Kenny MacAskill’s bungled Lockerbie book

Kenny MacAskill’s book The Lockerbie Bombing: The Search for Justice today begins its serialisation in The Sunday Times. The book’s blurb casts the author as sleuth, claiming he “answers how and why [the bombing] happened – and who was really responsible.” Unfortunately, however, today’s extract merely recycles others’ assertions and, worse still, contains numerous factual errors, distortions and speculative claims. Anyone who claimed Megrahi’s innocence based on so many unsupported claims would, of course, be branded a conspiracy theorist, but that is exactly what Mr MacAskill is. It is clear that his account relies heavily on Crown sources, which may account for his failure to mention key exculpatory evidence.

The book does, however, make one major concession, in the following line: “Clothes in the suitcase that carried the bomb were acquired in Malta, though not by Megrahi.”

As anyone familiar with the case knows, the guilty verdict against Megrahi was reliant upon the claim that he bought the clothes. Without it, the conviction falls.

The extract follows in italics, interspersed with my comments.

It was accepted Abdelbaset Ali Mohmed al-Megrahi hadn’t acted alone. He didn’t do it for his own cause or personal benefit. He was a relatively senior Libyan agent but still junior in rank to Abdullah Senussi, head of Libyan intelligence and brother-in-law of Colonel Muammar Gadaffi; senior minister Moussa Koussa; and ultimately Gadaffi. If he had acted, it would have been on their authority and under their direction. This was state-sponsored terrorism. It’s not just the evidence before the court that implicated Libya. Gadaffi himself accepted culpability by the Libyan regime. That wasn’t just the signing of the UN treaty or the payment of compensation to victims. In an interview with the Washington Times in July 2003, he accepted his country’s guilt for the downing of Pan Am flight 103.

He explained it had originally been an Iranian retaliatory terrorist attack for the downing by the US Navy of a peaceful Iran Air Airbus on its daily run across the Strait of Hormuz, stating: “Nobody in our part of the world believed the US government when it said it was an accidental occurrence. So the Iranians subcontracted part of the job to a Syrian intelligence service, which in turn asked the Libyan Mukhabarat to handle part of the assignment. That is the way these things were planned in those days.”

Omission 1. The quote by Gadaffi continued: “If we had initiated the plot, we would have made sure the accusing finger was pointed in the other direction and we would have picked Cyprus, not Malta, where some of the organization was done. The others picked Malta presumably to frame us.” Whether read in full or part, the quote is far from being an unambiguous admission of responsibility.” The quoted Washington Times article, was the only occasion in the 20 years between the Lockerbie indictment in 1991 and his death 20 years later in which Gadaffi allegedly confessed to the bombing. The claim has to be taken with a pinch of salt, not least because the article’s author, Arnaud de Borchgrave, was a right-wing fanatic, who was unashamedly close to the CIA. More importantly, on numerous other occasions, the Libyan government denied involvement in the bombing. Libya formally accepted responsibility for the bombing and paid compensation in 2004, but the government made clear that it did so in order to rid the country of the UN sanctions that had crippled its economy for many years. None of these facts Kenny acknowledges.

Nor was it just the Gadaffi regime that accepted Libyan responsibility for it. Following the fall of the regime, the National Transitional Council (NTC) stated publicly that Gadaffi had personally ordered it. In February 2011, Mustafa Abdel-Jalil, who had been justice minister under Gadaffi, had defected and been appointed head of the NTC. He told a Swedish newspaper “Gadaffi gave the order about Lockerbie”, and said that he had proof that Gadaffi had personally ordered Megrahi to commit the crime.

Omission 2. Jalil never provided proof. When pushed by BBC Newsnight to reveal what evidence he had, the best he could offer was that the Gadaffi regime had paid Megrahi’s legal fees. He later claimed that the Swedish newspaper had misquoted him.

Discussions since, between law enforcement and the new Libyan authorities and prosecutors, have confirmed that involvement. It fitted the actions of the regime over the 40 years of Gadaffi’s rule. Murder and terror were part of his regime’s very DNA.

