A Fresh Look at the Bombing of Pan Am 103

Photos of the debris of a Russian airliner scattered across the Sinai reminded many of another plane that also came apart at 31,000 feet, more than a quarter of a century ago.

On December 21, 1988, Pan Am Flight 103 exploded in midair, killing 259 people on board and 11 residents in the town of Lockerbie, Scotland below. Several victims were Massachusetts' residents. Many questions about that bombing remain unanswered, but new clues suggest this cold case should get a fresh look.

In 2001 a Libyan, Abdel Basset al-Megrahi, was convicted in a special court in the Netherlands for planning the bombing. After serving only 8 years in a Scottish prison (about 11 days per victim), the Scots released him on "compassionate grounds" in August 2009. It was reported that he was about to die from prostate cancer. He didn't die until nearly 3 years later and I was not alone in believing that his release had more to do with oil than compassion. Within days, he was meeting with Muammar Qadaffi, who, according to The Guardian, "heaped praise on Scotland, his 'friend Gordon Brown', the Queen and Prince Andrew, saying all of them had contributed" to the release of al-Megrahi.

Among the 189 Americans on Pan Am 103 was a 25 year-old named David Dornstein. Ken Dornstein was 21 years old when his brother was killed. In an excellent three-part series on PBS's Frontline, Ken, a documentary-maker who has been investigating the bombing, makes a compelling case that bomb-maker Abu Agila Mas'ud should be added to the list of suspects.

It was reported last month that the Scots and the U.S. Attorney General Loretta E. Lynch have asked the Libyans for help in tracking down two suspects, presumably because of what Dornstein uncovered. While the suspects have not been named, the Libyans shouldn't have to look far to find Mas'ud or Qadaffi's former intelligence officer, Abdullah al-Senussi, as both are currently serving time in Libya after being convicted in the same trial. (The upheaval in Libya in the years that followed the 2011 killing of Qadaffi meant that his loyalists had to flea or try to hide and survive in a chaotic Libya where there is no love lost for the former regime.)

Dornstein's investigative work is impressive. One thing it should hopefully do is put to rest any suggestion that al-Megrahi was innocent. One of the most compelling things Dornstein presents is Libyan television footage of al-Megrahi's return to Libya, which shows some of the worst characters in the Qadaffi regime greeting him like a brother. If al-Megrahi was innocent, why was he warmly embracing al-Senussi and Al-Masud (who are identified in the video for the first time by Dornstein)?

This new information will also hopefully lead to a fresh look for evidence that may reach beyond Libya. At the time of the bombing, I was a foreign policy adviser to Senator Edward M. Kennedy. In addition to supporting the bringing to trial of al-Megrahi and another Libyan who was ultimately acquitted, we encouraged the Clinton Administration to continue to investigate the many questions regarding possible Syrian and Iranian involvement in the bombing, questions that date back to the Reagan Administration.

The most widely held theory is that Iran, seeking revenge for the July 1988 downing of an Iranian Airbus by the U.S.S. Vincennes in the Persian Gulf, sponsored Ahmed Jibril, the Syrian-based leader of the PFLP-GC to carry out the bombing. Jibril's plans were disrupted in the fall of 1988, when German agents raided his terrorist cells in Germany in an operation known as "Autumn Leaves." It was believed that Jibril then handed off the plans to Qadaffi who was all too happy to carry out the bombing because he hated President Ronald Reagan who had bombed Tripoli and Benghazi in retaliation for the 1986 Libyan bombing of a discotheque in Berlin which killed 2 American soldiers and injured 79 others.

Several investigators at the time told us that only the two Libyans could be tried because they were the only two for whom prosecutors could make a case. With so much upheaval in the region, opportunities may now exist to obtain more leads and answers. The Obama Administration should make it a priority to quickly interview al-Senussi and Al-Masud. They might unlock answers to Qadaffi's personal involvement and perhaps answer questions about Iran and Syria. The U.S. should also investigate other fresh evidence Dornstein has uncovered. And what of the Syria and Iran? Where is Ahmed Jibril? A 2012 New York Times reference to the Bashar al-Assad supporter suggests that he is either still in Syria, or perhaps Iran. And why did Scotland really let al-Megrahi go?

There are many questions that deserve a new look. The FBI might want to hire Ken Dornstein to give them a hand.