On 21 December 1988, Pan Am Flight 103 was blown out of the sky over Lockerbie. 270 people died, making it the country’s worst mass murder. In January 2001 Libyan Abdel Basset Ali Al-Megrahi was found guilty of the murders, while his colleague Lamen Khalifa Fhima was acquitted. Finally the case seemed solved. But was it?

Cover-up of Convenience by John Ashton and Ian Ferguson [1] shows that the ‘Trial of the Century’ saw the wrong people in the dock and an innocent man convicted. Worse still, the eleven-year investigation failed to net the real bombers and side-stepped awkward evidence that the intelligence services failed to act on clear warnings of the attack.

The case against supposedly proven at the recent trial was that on 21st December 1988 Abdel Basset Ali Al Megrahi placed a bomb in a suitcase, which was loaded, unaccompanied, onto Air Malta Flight KM 180 from Malta to Frankfurt, where it was transferred to Pan Am Flight 103. The bomb was fitted with a distinctive timing device known as the MST-13, a batch of which had been supplied to the Libyan intelligence service by Swiss firm Mebo. The company’s Zurich offices were shared by Libyan firm ABH, in which Megrahi was involved. He was also alleged to have bought the assortment of clothes that were in the bomb suitcase from the Mary’s House shop in Malta on 7th December 1988.

At first glance the evidence that convicted him is compelling. A fragment of circuit board from an MST-13 timer was found amid the crash debris; the Mary's House shopkeeper Tony Gauci seemed to identify him as the clothes purchaser; documents from Frankfurt airport appeared to show that an unaccompanied bag was transferred from Flight KM 180 to Pan Am 103; and the night before the bombing he stayed at the Holiday Inn in Malta under a false name and flew back to Tripoli the following morning.

What of the evidence that the bomb was loaded onto Flight KM 180 at Luqa airport in Malta? As the judges in the Lockerbie trial acknowledged, there was none. Indeed, they noted that Air Malta's rigorous security procedures appeared ‘on the face of them . . . to make it extremely difficult for an unaccompanied and unidentified bag to be shipped on a flight out of Luqa’ and that this constituted ‘a major difficulty for the Crown case.’ In justifying their guilty verdict, the judges instead relied on the documents from Frankfurt airport despite the fact that the documents proved nothing and were highly unreliable.

As for the MST-13 timing device, the judges noted that the witnesses from the Swiss company Mebo were also ‘unreliable,’ in particular Edwin Bollier, who had been responsible for delivering the timers to Libya. Nevertheless, the judges accepted certain uncorroborated elements of Bollier’s evidence helpful to the prosecution. There was evidence that he had supplied identical timers to the East German Stasi, which had close ties to Palestinian groups, including the original prime suspects in the bombing, the radical Palestinian group, the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine – General Command (PFLP-GC,) but the judges chose to accept, without proof, that the bomb incorporated one of the Libyan timers.

The most remarkable section of the judgment concerned the evidence of the shopkeeper Gauci. According to the prosecution he had witnessed Megrahi buy the clothes for the bomb suitcase on Wednesday December 7th 1988, but, while it was true that the could recall a customer buying a mixture of clothes, he was unable to positively identify either Megrahi or the date in question. Indeed, all the evidence suggested that the clothes had been bought by a different person two weeks earlier on November 23rd. Gauci recalled that the customer was around 6 ft tall and about 50 years old, whereas Megrahi is only 5 ft 8 in. and was, at the time, only 36 years old. The judges noted that there were ‘undoubtedly problems’ with Gauci’s identification but nevertheless accepted it as reliable and that the date in question was 7 December.

Many legal experts were astonished by the way the judges repeatedly made up for the deficiencies in the Prosecution case with their own speculation. Trial observer Professor Hans Kochler, who was nominated by United Nations Secretary-General Kofi Annan, concluded: ‘the trial, seen in its entirety, was not fair and was not conducted in an objective manner. Indeed, there are many more questions and doubts at the end of the trial than there were at its beginning. The trial has effectively created more confusion than clarity and no rational observer can make any statement on the complex subject matter "beyond any reasonable doubt."’

