by Alan Taylor

Who Was The Lockerbie Bomber?

March 2, 2012 | by Alan Taylor

It happened in the second last year of the reign of Ronald Reagan. On the evening of 21 December 1988, Pan Am Flight 103 imploded above Lockerbie instantly killing the 259 passengers and crew. On the ground, in the Dumfriesshire town which then had a population of around 4,000, a further eleven people died, all residents of Sherwood Crescent, on to which fell the plane’s fuel-heavy wings. It was Britain’s, and therefore Scotland’s, worst ever aviation disaster.

The majority of those on board were American, returning home for the Christmas holiday. In Megrahi: You Are My Jury, which John Ashton has written with interjections from Abdelbaset Al-Megrahi, the bomb that ripped through the plane’s fuselage is compared to the opening of a tin can. In his novel, Rabbit at Rest, John Updike allowed Harry ‘Rabbit’ Angstrom to offer a more colourful simile. It was, he reflected, like the ripping open of ‘a rotten melon’, which served also as a simile for the United States under Reagan.

‘Imagine sitting there in your seat being lulled by the hum of the big Rolls-Royce engines and the stewardesses bringing the clinking drinks caddy and the feeling of having caught the plane and nothing to do now but relax and then with a roar and giant ripping noise and scattered screams this whole cozy world dropping away and nothing under you but black space and your chest squeezed by the terrible unbreathable cold, that cold you can scarcely believe is there but that you sometimes actually feel still packed into the suitcases, stored in the pressurized hold, when you unpack your clothes, the dirty underwear and beach towels with the merciless chill of death from outer space still in them.’

Rabbit, alone among his Floridian golfing buddies, rather admired Reagan. What he liked in particular was the way he ‘floated above facts’ and his realization that there was more to government than facts. For Rabbit, a retired car dealer, heading towards a fatal heart attack before he was 60, life under Reagan was like being under an anaesthetic. By Rabbit’s lights, the world was a better place because of him. He had the magic touch. ‘He was a dream man.’

When Pan Am Flight PA103 blew up, Reagan was 76 years old. In his intimate memoir of him, Dutch, Edmund Morris makes no mention of Lockerbie and the plane with which it will forever be associated. Nor, indeed, does Margaret Thatcher in her autobiography, The Downing Street Years. It would appear that the two great leaders of the free world had bigger fish to fry. It is hard to avoid the conclusion that Lockerbie was not on their radar. In Reagan’s case, however, the omission, the oversight, is curious. Throughout his presidency he had been preoccupied with rogue states, prime among which were Iran, North Korea, Cuba, Nicaragua, and Libya. In a speech in 1985 to the American Bar Association, he said: ‘All of these states   are united by one simple criminal phenomenon – their fanatical hatred of the United States, our people, our way of life, our international stature… The American people are not – I repeat, not – going to tolerate intimidation, terror and outright acts of war against this nation and its people. And we are not going to tolerate these attacks from outlaw states run by the strangest collection of misfits, Looney Tunes and squalid criminals since the advent of the Third Reich…We must act together, or unilaterally if necessary, to insure that terrorists have no sanctuary – anywhere.’

Arguably the most hated of Reagan’s ‘misfits’ was Libya’s Colonel Gadaffi, whom he called ‘the mad dog of the Middle East’. Since he seized power of Libya, which has a population of around four million, in 1969, Gadaffi had acted as a ruthless and eccentric dictator.  The Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) was convinced it was Gadaffi who ordered the shootings in December 1986 of Americans at Rome and Vienna airports. There was, said Reagan, ‘irrefutable evidence’ for this. Less than a month later he ended all economic ties with Libya and ordered all Americans – about 1000-1500 – immediately to leave the country, telling them that if they stayed they would face repercussions when eventually they returned home.

Some interpreted this as a warning that force was about to be used against the Liby-ans but this was denied by the White House. As Richard Reeves, author of President Reagan: The Triumph of Imagination, noted, this was not true. ‘The President ordered the Sixth Fleet to once again conduct manoeuvres in the Gulf of Sidra, inside Gadaffi’s Line of Death along the coast of Libya. He wanted a repeat of the manoeuvres that had led to air combat and the shooting down of two Libyan jets in 1981. And he wanted assurances about a possible Soviet military response – “Could this lead us into trouble?” he asked the chairman of the Joint Chief of Staffs, Admiral William Crowe – but his military men were confident that action in the Mediterranean would not trigger a response. “All right,” the President said. “Let’s do it.”’

