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The Lockerbie Bombing Trial: Is Libya Being Framed?
by Gary C. Gambill
Scotland's Sunday Herald reported last week that the U.S. government placed a gag order on a former CIA agent to prevent him from testifying in the trial of two Libyans accused of carrying out the December 1988 bombing of Pan Am Flight 103 over Lockerbie, Scotland that killed 270 people.
|The wreckage from Pan Am Flight 103 (Greg Bos/Reuters) |
Dr. Richard Fuisz, a wealthy businessman and pharmaceutical researcher who was a major CIA operative in Damascus during the 1980s, told a congressional staffer in 1994 that the perpetrators of the bombing were based in Syria. "If the government would let me, I could identify the men behind this attack . . . I can tell you their home addresses . . . you won't find [them] anywhere in Libya. You will only find [them] in Damascus," Fuisz told congressional aide Susan Lindauer, who has submitted a sworn affidavit describing this conversation to the Scottish court that is trying the two suspects.
One month after their meeting, a Washington DC court issued a ruling that prohibits Fuisz from discussing the Lockerbie bombing on national security grounds. When a reporter called Fuisz last month with questions about Lindauer's affidavit, he replied: "That is not an issue I can confirm or deny. I am not allowed to speak about these issues. In fact, I can't even explain to you why I can't speak about these issues." The report quoted a senior UN official who has seen the affidavit as saying that "in the interests of natural justice, Dr. Fuisz should be released from any order which prevents him telling what he knows of the PanAm bombing."1
The investigation into the bombing by Scottish police and the FBI initially focused exclusively on evidence linking the blast to the Damascus-based Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine-General Command (PFLP-GC), a radical Palestinian group closely allied with Syrian President Hafez Assad and other senior officials. However, the investigation suddenly changed courses after Syria joined the U.S.-led coalition against Iraq in 1991 and Iran stayed neutral. In November of that year, U.S. investigators issued indictments against two alleged Libyan intelligence agents and President George Bush declared that Syria had taken a "bum rap" on Lockerbie.
Fuisz is not the first to run afoul of the U.S. government for speaking about Syrian and Iranian complicity in the Lockerbie bombing. Juval Aviv, the president of Interfor, a New York corporate investigative company hired by Pan Am to conduct an inquiry into the bombing, was indicted for mail fraud after Interfor announced its conclusion that the PFLP-GC had been responsible.2 A former agent for the Defense Intelligence Agency (DIA), Lester Coleman, was charged by the FBI with "falsely procuring a passport" while he was researching a book entitled Trail of the Octopus which fingered the PFLP-GC (Coleman left the country and published the book in Britain).3 William Casey, a lobbyist who made similar claims about PFLP-GC involvement, said in 1995 that the U.S. Justice Department had frozen his bank accounts and federal agents scoured through his garbage cans.4
The Case Against Libya
The prosecution's claim is that two Libyan intelligence agents, Al-Amin Khalifa Fhimah and Abdel Basset Ali al-Megrahi, planted Semtex plastic explosives inside a Toshiba radio-cassette recorder in an unaccompanied suitcase on a flight from Malta to Frankfurt, where it was transferred onto Pan Am flight 103, bound for New York via London's Heathrow airport.
|A courtroom sketch of Abdel Basset Al-Megrahi (center), and Al-Amin Khalifa Fahima (right) during the trial proceedings on May 5. (Fred Ernst/Reuters) |
The first important chain of evidence links the bomb-laden suitcase on Flight 103 to Air Malta Flight KT180. Fragments of the Toshiba radio-cassette recorder were found inside a brown Samsonite suitcase, the only piece of luggage on the Flight 103 that was not checked by a passenger. The suitcase had entered the baggage system at Frankfurt at the same time and location as the Air Malta flight was unloading. According to prosecutors, a tattered shirt with a Maltese label containing fragments of the timing device was found by a Scottish man walking his dog 18 months after the explosion (fabric samples from the shirt were said to indicate that it was inside the brown suitcase).
However, Air Malta's computer records show no indication that a brown Samsonite suitcase was on board Flight KT180, and the notion that an old man walking his dog would stumble across a key piece of evidence a year and a half after the explosion is a bit far-fetched. Moreover, according to a forensic report which the defense will present during the trial, a bomb in a suitcase stored in the aluminum luggage containers could not have created the dinner plate-sized hole in the fuselage that brought down the plane--the
bomb would have had to be directly next to the plane's fuselage. If this true, then the prosecution's entire explanation of how the bomb arrived on the aircraft in Malta falls apart.
