DCSIMG

Piecing together the murder jigsaw

EVEN before the first light of dawn, the town of Lockerbie was being ringed in blue and white police tape, yet the crime scene stretched so much further. The victims and debris of the bombing of Pan Am Flight 103 were spread across an area of 845 square miles, almost every inch of which was to be the subject of a rigorous search.

It was an irony that the largest murder inquiry in Scottish history should fall on the shoulders of Dumfries and Galloway, the country's smallest police force. Lord Fraser of Carmyllie, the then Lord Advocate, said it was "murder, pure and simple". Yet finding the murderers was to be far from simple.

The target was an American plane and the first suspects were that nation's enemies in the Middle East. In July the US navy had shot down an Iranian airliner, killing all 270 passengers, pilgrims bound for Mecca. The Ayatollah Khomeini vowed that in revenge the skies would "rain blood" and offered a $10 million reward to those who "obtained justice" for Iran.

An anonymous call within hours claimed the Guardians of the Islamic Revolution were responsible for the Lockerbie murder.

Yet Libya was also suspected of carrying out a revenge attack for the US military strikes against Tripoli and Benghazi in April, 1986. Over the next few years the investigation would twist and turn before placing the final blame on the desert kingdom of Libya.

The first task facing an investigation team led by Dumfries and Galloway Police, but buttressed by the FBI, (with assistance from MI5, MI6, and the CIA) was to gather the evidence, which meant retrieving every piece of the plane. Officers from across Scotland were supported by soldiers and instructed that "if it isn't growing and it isn't a rock, pick it up". On the ground the search parties were divided into groups of ten and supported, in the air, by both military and private helicopters equipped with infra-red cameras. The French government, the US department of defence and NASA all contributed satellite photographs of the site. The task was mammoth, yet by 28 December, one week after the crash, air accident investigators announced that they had already found traces of high explosives. Over the next few months, 10,000 items were retrieved, each piece placed into a clear plastic bag, labelled and then delivered to the school gymnasium in Lockerbie.

For the investigation team, based at the school, the key was finding the case which contained the bomb. Fragments of a suitcase which revealed bomb damage at an exceedingly close range were discovered around Lockerbie. It was identified as a Samsonite suitcase, and, by mirroring the blast damage investigators pieced together fragments of what it had once contained.

It was a haphazard assortment of clothes, including two Slalom-brand men's shirts, a herringbone jacket and pieces of trousers made by a brand called Yorkie. Incongruously, there was also a baby's blue jumpsuit, made by Babygro Primark. Among the Babygro fibres were what was left of a label with the words "Made in Malta".

These items, investigators believed, were wrapped around the bomb, which was itself a Toshiba radio cassette player, fragments of which had been found along with a small piece of circuit board taken from a timer. A path to the culprit was emerging from the thicket of information. If they could find who had purchased the clothes, they believed they would then find their bomber.

They already had a suspect organisation in mind. The Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine General Command (PFLP-GC) was headed by Ahmed Jibril, a former Syrian army captain, based in Damascus and backed by Iran. The group had a cell active in Frankfurt and on 26 October, 1988, German police, in an operation codenamed "Autumn Leaves", arrested 17 terrorist suspects who had cased Frankfurt airport and browsed Pan Am's flight timetables. Four Semtex explosive devices were confiscated. (One of the gang, Abu Talb, an Egyptian was later arrested in Sweden, where a calendar found in his flat had the date 21 December circled.)

Since clothing in the case was manufactured in Malta, Scottish detectives flew to the island in August 1989 and were directed to a shop called Mary's House in the town of Sliema. The owner, Tony Gauci, would become the principal witness in the prosecution of the Lockerbie bomber.

Mr Gauci was questioned about Abu Talb but he also went on to describe the man who bought an assortment of clothes just two weeks before they were burnt and scattered across Scotland, as "5ft 10in, muscular, and clean shaven". Crucially, he said he was Libyan, spoke Arabic, English and Maltese and had purchased items with a careless disregard, even picking up an old tweed jacket which Mr Gauci had been keen to offload for years.

The circuit board fragment, meanwhile, was slowly yielding up secrets which would also point away from the PFLP-GC towards Libya. In June 1990 Detective Chief Inspector William Williamson, the officer leading the investigation, travelled to the FBI headquarters in Washington where Thomas Thurman, an FBI explosive expert, said the fragment was similar to a circuit board seized from a Libyan intelligence officer in Dakar airport in Senegal, almost a year before the Lockerbie disaster. Mohammad al-Marzouk had been caught with Semtex, TNT, detonators and an MST-13 electronic timer, on which was printed the word Mebo, which stood for Meister & Bollier, an electronics firm in Zurich.

