WASHINGTON – Attorney General William P. Barr was on his first stint almost three decades ago when two Libyan intelligence officials were indicted in the 1988 bombing of an American airliner over Lockerbie, Scotland, which killed 270 people, including 189 Americans.
“This investigation sends a powerful message,” Barr said when he announced the charges in 1991. “We have the resolve and the ability to track down, however long it takes, those responsible for terrorism against Americans. .
Now, the Justice Ministry headed by Mr. Barr plans to unveil criminal charges in the coming days against another suspect in the bombing, a Libyan bomb expert named Abu Agila Mas’ud, according to two people close to the bombing. ‘case. Monday will mark the 32nd anniversary of the attack.
A spokesperson for the Department of Justice declined to comment. The exact location of Mr. Mas’ud is unknown; at one point he was jailed in Libya for crimes unrelated to him.
The case against Mr. Mas’ud was based in part on the work of a journalist named Ken Dornstein, who was working on the PBS news program “Frontline” when he began his own full investigation into the attack. bomb. His brother, David, was among those killed aboard the plane, Pan Am Flight 103.
The bombing was the worst terrorist attack in British history and a devastating strike against the United States which reached a low point in its relations with Libya. President Ronald Reagan had ordered air strikes against Libya two years earlier in retaliation for the bombing of a German nightclub frequented by members of the US armed forces. US authorities have concluded that the Pan Am attack was Libya’s response.
Mr Dornstein contacted the FBI in 2012 with new information about Mr Mas’ud, a former Libyan secret service agent who appeared to have played a critical role in the bombing.
The case represents a sort of end of the book for Mr Barr, who plans to step down next week after falling out with President Trump over his growing reluctance to serve the president’s political agenda. In addition to bringing cases against Lockerbie suspects three decades apart, Mr Barr’s two tours as attorney general were largely defined by cases overseen by Robert S. Mueller III, who was the chief of the department’s criminal division during Lockerbie’s initial investigation and served from 2017 to 2019 as a special adviser investigating the Trump campaign’s links to Russian election interference.
The Lockerbie investigation, dubbed Scotbom by the FBI, has long frustrated US investigators. Mr Mueller said years later he was haunted by the attack and his inability to bring other conspirators to justice.
“We are renewing our efforts to ensure the security of our people and to rid the world of terrorism. We will continue to move forward, ”Mueller said in a 2008 speech honoring the victims. “But we will never forget.”
The Justice Department’s efforts to prosecute the first two suspects, Abdel Basset Ali al-Megrahi and Al-Amin Khalifa Fhimah, were initially blocked when Libya refused to extradite the men to the United States or Great Britain. Brittany to be tried there. Ultimately, the Libyan government agreed to let them go to court in the Netherlands under Scottish law, a highly unusual arrangement.
Mr. al-Megrahi was convicted in 2001 and sentenced to life imprisonment, with a minimum sentence of 27 years, while Mr. Fhimah was acquitted, further frustrating US investigators.
Almost a decade later, Scottish authorities granted Mr al-Megrahi humanitarian release because he had cancer, and he received a hero’s welcome in Libya. The decision to release him angered the US government and family members of the victims, including Mr Dornstein, who believed they were watching a killer break free.
Mr al-Megrahi died in 2012. His family has posthumously appealed his conviction in Scotland, where the claim is pending.
It was thought that Mr. al-Megrahi and Mr. Mas’ud may have known each other, but while preparing for his trial in the Netherlands, Mr. al-Megrahi repeatedly told his lawyers that he did not did not know Mr. Mas’ud. . His lawyers feared that if Mr. al-Megrahi testified, he risked self-incrimination if questioned about Mr. Mas’ud. Mr al-Megrahi also gave the same refusal to the Scottish special commission reviewing his conviction.
In an interview, Mr. Dornstein described Mr. Mas’ud as a ghost due to years of efforts by the Libyan government to deny his existence even after his name surfaced during the trial. Mr. Mas’ud’s name had also appeared in CIA cables written before the Lockerbie bombing. A Libyan informant working for the CIA who defected and was later resettled in the United States had spoken to Mr. Mas’ud’s spy agency and his ties to Mr. al-Megrahi before the attack. The informant suspected that the couple had planned an intelligence operation shortly before the Lockerbie bombing.
But Mr. Mas’ud has eluded investigators for years.
When Col. Muammar al-Gaddafi was ousted as leader of Libya in 2011, Mr Dornstein, then a senior producer for “Frontline”, seized the resulting chaos to try to determine if others were involved in it. the bombing.
In 2015, a three-part documentary Mr. Dornstein wrote, directed and produced aired on “Frontline,” detailing his quest to resolve the bombing. He helped identify Mr. Mas’ud as one of the main suspects in the case and located him in a Libyan prison. At the end of 2018, Mr. Mas’ud was still incarcerated in Libya, The Times of London reported.
As part of his investigation, Dornstein made three trips to Libya in 2011 and 2012, where he conducted interviews, found documents and searched Tripoli for suspects.
A major breakthrough came during a trip to Germany in 2012, where documents led Mr. Dornstein to a former Libyan intelligence official named Musbah Eter, who said Mr. Mas’ud was involved in the bombing at the nightclub in West Berlin in 1986 that killed two Americans. soldiers – a planned attack by the Libyan intelligence services and the Libyan embassy in what was then East Berlin.
Mr Eter eventually revealed to Mr Dornstein that Mr Mas’ud had admitted a role in Lockerbie, a fact which appeared to be confirmed by the passports Mr Mas’ud used in the two deadly operations.
Mr Eter said Mr Mas’ud, who worked for former Libyan intelligence chief Abdullah al-Senussi, was in a Libyan prison and even sent Mr Dornstein a photo of himself in coveralls. Mr Eter described Mr Mas’ud as a low-key technician who had managed to keep a low profile even inside Libyan intelligence circles.
In an interview, Mr. Dornstein said that Mr. Mas’ud probably installed the timing device on the bomb which exploded shortly after the Pan Am 103 took off. The bomb was placed inside the bomb. ‘a portable cassette player on board a plane in Malta and transferred twice before boarding flight 103.
When Mr. Dornstein met with the FBI at agents in Boston in 2012, he shared his findings. In 2014, he contacted the officers again and told them that Mr. Mas’ud was alive and imprisoned in Libya.
Although the FBI did not disclose details of his investigation to Mr Dornstein, he said he was able to glean information when agents followed his advice and interviewed Mr Eter in Berlin from 2014.
Even with Mr Dornstein’s information, the case seemed to languish until this year, when prosecutors who had reviewed the ongoing terrorism cases brought it to Mr Barr’s attention.
While the FBI has gathered compelling evidence against Mr Mas’ud, Scotland has also investigated him. Mr Barr played a major role in moving the case forward, according to people familiar with the discussions.