Lockerbie bombing: three conspiracy theories
Was it a CIA hit, an Iranian revenge mission, or the work of the Osama bin Laden of the 1980s?
The growing furore over the Scottish government's decision to release Abdelbaset Ali al-Megrahi, the Libyan accused and convicted of carrying out the Lockerbie bombing, has refocused attention on the tragedy and who was culpable.
Pan Am flight 103 was on its way from Heathrow to New York JFK on the night of December 21, 1988 when it was brought down over the Scottish town of Lockerbie in Dumfriesshire by an explosion. All 259 people on board the Boeing 747-121 were killed, as were 11 people on the ground.
Suspicion quickly fell on terror groups linked to Syria, Iran and Libya. But investigations eventually laid the blame squarely at the door of the Libyan leader Colonel Gaddafi. Abdelbaset Ali Al-Megrahi and Lamen Khalifa Fhimah - Libyan Airlines officials who were also intelligence agents for Gaddafi - were eventually brought to trial in 2000.
In January 2001 Megrahi was convicted of 270 counts of murder and sentenced to life imprisonment, while Fhimah was acquitted. But many doubts still remain about the validity of the case against the Libyans, and even family members of some of those who died in the disaster doubt whether the right men actually stood trial, hence the lack of protest in some quarters over Megrahi's release.
There have, of course, been countless opinions offered over the years as to why flight 103 was targeted and by whom. The following are not crackpot conspiracy theories - but persuasive arguments put forward by various investigative journalists and security experts in an effort to explain what has been described as the "greatest single act of mass-murder on British soil"...
• THEORY NO 1: REVENGE FOR IRAN AIR FLIGHT 655
One of the immediate suspects for the bombing was the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine, under the leadership of Ahmed Jibril. The Damascus-based terror group enjoyed the protection of Syria and was funded by Iran.
In July 1988, five months before the Lockerbie tragedy, the USS Vincennes had shot down an Iran Air Airbus-300 over the Strait of Hormuz, killing 290, and the Iranian government allegedly instructed the PFLP to carry out a revenge attack against a Western target.
The late campaigning journalist Paul Foot, who wrote repeatedly on Lockerbie in Private Eye magazine, believed this was the likeliest scenario. He cited the cracking of a PFLP cell in Germany two months before the attack - the feeder flight for Pan Am 103 had set off from Frankfurt - and the discovery of bombs containing similar components to those used in the Pan Am attack.
Foot came to believe that Libya was framed by the British and Americans after the 1990 invasion of Kuwait by Iraq. Iran and Syria, who backed the the PFLP, needed to be kept onside during the first Gulf War and so Libya, which openly backed Saddam Hussein, was incriminated in the bombing.
• THEORY NO 2: COVER-UP OF A CIA DRUG SMUGGLING RING
This shocking theory was promoted by Lester Coleman, a former member of the US Drug Enforcement Agency, who revealed the supposed existence of a protected drug route that ran between Europe and the US which allowed Syrian drug dealers to traffic heroin in return for providing the CIA with intelligence.
The agency ensured that suitcases containing drugs were not searched by airport authorities, but this backfired on them when the usual contents of the suitcases were replaced with a bomb.
A related theory alleges that the CIA let the attack happen, knowing that two of their agents who died on Flight 103 - Matthew Gannon and Major Charles McKee - had found out about the route and were returning to Washington to expose it.
• THEORY NO 3: ABU NIDAL ACTING FOR COLONEL GADDAFI
Abu Nidal, the Osama bin Laden of his day, was an international terrorist whose organisation was responsible for such atrocities as the 1985 attacks against El Al ticket counters at Rome and Vienna airports, which killed 18 people.
According to this theory, after US air raids against Libya in April 1986 killed more than 100, Colonel Gaddafi asked Nidal to launch terrorist attacks against Britain and America. An attempt to bomb an El Al jet leaving London that April was thwarted, but the following year a Pan Am flight from Bombay to New York was hijacked in Karachi and 16 people killed.
Nidal moved his organisation to Libya in 1987 and they reportedly called through a warning to the US Embassy in Helsinki that a Pan Am flight from Frankfurt to the US would be blown up in the following fortnight. ·