Every one of America’s allies thought this was not a good idea. Even Thatcher cautioned against it, deeming it a mere act of revenge and, moreover, a violation of international law that might stoke up trouble further down the line. Reagan went ahead anyway. Early in March 1986 US planes sank Libyan patrol vessels. Over the next few weeks, 56 Libyans were reported to have been killed and no Americans. On 5 April, in the early hours of the morning, a bomb went off in a nightclub in West Berlin killing one American and injuring 60 other men and women. Libya and Gadaffi were immediately identified as the perpetrators. The American response came ten days later. Deploying 18 F-111 bombers and the aircraft carriers America and Coral Sea, various targets in Libya were attacked. One parcel of bombs fell in a residential area of Tripoli, killing civilians and damaging the French embassy.

‘We have done what we have to do,” Reagan told the American people. ‘If necessary, we will do it again. Before Gadaffi seized power…the people of Libya had been friends of the United States. And I’m sure most Lib-yans are disgusted that this man has made his country a synonym for barbarism around the world… He counted on America to be passive. He counted wrong.’ Told by the CIA that Gadaffi used makeup and was believed to wear women’s clothes and high heels, Reagan quipped” ‘Maybe we could stop the terror by letting himself into Nancy’s closet.’

* *

Like Ronald Reagan and, for that matter, Margaret Thatcher, Abdelbaset Al-Megrahi was not unduly exercised by what happened over Lockerbie. Or at least no more than he was by other airline tragedies. As someone who had spent much of his adult life in the airline industry, he says he remembers seeing on television the ‘unearthly scenes’ of the site of the crash and the ‘raw grief’ of the bereaved. Similarly, he empathized with the staff of Pan Am, who he knew would be ‘deeply affected’. However, he insists his concern was simply that of the interested, concerned bystander, industry insider and fellow human being. That he might one day be accused of planting the bomb which blew flight PA103 out of the wintry night sky never in his wildest nightmares occurred to him. Why would it? Was he not a caring, loving man devoted to his family doing his best to get by in troubled times?

In Megrahi: You Are My Jury, Megrahi says he learned of the disaster a day after it happened. On what he describes as ‘an otherwise ordinary day’, the only remarkable event he can recall was a family gathering to celebrate the birth of his week-old niece. Nor, it would appear, did he think he had any cause to worry. It was not until more than two years later, in the spring of 1991, that Megrahi came to realize that his fate and future would be ‘inextricably linked’ to the bombing. It was then, he says, that he took a call from an unidentified colleague in Libyan Arab Airlines (LAA) who told him that he had been visited by representatives of the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) and representatives of the Scottish and Swiss police who asked questions about Megrahi in connection with Lockerbie.  The colleague told them that Megrahi was ‘a normal, decent man’. For his part, Megrahi says he expressed a willingness to go to Switzer-land for questioning, which his LAA contact counselled against him doing.

Shortly thereafter, Megrahi says he received a call from a Maltese man named Vincent Vassallo, who ran a travel agency with Lamin Fhimah, who had formerly been an LAA colleague of Megrahi’s. Vassallo told him that the FBI and the Scottish policemen had visited his office and asked about Fhimah’s diary for 1988. Fhimah, notes Megrahi, was as ‘puzzled’ as he was over these developments. Nevertheless Fhimah said he was happy for the diary to be handed over and was willing to go to Malta, which is as near to Tripoli as Edinburgh is to York, for questioning. And there, says a ‘curious’ Megrahi, the matter lay dormant for several months. It was not until 14 November, 1991, and nearing the third anniversary of the Lockerbie bombing, that he received news via the BBC’s Arabic radio service that he and Fhimah were being charged with the murder of 270 people. ‘In an instant,’ he writes, ‘I was plunged into a nightmare from which there seemed no escape. Amid the mental firestorm, all I could think was “Why us?”. We were loving family men, who respected all human beings regardless of their nationality, religion or colour.’

