had been arrested in a series of raids in Germany a few weeks before Lockerbie, in which bombs hidden in Toshiba radio-cassette players had been seized alongside a fearsome arsenal of explosives, firearms and ammunition.
Ahmed Jibril was the founder and commander of the Palestinian terror group that carried out the bombing
Shortly after the disaster, the Palestine Liberation Organisation, keen to boost its credentials as a political rather than terrorist organisation, published an 80-page report claiming the PFLP-GC had been paid to blow up the plane – by Iran.
It also named a man called Abu Elias as a prime suspect for breaking into the Pan Am baggage store in Heathrow and planting the bomb. The baggage handling area had been broken into with bolt croppers shortly before Flight 103 took off.
Years later, of course, the world would be persuaded to accept a very different story. But in September 1989, the evidence of Iranian guilt seemed so clear that the US Defense Intelligence Agency issued a public statement saying: ‘The bombing of the Pan Am flight was conceived, authorised and financed by Ali-Akbar Mohtashamipur, Iran’s former interior minister. The execution of the operation was contracted to Ahmad Jibril, leader of the PFLP-GC.’
INDEED, the fate of the passengers and crew of Flight 103 was sealed not in Libya but five months earlier in Tehran after the shooting down of an Iran Air Airbus A300 by the American warship USS Vincennes on July 3, 1988.
The Vincennes, sailing illegally in Iranian waters, inexplicably mistook the passenger jet for a hostile fighter, despite the fact it was climbing in Iranian airspace and its transponder clearly identified it as a civilian aircraft. All 290 people on board were killed.
According to a former Iranian intelligence officer, Iranian leader Ayatollah Khomeini responded by ordering a ‘qisas’ – a like-for-like punishment under Sharia law – that required the destruction of an American aircraft in revenge.
Jordanian bomb-maker Marwan Khreesat built the explosive device hidden inside a Toshiba radio-cassette player
Iran needed a deniable proxy and its intelligence service knew who to turn to: the PFLP-GC, with whom it had discussed collaboration a few months earlier. The group’s leader, Ahmed Jibril, was a Palestine-born former Syrian Army officer linked to Syrian and Soviet intelligence.
He, in turn, hired Jordanian explosives expert Marwan Khreesat to design a bomb that could pass through airport luggage checks and, for preference, detonate over water, destroying the aircraft, killing all on board and leaving no clues. The terrorist group had already proved its bomb could work – blowing up a Swissair flight on February 21, 1970, killing all 47 passengers and crew, and an Austrian Airlines jet the same day, which managed to land safely at Frankfurt airport.
When news of the qisas reached Lebanon, Jibril called Tehran and offered to execute it.
It is likely that the US National Security Agency and Israeli interceptors monitored the unencrypted phone call. Evidence exists that the price agreed was in the region of £7.7 million – £1.5 million on the handshake and the balance on completion.
And so, in 1988, Jibril sent a key lieutenant, 30-year-old Hafaz Mohammed Hussein Dalkamoni to the PFLP-GC’s European headquarters in the Serbian town of Krusevac, where weapons, explosives and other material were stored. His mission was to activate Jibril’s several sleeper cells in Germany. The following month, bomb-maker Khreesat was despatched to Neuss, near Dusseldorf, where the German police photographed a stream of his visitors, including a known PFLP-GC courier.
Suspicions grew that an attack on Frankfurt airport – near which other members of the cell had a base – was being planned.
The team were observed buying radios and computer equipment, batteries, switches, alarm clocks and cable.
Telephone calls were monitored to a kebab restaurant in Cyprus, which functioned as a postbox for Jibril. And in a call to Damascus bomb-maker Khreesat said he had made changes to ‘the medicine’, which was now ‘stronger than before’.
In fact, Khreesat built five bombs, concealed inside Toshiba radio-cassette players, each containing a barometric switch that started a timer when the pressure inside the plane fell to a pre-set level, meaning the aircraft would be destroyed around 38 minutes into the flight – a clear match to the Lockerbie explosion. On October 24, in a call to Amman, Jordan, Khreesat said he would be done in a few days.
After a CIA warning of an imminent terror attack, the German police launched raids on a dozen apartments, including the ones at Neuss and Frankfurt.
Khreesat and Dalkamoni and a dozen others were arrested in possession of an extraordinary haul of weapons and bomb- making equipment.
Their car contained blasting caps and an alarm clock modified to serve as a timing device – and a Toshiba radio-cassette player already converted into a bomb.
Five kilos of the Czech-made explosive Semtex were also taken away, with 5.7 kilos of another unidentified plastic explosive, three kilos of TNT and 89 detonators.
How was it, then, that Libya came to take the blame, in the face of such overwhelming evidence, and why?
Abdelbaset al-Megrahi, head of security for Libyan Arab Airlines, was sentenced to life in 2001, but released in 2009
The answer lies in Saddam Hussein’s Iraqi invasion of Kuwait in August 1990, which prompted the First Gulf War – for which Washington and London needed the compliance of Iraq’s neighbours Iran and Syria.
A plausible new Lockerbie suspect had to be found and, conveniently, in June 1991 a CIA officer had ‘a hunch’ that the Iran/PFLP-GC theory was a false lead.
Instead, he saw similarities between Lockerbie and the arrest in Senegal of two Libyans carrying 20lb of explosives and triggering devices like the one from which the Lockerbie fragments had apparently come.
