Libyans Indicted for Pan Am Bombing, but Syria Staying on Terrorism List
Menu JTA Search

Libyans Indicted for Pan Am Bombing, but Syria Staying on Terrorism List

Download PDF for this date

Although the Bush administration has absolved Syria for the 1988 bombing of Pan Am Flight 103, it will not be removed from the U.S. list of countries supporting terrorism, the White House said Thursday.

The dramatic clearing of Syria’s name, as well as that of Iran and Palestinian radical groups that have defected from the Palestine Liberation Organization, came Thursday, with the Justice Department’s announcement that a federal grand jury had indicted two Libyans linked to that country’s intelligence service in the December 1988 bombing over Lockerbie, Scotland.

Some family members of the victims expressed doubt over the indictments and even spoke of a White House coverup.

John Frick Root, whose wife, Hanne Marie, was among the dead, told the daily New York Newsday the U.S. indictment “is an attempt at a coverup by the Bush administration. Syria and Iran and Libya conspired together to blow up Pan Am 103,” he said.

Detailed plots had been reconstructed in the three years since the attack on the plane, which killed 270 people. Those reconstructions had pointed largely to Syria and the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine-General Command.

What later led investigators to Libya, the Justice Department said, was evidence that both a piece of an automatic timer found in the wreckage and clothing, purchased in Malta, were traced to two Libyans, Abdel Basset Ali al-Megrahi and Lamen Khalifa Fhimah.

The timer was bought in Switzerland by “a Libyan front company, which sublet office space in Zurich” from the timing device-maker, Meister et Bollier, Ltd. Telecommunications, according to the indictment.


Many of the details matched those already reported as the puzzle of Pan Am 103 was reconstructed.

The Justice Department papers said that the timer and plastic explosives had been inserted into a Toshiba radio-cassette player and placed in a Samsonite suitcase, which was transported first on an Air Malta flight to Frankfurt and from there on the Pan Am 103 flight.

For nearly three years, despite complicated investigations by the media, the U.S. and Scottish governments had refrained from charging any parties with the crime. The bombing killed all 259 people aboard the airplane, 193 of whom were U.S. nationals. Eleven people on the ground were killed as well.

Scotland’s Justice Ministry is now pursuing a similar indictment. Both countries hope to apprehend the two Libyans, despite the lack of extradition treaties between their countries and Libya.

U.S. Assistant Attorney General Robert Mueller refused to speculate Thursday on how that would be achieved and, when pressed by reporters, would not rule out kidnapping the suspects.

But Mueller, who heads the Justice Department’s Criminal Division, said one easy way to catch them would be arrest in some other country that does have extradition treaties with the United States or Scotland.

The White House and State Department spokesmen, Marlin Fitzwater and Richard Boucher, refused to rule out any options.

U.S. officials would not comment Thursday on Libya’s motive, but it has been reported it may have been retaliation against the United States for a 1986 air attack against Tripoli, which caused destruction and deaths, including that of an adopted daughter of Libyan leader Moammar Gadhafi.

Boucher said only that Libya has a long history of financing, harboring and training terrorist groups, which continues to the present.


Iran had also been considered a suspect, eager to retaliate for the 1988 accidental downing of an Iranian airbus over the Persian Gulf by the U.S. Navy warship Vincennes. All 290 people on board, most of them Iranians, were killed.

Hard-line Palestinian groups that have broken from the PLO were also highly suspect. Chief among them was the Syrian-based Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine-General Command, whose leader, Ahmed Jabril, a welcome guest in Damascus, had all but been accused of planting the bomb by the news media, which said he had been paid handsomely for the bombing.

Suspicion had centered on the Jabril group because, in addition to being based in Syria, it is financed by Iran. A number of its members were arrested in then West Germany in 1988 in connection with bombs planned for other flights.

A more recent theory has been that members of the Jabril group paid Gadhafi’s agents to carry out the Pan Am attack.

But both Fitzwater and Boucher said Thursday that there is no evidence linking the Jabril group to the Lockerbie incident.

Still, Fitzwater said Thursday that the United States would not lift its sanctions against Syria just because it has been cleared of responsibility for the downing of Pan Am 103.

An administration official said that Syria continues to be involved in terrorism. “There is no change in our approach to Syria” just because the alleged perpetrators were not linked to that country, he said.

A Syrian Embassy official declined to comment on the issue.

Syria has been on the U.S. list of terrorist nations since it was first compiled in 1979. Countries on the list cannot receive U.S. foreign aid, or goods and technology that would bolster their military capabilities.

Syria had additional sanctions imposed against it after a British court, in 1986, implicated Damascus in the attempted bombing of an El Al Airlines plane in London, which had 230 U.S. nationals aboard.

Founding Funders

The digitization of the JTA Archive would not have been possible without the generous support of the following donors:
  • The Gottesman Fund
  • Righteous Persons Foundation
  • Charles H. Revson Foundation
  • Elisa Spungen Bildner and Robert Bildner, in honor of Norma Spungen
  • George S. Blumenthal
  • Grace and Scott Offen Charitable Fund