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  • Writer's pictureThe San Juan Daily Star

Libyan operative charged in 1988 Lockerbie bombing is in FBI custody

Policemen looking at the wreckage of the 747 Pan Am airliner that exploded over Lockerbie, Scotland, in 1988.

By Adam Goldman

A Libyan intelligence operative charged in the 1988 bombing of an American jetliner over Lockerbie, Scotland, was arrested by the FBI and is being extradited to the United States to face prosecution for one of the deadliest terrorist attacks in U.S. history, officials said Sunday.

The arrest of the operative, Abu Agila Mohammad Mas’ud, was the culmination of a decadeslong effort by the Justice Department to prosecute him. In 2020, Attorney General William Barr announced criminal charges against Mas’ud, accusing him of building the explosive device used in the bombing of Pan Am Flight 103, which killed 270 passengers, including 190 Americans.

Mas’ud faces two criminal counts, including destruction of an aircraft resulting in death. He was being held at a Libyan prison for unrelated crimes when the Justice Department unsealed the charges against him two years ago. It is unclear how the U.S. government negotiated the extradition of Mas’ud.

Mas’ud’s suspected role in the Lockerbie bombing received new scrutiny in a three-part documentary on “Frontline” on PBS in 2015. The series was written and produced by Ken Dornstein, whose brother was killed in the attack. Dornstein learned that Mas’ud was being held in a Libyan prison and even obtained pictures of him as part of his investigation.

“If there’s one person still alive who could tell the story of the bombing of Flight 103, and put to rest decades of unanswered questions about how exactly it was carried out — and why — it’s Mr. Mas’ud,” Dornstein wrote in an email after learning Mas’ud would finally be prosecuted in the United States. “The question, I guess, is whether he’s finally prepared to speak.”

After Moammar Gadhafi, Libya’s leader, was ousted from power, Mas’ud confessed to the bombing in 2012, telling a Libyan law enforcement official that he was behind the attack. Once investigators learned about the confession in 2017, they interviewed the Libyan official who had elicited it, leading to charges.

Even though extradition would allow Mas’ud to stand trial, legal experts have expressed doubts about whether his confession, obtained in prison in war-torn Libya, would be admissible as evidence.

Mas’ud, who was born in Tunisia but has Libyan citizenship, was the third person charged in the bombing. Two others, Abdel Basset Ali al-Megrahi and Al-Amin Khalifa Fhimah, were charged in 1991, but American efforts to prosecute them ran aground when Libya declined to send them to the United States or Britain to stand trial.

Instead, the Libyan government agreed to a trial in the Netherlands under Scottish law. Fhimah was acquitted and al-Megrahi was convicted in 2001 and sentenced to life in prison.

In 2009, Scottish officials released al-Megrahi because he had prostate cancer, despite the strenuous objections of the families of the victims and of U.S. officials, including former President Barack Obama. Al-Megrahi died in 2012; his family posthumously appealed his conviction in Scotland, but last year a panel of judges refused to overturn it.

Prosecutors say that Mas’ud played a key role in the bombing, traveling to Malta and delivering the suitcase that contained the bomb used in the attack. In Malta, Megrahi and Fhimah instructed Mas’ud to set the timer on the device so it would blow up while the plane was in the air the next day, prosecutors said.

On the morning of Dec. 21, 1988, Megrahi and Fhimah met Mas’ud at the airport in Malta, where he turned over the suitcase. Prosecutors said Fhimah put the suitcase on a conveyor belt, ultimately ending up on Pan Am Flight 103.

Mas’ud’s name surfaced twice in 1988, even before the bombing took place. In October, a Libyan defector told the CIA he had seen Mas’ud at the Malta airport with Megrahi, saying the pair had passed through on a terrorist operation. Malta served as a primary launching point for Libya to initiate such attacks, the informant told the agency. That December, the day before the Pan Am bombing, the informant told the CIA that the pair had again passed through Malta. Nearly another year passed before the agency asked the informant about the bombing.

But investigators never pursued Mas’ud in earnest until Megrahi’s trial years later, only for the Libyans to insist that Mas’ud did not exist. Megrahi also claimed he did not know Mas’ud.

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