* *

Who is Abdelbaset Al-Megrahi? In his own eyes, and those of many others, including his co-author, John Ashton, he is the victim of one of the greatest injustices ever perpetrated against someone who is innocent of the crime of which they have been accused, tried and found guilty. Among those who insist he did nothing wrong are the signatories to The Justice for Megrahi Campaign. They include Dr Jim Swire, whose daughter Flora was one of PA 103’s passengers, Archbishop Desmond Tutu and Cardinal Keith O’Brien, head of the Catholic Church in Scotland. Others, however, are just as adamantly convinced that he is culpable, claiming that if he did not act alone, then he was a willing instrument of Gadaffi’s murderous state. After a long, costly, historic and unprecedented trial at Camp Zeist in the Netherlands, three Scottish judges found him – but not his co-accused Fhimah – guilty and sentenced him to life imprisonment. In 2001, Megrahi unsuccessfully appealed his conviction. Still others remain to be convinced by either side.

Ashton, who was employed by Megrahi to work alongside his lawyers as they prepared the case to overturn his conviction, says that his ‘near certainty’ of his innocence is based on ‘my knowledge of the man himself’. That man, Megrahi reveals, was born in Tripoli in 1952, the third of eight siblings. His father worked for the Libyan customs service while his mother looked after the home. Initially, their house was shared with two other families. As a child Megrahi was sickly and had   twice daily injections for a chest infection.

‘Like most people in Libya,’ he writes, ‘I was brought up a faithful Muslim. Islam was, and remains, the binding force of our society; but, although we are a devout country, we have never been an extremist one. Sadly, that is a distinction that has been obscured by the hysterical rhetoric of the War on Terror. To me, and every Libyan I know, Islam is a religion of peace and charity, which can never be twisted to justify violence.’

After leaving school in 1970, he studied marine engineering at Rumney Technical College in Cardiff. Of his time there he offers few details. Marine engineering, it seems, did not greatly appeal to him but, in any case, he had no option but to abandon his studies and return home because of poor eyesight.  Back in Tripoli, he says he answered an advert for a job for a flight dispatcher with LAA – which has been described as ‘a known cover organization for Libyan intetlligence’ – and got it. Flight dispatchers are responsible for the safe and speedy turnaround of an aircraft. They must check that all the different departments have done their work properly to prepare aircraft between flights, including cleaning, refuelling and the loading of luggage. They must also ensure that other staff, such as cabin crew and engineers, have done their checks, and that all passengers have boarded the aircraft. Once satisfied that everything is as it should be the dispatcher is free to release the plane for ‘dispatch’.

Most of Megrahi’s training took place in Libya. At one point, though, he was sent to Pakistan to obtain a ‘Flight Operations Officers Licence’. Why Pakistan? He does not say. Nor does he explain why the training there ‘didn’t go well’. Subsequently, his training was completed in the United States. After four years in the job Megrahi had been promoted several times, first to Chief Flight Dispatcher, next to Controller of Operations at Tripoli Airport, and finally to Head of Training. Thereafter, he had a spell in academe but returned to work for LAA in 1979.

It was around this time, he says, that he got to know Lamin Fhimah. Like him, Fhimah had trained originally as a flight dispatcher, based at Tripoli Airport. Later, in 1982, he was appointed Malta Station Manager, where Megrahi would make a point of seeing him. ‘We would often go shopping together,’ he explains, ‘as he knew the best places to buy essentials and gifts that I wanted for my family. We were never close friends and didn’t socialise much together, but he was a nice man and good at his job. After the indictments were issued against us, one newspaper quoted an anonymous source who claimed he was a religious fanatic committed to destroying America. This was a total fabrication. Lamin loved life in Malta and the Western-style freedoms on offer there, including the chance to drink. He was popular and considerate, in short the last person who would commit mass murder in the name of Islam, or any other cause.’

