BBC Homepage World Service Education
BBC Homepagelow graphics version | feedback | help
BBC News Online
 You are in: World: Europe
Front Page 
Middle East 
South Asia 
From Our Own Correspondent 
Letter From America 
UK Politics 
Talking Point 
In Depth 

Wednesday, 31 January, 2001, 14:42 GMT
Analysis: The whole story?
Questions still remain about what caused the crash
By BBC Radio 4's Robin Lustig

It has taken more than 12 years to get to where we are today - years during which 270 separate tragedies sometimes seemed to get forgotten in a swirl of mystery, intrigue and political machinations.

Many people - including the victims' families, the investigators, politicians and intelligence workers - were determined to find out what really happened at Lockerbie, and who was to blame.

Click here to listen to this report

Yet even now, after the biggest mass murder investigation ever conducted on British soil, they can't agree on what the Lockerbie tragedy was really about.

So what has the Lockerbie investigation discovered? Why did it lead up so many blind alleys? And why, for so long, did it look to so many critics as if it was falling victim to political expediency?

Before the fateful flight

We need to go back right to the very beginning, to even before Pan Am flight 103 took off from Heathrow Airport on that dark December evening.

toshiba bomb
Toshiba bomb similar to the one on Pan Am 103
Two months earlier, in October 1988, police in Germany had arrested a group of Palestinian terrorists and found a bomb packed into a Toshiba cassette recorder.

There had also been a warning, a very specific warning, just one month before Lockerbie, that terrorists were planning to target a Pan Am flight.

It was telephoned to the US embassy in Helsinki, and passed on from there.

This remarkable fact was revealed in a startling telephone interview, given to the BBC the day after the disaster, by Richard Gilbert, an official at the US embassy in Moscow.

So why were other potential passengers not warned? Was the warning later dismissed as a hoax, as officials now claim?

Among the relatives of some of those who died in the disaster, there is a terrible lingering suspicion: if only that warning had been taken more seriously, might their loved ones still be alive?

Iranian retaliation?

It didn't take the Lockerbie investigators long to establish that the explosion which ripped through that Pan Am Boeing 747 had been caused by a bomb.

And it didn't take them long either to recall that just six months previously, an Iranian airbus had been blown up, killing everyone on board.

But it wasn't a bomb to blame for that explosion, it was a US ground-to-air missile, fired from an American warship, the USS Vincennes.

It killed 290 Iranian Muslims, pilgrims on their way to Mecca. Iranian officials were quick to vow to avenge their deaths.

So Iran had the motive - and Syria, where the Palestinian group which had been wound up in Germany was based - had the means. For many months after Lockerbie, it was these two countries which were the focus of the investigators' attention.

Spotlight moves to Libya

Nearly three years later, in November 1991, UK Home Secretary Douglas Hurd announced to an expectant House of Commons that, at last, arrest warrants had been issued.

But not for Iranians or Syrians, but Libyan intelligence officers.

Investigators argued that Colonel Gaddafi wanted personal revenge
Two governments, which had been considered among the most dangerous sponsors of state terrorism in the world, were now apparently off the hook.

In Washington, President George Bush said he thought Syria had had a "bum rap". It was the start of a new convoluted phase in the Lockerbie saga.

So why Libya? According to the prosecutors, they had the evidence to prove it. And, they said, there was a motive too.

In April 1986, two-and-a-half years before Lockerbie, US warplanes attacked Libya and killed up to 100 people, including, so it was said, the two-year-old adopted daughter of the Libyan leader Colonel Gaddafi.

By December 1988, Ronald Reagan, who had ordered the bombing, had only a few weeks left in office - and if Gaddafi wanted his retaliation to be personal, so the investigators argued, he had little time left.

Political motivation

But could the reason for the switch away from Iran and Syria perhaps have been political rather than judicial?

In August 1990, 20 months after Lockerbie. Saddam Hussein marched into Kuwait, and within weeks a vast multi-national coalition, led by the US, was put together to force him out again.

Iran and Syria were both among the nations the US wanted to join the anti-Iraq crusade.

According to the prosecutors' script, the Lockerbie plot went something like this:

A Syrian-backed group of Palestinians were in Germany, making bombs in Toshiba cassette recorders and planning to blow up an American passenger plane.

Within weeks of their arrest, an American passenger plane was blown up, by a bomb in a Toshiba cassette recorder. But those responsible had nothing to do with the Palestinians in Germany.

But to the top CIA man Vincent Cannistraro, that scenario has never made much sense.

He is convinced that after the German police sweep, known as Operation Autumn Leaves, the Palestinian group's leader, Ahmed Jibril, who was based in the Syrian capital, Damascus, handed over the bomb plot to his Libyan friends.

If Vincent Cannistraro is right, Iran and Syria have got off lightly and Libya has paid a heavy price.

Long years under house arrest

After the issuing of the arrest warrants, Abdelbaset al-Megrahi and Al Amin Khalifa Fhimah were to spend nearly eight years under house arrest as Libya, London and Washington haggled over where they should go on trial and under whose jurisdiction.

Megrahi was finally sentenced to life imprisonment
The Libyans insisted there was no chance of a fair trial in either Britain or the United States; London and Washington took the same view about a trial in Libya.

Economic sanctions were imposed as the haggling went on.

To many, it looked as if no one really wanted a trial at all.

But eventually, after years of relentless campaigning by the families of those who died - and after the British general election in 1997 which brought a new government to power - they settled on a compromise.

It would be a Scottish trial, heard by Scottish judges, but taking place in Holland.

For the accused, it would be at last a chance to plead their innocence.

For the families of those who perished at Lockerbie, it would be the best hope they had had so far of finding out who was responsible for the deaths of their loved ones.

Search BBC News Online

Advanced search options
Launch console
Lockerbie megapuff graphic


Key stories


The trial
Internet links:

The BBC is not responsible for the content of external internet sites

Links to more Europe stories are at the foot of the page.

E-mail this story to a friend

Links to more Europe stories