The Daily Star
Monday, October 26 2015
By Michael Glackin
Oh the irony. What are we to make of news last week that Scottish prosecutors suddenly want to interview two Libyans they have identified as “new suspects” in the 1988 bombing of Pan Am Flight 103, in which 270 people were killed?
The short answer is not much.
One reason is that the suspects are hardly new. Both men were of interest to the original investigation in 1991. Abdullah al-Senussi, a former Libyan intelligence chief and brother in law of Moammar Gadhafi, was convicted in absentia by a French court in 1999 after having been found guilty of involvement in the bombing of a French UTA airliner over Niger in 1989. How ironic is that? He is currently on death row in Tripoli for crimes committed by the Gadhafi regime.
The other suspect, Mohammed Abouajela Masud, is currently serving a 10-year sentence in Tripoli for bomb-making. Masud was almost indicted for the Pan Am bombing in 1991, alongside Abdelbaset Ali Megrahi, the former head of security at Libyan Arab Airlines and the only person convicted of the atrocity.
Masud is also thought to have been involved in the bombing of a Berlin discotheque in 1986 frequented by American military personnel. The attack led to U.S. airstrikes against Libya soon thereafter. Ironically, and depending on your point of view, this is what led to the bombing of Pan Am 103.
But the chances of either man appearing in a Scottish court are slim. The Tripoli-based General National Congress, backed by Islamist extremists and not recognized by the West, controls the fate of both men. It’s unlikely they will be extradited, and hard to see anyone volunteering to travel to Tripoli to interview them.
The conviction of Megrahi, who died in 2012, three years after he was released from a life sentence “on compassionate grounds,” was based on the theory that Gadhafi had ordered the bombing in retaliation for U.S. airstrikes against Libya.
Gadhafi admitted responsibility in 2003, but this was always seen as an economically pragmatic move, rather than an admission of guilt. A former Libyan prime minister, Shukri Ghanem, said as far back as 2005 that the decision to accept responsibility was to “buy peace and move forward.”
Another irony is that while the authorities insist the investigation into the bombing remains “ongoing,” the Scottish judiciary recently refused a request from some of the relatives of victims to hear an appeal against Megrahi’s conviction that would have allowed new evidence to be presented in court.
The legal case against Megrahi had more holes in it than Swiss cheese. His early release from jail in 2009, after being convicted of the biggest mass murders in British history, only added to the bad smell around the entire case.
The key witness against Megrahi, Maltese shopkeeper Tony Gauci, was given a $2 million reward for his evidence by the CIA and a place in a witness-protection program. Gauci, who even the Scottish prosecutor who indicted Megrahi described as being “an apple short of a picnic,” is now understood to be living in Australia.
It’s worth remembering that in October 1988, two months before the Pan Am bombing, German police raided an apartment in Frankfurt and arrested several Palestinians. The raid unearthed explosives, weapons and, crucially, a number of radio cassette recorders similar to the one used to detonate the Pan Am 103 bomb. Most of the Palestinians were members of the Syrian-controlled Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine-General Command, headed by Ahmad Jibril, a Palestinian former Syrian Army officer. Jibril has spent recent years defending the regime of President Bashar Assad. He was reported to have been killed in August although this has since been denied.
Much of the evidence indicates Jibril and the PFLP-GC carried out the bombing on behalf of Iran and Syria to avenge the July 1988 accidental downing of an Iranian commercial airliner by a U.S. warship, killing 290 people. This is backed up by evidence from the U.S. Defense Intelligence Agency showing that the PFLP-GC was paid $1 million to carry out the bombing. The DIA also claimed that Jibril was given a down payment of $100,000 in Damascus by Iran’s then-ambassador to Syria, Mohammad Hussan Akhari.
Many believe then-Syrian President Hafez Assad’s support for the U.S.-led alliance to oust Iraqi forces from Kuwait in 1991 meant Syria’s role in the bombing was swept under the carpet. It is worth pointing out that Megrahi was not formally indicted by the United States and the United Kingdom until November 1991.
But the PFLP-GC is not the only non-Libyan suspect. The Frankfurt raid also revealed compelling evidence against Muhammad Abu Talib, a former leader of the Palestine People’s Struggle Front. Oddly enough Talib was released from a life sentence he was serving in Sweden for involvement in bomb attacks weeks after Megrahi’s release in 2009.
Finally, given that the authorities remain keen to pursue the Libyan angle, it is odd they spent so little time interviewing Gadhafi’s former spymaster Moussa Koussa when he fled to London as the regime was collapsing in 2011. Koussa, who in the words of one British government official was “up to his neck” in the bombing, spent just three days in London and then flew on to Qatar, where he remains, living on assets that were quietly unfrozen by the West around the same time. Oh the irony.
Michael Glackin, is former managing editor of Beirut based newspaper THE DAILY STAR. A version of this articles appeared in the print edition of The Daily Star on October 26 2015.