In the months and years ahead Megrahi’s associations and history and ability seemingly to travel unimpeded (and on occasion unrecorded) from one country to another, without even using a passport in his own name, would be used as arguments to condemn him. The irony, of which he is not oblivious, is that one of his responsibilities as a flight dispatcher was to keep abreast of terrorists threats, on which he was informed by the Jamahiriya Security Organisation (JSO), Libya’s intelligence and security service, which many western observers believe pulled the strings of the LAA and which is usually glossed with the word ‘feared’. While Megrahi is eager to distance himself from any involvement with the JSO he does concede that at one time, when he was Head of Security at LAA,  he was on ‘secondment’ to the JSO.

‘It was the only time I ever worked for the JSO,’ he writes, ‘yet the US and Scottish prosecutors branded me a senior intelligence agent, a claim slavishly parroted by the world’s media ever since.’ Yet, a few sentences later, he relates how he became coordinator of the Centre for Strategic Studies (CSS) in Tripoli, ‘which was the brainchild of the former Foreign Minister and JSO chief, Ibrahim Bishari, [and which] was intended to ensure the Government was better informed about world events.’

How well Megrahi knew Bishari, who throughout the 1980s was the alleged overseer of Gaddafi’s terrorism programme, and what his connection to him precisely was, he does not spell out. All he does say, is that the CSS, which did have at least three JSO members on its books, was a ‘straightforwardly academic’ organisation, its interests ranging from water resources in Africa to the economy of the Soviet Union. With one exception: a study of Islamic fundamentalism among young people in Libya: ‘There had been an upsurge of the phenomenon resulting in some violent disturbances, which had generated serious security concerns. The Centre was called upon to help the JSO, and the Government as a whole, to understand the problem. I met with some of the professors to discuss how they might best research the issue. It was agreed that we should gather as much international literature as possible on the subject. They also wanted to interview fundamentalists who had been jailed following the disturbances, but permission was refused, probably because the JSO didn’t trust the Centre to do its spying.’

Throughout Megrahi: You Are My Jury, the bulk of which is a meticulous, detailed and impressive piece of work written by John Ashton, Megrahi repeatedly insists his desire to offer his contribution comes not because he wants to point  blame at anyone for the killing of 270 people. That is understandable. If he didn’t do it that doesn’t mean to say he knows who did. It is odd, though, that in relating his own story he asks readers to take so much on trust. While one is not saying that men such as Bishari and Gaddafi are comparable to Nazis – though they may well be – they were clearly dangerous and had it within their power to decide who lived and who died, who thrived and who were deprived. At no point, however, in his account does Megrahi acknowledge this. Thus we are left dangling and wondering whether he was just another hapless cog in a terror-state’s wheel or whether he was much more savvy and involved than he would have us believe.

* *

For many Libyans, including Megrahi, Malta represented escape and refuge. You could buy things there, including nappies, bottled water, fruit and medicines, that you couldn’t buy in Libya where US-imposed sanctions often made life intolerable. Doubtless other, less savoury, opportunities presented themselves. For Megrahi, it appears to have become a home from home. On occasion, he says, he would travel there overnight, telling his wife, Aisha, that he was staying somewhere in Libya. She was not happy, it seems, with his frequent absences abroad, where he Abdelbaset Al-Megrahi: ‘You know me as the Lockerbie bomber. I know that I am innocent’was involved in businesses, such as importing cars, which entailed the transfer into his bank account of large sums of money. Sometimes he acted as a government intermediary, at other times he was engaged in his own interests. He says he did not like to upset Aisha by always telling her the truth about his whereabouts. Incredibly, he says he even managed to hide from her for a day the fact that he had been named as one of the prime suspects of the Lockerbie bombing. ‘I disliked deceiving her in this way,” he writes, regarding the foreign trips, ‘but neither did I wish to see her upset, so I considered it the lesser of two evils. At the time the Libyan telephone service was fairly poor, so, even if she wanted to, it would have been difficult to check up on me.’ Deception, it seems, came quite naturally to this Muslim family man.

It was because of his visits to Malta that Megrahi came to the attention of Scottish police. Items of clothing which were believed to have been wrapped around the fatal bomb were traced to a shop. As John Ashton puts it: ‘The Lockerbie investigation first tilted towards Malta on 22 May 1989, when RARDE [Royal Armaments Research and Development Establishment] forensic scientist Dr Thomas Hayes examined a blue and white mass of fabric labelled PK/669, which had been found in Northumbria a week after the bombing. On untangling it, he discovered that it consisted mainly of a clothing label, which read “Age 12–18… height 86 com…75% modacrylic…25% polyester…Rib 100% acrylic…Keep away from fire…Made in Malta.” Two facts were clear: the item was heavily blast-damaged and it originated from a children’s garment. There was also a plastic tag in the label, suggesting it had never been worn.’