Omission 3. The post-revolutionary government had a vested interest in playing up the Gadaffi regime’s involvement in terrorism, however, no documentary evidence has emerged publicly from the old regime to confirm its role in Lockerbie

Lockerbie was just one of many terrorist actions that the Libyan regime under Gadaffi carried out. But Gadaffi was not alone. He had his acolytes and aides. While Gadaffi might sign it off, others would do the dirty work. One of the principal players was Abdullah Senussi. He was not only head of internal intelligence but close to Gadaffi. He was pivotal. Indeed, he was convicted in absentia of involvement in the bombing of the UTA airliner in Niger the year after Lockerbie. He was a man with few compunctions and little mercy. He had authorised the brutal slaying of 1,200 prisoners at Abu Selim prison in 1996. Others over many years were to suffer because of him, as his ruthless prosecution of dissidents showed. He was a friend of Megrahi’s and no actions by Megrahi would have been without his orders or consent.

Others, too, would have had to have been in the know and given instructions or provided assistance. Koussa was also a very close confidante of the Libyan leader. He later became head of external security in 1994 until 2009 when he became foreign minister. At the time of the Lockerbie bombing, he headed up an organisation known as the World Centre to promote the Libyan regime’s views but which was viewed in the West as the source of training and funding for revolutionary groups. However, though Libya was pivotal, it was not alone. As a former senior police officer once said to me, it was a coalition of the willing. So what happened?

The atmosphere between the West and Middle Eastern states including Iran, Libya and client organisations was poisonous by the summer of 1998 [NB: in fact 1988]. When in July of that year the USS Vincennes brought down an Iranian plane flying across the Strait of Hormuz, killing all aboard, it grew significantly more venomous. The United States neither sought to atone nor apologise for it. That caused anger and outrage not just in Iran but in the wider Muslim and Arab world. The bitterness and hostility was longstanding and the belief of an eye for an eye existed on all sides. It resulted in Iran putting up a bounty of $10m to bring down an American airliner as revenge. That was confirmed by security and Pentagon sources as well as in the Middle East. Iran put up the money, but who would do it? Enter the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine — General Command (PFLP-GC). They had the capacity and the will to do it, as past atrocities confirmed. Their leader Ahmed Jibril has been identified by several sources as pivotal to the atrocity. The PFLP-GC would be assisted by others. That too was normal. Hence, Gadaffi’s mention of the Syrian security services’ initial involvement. Carrying out such actions involved many states and organisations working together and sharing skills and expertise. The Libyans were used to co-operating with other groups either to promote or support terrorism. The PFLP-GC was to carry it out, supported in the shadows by both the Syrian and Libyan security services.

Unsupported speculation 1. Nice theory, shame about the lack of hard evidence.

They set to work on their planning to perpetrate it, acquiring flight timetables and even Pan Am luggage labels for the aircraft. Radio cassettes and timers were acquired for the bomb. The western intelligence services knew that something was brewing and were on their guard and on high alert. A plane was being targeted and terrorists intent on carrying it out were on the loose.

There was considerable fear and alarm. In October of that year, good work by the German police saw a significant PFLP-GC cell detained and broken near Frankfurt in Germany. But that success did not stop the alarm bells ringing. They’d stopped one cell, but there would be others out there, willing and eager to carry on where the others had failed. The PFLP-GC, though, was badly incapacitated and looked for help.

Omission 4. There is good reason to believe that the October German police raids did not incapacitate the PFLP-GC. The bomb maker Marwan Khreesat implicated another member, Abu Elias, who arrived in Germany shortly before the arrests and was never caught. So too did the leader of the group’s Yugoslavian cell, Mobdi Goben. Just three weeks before Lockerbie the US State Department’s Office of Diplomatic Security warned that a radical Palestinian group was active in Europe and was planning to target Pan Am.

That call was answered by the Libyans, who already knew of the plans. They were already involved in the supply of timers and other support. The Libyans picked it up from there. They had experience in bombings in the past and working with the PFLP-GC. They’d already have been sighted on the plan. It was now reaching a new and deadly stage. Malta was to be the setting for it.

Unsupported speculation 2. The claim that the Libyans picked up where the PFLP-GC left off is a neat theory, but where is the hard evidence to support it?

