Handover of a Libyan suspect opens a new chapter in Lockerbie bombing horror story

Remains of the 747 Pan Am airliner that exploded and crashed over Lockerbie, Scotland, on Dec. 22, 1988. All 243 passengers and 16 crew were killed as well as 11 Lockerbie residents. (AFP)
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Updated 20 December 2022

Handover of a Libyan suspect opens a new chapter in Lockerbie bombing horror story

  • Many believe Libyans were accused of a crime that the Iranian regime had a motive to perpetrate
  • For others, the arrest of Masud offers the prospect of long overdue justice for the 270 victims of the disaster

LONDON: It happened more than three decades ago, but the horror that was the bombing of Pan Am flight 103 lives on, for the families of the slain, for the Scottish community torn apart when the flaming wreckage crashed down in pieces on their town and for the first responders who arrived to find hellish scenes none would ever forget.

For some, the arrest last week of a Libyan man charged with having made the bomb that downed the jumbo jet over Lockerbie on Dec. 21, 1988, offers the prospect of long overdue justice for the 270 victims of the disaster and their families.

For others, though, confidence in the judicial system and the joint US-Scottish investigation that has led to the latest arrest was shaken long ago by uncertainties that continue to hang over the trial and conviction in May 2000 of another Libyan, Abdelbaset Al-Megrahi, who in 2001 was found guilty of carrying out the bombing.

The undisputed facts of the case, which will doubtless be rehearsed again during the upcoming trial, are harrowing.

The Boeing 747, en route from London to New York City, was just half an hour into its flight and cruising at 31,000 feet when the bomb exploded shortly after 7 p.m., scattering aircraft parts, luggage and bodies over a wide area. The investigators would be faced with a crime scene of 2,200 square kilometers.

On board the doomed aircraft were 259 passengers and crew of 21 nationalities. The oldest victim was 82, the youngest a two-month-old baby, found held tight in her dead mother’s arms.

A man looks at the main memorial stone in memory of the victims of the bombing of Pan Am flight 103, in the garden of remembrance near Lockerbie, Scotland Friday Dec. 21, 2018. (AFP)

The 190 Americans on the flight included a party of 35 students from Syracuse University, returning home for Christmas after an overseas study tour.

Eleven more people died in their homes on the ground. Among them were the Flannigans, mother and father Kathleen, 41, Thomas, 44, and their daughter Joanne, aged 10.

Joanne’s body was eventually found in the deep crater gouged out of the street where the family lived, but her parents’ remains were never recovered.

Last week, 71-year-old Abu Agila Mohammad Masud Kheir Al-Marimi, an alleged former intelligence officer for the regime of Libyan dictator Muammar Qaddafi, appeared in a US court accused of being the bombmaker.

It is a stunning development in a case which, for many relatives of the dead, has never been satisfactorily settled. Masud’s anticipated trial represents an unexpected opportunity for the many remaining doubts surrounding the Lockerbie disaster to be resolved once and for all.

Paul Hudson of Sarasota, Fla., holds up a photo of his daughter Melina who was killed at 16 years old along with the photos of almost a hundred other victims of the bombing of Pan Am Flight 103 over Lockerbie, Scotland, as he speaks to members of the media in front of the federal courthouse in Washington, Monday, Dec. 12, 2022. (AFP)

Key among them is the suspicion, which has persisted for three decades, that the Libyans were falsely accused of a crime that was actually perpetrated by the Iranian regime.

Iran certainly had a motive. On July 3, 1988, five months before the bombing, Iran Air flight 655, an Airbus A300 carrying Iranian pilgrims bound for Makkah, had been shot down accidentally over the Strait of Hormuz by a US guided-missile cruiser, the Vincennes.

All 290 people on board were killed, including 66 children and 16 members of one family, who had been traveling to Dubai for a wedding.

In 1991, a subsequently declassified secret report from within the US Defense Intelligence Agency made it clear that from the outset Iran was the number-one suspect.

Ayatollah Mohtashemi, a former Iranian interior minister, was “closely connected to the Al-Abas and Abu Nidal terrorist groups,” it read.

He had “recently paid $10 million in cash and gold to these two organizations to carry out terrorist activities and ... paid the same amount to bomb Pam Am flight 103, in retaliation for the US shoot-down of the Iranian Airbus.”

