How Did We Nab the Lockerbie Bomber Anyway?

It was the largest criminal investigation in history, and it was solved by evidence smaller than a fingernail: a fragment of circuit board tucked inside a scrap of fabric, picked up by detectives somewhere in the 845 square miles over which the wreckage of Pan Am Flight 103 scattered after a bomb blew it out of the sky over Lockerbie, Scotland. And on that tiny clue depended the fate of nations, of billions of dol-lars in payments to the families of the 270 people killed that night in 1988—and of one 57-year-old man, dying of cancer, who was re-leased today by Scottish authorities to live out his days in his homeland of Libya.
Abdel Baset al-Megrahi, a high-ranking agent of Libyan intelligence, was the only person convicted in the Lockerbie bombing, based on a chain of circumstantial evidence that included a false passport he had used exactly once, to travel to the island of Malta the day before the bombing. Investigators traced a suitcase believed to have contained the bomb to the airport in Malta, where it had been checked through to Frankfurt and then London, destined for JFK—unaccompanied by a passenger. A few hours after the suitcase left Malta, so did Megrahi, who returned to Libya along with his alleged co-conspirator, Al Amin Khalifa Fhimah. Neither left Libya again until the government in Tripoli, under international pressure, turned them over for a trial that, under a complex agreement, was conducted by Scottish judges and prosecu-tors in the Netherlands. Megrahi was convicted and sentenced to 20 years' imprisonment; Fhimah was acquitted.
There were plenty of reasons to suspect Libya and its eccentric ruler, Muammar Kaddafi, of wanting to blow up an American airliner in 1988. A confrontation between American and Libyan warships in the Mediterranean in 1985 was followed by a fatal bombing at a German discotheque frequented by American servicemen. The Reagan administration had responded with a bombing raid on Libya's capital that seemed intended to kill Kaddafi himself; the raid hit one of his palaces and killed his daughter. The Libyan leader had vowed revenge.
But there were numerous other entities—both states and freelance terror groups—with the motive and means to attack the United States. The most likely suspect, in the opinion of many experts, was Iran, which had not accepted American apologies for accidentally shooting down an Iranian airliner over the Persian Gulf the previous summer, with the loss of 290 lives. Iran, through its ally Syria, supported a par-ticularly bloodthirsty terror group known by its initials, PFLP-GC (the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine—General Command), which was known to be building bombs with barometric triggers, the kind you would use to blow up an airplane. West German police had rounded up a PFLP-GC cell just a few months earlier and seized several of the devices, which were hidden, like the one that blew up Pan Am 103, in Toshiba boomboxes. So it was certainly plausible that the Iranians had directed the group to attack an American airplane, and many people, especially in Britain, still believe it.
To put it simply, they didn't trust the evidence against Megrahi because it fit too conveniently with American foreign-policy aims in the early 1990s. The United States wasn't looking to pick a fight with Iran, a well-armed nation of 70 million and the enemy of America's least-favorite Arab ruler, Saddam Hussein of Iraq. Nor was it looking for excuses to quarrel with Syria, which had positioned itself as the key to Arab-Israeli peace. But Libya, isolated in North Africa, with a population of 5 million and a ruler most of the world regarded as crazy any-way, was a perfectly safe choice for pariah. The piece of circuit board that helped finger Megrahi was known to be among batch of timers sold to Libyan intelligence. The match was made by an FBI investigator using data supplied by the CIA. For some people, that was evidence enough—not to convict Megrahi, but to exonerate him.
But for most of the families of the American victims—which included businessmen, tourists, college students, and servicepeople returning home for Christmas—the evidence is and always has been clear, and the release of Megrahi (who has served only about eight years of his sentence) has been a travesty of justice. Kaddafi's renunciation of terror after September 11, and Libya's gradual rehabilitation into the world community—a process lubricated by its considerable oil reserves—strikes them as cynical and outrageous. They believe Megrahi, sick though he may be, should return from Scotland the way their own relatives did—in a coffin.
But for the rest of the world, the issue isn't vengeance so much as historical vindication. Megrahi's return to Libya would seem to elimi-nate any chance of a confession that might shed light on exactly how the deadliest terror attack on American civilians—until 9/11—was car-ried out. If the case is to be solved by a deathbed confession, it will have to be by Kaddafi.