The uproar over the release of Abdelbaset Ali Mohmed Megrahi – the Libyan government agent convicted of bombing Pan Am Flight 103 over Lockerbie, Scotland – keeps growing. The Lockerbie bombing killed 180 Americans and 90 others, including several people on the ground in Scotland.
A predominant meme in the media coverage has been “weak politicians don’t have the guts to punish terrorists.”
An editorial in Forbes warns that this is just an indication that Brits are growing soft on terrorism:
The Megrahi story reflects a national weariness in Britain about terrorism, a feeling that agents of violence, in the end, have to be talked to and that even when the most bitter anguish has been suffered the wise politician never says “never.”
FP Passport calls Brown spineless. [Edit: see comments below.] And Fox News’ opinion headlines speak for themselves: “The Ominous Message of the Lockerbie Bomber’s Release” and “Did the White House Green Light Lockerbie Bomber’s Release?” The latter article has a helpful subtitle, “The recent events in Scotland show the futility of treating a war as a criminal justice issue.”
The technical term for all of this is, of course, bullshit.
Yes, there’s economics and politics and oil involved – plenty of reasons the release is convenient to many involved. But given the international (and especially American) furor over the release, there’s very little chance Megrahi would ever have been let go, even on compassionate grounds, if it weren’t for one crucial fact: he might not have done it.
I started this post as a way to share a wonderful piece of long-form journalism by Hugh Miles: “Inconvenient Truths” in the London Review of Books. Miles presents a fairly convincing case that the actual culprit was the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine General Command (PFLP-GC).
Some telling excerpts:
The case against Jibril [of the PFLP-GC] and his gang is well established. It runs like this: in July 1988, five months before the Lockerbie bombing, a US naval commander aboard USS Vincennes in the Persian Gulf shot down an Iranian airbus, apparently mistaking it for an attacker. On board Iran Air Flight 655 were 270 pilgrims en route to Mecca. Ayatollah Khomeini vowed the skies would ‘rain blood’ in revenge and offered a $10 million reward to anyone who ‘obtained justice’ for Iran. The suggestion is that the PFLP-GC was commissioned to undertake a retaliatory bombing.
We know at least that two months before Lockerbie, a PFLP-GC cell was active in the Frankfurt and Neuss areas of West Germany. On 26 October 1998, German police arrested 17 terrorist suspects who, surveillance showed, had cased Frankfurt airport and browsed Pan Am flight timetables. Four Semtex-based explosive devices were confiscated; a fifth is known to have gone missing. They were concealed inside Toshiba radios very similar to the one found at Lockerbie a few weeks later. One of the gang, a Palestinian known as Abu Talb, was later found to have a calendar in his flat in Sweden with the date of 21 December circled…During Megrahi’s trial Abu Talb had a strange role… At the time he was serving a life sentence in Sweden for the bombing of a synagogue… He ended up testifying as a prosecution witness, denying that he had anything to do with Lockerbie. In exchange for his testimony, he received lifelong immunity from prosecution.
…Most significantly, German federal police have provided financial records showing that on 23 December 1988, two days after the bombing, the Iranian government deposited £5.9 million into a Swiss bank account that belonged to the arrested members of the PFLP-GC.
The decision to steer the investigation away from the PFLP-GC and in the direction of Libya came in the run-up to the first Gulf War, as America was looking to rally a coalition to liberate Kuwait and was calling for support from Iran and Syria. Syria subsequently joined the UN forces. Quietly, the evidence incriminating Jibril, so painstakingly sifted from the debris, was binned.
Since Megrahi’s last appeal, many thousands of pages of reports, detailing freight and baggage movements in and out of Frankfurt airport, have been handed over to the defence. Largely in German and many handwritten, the papers were translated by the Crown at the taxpayer’s expense, but the Crown refused to share the translations with the defence and left it no time to commission its own.
Hans Köchler, the UN observer at Camp Zeist, reported at the time that the trial was politically charged and the verdict ‘totally incomprehensible’. In his report Köchler wrote that he found the presence of US Justice Department representatives in the court ‘highly problematic’, because it gave the impression that they were ‘”supervisors” handling vital matters of the prosecution strategy and deciding . . . which documents . . . were to be released in open court and what parts of information contained in a certain document were to be withheld.’
As stated above, this post was prompted by Miles’ piece. In writing however, I was struck by the thought that Miles’ theory – elaborately and methodically presented – reminded me of other conspiracy theories. Not that conspiracy theories can’t be right. (In fact, it seems that conspiracy is at least in some cases a pejorative descriptor for what might really just be a legitimate theory.) But there does seem to be enough evidence to the contrary to make me doubt Miles’ theory as well.
What is important, regardless of Megrahi’s guilt, is that a large number of people in the UK believe Megrahi to be innocent. And the appeals process was still going on. Notably, Megrahi’s release voided his appeal, so the Scottish justice system will never have to judge whether or not it erred.
The various politicians with influence over the decision – Scots, Brits (including Brown), Americans (including Obama), and others – evidently calculated that the risk of the whole thing being revealed as a sham was worse than the political risks invited by releasing Megrahi. The extent of the furor, prompted by his raucous reception in Libya, probably surprised them, but there’s no going back now.