Alternative_theories_of_the_bombing_of_Pan_Am_Flight_103

Alternative theories of the bombing of Pan Am Flight 103

Alternative theories of the bombing of Pan Am Flight 103 suggest that Abdelbaset Ali Mohmed Al Megrahi, a Libyan agent who was convicted on 270 counts of murder for the bombing of Pan Am Flight 103, may actually be innocent. At the end of the Pan Am Flight 103 bombing trial an international observer appointed by the United Nations, Hans Köchler, called the verdict a "spectacular miscarriage of justice".

Most of these apparently disparate conspiracy theories start from the premise that key evidence presented at the trial (eg timer fragment, parts from a specific radio cassette model, clothing bought in Malta, bomb suitcase originating at Luqa Airport) could have been fabricated by the U.S. and Britain for the "political" purpose of incriminating Libya.

Attempts to re-open the case

In Britain, the Conservative governments under Margaret Thatcher and John Major rejected the idea of an independent public inquiry into PA 103. The Labour party in opposition had promised such an inquiry, but new PM Tony Blair did not initiate one either. Labour MP, Russell Brown, whose Dumfries constituency includes the town of Lockerbie, formally called for a public inquiry in March 2002. But foreign secretary, Jack Straw, in a written statement to parliament on December 18, 2002, said the government had "decided not to initiate any further form of review on Lockerbie".

However, the case would be reopened if the Scottish Criminal Cases Review Commission (SCCRC) were to review the case and decide to refer it back to the High Court for a fresh appeal. Lawyers for Megrahi therefore applied to the SCCRC on September 23, 2003 asking that the case be reviewed. The following events have occurred since:

  • On October 10, 2005 Megrahi's lawyers said they believed that material derived from test explosions in America in 1989 had mistakenly been produced at the trial as primary evidence to convict their client.
  • On October 12, 2005 The Herald newspaper in Scotland reported that British, US and Libyan officials had been covertly meeting in London and Geneva to discuss moving Megrahi to a prison in Libya or a neighbouring African country, and thereafter quietly dropping his application to the SCCRC. Megrahi's transfer from Greenock jail in Scotland would undoubtedly infuriate some of the US victims' families, as well as those who believe Megrahi is innocent and demand that he should have a fresh appeal.
  • On October 13, 2005 Dr Jim Swire, spokesman for UK Families-Flight 103 (UKF103), wrote to The Herald:

"If Megrahi were to be transferred to Libya he would be something of a hero and might lose his keenness for further appeal. Should that happen, as one of the many deeply involved parties, I will not be alone in demanding of the SCCRC that they continue their decision-making process. It remains our right both to know why our loved ones were not protected and to see the Scottish judicial process completed without governmental interference of any kind.

  • On October 23, 2005 The Sunday Times reported that the former Lord Advocate, Lord Fraser of Carmyllie, who issued the arrest warrant for Megrahi, had cast doubt on the reliability of the main witness at the trial. Fraser described Tony Gauci, whose testimony convicted Megrahi, as "not quite the full shilling" and "an apple short of a picnic." Fraser argued that Megrahi could be transferred to Libya and need not serve the whole of his 27-year sentence in Scotland.
  • On October 28, 2005 the then Lord Advocate, Lord Boyd of Duncansby, called upon his predecessor, Lord Fraser, to clarify those remarks about Gauci by making a public statement.
  • The controversy came amid mounting speculation that the SCCRC is to rule that Megrahi suffered an apparent miscarriage of justice and should be granted leave to appeal.
  • In an interview with The Scotsman newspaper of November 1, 2005 the architect of the Pan Am Flight 103 bombing trial held in a neutral venue under Scots law, Professor Robert Black of Edinburgh University, vowed to ensure Megrahi's case is brought back to court for a further appeal. The law professor said it was "the most disgraceful miscarriage of justice in Scotland for 100 years." "I won't let it go," he added.
  • The Scotsman of November 18, 2005 reported that Dr Jim Swire of UKF103 went to meet Megrahi for the first time on Wednesday, November 15. The purpose of the meeting in Greenock Prison was to ask Megrahi whether he would still press for the SCCRC to continue its review of his case if rumours of his repatriation proved to be correct.