Hayes deduced that the garment had been placed very close to the bomb along with the other luggage in the hold of PA103. If it could be traced back to its owner the identity of the bomber might be revealed. After a few months, the manufacturer of the clothing was found, as, soon thereafter, was the shop, Mary’s House, in the Maltese town of Sliema in which it was sold. All that was needed now was for whoever sold it to identify who’d bought it.  To the jubilation of DCI Harry Bell and Detective Sergeant William Armstrong, Tony Gauci, the son of the owner of Mary’s House, said he had a vivid recollection of the transaction. It had stuck with him, he explained, because the man who bought it had also bought several other items, none of which took much persuasion for him to purchase. ‘It was as if anything I suggested he buy he would take it,’ said Gauci.

But what did he look like? Gauci, whose job it was to assess someone’s measurements in an instant, barely hesitated. This is what he initially told the Scottish policemen. ‘He was about six feet or more in height. He had a big chest and a large head. He was well-built but he was not fat or with a big stomach. His hair was very black. He was speaking Libyan to me. I can tell the difference between Libyans and Tunisians when I speak to them for a while. Tunisians often start speaking French if you talk to them for a while. He was clean-shaven with no facial hair. He had dark-coloured skin. He was wearing a dark-coloured two piece suit. I think it may have been blue-coloured. His overall appearance was smart.’

Gauci, who would later be described by Lord Fraser of Carmyllie, the former Lord Advocate as ‘not quite the full shilling’ and ‘an apple short of a picnic’, was for the police the witness of their dreams. Having provided them with a portrait of the suspect, they now tried to get him to specify a date. A time proved easier. It was not long before the shop closed at 7 pm, perhaps about half an hour before. Gauci said that he was alone because his brother Paul was watching football on TV elsewhere. He also recalled that the bill came to £76.50 which, he said, was paid in cash.

Over the following few weeks Gauci was interviewed numerous times. Then, on 26 September, Gauci informed the police that the mysterious stranger had been in the shop the previous day. Again he gave a description, confirming many of the details he’d given previously, but adding that the clothes buyer was around 50 years old when Megrahi was 36. He was also a few inches smaller than the man Gauci said he’d served, lighter skinned and with a receding hairline. Gauci said he hadn’t contacted the police immediately because his father and brother had warned him that ‘something bad’ might happen to him. Meanwhile, Paul Gauci settled on 7 December, 1988, as the day he had been watching football, over which there would be much debate during Megrahi’s trial. Even then, however, he declined to make a formal statement. All Tony could say was that the date was either in November or December.

For the police, the key breakthrough in this many-tentacled investigation came on 15 February 1991 when they put twelve photographs in front of Tony Gauci and asked him if any of them showed the man who had come into his shop. Gauci, writes Ash-ton, ‘studied all the photographs, then told [DCI Harry] Bell, “They are all younger than the man who bought the clothes.” Bell asked him to try to allow for any age difference and to judge which most closely resembled the man. Gauci looked again, at one point picking up the card. He studied Abdelba-set’s photo three times. [DC] Crawford subsequently described thinking to himself, “He’s gonna pick him.” And sure enough, Gauci  did. “I would say that the photograph at No. 8 is similar to the man who bought the clothing,” he said, adding, “the hair is perhaps a bit long. The eyebrows are the same. The nose is the same and his chin and shape of his mouth at are the same. The man in the photograph No. 8 is in my opinion in his thirty years. He would perhaps have to look about ten years or more older and he would look like the man who bought the clothes. It’s been a long time now [two and a quarter years] and I can only say that this photograph No. 8 resembles the man who bought the clothing, but it is younger.” At the end of the statement he added, “I can only say that of all the photographs I have been shown this photograph No. 8 is the only one really similar to the man who bought the clothing…other than the one my brother showed me.”’

