2 Libyans Indicted in Pan Am BlastBy George Lardner Jr.
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, November 15, 1991; Page A01
The United States and Britain yesterday announced criminal charges against two Libyan intelligence officers for the 1988 bombing of a Pan Am jumbo jet and said the evidence also suggested involvement by higher-level aides to Libyan leader Moammar Gadhafi.
The two Libyans, Abdel Basset Ali Al-Megrahi, 39, and Lamen Khalifa Fhimah, 35, were indicted by a federal grand jury here on 193 felony counts, including three charges that carry the death penalty. They were also charged in Scotland with murder and conspiracy in the Dec. 21, 1988, bombing of Pan Am Flight 103 which was en route from London to New York. The plane exploded over Lockerbie, Scotland, killing all 259 people on board and 11 people on the ground.
Officials said both suspects, who were accused of planting and detonating the bomb, are believed to be in Libya and, as Scotland's Lord Advocate, Lord Peter Fraser of Carmyllie, put it, are not likely to be "arrested in the normal way."
Both Fitzwater and the British prime minister's office refused to rule out military action if Libya fails to hand over the suspects for trial, but other officials said such action was unlikely.
Libya has denied involvement in the attack. Libya's ambassador to France, Saeeb Mujber, yesterday called the charges "a political thing" and told the British Broadcasting Corp. he did not expect his government to surrender the two suspects.
One senior U.S. official said the White House has known for at least a month that the indictment would name the two Libyans and has been considering possible responses, the most feasible of which, he added, center on efforts to "economically isolate" Libya.
The official said the administration is considering "casting a wide international net" by seeking support in the United Nations for an international trade embargo against Libya. He said Bush discussed the matter last week with British Prime Minister John Major and French President Francois Mitterrand during a NATO summit.
French authorities recently issued arrest warrants for four higher-ranking Libyan intelligence officers, including Gadhafi's brother-in-law, accused of plotting the 1989 bombing of a UTA airliner over the Sahara. But a French official said last night the United States and Britain seem ready to pursue "a more muscular response" against Libya than France.
At the Justice Department, acting Attorney General William P. Barr emphasized that the investigation "is by no means over . . . . We will not rest until all those responsible are brought to justice." But Barr, FBI Director William S. Sessions and other top Justice Department officials were tightlipped at a news conference here about who else they hope to indict. They referred reporters to language in the indictment that says the defendants, as officers and operatives of the Libyan intelligence service known as the Jamahirya Security Organization (JSO), "utilized the resources and facilities of the nation of Libya."
They also emphasized they have no evidence linking either Syria or Iran to the Pan Am bombing. Those nations were prime suspects in the early stages of the investigation, but the evidence ultimately implicated the Libyans.
Barr said the charges were the result of "a brilliant and unrelenting investigation" by FBI agents and Scottish police who combed 845 square miles of territory "inch by inch, month after month" for clues from the widely scattered debris. The investigation concluded that Pan Am 103 was blown up by a plastic bomb that had been built into a Toshiba radio-cassette recorder, then put into a suitcase packed with clothing; the suitcase was stored in a forward cargo hold.
Two fragments -- each smaller than a fingernail -- and tiny bits of clothing proved crucial in solving the case. One fragment, driven by the blast into the large cargo container, was found to be part of the Toshiba's circuit board.
Another fragment was found in a piece of shirt that had been in the suitcase containing the bomb. "Scientists determined that it was part of the bomb's timing device and traced it to its manufacturer -- a Swiss company that had sold it to a high-level Libyan intelligence official," Barr said. Probers were also helped by the seizure in Togo several years ago of a complete digital timer made by the same Swiss manufacturer. Further, Sengalese authorities photographed another such timer after they seized it in February 1988 from two other Libyan intelligence officers, Mohammed Nadyi and Mansour Omran Saber.
According to U.S. officials, the three timers were part of a consignment of 20 prototypes made in 1985-86 by the Zurich-based firm Meister and Bollier on orders from Libyan intelligence officials.
Basset, who was chief of the Libyan JSO's airline security section, and Fhimah, who held a cover job as station manager for Libyan Arab Airlines at Luqa airport in Malta, worked together to plant the bomb, the U.S. and British indictments said.
Fhimah allegedly stored a quantity of plastic explosive, issued by the JSO to various operatives, at his airport office and helped fashion the bomb. On Dec. 7, 1988, the indictments said, Basset bought clothing and an umbrella at Mary's House, a shop near his hotel in Malta, and put them in the suitcase "to provide the appearance of a normal travel bag."
Investigators said that sometime that month, the two suspects illegally obtained some Air Malta luggage tags. On Dec. 21, they allegedly used them to route the bomb-rigged suitcase as unaccompanied luggage aboard an Air Malta flight to Frankfurt. There, the suitcase was transferred to Pan Am Flight 103A and, on arrival in London, it was put aboard Pan Am Flight 103.
The Boeing 747 jumbo jet blew up at 31,000 feet over Lockerbie, a half-hour after takeoff from London's Heathrow airport.
State Department spokesman Richard Boucher described Basset as "a well-connected senior Libyan intelligence official" with extensive experience in civil aviation, cargo movements and small business operations. Boucher said Basset "works closely with his first cousin, Said Rashid Kisha, the leading architect and implementer of Libya's terrorist policies and a powerful member of Libya's inner circle."
According to the indictments, it was Rashid who requested development of the timers.
Probers at first suspected that Iran had commissioned the bombing in retaliation for the mistaken downing of an Iranian airliner by a U.S. Navy guided-missile cruiser in the Persian Gulf in July 1988. It was believed that the assignment had been given to a Syrian-sponsored terrorist group, the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine (PFLP-GC), and its West German cell.
PFLP-GC cell members were arrested and several of their bombs seized by West German police in the fall of 1988, but suspicions about the group lingered, in part because a fifth bomb, planted in a single-speaker Toshiba, was carried out of Germany the day before the arrest and remained unaccounted for.
The painstaking investigation, however, determined that the Toshiba on Pan Am 103 had two speakers and that the timer was a digital one, set to go off at a particular time. By contrast, the PFLP-GC bombs had a sophisticated barometic detonator, equipped with both a timer and an altimeter to keep it from exploding before reaching a certain altitude.
The U.S. indictment includes 189 counts for killing the 189 U.S. nationals on the plane, one count of conspiracy and three additional counts: putting a destructive device on a U.S. civil aircraft resulting in death, destroying a U.S. civil aircraft with an explosive device and destroying a vehicle in foreign commerce. Those three charges carry the death penalty.
Staff writers Ann Devroy, David Hoffman and R. Jeffrey Smith in Washington, William Drozdiak in Paris and special correspondent Ewan MacAskill in London contributed to this report.
© Copyright 1991 The Washington Post Company