"Megrahi was happy for me to make it known that he is determined to pursue a review of the case, no matter what might evolve concerning his future detention," said Dr Swire. He added: "It is very important to the members of UKF103 campaign group that there be a full review of the entire Lockerbie scenario through an appropriately empowered and independent inquiry, but absence of a further review of the court case would also damage our search for truth and justice."
Dr Swire said even if Megrahi did not continue with his appeal bid, the campaign group would press the SCCRC to complete its review of the case, as interested parties.

  • In March 2006, Dr Swire met Iain McKie – the father of policewoman Shirley McKie, who was wrongly accused by Scottish Criminal Record Office (SCRO) fingerprint experts of leaving her thumb print at a murder scene in 1997. Mr McKie is lobbying for a judicial inquiry to be held into his daughter's case, which allegedly has links with the Pan Am Flight 103 bombing trial. Dr Swire and Mr McKie are keen for such an inquiry to investigate not only these links, but also a number of other questions such as the role of Harry Bell, the former head of the SCRO and a key person in the investigation into the bombing of Pan Am Flight 103. Dr Swire said he, the McKie family and observers all over the world needed the answers to these questions:

"The reputation of our country and its criminal justice system will depend upon how these cases are sorted out.

  • On May 4, 2006 the Scottish Executive announced that a panel of five Judges sitting in Edinburgh were to hear Megrahi's appeal against his 27-year minimum jail sentence on July 11, 2006, when Lord Advocate, Lord Boyd, was expected to argue that the sentence imposed on Megrahi was too lenient. However, defence lawyers and others, including PA 103 relatives, expressed concerns about the timing of this appeal against sentence, and were keen for any appeal against conviction (that the SCCRC might decide upon) to be heard at the same time. Addressing these concerns, a court spokesman said:

"There might be a referral from the commission [SCCRC], but there might not be.

  • Lawyers for Megrahi later insisted that both appeals (against sentence and conviction) ought to take place at the special Scottish Court in the Netherlands – where his trial and first appeal against conviction were held – rather than in Edinburgh. The Crown disputed the move on security and cost grounds, but on June 8, 2006, the Scottish Court of Criminal Appeal decided to postpone the July appeal against sentence until October 2006. The three-month delay thus allows time to settle both the venue issue and whether the SCCRC is to grant Megrahi a second appeal against conviction.
  • On November 1, 2006 Megrahi was reported to have dropped his insistence that the new appeal should be heard at Camp Zeist, Netherlands.
  • On June 17, 2007 the Observer reported that doubt had been cast on the evidence used to convict Megrahi, and that he could soon be set free.
  • On June 28, 2007 the SCCRC announced its decision to refer Megrahi's case back to the Court of Criminal Appeal for a second appeal against conviction.
  • On July 18, 2007 Mebo's former employee, Ulrich Lumpert, admitted he had lied at the Lockerbie trial. In a sworn affidavit before a Zurich notary, Lumpert stated that he had stolen a prototype MST-13 timer PC-board from Mebo and gave it without permission on June 22, 1989, to "an official person investigating the Lockerbie case". Dr Hans Köchler, UN observer at the Lockerbie trial, who was sent a copy of Lumpert's affidavit, said: "The Scottish authorities are now obliged to investigate this situation. Not only has Mr Lumpert admitted to stealing a sample of the timer, but to the fact he gave it to an official and then lied in court".
  • In October 2007, former British diplomat Patrick Haseldine was unsuccessful in petitioning for a United Nations inquiry into the Lockerbie bombing.
  • In August 2008 Oliver Miles, former British ambassador to Libya, wrote about the possibility of a retrial for Megrahi.

