It is approaching 34 years since the deadliest terrorist incident ever on and or above British soil took place. It was just after 7pm on the evening of 21 December 1988, when Pan Am Flight 103, a Boeing 747 aircraft bound for New York City’s JF Kennedy airport, exploded above the small Scottish town of Lockerbie, with 259 passengers and crew on board.
It had taken off just 35 minutes earlier from London Heathrow airport and was about to head across the Atlantic, taking the majority of its passengers either home for Christmas, or off on an exciting festive break. A bomb had been detonated in a cassette player, which was in a suitcase placed in the aircraft’s hold, and in less than a minute the wreckage had hit the town below, wiping out whole streets, killing eleven more people on the ground, as well as every poor soul on the stricken aeroplane.
Now families of the victims have welcomed the detention in the United States, of a Libyan man accused of making the deadly explosive device which brought carnage and devastation, that shocking evening, over three decades ago.
Second trial now seems genuine possibility
Abu Agila Masud is to face charges alleging he played a key role in the bombing on that fateful December day, back in 1988. It means a second trial over the biggest mass murder in British legal history, could actually happen; but under American rather than Scots law, which has not gone down universally well, considering the crime took place essentially above, but ultimately on Scottish soil, meaning that any prosecution really should be conducted there.
Always a belief that others involved
That said, the only previous charges brought against anybody took place at a specially convened court at Camp Zeist in the Netherlands, back in 2001, when Abdelbaset al-Megrahi was convicted of the bombing and given a life sentence, with a recommendation of serving a minimum of 27 years. Nevertheless, the overwhelming belief amongst investigators who had been assigned to the incident ever since the heinous act took place, was that others were definitely involved.
Finger of suspicion always pointed at Libya
The Dutch hearing was brokered by Nelson Mandela and when ten years later Colonel Gaddafi’s regime in Libya collapsed, hopes were raised that others suspected of involvement, could be brought to court. Disappointingly, those expectations were shattered after the country fell back into political instability, with more violence at its core.
“Confession” not safe says lawyer
Undeterred however, efforts continued and in 2020, the outgoing US Attorney General William Barr announced charges against Masud, and behind the scenes, prosecutors at the Crown office, police detectives from Scotland and their US counterparts, continued to work on the case.
It is alleged that five years ago, whilst in jail in his home country on a separate bomb-making offence, Masud confessed to being involved in the conspiracy with Megrahi to blow up Pan Am Flight 103.
His lawyer Aamer Anwar, however, said the circumstances in which Mr Masud’s confession was extracted would be “strongly opposed” in any US, or Scottish court.
Masud is said to be a “technical expert” and Gaddafi’s “go to man” for any major plots around that time. He is thought to have been behind a bombing at a disco in West Berlin in 1986, which killed three people.
Kidnapping theory uncorroborated
In November of this year, it was reported that Masud had been kidnapped by a militia group near to Tripoli, leading to widespread speculation that he was going to be handed over to the American authorities to stand trial.
Despite this latest development, a spokesperson for the Crown Office and Procurator Fiscal Service (COPFS) confirmed that the Scottish prosecutors and police, working with UK government and in conjunction with the US authorities will be continuing to pursue the investigation, with the sole aim of bringing those who acted along with Al Megrahi to justice.
Was it a revenge attack?
There have been several theories as to exactly who was responsible, with at certain times over the years, accusations being aimed at Syria, Palestine militants, and the Iranians; but it always came back to Libyan agents, working on behalf of Gaddafi. The Iranian angle centred on revenge for a surface-to-air missile, fired in error by an American warship at one of their civilian airlines, which was brought down over the Persian Gulf, earlier in 1988.
The case being put forward by the United States is that Masud flew to Malta a week or so before the doomed flight’s tragic departure, and working alongside two others, created the explosive device which was concealed within the cassette player, which itself was hidden amongst clothing placed into a suitcase.
This item of baggage was then it is alleged, placed on to a feeder flight from the Mediterranean island to Frankfurt in Germany, and eventually on to London’s Heathrow airport, where it was loaded onto the Pan Am flight. That all seems inconceivable now, but thirty plus years ago, it was the norm and would not be seen as particularly suspicious.
