Copy of 2020-12-21T161355Z_621812110_RC2SRK94FSVV_RTRMADP_3_USA-JUSTICE-LOCKERBIE-1608629752078
A total of 270 people were killed when a bomb ripped apart Pan Am flight 103 over the Scottish town of Lockerbie in 1988. File photo from December 22, 1988 shows rescue personnel carrying a body away from the site of the crash. Image Credit: Reuters

Washington: The Justice Department on Monday announced that it had charged a suspected participant in the 1988 bombing of a Pan Am jet over Lockerbie, Scotland, that killed 270 people and is considered one of the deadliest terrorist attacks in US history.

Abu Agila Mas’ud was charged in a criminal complaint with helping make the bomb used in the attack, Attorney General William Barr said at a news conference. Barr said the operation was ordered by the leadership of Libyan intelligence, and that then-Libyan leader Muammar Gaddafi personally thanked Mas’ud for his work.

“At long last, this man, responsible for killing Americans and many others, will be subject to justice for his crimes,” Barr said.

The charges were unsealed on the anniversary of the attack, which brought down a flight from London bound for New York. All aboard the plane were killed, along with 11 people on the ground. Most of the passengers were Americans, including a group of college students returning home for the holidays.

Mas’ud has been on US and foreign law enforcement’s radar since at least 2015, when a three-part series on PBS’s “Frontline” named potential suspects. US prosecutors had decades earlier charged two others in the case: Libyan intelligence operative Abdel Basset Ali Al Megrahi and his alleged accomplice Lamen Khalifa Fhimah. At the time, Barr was serving his first stint as attorney general under President George H.W. Bush.

Criminal complaint

Barr said a breakthrough came when law enforcement learned about four years ago that Mas’ud had been arrested after the fall of the Gaddafi regime and was interviewed in 2012. According to the criminal complaint, the FBI received a copy of that interview, which was translated from Arabic into English, in 2017.

This year, according to the complaint, the FBI and Scottish police interviewed the Libyan law enforcement officer who took the statement. The officer relayed that, in questioning Mas’ud to determine whether he had committed crimes against the Libyan people to keep Gaddafi in power during the country’s 2011 revolution, Mas’ud said he participated in the “Lockerbie airplane bombing,” according to the complaint. Mas’ud had worked for the Libyan intelligence service as a technical expert in building explosives.

The officer who conducted the interview said he would be willing to testify at a trial if the Libyan government would allow it, according to the complaint.

Acting D.C. US Attorney Michael Sherwin said travel records also showed Mas’ud travelling from Tripoli to Malta about the same time as his co-conspirators.

It’s unclear what the likelihood is of the United States taking Mas’ud into custody for trial. Mas’ud remains in Libyan custody, and Barr said he was optimistic that Libyan authorities would turn him over.

Seeking justice

Kara Weipz, whose brother was killed in the attack, said the charges were a welcome development as the families continued to seek justice.

Barr said authorities also were accusing Mas’ud of being involved in a 1986 bombing of an entertainment venue in West Berlin which killed three people and injured hundreds more.

The case has long vexed federal law enforcement. Libya resisted extraditing the charged men to the United States for years, and in response, the United Nations and the United States imposed stiff economic sanctions and penalties on the country.

In 1999, Libya agreed to an unusual arrangement to turn the men over to be put on trial in the Netherlands before Scottish judges. Megrahi, who maintained his innocence, was convicted and sentenced to 27 years to life in prison, while his co-defendant Fhimah was acquitted.

In 2009, Megrahi was released from a Scottish prison on medical grounds after a prostate cancer diagnosis, and he returned home to a hero’s welcome in Libya. He died three years after his release.