The evidence implicating Iran piled up. It emerged that two months before the bombing, German police had raided a cell of the terror group Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine — General Command and seized a bomb hidden in a Toshiba cassette player, just like the one that would be used to blow up Pan Am flight 103.

Yet in November 1991 it was two Libyan intelligence operatives, Abdel Baset Ali Al-Megrahi and Lamen Khalifa Fhimah, who were charged with the murders. The case against them was circumstantial at best.

The artist sketch depicts Assistant U.S. Attorney Erik Kenerson, front left, watching as Whitney Minter, a public defender from the eastern division of Virginia, stands to represent Abu Agila Mohammad Mas'ud Kheir Al-Marimi, accused of making the bomb that brought down Pan Am Flight 103 over Lockerbie, Scotland, in 1988. (AFP)

After years of negotiations with Qaddafi’s government, the two men were eventually handed over to be tried in a specially convened Scottish court in the Netherlands. Their trial began in May 2000, and on Jan. 31, 2001, Al-Megrahi was found guilty and Fhimah was acquitted.

The crown’s case was that an unaccompanied suitcase containing the bomb had been carried on an Air Malta flight from Luqa Airport in Malta to Frankfurt. There, it was transferred to a Pan Am aircraft to London, where it was loaded onto flight 103.

Inside the suitcase, wrapped in clothing, was the Toshiba cassette player containing the bomb.

A small part of a printed circuit board, believed to be from the bomb timer, was found in the wreckage, along with a fragment of a piece of clothing. This was traced to a store in Malta where the owner, Tony Gauci, told police he remembered selling it to a Libyan man.

Gauci, who died in 2016, was the prosecution’s main witness, but from the outset there were serious doubts about his evidence. He was interviewed 23 times by Scottish police before he finally identified Al-Megrahi — and only then after seeing the wanted man’s photograph in a newspaper article naming him as a suspect.

In their judgment, even the three Scottish judges conceded that “on the matter of identification of the … accused, there are undoubtedly problems.”

Worse, in 2007 Scottish newspaper The Herald claimed that the CIA had offered Gauci $2 million to give evidence in the case.


• Abu Agila Mohammad Masud Kheir Al-Marimi recently appeared in the US District Court of the District of Columbia to face charges over the 1988 Lockerbie bombing.

• Masud allegedly confessed to role as bombmaker while in Libyan custody the day after the US ambassador was killed in Benghazi on Sept. 11, 2012.

• Five months before Lockerbie bombing, 290 people died when Iran Air flight 655 carrying pilgrims was accidentally shot down by US guided-missile cruiser.

Another part of the prosecution’s case was that the fingernail-sized fragment of circuit board found in the wreckage, believed to have been part of the timer that triggered the bomb, matched a batch of timers supplied to Libya by a Swiss company in 1985.

However, the company insisted the timer on the aircraft had not been supplied to Libya, and in 2007 its CEO claimed that he had been offered $4 million by the FBI to say that it had.

Many have denounced the trial as a sham, suggesting that Qaddafi agreed to surrender Al-Megrahi and Fhimah, accept responsibility for the attack and pay compensation to the families of the victims, only because the US promised that the sanctions that had been imposed on Libya would be eased.

After Al-Megrahi’s appeal against his conviction was rejected in March 2002, one of the independent UN observers assigned to the case as a condition of Libya’s cooperation condemned what he called the “spectacular miscarriage of justice.”

Jim Swire, spokesman for relatives of victims of the Lockerbie plane crash and father of a daughter who died in the terrorist attack, carries a document marked 'Judgement Day' as he arrives at the Scottish court at Camp Zeist 10 January 2001. (AFP)

Professor Hans Kochler said that he was “not convinced at all that the sequence of events that led to this explosion of the plane over Scotland was as described by the court. Everything that is presented is only circumstantial evidence.”

It remains to be seen what evidence will be presented in the upcoming trial of Masud.

Reports say that he was released only last year from prison in Libya, having been jailed for a decade for his part in the government of Qaddafi, who was overthrown in 2011.

Last week, Libya’s Prime Minister Abdul Hamid Dbeibah said that his government had handed Masud over to the Americans.

“An arrest warrant was issued against him from Interpol,” he said on Dec. 16. “It has become imperative for us to cooperate in this file for the sake of Libya’s interest and stability.”

