By ERIC TUCKER and SYLVIA HUI (Associated Press)
WASHINGTON (AP) — A Libyan intelligence official accused of making the bomb that shot down Pan Am Flight 103 over Lockerbie, Scotland in 1988 in an act of international terrorism has been placed in detention in the United States and will face federal charges in Washington, the Department judge said on Sunday.
The arrest of Abu Agila Mohammad Mas’ud Kheir Al-Marimi is a milestone in the decades-old investigation into the attack that killed 259 people in the air and 11 on the ground. In December 2020, US authorities announced charges against Mas’ud, who was then detained in Libya. Although he is the third Libyan intelligence official charged in the United States in connection with the attack, he would be the first to appear in a US court to be prosecuted there.
The Pan Am flight to New York exploded over Lockerbie less than an hour after taking off from London on December 21, 1988. Citizens of 21 different countries were killed. Among the 190 Americans on board were 35 students from Syracuse University who were returning home for Christmas after a semester abroad.
The bombing laid bare the threat of international terrorism more than a decade before the September 11 attacks. It has produced global investigations and punitive sanctions while prompting demands for accountability from the victims of those killed. The university’s current chancellor, Kent Syverud, said in a statement that the arrest was a significant development in the long process “to bring to justice those responsible for this despicable act”.
Stephanie Bernstein, a Maryland woman whose husband Michael was among the 270 victims – he was a Justice Department official returning to the theft of government business – said the news was ‘surreal’ because he There had been times over the past two years when victims’ families had been told that “it looked promising” only to find out that it didn’t.
“At first I thought I was dreaming when I was told what happened, but it happened, and I’m incredibly grateful that this man is on trial in the United States,” Bernstein said in an interview. .
The announcement of charges against Mas’ud on December 21, 2020 came on the 32nd anniversary of the bombing and in the final days of then-Attorney General William Barr’s tenure, who in his first term as Attorney General in early 1990 announced criminal charges against two other Libyan intelligence officials.
The Libyan government initially hesitated to hand over the two men, Abdel Baset Ali al-Megrahi and Lamen Khalifa Fhimah, before finally handing them over to be prosecuted before a panel of Scottish judges sitting in the Netherlands as part of a special arrangement.
The Justice Department said Mas’ud will soon appear in federal court in Washington, where he faces two counts related to the explosion.
US officials did not say how Mas’ud was arrested by the United States, but late last month local Libyan media reported that Mas’ud was abducted by gunmen on November 16 in his residence in Tripoli, the capital. This report quoted a family statement that accused authorities in Tripoli of being silent on the kidnapping.
In November 2021, Najla Mangoush, the foreign minister of the Tripoli-based government, told the BBC in an interview that “we as a government are very open in terms of collaborating on this matter”, when we asked him if an extradition was possible.
Torn by civil war since 2011, Libya is divided between rival governments in the east and west, each backed by international bosses and numerous armed militias on the ground. The militias have amassed great wealth and power through kidnappings and their involvement in Libya’s lucrative human trafficking business
A breakthrough in the investigation came when US officials in 2017 received a copy of an interview that Mas’ud, a longtime explosives expert for Libya’s intelligence services, had given to law enforcement. Libyan women in 2012 after being arrested following the collapse of the government. of the country’s leader, Colonel Muammar Gaddafi.
In that interview, US officials said Mas’ud admitted to building the bomb during the Pan Am attack and working with two other conspirators to execute it. He also said the operation was ordered by Libyan intelligence and that Gaddafi thanked him and other team members after the attack, according to an FBI affidavit filed in the case.
This affidavit indicates that Mas’ud told Libyan law enforcement that he flew to Malta to meet with al-Megrahi and Fhimah. He handed Fhimah a medium-sized Samsonite suitcase containing a bomb, having already been instructed to set the timer for the device to explode exactly 11 hours later, according to the document. He then flew to Tripoli, the FBI said.
Al-Megrahi was convicted in the Netherlands while Fhimah was acquitted of all charges. Al-Megrahi received a life sentence, but Scottish authorities released him on humanitarian grounds in 2009 after he was diagnosed with prostate cancer. He later died in Tripoli, still claiming his innocence.
Announcing charges against Mas’ud in 2020, Barr said the United States and Scotland would use “all possible and appropriate means” to bring him to justice.
“Finally, this man responsible for murdering Americans and many more will be brought to justice for his crimes,” Barr said at the time.
Scotland’s Crown Office and Procurator Fiscal Service also announced the arrest on Sunday, saying in a statement that “the families of those killed in the Lockerbie bombing have been advised that the suspect is in US custody.” .
The statement added that “Scottish prosecutors and police, together with the UK government and their US colleagues, will continue to pursue this investigation, with the sole aim of bringing to justice those who acted with al-Megrahi.”
Hui reported from London. Associated Press writers Jack Jeffery in Cairo, Carolyn Thompson in Buffalo, New York, and Julie Walker in New York contributed to this report.