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Pan Am Flight 103: The story of the UK’s deadliest terror attack

<i>Alexandria Sheriff's Office/AP</i><br/>Suspect Abu Agila Mohammad Mas'ud Kheir Al-Marimi
Alexandria Sheriff's Office/AP
Suspect Abu Agila Mohammad Mas'ud Kheir Al-Marimi

By Jack Guy, CNN

The bombing of Pan Am Flight 103 may have taken place more than 30 years ago, but the appearance of alleged bombmaker Abu Agila Mohammad Mas’ud Kheir Al-Marimi in a US court on Monday has sparked a new wave of interest in the attack.

Here’s what you need to know about the deadliest terrorist attack to have taken place in the United Kingdom.

What happened?

On December 21, 1988, Pan Am Flight 103 exploded 31,000 feet over Lockerbie, Scotland, 38 minutes after takeoff from London.

Two hundred and fifty-nine people on board the New York-bound Boeing 747 were killed, along with 11 people on the ground.

Witnesses in Lockerbie and the surrounding areas reported portions of the aircraft falling “from the sky, some of which appeared to be engulfed in flames,” according to a 2020 affidavit by a Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) special agent, shared by the US Department of Justice.

“As pieces of the aircraft hit the ground, some exploded. One such incident created an explosion that witnesses likened to a “mushroom cloud,” and left a crater approximately 40 feet deep where, moments before, residential homes had stood in the town of Lockerbie,” the agent said in the affadavit.

A three-year investigation

Afterward, United States and British investigators found fragments of a circuit board and a timer, and ruled that a bomb, not mechanical failure, caused the explosion.

Over three years, investigators from the United States, Britain, Germany and other countries questioned more than 15,000 people in more than 30 countries and collected thousands of pieces of evidence.

Authorities accused Libyan nationals Abdelbeset Ali Mohmed al Megrahi and Al Amin Khalifah Fhimah of manufacturing the bomb, which they said was made out of Semtex plastic explosives, concealed in a Toshiba cassette recorder, hidden in a Samsonite suitcase and slipped into an Air Malta flight headed from Malta to Frankfurt, Germany.

The unaccompanied bag is believed to have been transferred to a Pan Am flight to London and then to Flight 103.

The CIA and FBI said the suspects, employed by Libyan Arab Airlines in Malta, were also Libyan intelligence agents.

Libya versus the West

Then-Libyan leader Moammar Ghadafi denied any culpability for the attack.

But after Libya was sanctioned by the United Nations for initially refusing to hand over the suspects for trial to face trial, it was agreed that the pair would be prosecuted at a neutral site in the Netherlands.

In 2002 the suspects were handed over to the UN.

The following year, Libya agreed to pay $2.7 billion in compensation to families of those killed — paving the way for UN sanctions against the country to be lifted.

Convicted terrorist later released on compassionate grounds

The trial of Megrahi and Fhimah began on May 3, 2000, and ended on January 31, 2001. Megrahi was ultimately found guilty and jailed for a minimum of 27 years. Fhimah was found not guilty.

In October 2008 it was announced that Megrahi was suffering from terminal cancer, and in August 2009, he was released from a Scottish prison on compassionate grounds.

After being released, Megrahi returned to Libya and received a jubilant welcome. He died on May 20, 2012.

New suspect brought to trial

In October 2015, Scottish officials announced that two additional Libyans had been identified as suspects in the bombing.

Five years later, on December 21, 2020,US Attorney General William Barr announced criminal charges against former Libyan intelligence officer Abu Agila Mohammad Mas’ud Kheir Al-Marimi in relation to the Lockerbie attack.

The apparent break in the case came after Mas’ud was arrested by Libyan authorities on another case. A 2012 Libyan interrogation report claiming he admitted to making the Lockerbie bomb had made its way to US authorities, and in 2020, the FBI traveled to Tunisia to interview the former Libyan official who had taken Mas’ud’s statement.

Mas’ud has been charged in a criminal complaint for allegedly providing the suitcase with the prepared explosive that was later placed on the flight. At the time he was in custody in Libya.

On Sunday, the US Justice Department said that Mas’ud was in US custody.

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Article Topic Follows: CNN - Europe/Mideast/Africa

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