A second chain of evidence links the two Libyan suspects to Malta. Detectives traced the charred remains of clothing tattered shirt to a clothing shop in Sliema, Malta, whose owner, Tony Gauci, said that he recalled selling the clothes to a tall Arab male, about 50 years old, in the fall of 1988. Investigators say he later identified the man who bought the clothes as Megrahi. However, Megrahi was only 36 at the time, and Gauci greatly overestimated his height. Moreover, a member of the PFLP-GC, Muhammed Abu Talb, was originally identified as the man who bought the clothes during the early stages of the investigation.5
A third primary piece of evidence said to implicate Libya are two fragments of an electronic circuit board from the the timing device that detonated the explosives on board the airliner. Investigators traced the fragments to a Swiss company which manufactures electronic timers, Mebo Telecommunications. The head of Mebo Communications, Edwin Bollier, told investigators that the fragments came from an MST-13 timer he had sold to the Libyan government. However, Bollier recently said he had made the identification solely from looking at photographs of the fragments. When he was shown one of the actual fragments in September 1999, he concluded that "the fragment does not come from one of the timers we sold to Libya." Bollier says that it appears to come from one of the three prototypes built by his company--two of which were sold to the Institute of Technical Research in East Germany (a front for the Stasi intelligence service), while the third was stolen. He intends to testify to this at the trial, as will Owen Lewis, a British forensic expert.6
A fourth important piece of evidence is the testimony of a former Libyan intelligence officer who will identify the two suspects as members of Libya's intelligence service. While details of what he told investigators are scarce, sources close to the defense have said that it is highly questionable.
A number of irregularities in the investigation also detract from the plausibility of the prosecution's claims. The American FBI agent who was instrumental in pushing the Libya hypothesis, J. Thomas Thurman, was later suspended for manipulating evidence to favor the prosecution in subsequent cases.7
The Case Against Syria/Iran
The primary hypothesis guiding the investigation for the first year was that the bombing was perpetrated by the Syria-based PFLP-GC, presumably acting on behalf of Iran. Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini had vowed to retaliate for the U.S. Navy's July 1988 downing of an Iranian airliner over the Persian Gulf, saying that the skies would "rain blood" and offering a $10 million reward to anyone who "obtained justice" for Iran. Ayatollah Ali Akbar Mohtashemi, Teheran's envoy in Damascus in 1988, was believed to have recruited the financially-strapped group for the task.
Two months before the disaster, German police arrested 15 terrorist suspects, all connected to the PFLP-GC, and confiscated three explosive devices consisting of Semtex hidden inside Toshiba cassette recorders--nearly identical to the one used in the Lockerbie bombing ( the only major difference being that they had barometric triggers, rather than electronic timers of the type that investigators claim detonated the explosives on board Pan Am flight 103). Moreover, U.S. officials reportedly had received advance warnings that a flight to New York would be targeted around the time of the Lockerbie bombing. In fact, Stephen Green, a senior Drug Enforcement Agency (DEA) administrator, John McCarthy, the U.S. Ambassador to Beirut, and several other U.S. officials were originally scheduled to fly on the ill-fated airliner on December 21, but rescheduled at the last minute.
It's possible that the PFLP smuggled the bomb on board Pan Am flight 103 from Malta. Abu Talb was sighted in Malta just weeks before the bombing. When he was later arrested in Sweden, police found the date of the Lockerbie explosion (December 21) circled on his calender.8
This and most other evidence linking the Lockerbie bombing to the PFLP-GC is largely circumstantial and difficult to substantiate, if only because the results of the FBI's early investigation into its involvement were not made public. The question is: Given the weaknesses in the case against Libya, why was the investigation into PFLP-GC involvement suspended and should it be reactivated if the two Libyan defendants are acquitted?
1 The Sunday Herald (Glasgow, Scotland), 28 May 2000. © 2000 Middle East Intelligence Bulletin. All rights reserved.
2 The Guardian (London) July 29, 1995.
4 IPS Newsire, 3 May 1995.
5 The Daily Telegraph (London), 22 December 1998.
6 The Independent (London), 14 December 1998.
7 The Daily Telegraph (London), 22 December 1998.
8 AP Newswire, 29 April 2000.
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