Clothes in the suitcase that carried the bomb were acquired in Malta, though not by Megrahi. But if Megrahi didn’t buy the clothes, he was certainly involved. He had held a senior post in the Libyan security service (JSO) as head of airline security, which mirrored his job with Libyan Arab Airlines (LAA) with a similar title. Even when he left the airline job he retained the accreditation and no doubt the security service post. He had close links and personal friendships with senior officers and also with Abdullah Senussi, who was head of operations at that time for the JSO. A member he undoubtedly was and, given his important job, a relatively senior one. He had after all been identified by Edwin Bollier, owner of the timer manufacturer MEBO, as being at test explosions of the timers in Libya.

Wrong 1. Bollier in fact said that Megrahi was not present at the desert tests.

He had also been involved in the purchase of radio receivers for the military from MEBO the year before and been involved in the procurement of an antenna for the head of the JSO. That had taken place after he’d left his role with the airline in January 1987 and when Megrahi himself suggested his links with the JSO had ceased.

Selective use of facts 2. Megrahi never denied denied that he was involved in procuring equipment for the Libyan authorities and that the company ABH – in which he was a partner and which rented office space from MEBO in Zurich – was a vehicle for such procurement

Yet the evidence shows that the antennas were ordered in November 1987 and it was Megrahi who conducted the transaction with MEBO for the security service. He was the conduit for much of the trade between MEBO and the JSO, showing a level of trust and involvement that would not be afforded a simple middleman. He was still an agent and he would obey orders when instructed, whatever they were.

Omission 5. There is ample documentary evidence that ABH was involved in a lot of straightforward and non-sinister trading activities on behalf of the Libyan authorities, including Libyan Arab Airlines.

And so it was to be. Megrahi flew in to Malta with the suitcase that was to transport the bomb.

Wrong 2. Records from the Air Malta flight that Megrahi took show that he checked in no luggage. The Lockerbie suitcase was too big to have been cabin baggage.

He travelled on a false passport that he only used once that year; and which he’d never use again.

Omission 6. Megrahi kept the passport and handed it over to the prosecution shortly before his trial – hardly the actions of a guilty man.

He had used it in 1987 for a trip to Nigeria where on one leg of the trip he had been on the same plane as another senior JSO official, Nassr Ashur, who had also been present at the testing of air detonation bombs. Though the use of such passports was not uncommon in Libya to avoid sanctions, their use was restricted. Moreover, he was unable to give any explanation for his journey. While a court of law does not oblige an accused to testify, the court of public opinion most certainly does. Even in his own biography professing his innocence he simply says he can’t recall why he went. It seems entirely incredible that anyone would fly to a foreign country for one night only, using a false passport and have no idea or recollection why they had done so.

Wrong 3. Megrahi in fact gave a full explanation in his biography as to why he went and also provided a possible explanation for his use of the false passport. The explanation went as follows:

“[Lamin Fhimah] told me he was thinking of travelling to Malta on 20 December to finalise the company paperwork and invited me over to see its offices and meet his business partner Vincent Vassallo. I accepted the invitation, partly because I also wanted to buy some more things for the house, in particular carpets.

On 20 December Lamin called me at my office to tell me he was definitely travelling to Malta that afternoon. We arranged to meet at Tripoli Airport and take an Air Malta flight, which departed at around 16.30, and I booked to fly home on the first LAA flight the following morning. I didn’t want to be away for more than a night, because there was work to do on the Paris to Dakar Rally, and on the evening of the 21st my sister was having a party to celebrate the birth of her daughter a week earlier.

Rather than travelling on my own passport, I used the coded one in the name Khalifa Abdusamad. I honestly can’t remember the precise reason for doing so, as it wasn’t of great importance at the time, but the most likely one is that I didn’t want my wife to know I was in Malta. Although it was only an overnight trip, I knew she wouldn’t be happy, as I’d just been away for ten days and, more importantly, Malta had a bad reputation among Libyan wives as a place of low moral standards, where men were easily led astray. I may therefore have told her that I was visiting a friend on the other side of Tripoli and intended to spend the night there. If so, then to prevent her suspecting my true destination, I would have left my regular passport at home. She had no idea about the coded passport, which I always kept at my office. I was supposed  to use it only for business purposes, but I had occasionally taken it on my personal travels, for example  when I went to Mecca for the Umrah pilgrimage, for no other reason than that it was the closest to hand.