Alleged framing of Libya

Recent Libyan history

Muammar al-Gaddafi's regime in Libya has a long and well-documented history of support for international terrorism. During the 1970s and 1980s, Gaddafi supplied large quantities of Libyan weapons and explosives to the Provisional Irish Republican Army. Other incidents that have been attributed to Libya are not so clear cut:

  • The 1984 murder of police constable Yvonne Fletcher outside the Libyan embassy in London was blamed on Libya and led to a long-term rupture of diplomatic relations. No prosecution has taken place, but Libya has paid compensation to WPC Fletcher's family and recently allowed Scotland Yard to interview suspects in that country.
  • US president Ronald Reagan was convinced that Libya was responsible for the 1986 Berlin discotheque bombing – in which two American servicemen were killed and another 50 injured – and, in retaliation, ordered the bombing of Tripoli in Operation El Dorado Canyon. In 2001, a Libyan and two Palestinians were convicted and imprisoned by Berlin's Supreme Court, and in 2004 Gaddafi agreed to pay $35 million in compensation to the non-American victims of the Berlin bombing.
  • It was alleged that Libya carried out the September 19, 1989 bombing of French UTA Flight 772 over the Sahara Desert, because France at the time supported Libya's neighbour Chad in a border dispute. A Paris court convicted six Libyan nationals in absentia in 1999. With remarkable parallels to the Lockerbie trial, the Paris court heard that UTA Flight 772 was brought down by a Samsonite suitcase bomb triggered by a sophisticated timing device. However, according to French investigative journalist, Pierre Péan, it was a tiny PCB timer fragment, having supposedly been retrieved from the aircraft's wreckage in the desert, that allowed FBI investigators to pin the blame for the UTA Flight 772 bombing on Libya.
  • Libya supplied the Provisional Irish Republican Army (PIRA) with tonnes of Semtex —amongst other weapons. See also Provisional IRA arms importation#Libyan Arms.

Even though Libya never formally admitted responsibility for Pan Am Flight 103 or UTA Flight 772, Libya "accepted responsibility for the actions of its officials" and agreed to pay compensation to the relatives of the victims.

Lord Advocate's denial

In an address to a conference of law officers in August 2001 (seven months after the PA 103 verdict) the Scottish Lord Advocate, Lord Boyd, refuted any suggestion that Libya had been framed and denied that this was a politically-driven prosecution, instead blaming conspiracy theorists for such allegations:
"Conspiracy theorists have alleged that the investigators' move away from an interest in the PFLP-GC was prompted by political interference following a re-alignment of interests in the Middle East. Specifically it is said that it suited Britain and the United States to exonerate Syria and others such as Iran who might be associated with her and to blame Libya, a country which we know trained the IRA. Accordingly, evidence was 'found' which implicated Libya. This is best answered by looking at the evidence.
The Lord Advocate went on to list the various pieces of evidence found to prove that the PA 103 investigators' interest in Libya was "as a result of the evidence which was discovered and not as a result of any political interference in the investigation". He reiterated: "There is no evidence whatsoever to suggest that there was political interference. The investigation was evidence-led." Lord Boyd dealt with each piece of evidence, as follows:

  • Toshiba radio cassette fragment:

"evidence was obtained from Toshiba [by DERA's Alan Feraday] which showed that during October 1988 20,000 black Toshiba RT-SF 16 radio cassettes, the type used in the Pan Am bomb, were shipped to Libya. Of the total world-wide sales of that model 76% were sold to the General Electric Company's subsidiary in Libya, whose chairman was Said Rashid.[information added]"

  • Mebo timer fragment:

"In June 1990, with the assistance ultimately of the CIA and FBI, Alan Feraday of the Explosives Laboratory was able to identify the fragment as identical to circuitry from an MST-13 timer. It was already known to the CIA from an example seized in Togo in 1986 and photographed by them in Senegal in 1988. That took investigators to the firm of Mebo in Zurich. It was discovered that these timers had been manufactured to the order of two Libyans Ezzadin Hinshin, at the time director of the Central Security Organisation of the Libyan External Security Organisation and Said Rashid, then head of the Operations Administration of the ESO."

  • Clothing material:

"In September 1989 Tony Gauci, the shopkeeper, was interviewed by Scottish police officers. He convincingly identified a range of clothing which he had sold to a man sometime before Christmas 1988. Among the items he remembered selling were two pairs of Yorkie trousers, two pairs of striped pyjamas, a tweed jacket, a blue babygro, two slalom shirts collar size 16 and a half, two cardigans, one brown and one blue and an umbrella. He described the man, and subsequently identified him as Megrahi. More importantly at the time he was in no doubt that he was a Libyan."

