31 years since Pan Am Boeing 747 explosion over Lockerbie

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About 7:00 PM on December 21 in 1988, Pan Am flight 103, a Boeing 747 en route to New York City from London, exploded over Lockerbie, Scotland. The plane had reached a height of approximately 31,000 feet (9,500 metres) and was preparing for the oceanic portion of the flight when a timer-activated bomb detonated. The bomb, constructed with the odourless plastic explosive Semtex, was hidden in a cassette player that was stored in a suitcase. The blast broke the plane into thousands of pieces that landed in an area covering roughly 850 square miles (2,200 square km). All 259 passengers and crew members were killed. Falling wreckage destroyed 21 houses and killed an additional 11 people on the ground.

One hundred eighty nine of the victims were American.

The History Channel reports that the Islamic terrorists were accused of planting the bomb on the plane while it was at the airport in Frankfurt, Germany. Authorities suspected the attack was in retaliation for either the 1986 U.S. air strikes against Libya, in which leader Muammar al-Qaddafi’s young daughter was killed along with dozens of other people, or a 1988 incident, in which the U.S. mistakenly shot down an Iran Air commercial flight over the Persian Gulf, killing 290 people.

“Sixteen days before the explosion over Lockerbie, the U.S. embassy in Helsinki, Finland, received a call warning that a bomb would be placed on a Pan Am flight out of Frankfurt. There is controversy over how seriously the U.S. took the threat and whether travellers should have been alerted, but officials later said that the connection between the call and the bomb was coincidental”, adds The History Channel. 

In 1991, following a joint investigation by the British authorities and the F.B.I., Libyan intelligence agents Abdel Basset Ali al-Megrahi and Lamen Khalifa Fhimah were indicted for murder; however, Libya refused to hand over the suspects to the U.S.

The suspects were tried in a Scottish court at Camp Zeist, a former US air base 20 miles south of the Dutch capital of Amsterdam. The Dutch declared 30 acres of the 100-acre base Scottish territory so that the trial could be held in a neutral country as al Megrahi, Fhimah and Libyan leader Moammar Gadhafi had wanted. There was no jury; three Scottish judges presided, with a fourth as reserve.

Authorities said al Megrahi and Fhimah manufactured the bomb out of Semtex plastic explosives, concealed it in a Toshiba cassette recorder, hid the recorder in a Samsonite suitcase and slipped the suitcase aboard an Air Malta flight headed from Malta to Frankfurt, Germany. The unaccompanied bag is believed to have been transferred to a Pan Am flight to London and then to Flight 103.

The CIA and FBI said the suspects, employed by Libyan Arab Airlines in Malta, were also Libyan intelligence agents. Lesser charges of conspiracy to murder and violating Britain’s 1982 Aviation Security Act were dropped.

Finally, in 1999, in an effort to ease United Nations sanctions against his country, Qaddafi agreed to turn over the two men to Scotland for trial in the Netherlands using Scottish law and prosecutors.

In early 2001, al-Megrahi was convicted and sentenced to life in prison and Fhimah was acquitted.

In 2003, Libya accepted responsibility for the bombing, but didn’t express remorse. The U.N. and U.S. lifted sanctions against Libya and Libya agreed to pay each victim’s family approximately $8 million in restitution.

In 2004, Libya’s prime minister said that the deal was the “price for peace,” implying that his country only took responsibility to get the sanctions lifted, a statement that infuriated the victims’ families. Pan Am Airlines, which went bankrupt three years after the bombing, sued Libya and later received a $30 million settlement.”

Brittanica reports that in  2009 Megrahi, who had been diagnosed with terminal cancer, was released from prison in Scotland on compassionate grounds and allowed to return to Libya; the United States strongly disagreed with the Scottish government’s decision. In July 2010 an investigation spurred by U.S. senators revealed that oil company BP had lobbied for a prisoner transfer agreement between the United Kingdom and Libya. Although both BP and the U.K. government denied that Megrahi was discussed specifically, in 2009 British justice minister Jack Straw had stated that BP’s business dealings with the Libyan government were a factor in considering his case.