Last week, Libya’s Prime Minister Abdul Hamid Dbeibah said that his government had handed Masud over to the Americans. (AFP)

As Dbeibah put it, Libya “had to wipe the mark of terrorism from the Libyan people’s forehead.”

From the very beginning, one of the strongest advocates for the innocence of Al-Megrahi was Jim Swire, a British doctor whose daughter Flora died in the bombing on the eve of her 24th birthday. Now 86, Swire has spent the past three decades campaigning tirelessly to expose what he believes was a miscarriage of justice.

Al-Megrahi, suffering from prostate cancer, was released from prison on compassionate grounds in 2009. Shortly before his death in Libya in 2012, he was visited in his sick bed by Swire, who in an interview last year recalled Al-Megrahi’s last words to him: “I am going to a place where I hope soon to see Flora. I will tell her that her father is my friend.”

Last week, Swire called for the trial of Masud not to be held in the US or Scotland.

“There are so many loose ends that hang from this dreadful case, largely emanating from America, that I think we should … seek a court that is free of being beholden to any nation directly involved in the atrocity itself,” he said.

“What we’ve always been after amongst the British relatives is the truth, and not a fabrication that might seem to be replacing the truth.”


Saudi minister visits Delhi to streamline Umrah services for Indian pilgrims 

Updated 04 December 2023

Saudi minister visits Delhi to streamline Umrah services for Indian pilgrims 

  • India has world’s largest Muslim-minority population, with over 200 million Indian Muslims 
  • Haj Committee of India hopes to discuss increasing nation’s Hajj quota with Al-Rabiah 

NEW DELHI: Saudi Hajj and Umrah Minister Tawfiq Al-Rabiah will begin an official visit to India on Monday on a trip aimed at strengthening collaboration and streamlining the Umrah journey for international pilgrims, the Saudi Embassy in New Delhi said.  

India has the world’s largest Muslim-minority population, with over 200 million Indians professing Islam in the Hindu-majority country.  

Al-Rabiah’s visit to India this week is “an important part” of a series of international tours aimed at showcasing the Kingdom’s commitment to serving Umrah pilgrims from around the world, the Saudi Embassy in India said in a statement.  

“The visit aims to achieve significant advancements in streamlining procedures, enhancing services, and outlining comprehensive plans for hosting pilgrims and Umrah performers, aligning closely with the outlined objectives of ‘Saudi Vision 2030,’” it said.

Al-Rabiah will hold high-level discussions with Indian officials and prominent figures in the Hajj and Umrah services sector to strengthen coordination and collaboration, the embassy added.  

“To further streamline processes for Indian Umrah (pilgrims), an inaugural exhibition for the Nusuk platform and the Tasheer e-visa-issuing center will be organized during the visit,” it said.  

“These international visits reflect the ministry’s and its partners’ continuous efforts in the Hajj ecosystem to establish robust communication channels and foster cooperation with countries worldwide.” 

The Haj Committee of India is hoping to discuss increasing India’s Hajj pilgrimage quota during Al-Rabiah’s visit.  

“This visit is important and he is a very significant person,” Munawari Begum, the vice president of the Haj Committee of India, told Arab News.  

Under the 2023 Hajj quota, around 175,000 Indians traveled to Saudi Arabia for the spiritual journey that is one of the five pillars of Islam.  

“One of the agendas of the visit is to discuss the enhancement of the Hajj quota from the existing 175,025 to 200,000 at least,” Begum added. 

US combat ship ‘illegally’ entered territorial waters: China’s military

Updated 04 December 2023

US combat ship ‘illegally’ entered territorial waters: China’s military

  • China is in dispute with several of its neighbors over its extensive claims of territorial waters in the South China Sea

BEIJING: China’s military on Monday said a US combat ship illegally entered waters adjacent to the Second Thomas Shoal, a disputed South China Sea atoll.
“The US seriously undermined regional peace and stability,” said a spokesperson for China’s Southern Theater of Operations in a statement.
The spokesperson also said the US deliberately disrupted the South China Sea and seriously violated China’s sovereignty.
China is in dispute with several of its neighbors over its extensive claims of territorial waters in the South China Sea.
In recent months it has had several confrontations with Philippine vessels, and also protested about US ships patrolling the disputed areas.
The spokesperson said the Chinese People’s Liberation Army organized maritime troops to follow and monitor the US ship., and that “its troops in the theater are on high alert at all times to resolutely defend national sovereignty.”