Another possibility  is that my regular passport was with my Lib- yan  bank.  At  the  time  Libyans  were  allowed  to  take  only  500  US dollars out of the country  annually, and any remaining amount could not be carried over to the following year. It may be that, since return- ing from Prague, I had lodged the passport with my bank in order to guarantee my remaining allocation before the year end.

It was also possible that I chose my coded passport in order to secure hard currency, as it contained  a stamp, dated 22 June 1988, that entitled  me to an additional  allowance  of $1,000, providing  I could demonstrate that I had travelled abroad before the year end. Libyans often  made short trips to neighbouring countries  in order to get the necessary foreign entry stamp in their passports.”

Omission 7. Kenny omits to mention a possible explanation for Megrahi’s presence in Malta, the fact that he had an affair with a Maltese woman.

Finally, and no doubt the reason he chose not to give evidence, he had lied in previous public comments on his actions. In an interview with the TV reporter Pierre Salinger in November 1991, he had denied being involved with Libyan intelligence, which he clearly was; refuted suggestions that he knew or was involved in the acquisition of timers, which he had been; and in particular denied being in Malta on December 20 and 21 under a false passport, during which time he had been staying at the Holiday Inn Hotel, which he did.

Omission 8. Megrahi gave a reasonable explanation for lying to Pierre Salinger, namely the fact that he was concerned that if he confirmed the more suspicious elements of the prosecution case it would provide the US with an excuse to bomb Libya, as it had five years earlier.

All quite damning. But there was more. The suitcase was a Samsonite model, sold heavily in the Middle East market. Megrahi had been to Malta the month before, which was probably preparatory for the scheme and involved discussions on the logistics of clothes, the suitcase and the bomb equipment. He may even have brought the timers in with him. He would meet with others in the embassy to discuss and build on plans already developed by the PFLP-GC — hence the interlining with a flight through Frankfurt in Germany.

Unsupported speculation 3. This is pure theorising.

Though Megrahi had been involved in the acquisition of timers, and even witnessed their use in tests in Libya, he would not be the bomb maker.

Wrong 4. There is no evidence he was involved in the acquisition of timers and no witness claimed that he was. As stated above, Megrahi did not witness the tests.

Omission 9. Kenny fails to mention the forensic evidence, which emerged in 2009, that proves that the fragment of circuit board found among the Lockerbie debris could not have originated from a Libyan timer.

 That would have been prepared in the Libyan People’s Bureau as appears to have occurred in other terrorist incidents, such as the La Belle bombing in Berlin in 1986. Megrahi had arrived at Malta’s Luqa Airport on December 20 at about 5.30pm, accompanied by Lamin Fhimah, a JSO agent who had been the LAA manager for Malta based at the airport.

Wrong 5. There is no evidence that Fhimah was a JSO agent.

Fhimah had only gone back to Tripoli from Malta on December 18 to be briefed; and, as the Crown suggested at the trial, to assist Megrahi back through security at the airport. Fhimah’s familiarity with the airport as well as contacts would be crucial.

Having deposited the case that night at the bureau, Megrahi would get it back loaded with both the clothes and the bomb secreted in a Toshiba radio cassette player.

Unsupported speculation 4. Again, this is totally speculative.  

Supergrass Abdul Majid, who had been the assistant manager for LAA at Luqa airport at the time assisting Fhimah and himself a Libyan agent, stated that he’d seen both Megrahi and Fhimah arrive at the airport from a Tripoli flight, accompanied by two others, one of whom was another Libyan agent, Abu Agila Mas’ud, described as a technician.

Omission 10. Abdul Majid [Giaka] was discredited at Megrahi’s trial. He claimed, three years after the event, when desperate for asylum in the US, that Megrahi and Fhimah brought a Samsonite suitcase to Malta on 20 December, despite the fact that the flight records showed that they had no checked in luggage.

Mas’ud remains a mysterious individual who was clearly a JSO agent. He was never allowed to be interviewed by the defence. Requests were made to meet and interview him but he had been spirited back to Libya and kept out of sight. When in 1999 investigators had gone to Libya to question government ministers, the officials refused to confirm or deny that Mas’ud existed.

