Editor’s Note: Peter Bergen is CNN’s national security analyst, a vice president at New America and a professor of practice at Arizona State University. Bergen is the author of “The Cost of Chaos: The Trump Administration and the World.” The views expressed in this commentary are his own. View more opinion on CNN.
Just days before Christmas in 1988, Pan Am Flight 103 flying from London to New York blew up over Lockerbie, Scotland, killing 270 people – including 190 Americans. Thirty-five victims were Syracuse University students going home for the holidays after studying abroad. It was the most lethal terrorist attack against American civilians until the September 11 attacks of 2001.
On Sunday, the US Department of Justice announced it had taken custody of a Libyan man, Abu Agila Mohammad Mas’ud Kheir Al-Marimi, who is alleged to have been involved in making the bomb that blew up the passenger jet. The DOJ described him as a former senior intelligence officer in the regime of Libyan dictator Moammar Gadhafi.
Al-Marimi hasn’t entered a plea in the case. Another Libyan intelligence officer working for Gadhafi, Abdelbaset al-Megrahi, was convicted in 2001 of the bombing of Pan Am 103. Megrahi died in 2012.
Almost three and a half decades have passed since Pan Am 103 was brought down, and many may be wondering why Gadhafi and his intelligence officials carried out this bombing and why they thought they might get away with it.
The context for the bombing of Pan Am 103 was that the administration of former President Ronald Reagan and Gadhafi were at war – not a declared conventional war, but a war nonetheless – fought with terrorist bombs by the Libyans and with airstrikes by the Reagan administration.
Gadhafi was a Soviet military client who espoused an obscure revolutionary philosophy, which made him anathema to the Reagan administration.
Early in his first term in May 1981, Reagan ordered the closure of the Libyan embassy in Washington, DC, and the expulsion of Libyan diplomats in the United States because of “Libyan provocations and misconduct, including support for international terrorism.”
On April 5, 1986, a bomb went off in the La Belle discotheque in Berlin that off-duty US servicemen frequented. The bombing killed two US soldiers and a Turkish woman, and injured more than 200 others.
The Reagan administration quickly determined that Libyan intelligence agents most likely carried out the attack. In response, Reagan ordered the bombing of multiple targets in Libya, telling the American people in an address from the Oval Office on April 14, 1986, “At 7 this evening Eastern time, air and naval forces of the United States launched a series of strikes against the headquarters, terrorist facilities and military assets that support Moammar Gadhafi’s subversive activities.”
Gadhafi claimed that his infant daughter was killed in these strikes (although, in recent years, this claim about his daughter has been questioned). Other Gadhafi family members were reported to have been wounded in the strikes, one of which hit one of the dictator’s residences.
It took more than two years for Gadhafi to exact his revenge on the US. During that time, Libyan intelligence agents assembled a sophisticated bomb secreted in a radio cassette player.
The bomb worked on a timer and was hidden in a suitcase. In the days before rigorous airport security, the bomb-filled suitcase was placed by a Libyan agent on a flight from Malta to Frankfurt, and the suitcase was then “routed to a feeder flight in Frankfurt bound for London’s Heathrow Airport, where it was ultimately loaded onto the doomed jet,” according to the FBI.
The terrorist plot worked, unfortunately, very well for the Libyans but for one crucial detail: The bomb was on a timer, and when it blew up, Pan Am 103 was still flying over land rather than over the Atlantic. If the plane had blown up slightly later the jet would have been flying over the ocean, which would have made a forensic investigation of the crash site nearly impossible.
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Instead, Scottish authorities painstakingly reassembled every piece of the plane and its contents that they could recover on their soil. That led investigators to the suitcase that had contained the bomb and, in an astonishing piece of detective work, ultimately led them to the Libyan intelligence agents that had overseen the bombing.
On Sunday, the US Department of Justice announced that Al-Marimi, the alleged bomb maker, was now in American custody. He will make an initial appearance at a court in Washington, DC, almost exactly 34 years after Pan Am 103 blew up over Lockerbie, Scotland, killing all on board and eleven others on the ground.
Correction: An earlier version of this column incorrectly stated the date of the downing of Pan Am Flight 103 over Lockerbie, Scotland.