Forensic science on trial

Warning against over-reliance upon forensic science to secure convictions, one of Britain's foremost criminal lawyers, Michael Mansfield QC, in the BBC Scotland Frontline Scotland TV programme Silence over Lockerbie, broadcast on October 14, 1997, said he wanted to make just one point:
"Forensic science is not immutable. They're not written in tablets of stone, and the biggest mistake that anyone can make—public, expert or anyone else alike—is to believe that forensic science is somehow beyond reproach: it is not! The biggest miscarriages of justice in the United Kingdom, many of them emanate from cases in which forensic science has been shown to be wrong. And the moment a forensic scientist or anyone else says: 'I am sure this marries up with that' I get worried."

A number of news media also investigated the bombing and the various theories that were put forward to explain it. One news team headed by Pierre Salinger accused the prosecution of disinformation, and of attempting to steer the investigation toward Libya.

Six alternative theories

Iran and the PFLP-GC

A number of journalists considered that the Iranian revenge motive (retaliation for the shooting down of the Iran Air Airbus by USS Vincennes) was prematurely dismissed by investigators. They drew attention to a comment by former British prime minister Margaret Thatcher in her 1993 memoirs, where she seemed to discount the Libya revenge motive (for the 1986 bombing of Tripoli and Benghazi by the United States air force):

"It turned out to be a more decisive blow against Libyan-sponsored terrorism than I could ever have imagined. ...There were revenge killings of British hostages organized by Libya, which I bitterly regretted. But the much-vaunted Libyan counter attack did not and could not take place... There was a marked decline in Libyan-sponsored terrorism in succeeding years" (Thatcher 1993, pp448-9).

For many months after the bombing, the prime suspects were the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine - General Command (PFLP-GC), a Damascus-based rejectionist group led by former Syrian army captain Ahmed Jibril. In a February 1986 press conference, Jibril warned:

"There will be no safety for any traveler on an Israeli or U.S. airliner" (Cox and Foster 1991, p28).

Secret intercepts are believed to have recorded the Iranian Revolutionary Guards (Pasdaran) in Baalbeck, Lebanon making contact with the PFLP-GC immediately after the downing of the Airbus. Jibril is alleged to have received $11 million from Iran (although a banking audit trail to confirm the payment has never been presented). The CIA allegedly intercepted a telephone call made two days after PA 103 by the Interior minister in Tehran to the Iranian embassy in Beirut, instructing the embassy to hand over the funds to Jibril and congratulating them on a successful operation.

A verifiable fact is that Jibril's right hand man, Hafez Dalkamoni, set up a PFLP-GC cell which was active in the Frankfurt and Neuss areas of West Germany in October 1988, two months before PA 103. During what Germany's internal security service, the Bundesamt für Verfassungsschutz (BfV), called Operation Herbstlaub (Operation Autumn Leaves), the BfV kept cell members under strict surveillance. The plotters prepared a number of improvised explosive devices (IEDs) hidden inside household electronic equipment. They discussed a planned operation in coded calls to Cyprus and Damascus: oranges and apples stood for detonating devices; medicine and pasta for Semtex explosive; and, auntie for the bomb carrier. One operative had been recorded as saying: "auntie should get off, but should leave the suitcase on the bus" (Duffy and Emerson 1990). The PFLP-GC cell had an experienced bomb-maker a Jordanian, Marwan Khreesat, to assist them. Khreesat made at least one IED inside a single-speaker Toshiba Bombeat 453 radio cassette recorder, similar to the twin speaker model RT-SF 16 Bombeat that was used to blow up PA 103. However, unlike the Lockerbie bomb with its sophisticated timer, Khreesat's IEDs contained a barometric pressure device that triggers a simple timer with a range of up to 45 minutes before detonation.