Edwin Bollier of Meister & Bollier explained that he had sold 20 MST-13 timers to Libya in 1985. He had hoped to secure a lucrative contract with the country's military and travelled to Sabha, a desert city, where he watched as his timers detonated bombs.

He went on to discuss two men, Abdelbaset Ali Mohmed al-Megrahi, whom he believed to be an army major, and his friend Al-Amin Khalifa Fhimah. The two men's connection to Bollier and Mebo was so close that when the decided to set up a travel business they did so from the company's offices in Zurich. Fhimah would then go on to operate as station manager for Libyan Arab Airlines, based at the Luqa Airport in Malta, while Megrahi, became the head of security for Libyan Arab Airlines.

These threads were being woven together into a strand that stretched from Libya to Malta and on to the skies above Lockerbie. Yet within Dumfries and Galloway Police, certain staff had doubts about the new direction.

A key element in the investigation was tracking the route of every piece of luggage loaded onto the Pan Am 103. In a bitter irony, the airline had charged each passenger a $5 surcharge to account for its increased security which, it claimed, "will screen passengers, employees, airport facilities, baggage and aircraft with unrelenting thoroughness". The weak link in this security chain was the Interline baggage system.The security was only as tight as a package's first port of call.

According to the records from Frankfurt International Airport, on 21 December, 1988, an unaccompanied bag was routed from Air Malta Flight KM 180, out of Luqa Airport to Frankfurt, where it had then been loaded onto Pan Am 103A, the feeder flight to London. It was later discovered that the baggage for Air Malta Flight KM 180 was processed at the same time as the bags for Libyan Arab Airlines Flight 147 to Tripoli. Megrahi had been a passenger on this flight. Investigators now believed that he had loaded the Samsonite suitcase containing the bomb and timer onto the Air Malta flight, before departing on the Libyan Arab airlines flight. Yet how did he do it? The friendship between Megrahi and Fhimah appeared to answer the question. A court order to search Fhimah's office in Malta added what they believed was another piece of proof, a diary, written in English in which, on 15 December, 1988, six days before the bombing, he wrote a reminder to "take taggs [sic] from Air Malta".

On 13 November, 1991, after three years and 15,000 witness statements, murder charges were issued against Megrahi and Fhimah, now back in Libya and so beyond the restricted reach of Scottish law. For now.

THE VITAL CLUES

THE Clipper Maid of the Seas was shattered into thousands of pieces by the bomb buried in its hold, but these chunks of burnt and twisted metal helped point to who killed 270 men, women and children.

Investigators from the US's Federal Aviation Administration were lowered down into the cockpit before it was moved and while the bodies of the flight crew were still in place, and they were able to conclude that no emergency procedures had been activated.

Among the first tasks of the authorities was to gather as many pieces of the shattered aircraft as possible from the countryside. These were examined by the Air Accidents Investigation Branch in a hanger in Cumbria, before being moved to a separate hanger at Farnborough, in Hampshire, where the fuselage was slowly reconstructed, like a macabre and complicated jigsaw puzzle.

This persistence was to bring its own reward. As the plane was reassembled into a buckled and battered shape, investigators were drawn to an area on the left side of the lower fuselage, behind which sat the forward cargo hold. The aluminium skin of the plane had been bent forward into what is known as a starburst pattern, with metal "petals" having spread out, in clear evidence of an explosion.

Like opening up a series of Russian dolls, the investigators, led by Dumfries and Galloway Constabulary and assisted by the FBI (as well as MI5, MI6 and the CIA), followed the evidence. The explosion led them to a Pan Am aluminium container, which, like the others, had been packed with suitcases.

Yet, there was a crucial difference. While the others, once reconstructed, showed damage as a result of a six-mile fall, one particular container revealed extra damage - blackening and pitting - evidence that it was the scene of the explosion.

Using the damage to an adjacent container, the investigation team were able to conclude that the explosion took place 13in above the floor of the container and 25in from the skin of the fuselage. This meant the case which contained it had sat on top of other cases.

An analysis of carbon deposits taken from strips of metal off the containers revealed it to have been a chemical blast, using 12-16oz of plastic explosives. The type of explosive was considered to be Semtex-H, a high-performance explosive manufactured in the village of Semtin, in the Czech Republic.

 
 
 

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