Staggering decision to free convicted murderer on compassionate grounds
Incredible as it sounds, Megrahi was released from jail in 2009, on compassionate grounds by the Scottish government, after being diagnosed with cancer. Even in this human-rights era, that decision still seems astonishing. What about the human rights of the 259 people on board that aeroplane? Or those of the citizens of the town located directly below his choice of detonation, of which eleven tragically lost their lives?
He would die from his illness in 2012.
Scenes of inconceivable magnitude after detonation
The aftermath of the detonation was almost too gruesome to contemplate. The cockpit and the forward section of the plane, along with the crew and passengers inside, fell 31,000ft to the ground in less than a minute and landed in a field near Tundergarth Church, two-and-a-half miles east of Lockerbie.
With unimaginable and absolutely horrific consequences, the remainder of the aircraft went into a steep, gliding dive, almost directly above Lockerbie, before it began to break apart with different sections extinguishing anything in the way of its landing. That included whole streets, completely obliterating houses and leaving in one case, a 143 feet crater where seconds before impact, Sherwood Crescent stood.
Bulk of passengers bodies horrifyingly scattered around the town
The Rosebank area of Lockerbie is where the back end of the plane fell and this was where most of the passengers were. Rescuers were quickly on the scene, but inevitably it quickly became apparent that it was going to be a recovery mission rather than rescue, as those falling from the sky had absolutely no chance of survival.
Whilst helping and supporting those in trouble in the town, the police and rescue workers faced the awful task of tagging bodies they were finding scattered in gardens and in the surrounding hills. They brought them back to the makeshift mortuaries which were set up in Lockerbie town hall, and later on at the local ice rink.
It must have been like living through a disaster movie, only this was somehow real. It really is impossible to wholly appreciate the magnitude of it all, only those who witnessed and managed to survive it, will ever know the full horror.
Relatives react with mixed feelings on the detention of suspect
Kara Weipz, whose brother Richard Monetti was killed in the atrocity, was pleased there would be a trial and that somebody else was going to be held accountable, and said she was relieved that it would be held in the United States, pointing out that it was a terrorist attack against a US carrier and that 190 of those that perished were Americans.
However, one British relative, the Rev John Mosey, whose daughter Helga died in the bombing, questioned the location. “Why is he in America when this was a crime committed above Scottish soil?” he asked.
Recalling the nightmare
Resident of Lockerbie, Marjory McQueen, recalled the night in frightening detail. She explained that she had been watching television with her teenage daughter Victoria at the time, when they became aware of an unfamiliar noise, similar to thunder that got progressively louder.
She went outside to investigate and said she was suddenly aware of something shooting past the house and then within seconds there was what she described as “ not an explosion, more a deafening crump”, followed she said by a “whoosh” and then the whole sky turned bright orange, with flames shooting hundreds of feet up into the air.
Peter Giesecke lived in the Rosebank area and spoke of finding bodies lay across his hedge and outside his front window. In actual fact more than 60 people were eventually removed from that small corner of the town.
Remarkable escape on Sherwood Crescent
Canon Patrick Keegans was the newly appointed parish priest and was looking forward to spending his first Christmas in Lockerbie, where he lived at number one Sherwood Crescent. He remembered hearing what he thought was a military plane overhead, then an enormous explosion. To his amazement he was uninjured; but leaving the house he was met by a scene of apocalyptic devastation.
His neighbours’ houses had disappeared and the whole street was on fire. Several of those residents bodies would never be found. “All aspects of Lockerbie stay with us; the horror, the tragedy, the sadness, the grief, the support and love that was shown. All of that stays with us.”said the now retired clergyman.
A town remembers but attempts to re-build
The town had to somehow try and come to terms with the events of 21 December 1988. It has re-built itself, but its name is sadly associated with an act of evil that is beyond comprehension.
At Sherwood Crescent, which was fundamentally the epicentre of the abhorrent devastation, there have been houses built, with a modest stone of remembrance created, as a lasting acknowledgement.
Memorials are dotted around, and to the west of the town is Dryfesdale Cemetery, where a visitor centre tells the story of Pan Am 103 and the Lockerbie Air Disaster Memorial stands in silent testimony to the 270 dead.