On Sunday, the Philippine Coast Guard deployed two of its vessels in the South China Sea after monitoring an “alarming” increase in the number of Chinese maritime militia vessels at a reef within the country’s exclusive economic zone.


Indonesia’s Marapi volcano erupts and blankets nearby villages with ash

Volcanic ash spews from Mount Marapi during an eruption as seen from Tanah Datar in West Sumatra on December 3, 2023. (AP)
Updated 04 December 2023

Indonesia’s Marapi volcano erupts and blankets nearby villages with ash

  • Marapi’s alert level was maintained at the third-highest of four levels, Abdul Muhari said, and confirmed that authorities had been closely monitoring the volcano after sensors picked up increasing activity in recent weeks

PADANG, Indonesia: Indonesia’s Mount Marapi in West Sumatra province erupted Sunday, spewing white-and-gray ash plumes more than 3,000 meters (9,800 feet) into the air and sending hot ash clouds several miles (kilometers) away.
There were no immediate reports of casualties, said Ahmad Rifandi, an official with Indonesia’s Volcanology and Geological Hazard Mitigation Center at the Marapi monitoring post. The two routes for climbers were closed after the eruption and villagers living on the slopes of the mountain were advised to stay 3 kilometers (1.8 miles) from the crater’s mouth because of potential lava.
About 70 climbers started their way up the nearly 2,900-meter (9,480-foot) mountain on Saturday and became stranded. So far, 49 have been successfully evacuated with the rest still awaiting rescue, said Hari Agustian, an official at the local Search and Rescue Agency in Padang, the capital city of West Sumatra province.
He said about 168 rescuers, including police and soldiers, have been deployed to rescue all the climbers.
A video on social media shows the climbers were evacuated to a shelter, their faces and hair smeared with volcanic dust and rain.
National Disaster Management Agency spokesperson Abdul Muhari said several villages were blanketed with falling ash, blocking out the sun in many areas. Authorities distributed masks and urged residents to wear eyeglasses to protect them from volcanic ash, he said.
About 1,400 people live on Marapi’s slopes in Rubai and Gobah Cumantiang, the nearest villages about 5 to 6 kilometers (3.1 to 3.7 miles) from the peak.
Marapi’s alert level was maintained at the third-highest of four levels, Abdul Muhari said, and confirmed that authorities had been closely monitoring the volcano after sensors picked up increasing activity in recent weeks.
Marapi has been active since January when it also erupted without causing casualties. It is among more than 120 active volcanoes in Indonesia, which is prone to seismic upheaval due to its location on the Pacific “Ring of Fire,” an arc of volcanoes and fault lines encircling the Pacific Basin.


Despite rising demand, arms sales hampered by production woes: study

Updated 04 December 2023

Despite rising demand, arms sales hampered by production woes: study

  • US arms suppliers are particularly vulnerable to supply chain disruptions as many of the weapon systems they produce are more complex

STOCKHOLM: Even with the war in Ukraine fueling demand, revenue for the world’s top arms suppliers dipped in 2022, as production issues kept companies unable to increase production, researchers said Monday.
The sales of weapons and military services by the 100 largest arms companies in the world totalled $597 billion in 2022, a decrease of 3.5 percent compared to 2021, according to a new report by the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute (SIPRI).
At the same time, geopolitical tensions coupled with Russia’s invasion of Ukraine fueled increased demand for weapons and military equipment.
Diego Lopes da Silva, a senior researcher at SIPRI, told AFP that in this context the slowdown in revenue was “unexpected.”
“What the decrease really shows is that there is a time lag between a demand shock like the war in Ukraine and the ability of companies to scale up production and really meet that demand,” Lopes da Silva said.
According to SIPRI, the decline was in large part due to diminished revenues among major arms makers in the United States, where manufacturers struggled with “supply chain issues and labor shortages” stemming from the Covid-19 pandemic.
The United States alone saw a 7.9 percent decrease but still made up for 51 percent of total arms revenue in 2022, with 42 companies among the world’s top 100.