This, adds Ashton, is a reference to Mohamed Abu Tald, another suspect whose photograph had appeared in the Sunday Times and which Paul had shown to Tony. But the police were not interested in that. They had their man, or so they supposed.

* *

It would be wrong to suggest that it was only Tony Gauci’s testimony which led to the conviction of Abdelbaset Al-Megrahi for the Lockerbie bombing. Equally it would be wrong to say that his conviction would have been obtained and upheld without it. Reading his statements to the police, which are included here as an appendix, what is instantly apparent is their unreliability. Taken together, remarks John Ashton, ‘they reveal a man with an unremarkable constellation of excusable human frailties: uncertainty, suggestibility, eagerness to please and, above all, inconsistency.’

For the police, however, and the prosecutors, and doubtless some politicians, Megrahi   was the perfect fit for a horrible crime. For a start, he was Libyan, and the bone American wanted to pick with that country still had plenty of meat on it. As an employee of LAA, an organization umbilically attached to Libya’s intelligence security service, he could come and go as he pleased. Moreover, as a flight dispatcher, he knew his way around airports, especially Malta’s, and aeroplanes.

But what’s missing is irrefutable evidence to tie him directly to the bombing on PA 103. Unlike other suspects, such as those attached to the PFLP-GC, a violent Palestinian splinter group founded by Ahmed Jibril, Megrahi had no track record as a terrorist, and there is nothing in his CV to link him with other terrorists. He did not know how to make bombs or set them to go off at the right moment. It’s possible that he could have been acting under the orders of Gadaffi and Bashiri but again there is no paper trail to follow or evidence to back this up. Those seeking to absolve Megrahi of blame see the unprovoked attack on 3 July 1988 on an Iranian plane by an American battle cruiser, the USS Vincennes, as significant and timely. En route from Bandar Abbas in Iran to Dubai, the plane was shot down over the Persian Gulf with loss of 290 people, many of whom were travelling to Mecca for the annual Hajj pilgrimage. Though George Bush, who was then vice-president, claimed that the ship had gone to the aid of a neutral vessel that was under attack from an Iranian gunboat, it was later revealed that the ill-fated plane was not descending but still climbing after take-off. It was also revealed that the gunboat in question was not involved in attacking another vessel but simply returned fire after the Vincennes – known, as even Updike’s Rabbit recalls, for its ‘aggressive and imprudent actions’ – attacked it. No apology or compensation, however, was forthcoming from the US. On the contrary, Ronald Reagan awarded the entire crew of the Vincennes the Combat Action Ribbon, and its captain later received the Legion of Merit for ‘exceptional meritorious conduct in the performance of outstanding service as commanding officer.’ As John Ashton writes, ‘The Iranian government was, unsurprisingly, enraged by the slaughter.  State radio warned that the deaths would be avenged “in blood-spattered skies” and President Ali Khamenei promised that the country would employ “all our might…wherever and whenever we decide”.’

Whether that remained an empty threat or was fulfilled with the destruction of PA 103 we may never know. Certainly, Megrahi, who is said to be close to death (as he has been since his release from Greenock Prison in the autumn of 2009) is determined not  to point blame at anyone. All that concerns him, he says, as he waits in life’s departure lounge, is the pursuit of truth and justice. It is up to the readers of this book, he insists, to decide whether he is guilty or innocent. Some, surely, will be persuaded that he is innocent while others will be unable to see how three eminent judges could make such a terrible mistake. Still others may be inclined to opt for a not proven verdict.

My inclination is to believe that he is an honest and sincere man caught up in a nightmare from which there is no possibility of awakening or ever forgetting what happened to those 270 homeward bound for the holidays. ‘How much did they know as they fell,’ wonders Rabbit, as he awaits the arrival of his son and his family at Southwest Florida Regional Airport, ‘through air dense like tepid water, tepid gray like this terminal where people blow through like dust in an air duct, to the airline we’re all just numbers on the computer, one more or less, who cares? A blip on the screen, then no blip on the screen. Those bodies tumbling down like wet melon seeds.’


MEGRAHI: YOU ARE MY JURY
John Ashton
BIRLINN, £14.99.460PP.
ISBN-13: 978 1 78027 015 9

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