There was good reason for the early suspicions of the investigators that point to Mas’ud as the man who primed the bomb that was placed on board Pan Am flight 103. Research shows him as being implicated in the La Belle bombing in Berlin. He had gone to the city and stayed in a nearby hotel. He had travelled on the same passport later used by him to go to Malta with Megrahi a few years later when the Lockerbie bomb was placed. A Libyan convicted of the bombing, Musbah Eter, told US investigators that Mas’ud and Megrahi were involved in Lockerbie, and that he heard Mas’ud speak of travelling to Malta to prepare the attack.

As the Gadaffi regime fell, information on Mas’ud surfaced through diligent research by an American film-maker and investigations by Human Rights Watch. They located him languishing in a Libyan prison cell and awaiting trial for bomb making. Not, though, for a trial about the devastation wrecked on Pan Am 103 or the town of Lockerbie, but for using remote-detonated explosive devices to booby-trap the cars of Libyan opposition members in 2011, after revolution broke out. He has since been sentenced to 10 years’ imprisonment and is incarcerated in the cells once inhabited by Gadaffi’s and his henchmen’s victims.

Omission 11. As I have written at length elsewhere, eg here and here, the story of La Belle, Mas’ud and Eter is vastly more complicated than presented by Kenny and is far from probative of Libyan involvement in Lockerbie, let alone Megrahi’s.

So the bomb was prepared and primed, but it still needed to be placed on board the Air Malta flight. Megrahi arrived at the time of the loading of the Air Malta flight to Frankfurt. His flight to Tripoli saw check-in open at 8.50am and close at 9.50am. The Air Malta fight to Frankfurt opened at 8.15am and closed at 9.15am. Megrahi was checked in early by a lady at an Air Malta desk dealing with flights to Cairo. It was an adjacent desk to the LAA ones. That check-in had opened at 8.35am and was due to close at 9.35am. Megrahi was checked on to the LAA flight sixth. According to the airline clerk, that would have been early on. That assistance at different airline counters was normal and was simply done to ease congestion. However, in particular, it was for passengers travelling without luggage. Megrahi was going back without any suitcase, which was why she checked him in. That, also, was never clarified by him. Not only was the purpose of his trip never answered but why he landed with a bag and travelled back without one remained unexplained.

Wrong 6. He didn’t land with a bag (see above).

But he had first visited the LAA offices. There he met Fhimah and the suitcase was handed over. The case Megrahi had brought with him was not going back with him, but was being placed on board the Air Malta flight bound for Frankfurt, primed with the bomb that would detonate aboard the JFK flight from Heathrow. Megrahi’s work was done; it was now for others to take over.

Unsupported speculation 5. At the risk of sounding like a stuck record, this is pure theory.

How was the bomb placed aboard? The case Megrahi brought with him would be tagged and placed for loading but not on the flight he was going on. Luggage labels for Air Malta were available. Fhimah had made a note to obtain them. His diary, that had been referred to in court, had noted on the page for December 15 to “take tags from Air Malta”. It had also been subsequently marked “OK” but in a different colour. It had also narrated: “Take/collect tags from the airport (Abdulbaset/Abdussalam).” “Tags” had been written in English and the rest in Arabic.

Omission 12. Fhimah left his diary in his Maltese office for over two years, which does not suggest he had anything to hide. He also told his Maltese business partner, Vincent Vassallo, that he was happy for it to be handed to the Scottish police. There is evidence that LAA regularly had to borrow tags from Air Malta.

The court accepted that but felt unable to draw the inference that it was to allow for an interlined bag to be placed on board; and accordingly that there was sufficient evidence for a conviction of Fhimah. However, they were certainly highly suspicious actions and led to the conclusion that Megrahi took the case to the airport, but it was Fhimah who would get it airside and beyond security. After all, he had flown out to Libya to accompany Megrahi back with the case and had made notes to prepare for that, including obtaining Air Malta tags. He had security passes, but more importantly a detailed knowledge of the airport and its layout which Megrahi did not have. It was labelled for Air Malta, to be routed on to Pan Am through Frankfurt and Heathrow and to New York with the tags Fhimah’s diary had referred to. The bag was placed in the system going airside without going through the formal check-in desks. It will probably never be known just how the security measures were breached, but no doubt that was why the plot involved those with accreditation, access and knowledge of the airport. If anyone would know how to do it, then Fhimah would.