Unbeknown to the PFLP-GC cell, its bomb-maker Khreesat was a Jordanian intelligence service (GID) agent and reported on the cell's activities to the GID, who relayed the information to Western intelligence and to the BfV. The Jordanians encouraged Khreesat to make the bombs but instructed him to ensure they were ineffective and would not explode. (A German police technician would however be killed, in April 1989, when trying to disarm one of Khreesat's IEDs). Through Khreesat and the GID, the Germans learned that the cell was surveying a number of targets, including Iberia Flight 888 from Madrid to Tel Aviv via Barcelona, chosen because the bomb-courier could disembark without baggage at Barcelona leaving the barometric trigger to activate the IED on the next leg of the journey. The date chosen, Khreesat reportedly told his handlers, was October 30, 1988. He also told them that two members of the cell had been to Frankfurt airport to pick up Pan Am timetables.

Acting upon this intelligence, the German secret police moved in to arrest the PFLP-GC cell on October 26, raiding 14 apartments and arresting 17 men, fearing that to keep them under surveillance much longer was to risk losing control of the situation. Two cell members are known to have escaped arrest including Abu Elias, a resident of Sweden who, according to Prime Time Live (ABC News November 1989), was an expert in bombs sent to Germany to check on Khreesat's devices because of suspicions raised by Ahmed Jibril. Four IEDs were recovered, but Khreesat revealed later that a fifth device had been taken away by Dalkamoni before the raid, and was never recovered. The link to PA 103 was further strengthened when Khreesat told investigators that, before joining the cell in Germany, he had bought five Toshiba Bombeat cassette radios from a smugglers' village in Syria close to the border with Lebanon, and made practice IEDs out of them in Jibril's training camp 20km (12 miles) away. The bombs were inspected by Abu Elias, who declared them to be good work. What became of these devices is not known.

Some journalists such as Paul Foot and PA 103 relatives (Dr Jim Swire) believed that it was too stark a coincidence for a Toshiba cassette radio IED to have downed PA 103 just eight weeks after the arrest of the PFLP-GC cell in Frankfurt. Indeed, Scottish police actually wrote up an arrest warrant for Marwan Khreesat in the spring of 1989, but were persuaded by the FBI not to issue it because of his value as an intelligence source. In the following spring, the late King Hussein of Jordan arranged for Khreesat to be interviewed by FBI agent, Edward Marshman, and the former head of the FBI's forensic lab, Thomas Thurman, to whom he described in detail the bombs he had built. In the 1994 documentary film Maltese Double Cross, the author David Yallop speculated that Libyan and Iranian-paid agents may have worked on the bombing together; or, that one group handed the job over to a second group upon the arrest of the PFLP-GC cell members. The former CIA head of counter-terrorism, Vincent Cannistraro, who previously worked on the PA 103 investigation, was interviewed in the film and said he believed the PFLP-GC planned the attack at the behest of the Iranian government, then sub-contracted it to Libyan intelligence after October 1988, because the arrests in Germany meant the PFLP-GC was unable to complete the operation. Other supporters of this theory believed that whoever paid for the bombing arranged two parallel operations intended to ensure that at least one would succeed; or, that Jibril's cell in Germany was a red herring designed to attract the attention of the intelligence services, while the real bombers worked quietly elsewhere.

Iran and the London angle

Towards the end of the bombing trial, lawyers for Megrahi argued that the PA 103 bomb could have started its journey at Heathrow, rather than at Luqa Airport in Malta. The Boeing 747 that was destined to carry the 259 passengers and crew on the London-New York leg had arrived from San Francisco at noon on December 21, 1988, and stood unguarded on the tarmac for much of the period before PA 103's passengers began to board the aircraft after 17:00 (scheduled departure 18:00). The Iran Air terminal in Heathrow was adjacent to the Pan Am terminal, and the two airlines shared tarmac space. The lawyers invoked the 1990 Scottish Fatal Accident Inquiry and the evidence it heard that the baggage container AVE 4041, into which the bomb suitcase had been loaded, was left unsupervised at Heathrow for about forty minutes that afternoon.

Libya and Abu Nidal

Abu Nidal was widely regarded as the most ruthless international terrorist until that mantle was assumed by Osama bin Laden. Nidal (aka Sabri al-Banna) was reported to have died in a shoot-out in Baghdad on August 16, 2002. A former senior member of his group, Atef Abu Bakr, told journalists that shortly before his death Abu Nidal had confided to Bakr that he had orchestrated the PA 103 bombing.

