- The Washington Times - Monday, December 21, 2020

A former Libyan intelligence official has been charged with building the suitcase bomb that blew apart Pan Am Flight 103 over Lockerbie, Scotland, killing 270 people in 1988, the Justice Department announced Monday, the 32nd anniversary of the horrific terrorist attack.

Abu Agila Mohammad Masud also was linked by prosecutors to a 1986 bombing in West Germany that killed two U.S. military service members, Attorney General William P. Barr said in unsealing a criminal complaint against the former Libyan official.

Mr. Barr announced the charges at a press conference marking the end of his tenure as attorney general, underscoring his personal history with the Lockerbie case, which came to the fore during the early years of his career with the Justice Department.

“These charges are the product of decades of hard work by investigators and prosecutors who have remained resolute in their dogged pursuit of justice for our citizens, the citizens of the United Kingdom and the citizens of the other 19 countries that were murdered by terrorists operating on behalf of the former Moammar Gadhafi regime when they attacked Pan Am Flight 103,” said Mr. Barr, who is slated to formally leave office Wednesday.

He noted that he was the first official to announce criminal charges in the Lockerbie case. In November 1991, when he was acting attorney general in the George H.W. Bush administration, he announced charges against two other Libyans.

“Our message to other terrorists around the world is this: You will not succeed if you attack Americans, no matter where you are, no matter how long it takes, you will be pursued to the ends of the earth until justice is done,” Mr. Barr said in his remarks.

Masud is being held by the Libyan government. “It is my hope that Libyan authorities will allow Masud to be tried for this crime and will provide the support and witnesses necessary to bring him to justice,” Mr. Barr said.

A Justice Department official, speaking separately on background, expressed optimism that Masud would be turned over to American investigators to face the charges, which mark a historic turn in one of the longest U.S. counterterrorism investigations.

Libya accepted responsibility for the bombing in 2003 and agreed to pay compensation to the families of victims. The Justice Department official who spoke on background said a major break in the case was made when Masud was captured after the 2011 overthrow of the Gadhafi regime.

An FBI affidavit in the case said Masud was in custody in September 2012 and admitted under questioning to building bombs for the External Security Organization, as the Libyan spy service was called, including the bomb used in the Lockerbie bombing.

Masud was a bomb-making specialist in the technical department of the Libyan intelligence service. He built the bomb used in the 1986 attack on the La Belle discotheque in West Germany that killed two American service members and a Turkish woman.

The information from Masud’s confession about the Lockerbie bombing was turned over to Scottish authorities, who supplied it to the FBI around 2016.

In 2001, Scotland prosecuted two other Libyan intelligence officers linked to the Flight 103 attack, Abdelbaset al-Megrahi and Lamin Khalifah Fhimah. Al-Megrahi was convicted and sentenced to life in prison but was released after 10 years. He died in 2012. Mr. Fhimiah was acquitted of the charges but remains under U.S. indictment for his alleged role in the attack.

An original investigation uncovered a third Libyan suspect in the bombing who has now been identified as Masud. After years of legal wrangling with Scottish prosecutors over whether to charge Masud, the Justice Department decided to bring U.S. charges against him, said the official who spoke on background.

The official said the decision was made because the Scottish government mishandled the 2001 case that resulted in Mr. Fhimah’s acquittal.

Scottish prosecutors announced in 2015 that they wanted to interview two more suspects in the bombing: Masud and former senior Libyan intelligence official Abdullah al-Senussi, a confidant of Gadhafi.

A Libyan court sentenced al-Senussi to death in 2015, but the sentence has not been carried out. The FBI questioned him this spring and obtained information on Masud and the Lockerbie bombing.

Suitcase bomb details

The FBI affidavit states that a Libyan intelligence official summoned Masud to Tripoli in the winter of 1988. Masud, who held the rank of colonel, was directed by a superior to bring a Samsonite suitcase to Malta, where he would be met by al-Megrahi and Mr. Fhimah.

Masud traveled to Malta, where he built the bomb over several days using a Semtex plastic explosive that was placed inside a Toshiba cassette player along with a Swiss-made timer, a piece of which was found at the crash site.

Masud set the timer on the suitcase bomb to go off 11 hours ahead and gave the device to Mr. Fhimah, who was working undercover in Malta as the station manager of Libyan airlines there, the affidavit states.

That allowed Mr. Fhimah to place the bomb among the luggage of an Air Malta flight bound for Frankfurt. The suitcase was tagged for the Pan Am flight that originated in Frankfurt Airport and stopped in London before heading to its final destination in New York.

The bomb detonated at 31,000 feet over Lockerbie around 7 p.m., shortly after taking off from London’s Heathrow Airport. The airliner crashed over an area of 800 square miles of Scottish countryside.

The blast opened a hole in the forward cargo hold of the aircraft and resulted in catastrophic structural failure. The crash killed all 259 passengers and crew, including 190 Americans, along with 11 people on the ground.

The criminal complaint charged Masud with destruction of an aircraft resulting in death and destruction of a vehicle with an explosive resulting in death.

The bombing was initially believed to be the work of terrorists linked to the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine-General Command, which was known to be operating in Europe at the time.

According to the affidavit, Masud said Gadhafi congratulated him and the others involved several days later for “their successful attack on the United States.”

‘Hunted down’

The attack remains one of the most infamous to have targeted Americans. Among the casualties was a group of 35 Syracuse University students returning home for Christmas.

“Today’s unsealing of criminal charges in the Pan Am 103 case is monumental on several fronts,” said Michael R. Sherwin, acting U.S. attorney for the District of Columbia. “First, the criminal complaint against the alleged ‘bomb maker’ signifies that the work of federal prosecutors never ends, even after several decades, until all criminal actors are held accountable. In addition, these charges remind the public of the horrific effect that acts of terrorism continue to have on victims and their families.”

Robert Joseph, a former undersecretary of state for arms control and international security, said he was scheduled to fly on Pan Am Flight 103 on Dec. 21, 1988, but his wife changed the flight for him at the last minute because of a travel issue.

“The bombing of Pan Am 103 continues to this day to stand out as one of the most barbaric acts of international terrorism,” Mr. Joseph said. “It was the mass murder of hundreds of innocent civilians, many returning home to America for the holidays.”

He said that despite the passage of more than 30 years, “it is only just that all those responsible should still be hunted down and punished.”

“The action by Attorney General Barr sends a strong message that America will never rest in its pursuit of justice,” Mr. Joseph said.

• Bill Gertz can be reached at bgertz@washingtontimes.com.

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