The word ‘Lockerbie’ has chilling resonance in the context of international terrorism, for just before Christmas in 1988 it was at 9,400 m (31,000 ft) above the quiet town of Lockerbie in the Scottish Borders that a bomb exploded in the forward cargo hold of Pan-Am Flight 103, a Boeing 747 named Clipper Maid of the Seas bound from London to New York. The jumbo’s control systems were destroyed and the aircraft disintegrated within seconds. In addition to passengers and crew who died instantly, 11 people on the ground were killed when the 747’s wing section fell on Lockerbie’s Sherwood Crescent, igniting in an intense fireball.
Horror and grief experienced by victims’ families were compounded by failure to achieve closure, because the origins of this dreadful terrorist outrage were never fully explained. A massive investigation by Scottish police was aided by America’s FBI, and eventually two Libyans were tried in a Scottish court convened in The Netherlands. One was convicted, the other acquitted. But hard evidence of Libyan culpability was flimsy, and the fact that Libya gave up the accused for trial and admitted responsibility in 2003, also paying compensation, may have been motivated only by desire to have damaging US and UN trade sanctions lifted.
Libya is the chief suspect – Libyan leader Muammar al-Gaddafi’s adopted daughter had been killed in an US air strike launched as part of a confrontation between the two countries. But – among others – credible culprits were Iranian extremists (avenging Iran Air Flight 655 shot down by American missiles over the Persian Gulf in 1987) and activists from the Palestine Liberation Organization seeking to sabotage PLO talks with the US government. Responsibility for the Lockerbie bombing remains a tantalizing mystery that is unlikely to be solved, despite repeated calls for a new enquiry.
When: December 21 1988
Where: Lockerbie, Scotland, UK
Death toll: 270 (259 were aboard Flight 103, including 190 American citizens).
You should know: In 2009 the Scottish government’s decision to release the only person convicted of the Lockerbie bombing – Libyan Abdeibaset al-Megrahi – on the compassionate grounds that he was suffering from terminal cancer was met with outrage in the USA, especially when he was greeted as a returning hero in Libya and comfortably outlived the three-month prognosis. His trial was not told that this ‘humble’ Libyan who was head of security for Libyan Arab Airlines had $2 million in a Swiss bank account.