Unsupported speculation 6. Stuck record again.

The bag that Megrahi had brought in was placed on to the Air Malta flight to be transferred at Frankfurt for the fateful rendezvous in Heathrow. The records show that an unaccompanied bag was unloaded at Frankfurt from the Air Malta flight, yet the records from Luqa do not disclose that piece of unaccompanied luggage being loaded.

Omission 13. The records from Luqa and Air Malta’s unusually tight baggage procedures are very strong evidence that an unaccompanied bag was not ingested at Luqa.

 There is no suggestion, though, that the Frankfurt airport authorities are mistaken.

Wrong 7: The Frankfurt airport authorities never claimed that an unaccompanied case transited through the airport, rather this was an inference drawn by the police. Furthermore there are plenty of reasons why the Frankfurt records could have been inaccurate.

Omission 14. The German federal police, the BKA, stated explicitly that there was no evidence to support the inference.

 It was accepted by both the FAI and the court at Camp Zeist that it had been on that flight from Malta. It was thereafter routed with other unaccompanied baggage to be placed in a container; and thus on board Pan Am 103. As it was an interlined bag, it was subject only to X-ray rather than a physical check; nor would there be an administrative match to a passenger before being loaded and going straight through airport procedures. It, thereafter, went through the system all the way to Heathrow and onto the JFK-bound flight. At Heathrow the Frankfurt bags were placed on a container that was the seat of the bomb. That container, AVE 4041, had the interlined bags, including the Samsonite suitcase and others from Frankfurt. The links were clearly there. Pan Am 103 was doomed, and the bomb that would be detonated over Lockerbie had been primed and placed aboard in Malta.

Omission 15. Kenny completely omits the very powerful and so far uncontested case assembled by Dr Morag Kerr that the bomb was ingested at Heathrow.

There are aspects of the bombing that remain a mystery to this day. Given the nature of those involved and the passage of time, that’s understandable. Moreover, given the death of many and the lying low of others, it’s probable it will remain that way for ever. There are also aspects of the case that could not be sustained in a court of law with the high standard of proof beyond reasonable doubt required and specific rules on evidence needed. There are equally aspects of the case that may not have seen a criminal conviction sustained on appeal. But this account of how the bombing was carried out and by whom is based on information gathered meticulously by police and prosecutors from the US, Scotland and elsewhere. It’s also founded on intelligence and sources not available for a court or that have only come to light thereafter.

Omission 16. Intelligence sources have been peddling the case set out by Kenny, that the Libyans took over from the PFLP-GC, since at least 1990.

Finally, it’s also predicated on the words of the leader of Libya himself, Muammar Gadaffi, and those who replaced him when the regime fell.

The suggestions of conspiracies by others known or unknown are fanciful. The protestations of innocence by Megrahi are equally so, though his role was a very limited one. He was but a cog in a very much larger wheel, acting under orders from those far more senior than him. The triumvirate of Gadaffi, Senussi and Koussa were all involved, as would have been others in senior positions in the Libyan regime. This, after all, went right to the heart of the state, not simply to a JSO agent carrying a suitcase with a bomb.

Libya did it, Megrahi was part of it and other states and terrorist organisations also played their part. It was in revenge for the downing of the Iran Air flight by a US naval ship. It was, therefore, a coalition of the willing that brought down Pan Am 103.

Thanking their lucky stars

The Lockerbie bombing almost claimed the lives of several celebrities who had been among those scheduled to fly on Pan Am flight 103. Punk star Johnny Rotten had booked but missed the flight.

The Four Tops had been on a European tour and were heading back to the US for Christmas — but a delayed recording session and oversleeping meant they never even made it to the airport. For once, their hectic schedules worked in their favour.

Furthermore,the Swedish tennis star and former world No 1 Mats Wilander and the American Sex and the City star Kim Cattrall had made earlier reservations but did not proceed further.

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