US arms suppliers are particularly vulnerable to supply chain disruptions as many of the weapon systems they produce are more complex.
“That means that the supply chain is also more complex, and it has more parts, which means it’s more vulnerable,” Lopes da Silva said.
Russian arms makers also saw revenues drop significantly in the report, falling by 12 percent to $20.8 billion.
The decline was in part due to sanctions imposed on Russia over Ukraine, but Lopes da Silva also noted that lower revenues could also be the result of delayed payments from the Russian state.
In addition, the transparency of arms makers in Russia has diminished and only two Russian companies were included in the top 100 “due to a lack of available data,” according to SIPRI.
In contrast in other parts of the world such as the Middle East and Asia and Oceania, weapon makers producing less complicated systems were able to respond to the increased demand.
The Middle East in fact saw the biggest increase of any region by percentage, growing 11 percent to reach $17.9 billion.
Turkish companies in particular saw an increase, with Baykar — which produces an unmanned drone widely used in Ukraine — seeing a 94 percent increase in revenue.

The combined revenue for arms suppliers in Asia and Oceania rose by 3.1 percent, reaching $134 billion in 2022.
China, which after the US represented the second largest supplier by country, saw its eight arms companies in the ranking increase their combined revenues by 2.7 percent, reaching to $108 billion.
Looking forward, Lopes da Silva said there were no signs of demand slowing down.
“In the company reports, something very interesting that we found is that the order intake and the backlogs of the companies, they are increasing by a lot,” he told AFP.
Added to that, many European countries have pledged increased military spending targets in the wake of Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, with some targets reaching all the way to 2030.
“We’re seeing that this demand will continue for the years to come. So we expect military spending to continue to increase and consequently arms revenues,” Lopes da Silva said.


Magnitude 6.9 quake latest to rattle southern Philippines

Updated 04 December 2023

Magnitude 6.9 quake latest to rattle southern Philippines

  • At least two people were killed and several were injured after Saturday’s quake, authorities said. It was followed by a series of aftershocks of magnitudes exceeding 6.0 through Sunday, according to the USGS

MANILA: A magnitude 6.9 earthquake struck off the coast of the southern Philippines early Monday, the United States Geological Survey said, the latest in a slew of strong quakes all concentrated in the same area.
Monday’s quake hit just before 4:00 am local time, (2000 GMT Sunday), at a depth of 30 kilometers (18 miles), some 72 kilometers northeast of Hinatuan municipality on Mindanao island.
That followed a magnitude 6.6 earthquake on Sunday and a deadly magnitude 7.6 quake Saturday in the same region, which had briefly triggered a tsunami alert.
At least two people were killed and several were injured after Saturday’s quake, authorities said. It was followed by a series of aftershocks of magnitudes exceeding 6.0 through Sunday, according to the USGS.
Hinatuan police Staff Sergeant Joseph Lambo said Sunday evening’s quake sent people rushing out of their homes again.
“They were panicking due to the memory of the previous night’s quake,” Lambo told AFP.
He said police were checking for any further damage or casualties.
Saturday’s quake triggered tsunami warnings across the Pacific region and sent residents along the east coast of Mindanao fleeing buildings, evacuating a hospital and seeking higher ground.

There have been no reports of major damage to buildings or infrastructure so far, disaster officials told AFP earlier on Sunday.
A 30-year-old man died in Bislig City, in Surigao del Sur province, when a wall inside his house collapsed on top of him, said local disaster official Pacifica Pedraverde.
Some roads in the city were cracked during the earthquake and aftershocks but vehicles could still drive on them, she said.
A pregnant woman was killed in Tagum city in Davao del Norte province, the national disaster agency said, without providing details.
Two people suffered minor injuries from falling debris in Tandag City, about 100 kilometers north of Bislig, an official said.
The Philippine seismology institute initially warned of a “destructive tsunami” after the first quake Saturday, expecting “life threatening” waves, though none occurred and the warning later ended.
Small swells were reported as far away as Japan’s eastern Pacific coast, where a tsunami warning was also briefly in effect. Palau, a western Pacific archipelago located about 900 kilometers off Mindanao, reported no impact.
The recent temblors came some two weeks after a 6.7 magnitude quake hit Mindanao, killing at least nine people, shaking buildings and causing part of a shopping mall ceiling to collapse.
Earthquakes are a daily occurrence in the Philippines, which sits along the Pacific “Ring of Fire,” an arc of intense seismic and volcanic activity that stretches from Japan through Southeast Asia and across the Pacific basin.
Most are too weak to be felt by humans.