FBI: Pan Am Flight 103 bombing still under investigation 33 years later

FBI officials said they do not believe they have captured all the people responsible for the 1988 bombing of Pan Am Flight 103 over Lockerbie, Scotland, killing 259 passengers and crew members including 190 Americans. Eleven people were killed on the ground. 

"Thirty-three years after the bombing of Pan Am Flight 103 over Lockerbie, Scotland, the #FBI and our partners are still seeking justice for the 270 victims," the agency tweeted Tuesday. 

On December 21, 1988, the jetliner took off from Heathrow Airport in London bound for New York City.

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"They never made it home," the FBI said on its website. "Less than 40 minutes into the flight, the plane exploded over Lockerbie, Scotland, killing everyone on board and 11 Scots on the ground."

The explosion at 30,000 feet rained debris over 845 square miles, creating the largest-ever crime scene. More than 5,000 responders from the U.S. and Scotland combed the debris to search for clues. They recovered 319 tons of wreckage and thousands of pieces of evidence. 

In the debris, investigators found a tiny fragment that led them to believe a bomb had been placed inside a radio in a piece of luggage aboard. Another small fragment, found embedded in a piece of shirt, helped identify the explosive timer. 

The FBI said the evidence led to two Libyan intelligence operatives. The Libyan government formally accepted responsibility for the bombing and agreed to pay nearly $3 billion to the victims’ families, the FBI also said. 

In 1991, the British and American governments charged Abdel Basset Ali al-Megrahi and Lamen Khalifa Fhimah with the attack. Fhimah was acquitted but al Megrahi was convicted in 2001 and sentenced to life in prison. He was compassionately released in 2009 when he was believed to be near death from cancer, but he then survived almost three more years, according to the FBI.

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"Since the bombing, victims’ families have continued to push to advance the investigation, believing the plot and its execution were not limited to Fhimah and al Megrahi," the FBI said. 

In December 2020, The Justice Department charged Abu Agela Mas’ud Kheir Al-Marimi with the explosion. The case against him is, for now, more theoretical than practical since he is not in U.S. custody and it is unclear if he ever will be, or if the evidence will be sufficient for conviction. 

U.S. officials said Masud admitted to building the bomb in the Pan Am attack and working with two other conspirators to carry it out. An FBI affidavit said Masud told Libyan law enforcement that he flew to Malta to meet al-Megrahi and Fhimah. He handed Fhimah a medium-sized Samsonite suitcase containing a bomb, having already been instructed to set the timer so that the device would explode exactly 11 hours later, according to the document. He then flew to Tripoli, the FBI said.

The attack was the latest flare of tension between Libya and the West. In the years before the flight, for instance, Libya was blamed for the bombing of a West Berlin discotheque that killed two American soldiers and injured dozens of others. The complaint against Masud admitted to being involved in that bombing as well.

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"Until 9/11, it was one of the world’s most lethal acts of air terrorism and one of the largest and most complex acts of international terrorism ever investigated by the FBI," the agency noted.

The Associated Press contributed to this report. This story was reported from Los Angeles.