WASHINGTON – Attorney General William P. Barr on Monday announced criminal charges against a former Libyan intelligence agent accused of constructing the explosive device that was used in the 1988 bombing of Pan Am Flight 103 , one of the deadliest terrorist attacks in U.S. history in part to a confession he made nearly ten years ago while imprisoned in Libya.
The announcement concludes Mr. Barr’s two terms as attorney general, first under President George Bush and now under President Trump. At his first press conference as Mr. Bush’s Acting Attorney General in 1991, he announced charges against two suspects in the airliner explosion over Lockerbie, Scotland. On Monday, on the 32nd anniversary of the attack, Mr Barr revealed charges against a third person, an obscure bomb expert named Abu Agila Mohammad Mas’ud.
The Justice Department has indicted Mas’ud on two counts, including destroying a plane causing death, unsealed court documents said Monday. He is halfway to a 10-year sentence in a Libyan prison for crimes unrelated to him.
“Let there be no mistake,” Barr said. “No delay or distance will prevent the United States and its partners in Scotland from seeking justice in this matter.”
Mr. Mas’ud’s name had surfaced during the investigation into the bombing of the flight, which killed 270 passengers, including 190 Americans. But officials who examined what happened have not confirmed his identity or located him after the attack, Barr said. Mr. Mas’ud appears to have played a role in the explosion, but his exact implication has remained unclear. But the department said Colonel Muammar al-Gaddafi, head of Libya at the time, personally thanked Mas’ud for carrying out the murderous operation and called it a complete success.
After the collapse of Colonel al-Gaddafi’s government, Mr. Mas’ud confessed to the bombing in 2012 while being questioned by a Libyan law enforcement official. Investigators finally learned of his detention and confession, Barr said, calling the development a “breakthrough.”
The attorney general, who resigned on Wednesday, said he hoped the Libyans extradited Mas’ud to the United States and called the outlook “very good”.
“Mas’ud is in the custody of the current Libyan government, and we have no reason to believe that this government is interested in joining in this heinous act of terrorism,” Barr said. “We are optimistic that they will deliver him to justice.”
Extradition would allow Mas’ud to stand trial, but defense lawyers have questioned the admissibility of the confessions obtained in prison in war-torn Libya.
Mr. Mas’ud was the third indicted suspect in the Pan Am 103 case. The other two, Abdel Basset Ali al-Megrahi and Al-Amin Khalifa Fhimah, were originally indicted in 1991, but US efforts to bring them to justice justice were blocked when Libya refused to extradite them to the United States or Britain for trial.
The Libyan government eventually agreed to let them stand trial in the Netherlands under Scottish law, where Mr. Fhimah was acquitted and Mr. al-Megrahi was convicted in 2001 and sentenced to life in prison.
Scottish officials granted Mr al-Megrahi humanitarian release in 2009 because he had cancer, a move that angered the families of the victims and the United States government, including President Barack Obama. Mr. al-Megrahi died in 2012; his family has posthumously appealed his conviction in Scotland. The request is pending.
Current and former US and Libyan officials have said Mr. Mas’ud was born in Tunisia in 1951 and at one point moved to Tripoli, Libya, and became a citizen. He worked for the Libyan intelligence service from 1973 to 2011, making bombs and rose to the rank of colonel, according to court documents. After the fall of Colonel al-Gaddafi in 2011, Mr. Mas’ud was arrested and imprisoned in Misurata, Libya, before being transferred to Al-Hadba prison in Tripoli.
Along with 38 other defendants, including one of Colonel al-Gaddafi’s sons and other former Libyan officials, Mr. Mas’ud has been tried on criminal charges related to the efforts of the Gaddafi government to suppress the Libyan revolution.
The FBI said it first received a copy of Mas’ud’s confession with the Libyan law enforcement officer around 2017 and requested more information. The FBI interviewed the Libyan law enforcement official this year and learned he had taken Mr. Mas’ud’s confession in September 2012.
Court documents indicate that the official questioned Mr. Mas’ud to determine whether he had “committed crimes against Libya and the Libyan people during the 2011 revolution” in an attempt to keep Colonel al-Gaddafi in power.
Michael R. Sherwin, the acting US attorney for the District of Columbia, called the circumstantial evidence “extremely compelling” and pointed to travel records involving Mr. Mas’ud, Mr. al-Megrahi and Mr. Fhimah.
In particular, the men had traveled to Malta before the attack, where investigators determined that the bomb had been placed inside a portable cassette player placed on a plane and transferred twice before. reach flight 103. On the day of the attack, the complaint states: Mr. al-Megrahi and Mr. Mas’ud traveled from Malta to Tripoli on the same flight.
Mr Mas’ud said in his confession that he traveled to Malta with the suitcase that contained the bomb and then set the timer to explode exactly 11 hours later. According to the confession, Mr. Mas’ud worked with Mr. al-Megrahi and Mr. Fhimah to “execute the plot”.
“He explained that he hid the detonator and the timer in a technical way that would make it difficult to find it, by placing it near the metal parts of the suitcase,” the admission said. Mr. Mas’ud said “he was using around 1.5 kilograms of Semtex plastic, and added that plastic explosives do not show up on the baggage scanner at the airport.”
The circumstances surrounding Mr. Mas’ud’s confession in prison in Libya were unclear. The court documents do not provide any further details about the Libyan law enforcement officer or who he worked for, but he said he would be prepared to testify in a trial.
If Mr. Mas’ud were ever brought to Washington, defense lawyers would almost certainly seek to challenge the confession and argue that it could have been coerced or bribed.
A 2017 United Nations report that mentions Mas’ud raises troubling questions about the treatment of former Libyan officials who were held in various prisons and brought to justice after the overthrow of Colonel al-Gaddafi.
“Many of the accused have been held in prolonged incommunicado detention, without access to their families or lawyers, and often in isolation, including in unofficial detention centers, amid allegations of torture and other ill-treatment” , indicates the report.
Mr. Mas’ud’s alleged role in the Lockerbie bombing was re-examined in a three-part documentary on “Frontline” on PBS in 2015. The series was written and produced by Ken Dornstein, whose brother was killed in the attack. As part of his investigation, Mr. Dornstein learned that Mr. Mas’ud was being held in a Libyan prison and even obtained photos of him.
In an email, Mr. Dornstein questioned the breakthrough Mr. Barr had talked about. “For all the discussions of an ongoing investigation over the past decades, I have found surprisingly few new details in the prosecution documents other than the alleged confessions,” he said.
Mr Dornstein had also reviewed documents and interviews that linked Mr Mas’ud to the bombing of the La Belle nightclub in West Berlin in 1986 that killed two US soldiers. According to his confession, Mr. Mas’ud also admitted to making the explosive used in that attack when he was questioned in 2012.