Lockerbie attack suspect to appear in court 34 years after bombing

In 1988, a bomb on an airplane from London’s Heathrow airport killed 270 people, including 190 Americans and 35 college students. Thirty-four years later, the man suspected of planting the bomb is in U.S. custody, with prosecution in progress.

Manuel Balce Ceneta/AP/File
Relatives and friends of the victims of the bombing of Pan Am Flight 103 gather at Arlington National Cemetery, in Arlington, Virginia, Dec. 21, 2014. The man suspected of bringing down Flight 103 over Lockerbie, Scotland, in 1988 is now in U.S. custody.

The announcement Sunday that a Libyan man suspected in the 1988 bombing of a passenger jet has been taken into U.S. custody put the spotlight back on the notorious terrorist attack and longstanding efforts to pursue those responsible. 

The suspect, Abu Agila Mas’ud Kheir Al-Marimi, is accused of building the bomb that destroyed a Pam Am flight over the Scottish town of Lockerbie. The attack killed all 259 people aboard the plane and 11 on the ground. The majority of those killed were Americans. His appearance in court was set for 1 p.m. EST Monday.

Thirty-four years later, the public’s memories of the attack have largely faded, despite developments in the case that have intermittently returned it to the headlines. Here’s a look back.

How did the Lockerbie attack happen?

On Dec. 21, 1988, a bomb planted aboard Pam Am Flight 103 exploded less than half an hour after the jet departed London’s Heathrow airport, bound for New York.

The attack destroyed the jet, which was carrying citizens of 21 countries. Among the victims were 190 Americans. They included 35 students from Syracuse University in upstate New York who were flying home after a semester abroad. To this day, the bombing remains the deadliest terrorist attack ever carried out on British soil.

Investigators soon tied the bombing to Libya, whose government had engaged in long-running hostilities with the U.S. and other Western governments. About two years before the attack, Libya was blamed for the bombing of a Berlin disco that killed three, including two U.S. soldiers, and injured dozens of others.

Who was held responsible?

In 1991, the U.S. charged two Libyan intelligence officers with planting the bomb aboard the jet. But the country’s leader, Col. Moammar Gadhafi, refused to turn them over. After long negotiations, Libya agreed in 1999 to surrender them for prosecution by a panel of Scottish judges sitting in the Netherlands.

One of the men, Abdel Baset Ali al-Megrahi, was convicted and given a life sentence. The other, Lamen Khalifa Fhimah, was found not guilty. Scottish officials released Mr. Megrahi on humanitarian grounds in 2009 after he was diagnosed with prostate cancer. He died in Libya in 2012.

The families of those killed, meanwhile, brought suit against the Libyan government, demanding the regime be held accountable. In 2003, Libya agreed to a settlement, formally accepting responsibility for the bombing, renouncing terrorism, and paying compensation to the families.

Despite a rapprochement with the U.S. government, the pursuit of others responsible for the bombing largely stalled, until after Mr. Gadhafi was ousted from power in 2011.

What led investigators to Mas’ud?

After Mr. Gadhafi’s fall, Mr. Mas’ud, a longtime explosives expert for the country’s intelligence service, was taken into custody by Libyan law enforcement. In 2017, U.S. officials received a copy of an interview with Mr. Mas’ud done by Libyan authorities soon after his arrest.

In that interview, U.S. officials said, Mr. Mas’ud admitted to building the bomb used in the Pan Am attack and working with the two men charged earlier to plant it on the plane. He said the operation had been ordered by Libyan intelligence and that Mr. Gadhafi had thanked him and others after the attack, according to an FBI affidavit.

In late 2020, the U.S. Justice Department announced charges against Mr. Mas’ud. With Mr. Mas’ud in Libyan custody, though, his prosecution remained largely theoretical. U.S. and Scottish officials pledged to work for his extradition, so that he could be tried.

It was not clear Sunday how Mr. Mas’ud was taken into U.S. custody. He would be the first to appear in an American courtroom for prosecution of the attack.

This story was reported by The Associated Press.

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