The theory gained traction because of Libyan leader Colonel Gaddafi’s known financial support for terrorists, including the IRA, and because it turned out that Gaddafi himself was happy to accept the blame.
Libya had been an international pariah under strict economic sanctions since the murder of British PC Yvonne Fletcher, shot dead in London in 1984, and it was the prospect of the lifting of these sanctions that led Gaddafi’s intelligence service to find a plausible scapegoat.
The 47-year-old airline security officer Abdelbaset al-Megrahi fitted the bill. He had been abroad on business on December 20-21, passing though Malta’s Luqa airport on both days.
All that was needed was evidence. Fortunately, the CIA had a very low-level Libyan ‘asset’, Abdul Majid Giaka, on secondment from his job as a mechanic for Gaddafi’s intelligence service to Libyan Arab Airlines in Malta.
After a large reward was offered for information about the Lockerbie bombers, Giaka suddenly volunteered that he had seen al-Megrahi collect a brown Samsonite suitcase from the arrivals carousel in Luqa airport on December 20, 1988. The following morning, he alleged, the suitcase was loaded on to a flight to Frankfurt, from where it would be transferred to London on a Pan Am transfer and loaded aboard Flight 103.
Giaka became a star prosecution witness alongside Maltese shopkeeper Tony Gauci, who testified he had sold clothes similar to those found close to the bomb to a man fitting al-Megrahi’s description.
There was forensic evidence, too. A fingernail-sized fragment of a circuit board, recovered in Scottish woodland months after the crash, was identified as a remnant of the device that brought down Pan Am 103.
FBI officer Thomas Thurman also identified it as part of an electronic timer made by MEBO, a Swiss firm which made circuit boards for domestic appliances and had supplied some to Libya. One of MEBO’S technicians named Ulrich Lumpert was willing to testify that he had made this particular board. On November 14, 1991 al-Megrahi and an ‘accomplice’ called Al-Amin Khalifa Fhimah were formally accused at simultaneous press conferences in Edinburgh and Washington. Gaddafi was ordered to extradite them, but resisted, offering to try them in Libya.
The stalemate was not resolved until almost ten years later when it was agreed the two Libyans should face justice in a Scottish court sitting at Kamp van Zeist, a disused American Air Force base in Utrecht, Holland.
Al-Megrahi was found guilty. Al-Amin Khalifa Fhimah was cleared, yet the stench of a fix remained. MEBO’s co-owner, Edwin Bollier, for example, revealed he had declined an FBI offer of several million dollars for a circuit board to be used in evidence and to testify that the fragment produced in court was part of one specifically supplied to Libya.
In 2007, his technician Lumpert admitted he had lied. He also confessed to stealing part of a timing board from MEBO and handing it to an ‘official person investigating the Lockerbie case’.
There were problems, too, with the technical evidence.
FBI explosive ‘expert’ Thurman was later revealed to be a politics graduate with no relevant scientific training who had altered laboratory reports to favour the prosecution in 30 cases.
Even the identifying witness, shopkeeper Gauci, was tainted. The court was not told he had initially picked out a photograph of a completely different terror suspect and only in the course of 18 further statements did his description of the clothes shopper change to fit al-Megrahi. Gauci’s financial reward from the CIA was not disclosed.
The investigators glossed over the question of how the terrorists were supposed to prime their bomb in Malta and expect it to explode two flights later.
The small number of people who had followed the trial, including relatives of victims such as Jim Swire and the Rev John Mosey, each of whom lost a daughter, and the official United Nations observer Professor Hans Kochler, considered the verdict a gross miscarriage of justice.
On August 20, 2009, al-Megrahi, in the final stages of terminal prostate cancer, was released on compassionate grounds ahead of his second appeal against conviction.
Shortly after he was flown back to Libya, Alistair Darling, then the Chancellor, and Scottish First Minister Alex Salmond both denied the release had anything to do with a deal struck with the Libyan government over BP oil contracts.
However, there is another reason why the release might have been politically expedient. Al-Megrahi’s new lawyers wanted to call hundreds of pages of evidence withheld from his original trial that would have linked the case to Iran and the PFLP-GC, rather than al-Megrahi and Libya – to the huge embarrassment of Westminster and Washington.
The Labour Government was so concerned that Foreign Secretary David Miliband issued a public interest immunity certificate exempting the prosecution from disclosing any evidence it chose to hide.
Most of the participants in the story went to the grave without the truth being told. Al-Megrahi died at home with his family on May 20, 2012. Palestinian terror leader Ahmed Jibril was blown up by a roadside bomb placed by an Al Qaeda-linked group on August 26, 2014. Bomb-maker Marwan Khreesat reportedly died in October 2016.
Only the mysterious Abu Elias, claimed to be the person most likely to have placed the Samsonite suitcase on Flight 103, is believed to be still alive. He was named in the Scottish parliament in 2009 and is thought to be living in Washington DC under a witness protection programme and employed by the local education authority under the name of Basel Bushnaq. If true, this is the crowning scandal of the whole sordid affair.
© Douglas Boyd, 2018
- Adapted extract from Lockerbie: The Truth, by Douglas Boyd, published by The History Press at £20. Offer price £16 (20 per cent discount, with free p&p) until October 7. Order at mailshop.co.uk/books or call 0844 571 0640. Spend £30 on books and get free premium delivery.
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