A passenger plane exploded over Lockerbie 34 years ago. Its alleged bombmaker is now in US custody
A frail 71-year-old – who is a little unsteady on his feet – will be asked to enter a plea in a Washington DC court next week, charged with what has been described as one of the worst terrorist attacks in US history be considered.
The man – known as Mas’ud – is said to have built and delivered the bomb that brought down Pan Am Flight 103 over Lockerbie, Scotland, in 1988, killing 270 people.
Prosecutors say that – in a confession extracted more than 10 years ago, while he was in custody in Libya on unrelated charges – he also admitted to setting the timer.
Abu Agila Mas’ud Kheir Al-Marimi allegedly built and delivered the bomb that brought down Pan Am Flight 103. (AP Photo: Alexandria Sheriff’s Office)
Mas’ud was captured and extradited to the US last month.
His arrest represents a moment of hope for many of the Lockerbie victims’ families, who have long campaigned for justice on American soil.
The moment of the accident
It was just after 7pm on December 21, 1988, when the sky over Lockerbie lit up red and residents heard what they described as a horrible howl.
“It was like a rush and a screaming sound,” one man told the television crews who rushed to the town in the following hours.
He described how “liquid fire … concrete and debris” rained down on his car.
Reverend Alan Neal – the rector of the local Anglican church – heard something “loud and terrible”.
He went out at night where he met a neighbor who was “already shaky and shaky”.
Soon they came to the shocking realization that a piece of a plane had landed some 30 or 40 meters away.
The Scottish town of Lockerbie in the aftermath of the bombing of Pan Am Flight 103 in December 1988. (AP Photo: File)
Across Lockerbie, those who were not killed – as 11 people on the ground were obliterated by the falling debris – left their homes to find bodies in the streets and gardens, a large crater in the center of the town, and wreckage everywhere from Pan Am Flight 103.
In the American city of Albany, lawyer Paul Hudson took a call on the office line.
His 16-year-old daughter, Melina, was on her way home for Christmas after spending a term at an English school.
Melina Hudson flew home for Christmas on Pam Am Flight 103. (Supplied)
“A travel agent called me, who arranged her ticket, and said there had been an accident and Melina might have been on a plane,” he told ABC’s 7.30.
“I rushed home, and my wife was there, and we turned on the TV set and we saw the flames over Lockerbie.
“And from that time everything changed.”
The next day, Paul was on a plane to Scotland, with his daughter’s dental records.
“We knew in our hearts this was it.”
The majority of the victims were Americans
Kara Monetti’s afternoon television viewing was interrupted by a news flash about the accident.
When her mother came home a little later, she had to deliver the news that the plane her son, Rick, had traveled home on was missing.
University student Rick Monetti traveled on Pan Am Flight 103. (Supplied)
Rick Monetti was one of 35 students from Syracuse University in New York state on Pan Am Flight 103.
They all did an overseas exchange.
There were no survivors.
All 259 passengers and crew on the flight – and the 11 people on the ground – died.
Of the victims, 190 were Americans.
It was considered the most important terrorist attack on America until September 11, 2001.
“For us, it was a big deal,” said Bill Barr, who would later become attorney general in the George HW Bush administration at a crucial juncture in the subsequent investigation.
In 1991, Bill Barr announced charges against two Libyan intelligence officers, Abdelbaset Ali Mohmed al-Megrahi and Lamen Khalifa Fhimah.
At the time, Bill Barr unsuccessfully urged strong action against Libya and its then leader, Muammar Gaddafi. (ABC News: Bradley McLennan)
Back in 1988, the accident scene covered 2,000 square kilometers.
The police walked the length and breadth of it, painstakingly searching fields for scraps of evidence.
Scraps of clothing and a fragment of a circuit board eventually led them to Malta and the conclusion that Megrahi and Fhimah conspired to plant a bomb hidden in a Toshiba tape recorder in an unaccompanied suitcase.
The suitcase made its way from Malta to Frankfurt, where it was loaded onto Pan Am flight 103, bound for Heathrow and then New York.
At the time, Bill Barr unsuccessfully urged strong action against Libya and its then leader, Muammar Gaddafi.
“The impulse was just to add sanctions and I thought that would be worthless,” he said.
“I thought we should hit some obvious military and intelligence targets.”