  • December 21, 1988 – Pan Am Flight 103 explodes 31,000 feet over Lockerbie, Scotland, 38 minutes after takeoff from London. The 259 people on board the New York-bound Boeing 747 are killed, along with 11 people on the ground.
  • July 1990 – The British Civil Aviation Authority’s Air Investigation Branch officially reports that an explosive device caused the crash of Pan Am Flight 103.
  • November 13, 1991 – US and British investigators indict Libyans al Megrahi and Fhimah on 270 counts of murder, conspiracy to murder and violating Britain’s 1982 Aviation Security Act. The men are accused of being Libyan intelligence agents.
  • April 15, 1992 – The United Nations Security Council imposes sanctions on air travel and arms sales to Libya, over Libya’s refusal to hand the suspects over for trial in a Scottish court.
  • March 1994 – Libya says it will consider a proposal to try the suspects in a neutral site with a panel of international judges. Britain and the United States reject the plan, insisting the pair be tried in a British or American court.
  • August 24, 1998 – Britain and the United States propose trying the suspects in the Netherlands under Scottish law.
  • December 5, 1998 – UN Secretary General Kofi Annan meets with Libyan leader Gadhafi to urge Libya to hand over the bombing suspects.
  • December 15, 1998 – A US appeals court rules relatives of the 189 Americans killed in the bombing can sue Libya for its possible role in sponsoring the attack.
  • December 16, 1998 – Libyan People’s Congress agrees to a proposal to try Lockerbie bombing suspects in the Netherlands under Scottish law.
  • April 5, 1999 – Libya hands over the suspects to the United Nations. They are taken to the Netherlands to stand trial.
  • April 5, 1999 – United Nations Security Council suspends air and arms sanctions against Libya after the bombing suspects are taken into UN custody.
  • June 11, 1999 – US and Libyan representatives meet for the first time in 18 years to discuss lifting UN sanctions.
  • December 7, 1999 – Al Megrahi and Fhimah make their first appearance at a two-day pre-trial hearing at Camp Zeist.
  • May 3, 2000 – The trial of Pan Am Flight 103 bombing suspects al Megrahi and Fhimah begins.
  • November 28, 2000 – Judges at the Lockerbie trial reject a plea to acquit one of the two Libyans accused of planting a bomb on the Pan Am plane.
  • January 9, 2001 – Prosecutors drop the lesser charges of conspiracy and endangering aircraft safety against al Megrahi and Fhimah and ask the court to only consider the murder charges.
  • January 10, 2001 – Prosecutors present their closing arguments in the case after calling 232 witnesses over eight months. Defense closing arguments follow, after lawyers for the pair call only three witnesses.
  • January 31, 2001 – Al Megrahi is found guilty and jailed for a minimum of 27 years. Fhimah is found not guilty.
  • March 14, 2002 – Al Megrahi loses his appeal against his murder conviction in the 1988 Lockerbie bombing.
  • 2003 – President Gadhafi agrees to pay $2.7 billion in compensation to families of those killed in the bombing.
  • June 28, 2004 – The United States resumes direct diplomatic ties with Libya after 24 years.
  • June 2007 – The Scottish Criminal Cases Review Commission (SCCRC) rules that al Megrahi can appeal his conviction.
  • October 2008 – It is announced that al Megrahi is suffering from terminal cancer.
  • October 31, 2008 – US President George W. Bush signs an executive order that restores Libya’s immunity from terrorism-related lawsuits.
  • November 2008 – US Senator Frank Lautenberg announces at a press conference that the families of American victims of the Pan-Am bombing have received final compensation from the Libyan government. Each family received about $10 million, paid in installments between 2004 and 2008.
  • August 20, 2009 – Scottish Justice Secretary Kenny MacAskill announces that al Megrahi will be released from prison on compassionate grounds due to his terminal cancer. After being released, al Megrahi returns to Libya and receives a jubilant welcome.
  • August 2, 2010 – Senators Robert Menendez and Frank Lautenberg hold a press conference to outline their plan to press for more information about the 2009 release of al Megrahi. A group of US senators attempts to investigate rumors that the Lockerbie bomber was released as part of a deal to allow BP to drill off the coast of Libya. BP has denied such claims.
  • July 26, 2011 – Al Megrahi appears in a wheelchair at a pro-Gadhafi rally in Tripoli.
  • August 28, 2011 – CNN’s Nic Robertson tracks down al Megrahi at his family’s villa in Tripoli. He appears to be comatose and near death, on oxygen and an IV. The National Transitional Council announces that it will not allow al Megrahi’s extradition. Justice Minister Mohammed al-Alagi says, “We will not give any Libyan citizen to the West.”
  • October 2, 2011 – Reuters interviews al Megrahi at his home. Al Megrahi claims his innocence.
  • May 20, 2012 – Al Megrahi dies in Libya.
  • October 15, 2015 – Scottish officials announce that two additional Libyans have been identified as suspects in the bombing of Pan Am Flight 103.

Via CNN / The History Channel / Brittanica 



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