So, if the two Libyans are innocent, what really happened? Cover-up of Convenience suggests the bombing was commissioned by Iran and carried out by the Syrian-based Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine – General Command (PFLP-GC) with Hizbullah. The Western intelligence services, in particular the CIA, have admitted that Iran hired the PFLP-GC to avenge the accidental shoot-down of Iran Air 655 over the Persian Gulf six months before Lockerbie by the US battle cruiser the Vincennes. Jibril despatched his right hand man, Hafez Dalkamoni and bomb maker, Marwan Khreesat to West Germany, where Khreesat manufactured at least five barometric bombs designed to blow up aircraft, at least two of which were built into Toshiba radio-cassette players. Six weeks before Lockerbie the West German Federal Police, the BKA launched a massive raid against the PFLP-GC gang, code-named ‘Autumn Leaves.’ Dalkamoni and Khreesat were caught red-handed with one of the Toshiba bombs, but the other bombs evaded detection and the second Toshiba bomb was never recovered.

The book also rejects the claim that the bomb was despatched from Malta in an unaccompanied suitcase. Although the exact means by which it reached Flight 103 remain unclear, a variety of Middle East and Western intelligence sources have claimed it was either substituted for, or added to, luggage belonging to a 20-year-old Lebanese American passenger Khalid Jaafar who boarded in Frankfurt. These sources claim was being used as a mule in a Middle East heroin trafficking operation run by people with terrorist connections. There is also compelling circumstantial evidence that the bomb was introduced at Heathrow.

According to the official version’ the Autumn Leaves raids put a halt to the Iranian revenge mission, but other evidence suggested it did not. Five weeks later US intelligence warned of the continuing threat of an Iranian reprisal and noted that some Middle Eastern terrorist groups active in Germany had the infrastructure to conduct bombings. And at around the same time, the State Department’s Office of Diplomatic Security received a specific warning that radical Palestinians were planning to attack a Pan Am target in Europe.

So who took over from Dalkamoni and Khreesat? Cover-up of Convenience suggests the Autumn Leaves raids were only a hiccup in the Iranian plot and that others took over the German operation where the two men had left off.

Why the cover-up? The most obvious reason is that the American Government and its close ally in London did not wish to antagonise Iran and the PFLP-GC’s host and main sponsor Syria. The administration of the then President, George Bush Snr, like that of his predecessor Ronald Reagan, was highly sensitive to the fate of US hostages in Lebanon, all of whom were held by Syrian and Iranian controlled groups. So in the months of the bombing, despite many leaks from Western intelligence that Iran and the PFLP-GC was to blame, no action was forthcoming. Following Iraq’s invasion of Kuwait in August 1990 Syria became an ally in the anti-Saddam coalition and behind the scenes an intense diplomatic effort was made to ensure Iran’s neutrality. Within months leaks from the official investigation suggested the original theory of the bombing was wrong and that the real culprits lay in Libya. Once the dust had settled over the Gulf War battlefields, indictments were issued against Megrahi and his colleague Lamin Khalifa Fhimah and the Iran, Syria and the PFLP-GC were officially exonerated. Four days later the last Western hostages were released from Lebanon.

As for the denial of the Jaafar/drugs connection, intelligence sources have maintained that he was reporting back to US Central Intelligence Agency and that the drug trafficking operation took place with the Agency’s blessing. Since the heroin suitcases by-passed the normal security procedures, it provided the bombers with a failsafe means of getting the bomb on the plane.

This scenario probably accounts for why American agents were on scene within two hours of the bombing and why large quantities of drugs found among the debris were officially denied. The Americans were especially keen to recover baggage belonging to Major Charles McKee, a military intelligence specialist who was returning from an aborted hostage rescue mission in the Lebanon. According to some of McKee’s former colleagues, he was about to blow the whistle on the drug trafficking operation, which he believed compromised his own team’s efforts.

Of course the American and British Governments can never admit that dirty politics took precedence over justice. Only by insisting on the guilt of the unfortunate Megrahi can they keep the lid on the scandal of Flight 103.

[1]Published by Mainstream, Edinburgh, 2001.