Part of the wreckage of Pan Am Flight 103 in a field east of Lockerbie, Scotland. (Reuters: Greg Bos/File)
The former attorney general was also frustrated by the prosecution of the two accused, Megrahi and Fhimah.
They were tried in a special court at Camp Zeist in the Netherlands by three Scottish judges.
In 2001, Megrahi was found guilty, but Fhimah was acquitted.
“We had the death penalty, and I think it’s likely we would have sought the death penalty. And the Scots obviously don’t have the death penalty,” Mr Barr said.
“But Scotland, that was where the crime was committed, and they had a very strong case that it should be a Scottish case.”
To add insult to injury, as far as the Americans were concerned, Megrahi was released eight years later, ostensibly on compassionate grounds because he had been diagnosed with terminal cancer.
He arrived home to cheering crowds and a welcome from the Gaddafi family and was set to live for several more years, fueling suspicions among some family members that the UK had cut a deal with Libya.
Libyan Abdelbaset al-Megrahi returned home in 2009. (Reuters: File)
Rick Monetti’s sister, now Kara Weipz, was “beyond” angry.
“I think that hero’s welcome was disgusting and a slap in the face to our loved ones [who] we lost.”
Mr Hudson was also “very upset” by Megrahi’s release.
“The fact that he was let out far, far too early indicates to me that there are parties who may not want the full truth to come out.”
‘To finish a job I started’
The indictment of Abu Agila Mas’ud Kheir Al-Marimi was announced in late 2020, in the closing days of the Trump administration, by Bill Barr, then in his second stint as attorney general.
“For me it was to finish a job I started,” he said.
“It was very rewarding for me personally to be able to bring those additional charges.”
As the charges were announced, Ms. Weipz stood by his side.
Kara Weipz says she will keep a close eye on the Mas’ud case. (ABC News: Bradley McLennan)
She was 15 when her older brother died, and she has devoted much of her adult life to campaigning for truth and justice, currently heading the organization Victims of Pan Am Flight 103.
That there has never been a trial in the US in connection with Lockerbie is for her “incomplete justice” – so Mas’ud’s arrest is “huge”.
“It’s probably one of the most important moments in my life,” she said.
Ms. Weipz is still working out how she feels about the fact that the alleged bomb maker shuffled into court last week for his pre-trial hearing.
When she was younger, she tried to let go of a lot of her anger, but in court it came back.
“I definitely had some anger today.”
Families hoping to find peace
Mr Hudson is “cautiously hopeful” that Mas’ud will be found guilty, but the circumstances surrounding his alleged confession and extradition weigh on his mind.
“One of my concerns is that there may not be enough legally admissible evidence to convict him in an American court,” Mr Hudson explained
He will follow as much of the trial, if it proceeds, as he personally can.
No stranger to Washington, DC, for decades Mr. Hudson was a frequent guest on Capitol Hill as he devoted himself to advocacy work, lobbying lawmakers after the Lockerbie bombing for improved airline safety and accountability, and for more passenger rights.
Paul Hudson devoted himself to advocacy work after his daughter, Melina, died on Pam Am Flight 103. (Supplied)
He also came to court last month when Mas’ud appeared at an initial hearing after his extradition.
However, he did not make it to last week’s hearing because he had a house guest: Reverend Alan Neal, now 95 years old.
The two men formed a lifelong friendship in the aftermath of the Lockerbie disaster.
Ms Weipz also maintained strong links with Lockerbie and its people.
She took her three sons there for the first time last summer and she wears a bracelet with Lockerbie’s coordinates printed on it.
Kara Weipz’s bracelet with Lockerbie’s coordinates. (ABC News: Bradley McLennan)
“Lockerbie is just such a lovely town. It’s a modest town,” she said.
“I mean, of course there are sad memories there, but it’s not a sad place. It’s a very lively town.
“For me it just feels like home.”
Ms Weipz will also keep a close eye on the Mas’ud case.
She hopes the case will reveal more information about who else might have been involved.
This will help bring peace, she thinks, to the families.
Does she hope for remorse if he is found guilty?
“I think in some ways that might be asking too much.”
Kara Weipz and her husband at a memorial for the victims of Pan Am Flight 103 in Lockerbie.(Supplied)
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