What Happened In Lockerbie Bombing? UK’s Worst Terror Attack 35 Years Ago

35 years ago this week the deadliest terror attack in British history took place when Pan Am Flight 103 from London to New York exploded over the Scottish town of Lockerbie and killed all 259 passengers and crew on board and 11 people on the ground. The bombing took place on 21 December 1988. 72-year-old Abu Agila Masud is accused of making the bomb that destroyed the airliner. He remains in a prison cell in the United States, waiting to stand trial. 

The Lockerbie bombing in total killed 44 British citizens and it remains the worst act of mass murder in British legal history. Moreover, an account of the investigation that followed the deadly attack reads like the ultimate crime detective story. Here are key highlights of the events that unfolded during the investigation of the bombing: 

According to the BBC, a Scottish court in the neutral Netherlands ruled in 2001 that the attack was an act of state-sponsored terrorism carried out by the Libyan intelligence service. Three judges decided Libyan intelligence officer Abdelbaset al-Megrahi was part of the plot and convicted him of playing a central role in the attack. He was also accused of acting along with other Libyan conspirators, including Abu Agila Masud, the man now facing trial in the US.

The case was investigated by 70 countries. Back then, responding to accusations that Libya and Megrahi were framed, a former chief constable of Dumfries and Galloway Constabulary declared, “You couldn’t make this up. How on earth can you set up a chain of evidence like that? It’s nonsense.”

In the weeks that followed, investigators established that the bomb had been concealed in a Toshiba radio cassette player in a Samsonite suitcase. Initially, officials believed that Iran and Syrian-backed Palestinian operatives were behind the attack. However, after spending months investigating the attack, their search for evidence took the inquiry in a different direction as they found a Maltese connection to the case. 

According to the outlet, the investigators found that a babygro from the suitcase containing the bomb had been made in Malta. Another charred fragment from a pair of trousers bore a Yorkie label. Scottish detectives visited the company and were told Yorkie trousers had been sold to a small shop in a side street in Sliema. The show owner then told detectives that he had in fact sold Yorkie trousers to a man in the weeks before the Lockerbie bombing.

The show owner said that the customer had bought a seemingly random collection of clothes and an umbrella. He was certain that the customer was Libyan. In 1991, when he was shown a picture of Abdelbaset al-Megrahi, he also stated that it looked similar to the man who had come into his shop. His identification of Megrahi was vigorously disputed at his trial, however, to this day this cornerstone of the prosecution case remains in place, the outlet reported. 

In 1989, detectives found another scrap of cloth. Embedded in the charred neckband of a shirt was a fragment of a green-coloured circuit board. The CIA and the FBI then matched it to MST-13 bomb timers which had been seized in the African country of Togo. Following this, with the assistance of German police and the authorities in Switzerland, the trail led to a company called Mebo, which revealed that it had sold MST-13 timers to Libya. The investigation also revealed that one of its owners, Edwin Bollier, knew Megrahi, who had an office next to his in Zurich. 

Also Read | Run 50 Km A Month, Get Better Bonus: Chinese Firm Launches Radical Scheme

Later, after an exhaustive search in Malta, officials established that Megrahi had arrived on the island from Libya on 20 December 1988, the day before the bombing, using a false passport supplied by the Libyan intelligence service. He travelled back to Libya on the 21st, along with Abu Agila Masud.

It was in 1991 that Scottish and American prosecutors announced charges that alleged that Megrahi and another Libyan, Al Amin Khalifa Fhimah, were members of their country’s intelligence service. They were accused of placing the suitcase containing the bomb into the luggage system at Luqa for a flight from Malta to Frankfurt. The computer records showed that the unaccompanied suitcase had arrived on a flight from Malta and was loaded onto the feeder flight, Pan Am 103, and transferred onto board Pan AM 103 at Heathrow.

Initially, Megrahi and Fhimah protested their innocence. Megrahi said he hadn’t been in Malta on the day of the bombing but the fake passport proved otherwise. Additionally, Libya’s leader Colonel Gaddafi refused to hand the men over.

Years of deadlock and sanctions followed, until the involvement of Nelson Mandela and a UN-brokered deal led to a trial in a Scottish court at Camp Zeist. While Fhimah was later cleared, Megrahi was convicted of mass murder. He was flown to Scotland to serve a life sentence. 

In 2003, lawyers acting for the victims announced they had reached an agreement with Libya over a 1.7 billion pound compensation fund. The same year, Libya also accepted responsibility for the actions of its officials, however, years later Colonel Gaddafi’s son claimed it had only done so for sanctions to be lifted.

In the following years, the Scottish Criminal Cases Review Commission referred the case back to the appeal court. The case was slowly working its way through the courts when Megrahi was diagnosed with terminal cancer in 2008. The next year he was released on compassionate ground. But he outlived Gaddafi, who was killed after an uprising toppled his regime in 2011. Megrahi died in 2012, three years after his release. 

The next year, the UK, US and Libyan governments vowed to cooperate to reveal “the full facts” of the bombing. In 2014, six members of Megrahi’s family joined forces with 24 British relatives of those who died in the atrocity to seek another appeal against his conviction in the Scottish courts. Then, Scotland’s then-top prosecutor, lord advocate Frank Mulholland, reaffirmed Megrahi’s guilt and pledged to track down his accomplices.

Also Read | Man Tracks His Lost AirPods To South Goa, Asks Internet To Help Find Them

It was finally in 2020 the commission sent Megrahi’s conviction back to the appeal court, having concluded that “No reasonable trial court, relying on the evidence led at trial, could have held the case against Mr Megrahi was proved beyond reasonable doubt”. The commission also said it had obtained new information which, if believed, pointed at Libya and Megrahi as being responsible for bombing Pan Am 103.

In 2022, on the 32nd anniversary of the bombing, the US announced charges against Abu Agila Masud, who was serving a jail sentence in Libya for targeting anti-Gaddafi forces back in 2011. The FBI criminal complaint said Masud had confessed to making the bomb that brought down Pan Am 103, and had acted in concert with Megrahi and Fhimah, the Libyan cleared at Camp Zeist.

Now, after over three decades, Masud remains in US custody awaiting trial. The trial is expected to begin on 12 May 2025.

Enable Notifications OK No thanks