Scotland’s recent decision to release Abdel Baset al-Megrahi, the only person convicted of conducting the Lockerbie bombing, has sparked international outrage. Despite Gordon Brown’s appeal for a low-key return, the reception awaiting Megrahi in Tripoli was reminiscent of a victorious returning World Cup Squad. Critics argue that Megrahi, sick though he may be, should return from Scotland in the same state as his victims: in a coffin.
The Director of the F.B.I, Robert Mueller, expressed the anger of the American people, claiming the release of Megrahi offered “comfort to terrorists all over the world”. After all, why should the man convicted of blowing PAN-AM Flight 103 out of the sky be offered compassion? Perhaps Mueller is right – perhaps Scotland’s decision demonstrates a diplomatic capitulation of control? However, it is crucial to consider all aspects of the Megrahi case before drawing conclusions regarding his release.
Lockerbie remains a case shrouded in controversy, with countless conspiracies principally involving oil and arms being offered in explanation. The international indignation at Megrahi’s release may be justified. Yet it may just be an attempt to divert attention from the key question: can we be sure that Megrahi was in fact the man responsible for the Lockerbie bombing?
Megrahi has never accepted responsibility for the bombing of PAN-AM Flight 103. Despite the undertaking of the largest criminal investigation in human history, Megrahi’s conviction was based upon a chain of circumstantial evidence, consisting of a false passport and a shred of a suitcase believed to have held the bomb. Detectives traced the suitcase and Megrahi to Malta. Megrahi departed the Mediterranean island hours after an unaccompanied suitcase allegedly packed with explosive was checked through to Frankfurt, then London destined for JFK. The evidence against Megrahi and Libya appears inconclusive at best.
Following the Lockerbie atrocity the Reagan administration instantly accused Libya and its controversial leader Muammar Kaddafi of conspiring to bomb the American airliner over Lockerbie. In the late 1980’s a drastic deterioration of relations between the U.S and Libya led to an American bombing raid on Tripoli, which killed Colonel Kaddafi’s daughter. Reagan feared that Lockerbie was Kaddafi’s revenge.
Libya however were not the only state suspected of involvement in the Lockerbie bombing. A far more compelling case including ostensibly irrefutable evidence can be bought against Iran. A clear Iranian motive existed; the United States had accepted responsibility for shooting down an Iranian airliner in 1987 resulting in the loss of 290 lives. The Iranian leader at the time Ayatollah Khomeini was not exactly the type to forgive and forget. In 1988 Khomeini demonstrated his sinister nature by sanctioning the systematic execution of thousands of political prisoners held within Iran. The Ghandi’s famous belief that “an eye for an eye would make the whole world blind” would certainly not wash with Khomeini. Lockerbie could represent the perfect opportunity for Iran to get even with the United States.
In the late 1980’s Iran held clear links to the anti-Western, pro-terror group PFLP-GC (the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine – General Command). The PFLP-GC had been under close surveillance in the pre-Lockerbie period. In 1987 West German police uncovered a PFLP-GC Cell, which had been building bombs with barometric triggers disguised as Toshiba Boom boxes, similar to those used to blow up PAN-AM flight 103.
Both Libya and Iran held undeniable motives for attacking an American airliner in 1988. Yet the evidence clearly points to an Iranian led operation headed by the PFLP-GC. The case against Megrahi is far from conclusive. Megrahi was after all a Libyan Intelligence Agent; his possession of a false passport is far from inconceivable within the realms of the Secret Service domain, whilst his presence in Malta may have been purely coincidental.
The Libyan link appears to fit neatly with American foreign policy objectives in the early 1990’s. Iran, a well-armed nation of over 70 million people provided a potential ally in the American campaign against Saddam Hussein’s Iraq. A direct accusation over Lockerbie had the possibility of isolating Iran, and damaging American interests in the Middle East. Libya, by contrast, was a North African nation of no more than 5 million, whose leader Colonel Kaddafi was already widely regarded as eccentric (to put it politely). The debate over whether Megrahi should or should not have been released will continue to rage. Yet perhaps we should instead question whether Megrahi was in fact guilty or simply a convenient scapegoat in the international pursuit of justice following the Lockerbie bombing.