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1988: Pan Am Flight 103 Bombing over Lockerbie, Scotland

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Pan Am Flight 103 Was Bombed over Lockerbie, Scotland

Pan Am Flight 103 Was Bombed over Lockerbie, Scotland

courtesy VOA News

What Happened:

On December 21, 1988, Pan Am Flight 103 heading from London's Heathrow International Airport to New York Kennedy International Airport exploded en route over Lockerbie, Scotland. The flight originated in Frankfurt, Germany, which was where explosives –packed into passenger luggage—were placed onto the flight after being ferried to Frankfurt on a flight from Malta. The explosion killed all 259 of the passengers and crew, as well as 11 residents of Lockerbie.

Investigations determined that Semtex, a plastic explosive, was the cause of the aircraft's shattering. The explosives were wired to a device that measured barometric pressure connected to a timer. These were placed inside a portable radio/cassette player, and packed in a regular suitcase. It has never been determined how the luggage made it onto the aircraft. The explosives were triggered when the barometric pressure inside the luggage hold fell beneath a certain level during the first leg of the Pan Am flight, which began in Frankfurt.

Who Was Responsible, and Why:

A number of different stories about why the Lockerbie bombings happened and who was behind them have been put forth. Although trial concluded with the conviction of the two Libyan suspects in 2003, the question of what happened continues to be discussed. In all of the explanations, however, the terrorist attack is understood to be one event in a series of responsive acts of violence between non-state or state-sponsored terrorist groups and the United States in the 1980s.

The Iran ExplanationIn the explanation that describes Iran behind the bombing, Iran is understood as responding to the American explosion of an Iranian passenger jet by an American aircraft carrier, the USS Vincennes, in 1986. The attack killed all 290 people on board the flight. The U.S. claimed that the Iranian aircraft was shot down in error. It has also been posited that Iran paid the Palestinian Front for the Liberation of Palestine (PFLP)to perform the attack.

The Libya Explanation The Lockerbie bombing often considered to be one of a series of responsive strikes between United States and Libya or Libyan agents that began with a nearly simultaneous attack on Rome's and Vienna's airport on December 27, 1985, attributed to the Abu Nidal group. The U.S. allegedly responded by sinking two Libyan boats, which led to the Libyan bombing of a Berlin nightclub that killed American military servicemen. In response, the United States bombed the Libyan capital Tripoli and Benghazi seaport in 1986.

Indictment of Libyans, and Sanctions against Libya:

At the end of 1991, British authorities indicted two Libyans reportedly working for Libyan intelligence, Abd Al Baset Ali Mohmed Al Megrahi and al Amin Khalifa Fhimah, for murder, conspiracy to murder, and violation of the British Aviation Security Act of 1982.

Libya subsequently refused to turn over the two men for trial, despite threats by the United Nations Security Council of sanctions, which were imposed in 1992. Security Council resolution 748 (1992) imposed an arms and air embargo; Resolution 883 (1993) froze Libyan funds and prohibited the sale of equipment related to its oil industry.

The United States separately imposed new sanctions against Libya, in part to pressure the release of the two Pan Am bombing suspects for trial. (At the time of the bombing, U.S. sanctions against Libya, freezing Libyan assets and prohibiting U.S. trade with the country, had already been in place for two years, since 1986) . Existing sanctions were supplemented in 1992, when the U.S. prohibited military and other exports to Libya, cut off commercial air traffic with the country and reduced its diplomatic representation. Sanctions were periodically reiterated or supplemented during the 1990s.

In 1999, the European Union lifted EU sanctions that had been imposed against Libya in 1992.

On May 3, 2000, trial of both suspects began in the Netherlands, but under Scottish law. Both pleaded innocent. At the end of January, 2001, Al Megrahi was found guilty, and Fhimah was found not guilty. The conclusion of the the trial led immediately to British and European pressure to lift the UN sanctions.

A subsequent appeal by Al Megrahi was quickly dismissed, but questions were raised about the believability of the evidence against him. Most notably, defense lawyers provided evidence that there had been a breach in the baggage loading area at Heathrow Airport on the day of the bombing. This suggested the possibility of another series of events than that provided at trial—that the bomb was packed into luggage transported from Malta.

In 2003, Libya accepted responsibility for the attacks and agreed to pay victims' families compensation. This led to American and European pressure to lift the sanctions against Libya. Major American oil companies who formerly held concessions in Libya also exerted pressure to lift sanctions.

What Made the Bombing Notable:

  • For the United States, the bombing was significant because it killed 189 civilians, more American civilians than any other attack up to that point.
  • The use of plastics explosives was a innovation in terrorist tactics that circumvented metal detectors, and led to a number of new procedures to make airline travel more terrorist proof.
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