After settling in Tripoli in 1985, Nidal and the Libyan leader Muammar Gaddafi allegedly became close, Gaddafi sharing what The Sunday Times called "Abu Nidal's dangerous combination of an inferiority complex mixed with the belief that he was a man of destiny.

According to Atef Abu Bakr, Gaddafi asked Nidal to coordinate with the head of Libyan intelligence, Abdullah al-Senussi, an attack on the U.S. in retaliation for the 1986 bombing of Benghazi and Tripoli. Nidal then organized the hijacking of Pan Am Flight 73 in Karachi on September 5, 1986 killing 22 passengers and wounding dozens of others. In August 1987, Abu Nidal allegedly tried again, this time using an unwitting bomb mule to carry a device on board a flight from Belgrade (airline unknown), but the bomb failed to explode. For PA 103, Senussi allegedly told Nidal to supply the bomb, and Libyan intelligence would arrange for it to be put on a flight. No evidence has been produced in support of these theories.

CIA-protected suitcase theory

A theory for which no evidence has been produced suggests that the U.S. Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) had set up a protected drug route from Europe to the United States—allegedly called Operation Corea—which allowed Syrian drug dealers, led by Monzer al-Kassar (who was involved with Oliver North in the Iran-Contra scandal) to ship heroin to the U.S. using Pan Am flights, in exchange for intelligence on Palestinian groups based in Syria. The CIA allegedly protected the suitcases containing the drugs and made sure they were not searched. On the day of the bombing, as the theory goes, terrorists exchanged suitcases: one with drugs for one with a bomb.

Another version of this theory is that the CIA knew in advance this exchange would take place, but let it happen anyway, because the protected drugs route was a rogue operation, and the American intelligence officers on PA 103 – Matthew Gannon and Maj. Charles McKee – had found out about it, and were on their way to Washington to tell their superiors.

The former version of the protected suitcase theory was suggested in October 1989 by Juval Aviv, the owner of Interfor Inc, a private investigation company based on Madison Avenue, New York. Aviv was a former Mossad officer who led the Operation Wrath of God team that assassinated a number of Palestinians who were believed to have been responsible for a massacre in 1972, when 11 Israeli Olympic athletes were killed by the Black September Palestinian group in Munich (see Munich massacre).

After PA 103, Aviv was employed by Pan Am as their lead investigator for the bombing. He submitted a report (the Interfor report) in October 1989, blaming the bombing on a CIA-protected drugs route (Barrons December 17, 1989). This scenario provided Pan Am with a credible defense against claims for compensation by relatives of victims, since, if the U.S. government had helped the bomb bypass Pan Am's security, the airline could hardly have been held liable. The Interfor report alleged inter alia that Khalid Jafaar, a Lebanese-American passenger with links to Hezbollah, had unwittingly brought the bomb on board thinking he was carrying drugs on behalf of Syrian drug dealers he supposedly worked for. However, the New York court, which heard the civil case lodged by the U.S. relatives, rejected the Interfor allegations for lack of evidence. Aviv was never interviewed by either the Scottish police or the FBI in connection with PA 103.

In 1990 the protected suitcase theory was given a new lease of life by Lester Coleman in his book Trail of the Octopus.. Coleman was a former journalist-turned-intelligence agent working with the Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA) while employed by Defense Intelligence Agency (DIA) in Cyprus. Coleman claimed to have seen Khalid Jafaar in the DEA office in Nicosia, Cyprus once again implying that Jafaar was a drugs mule, but this time for the DEA instead of Syrian drug dealers. Despite no evidence being advanced to support Coleman's claims, the theory gained some credence when British journalist Paul Foot wrote a glowing review of Coleman's book for the London Review of Books. But on March 31, 2004—four months before his death—Foot reverted to the orthodox Iran/PFLP-GC theory in an article he wrote for The Guardian entitled "Lockerbie's dirty secret. In 2003 former CIA Officer Edwin Wilson's sudden release from prison confirmed Coleman's claims that the CIA played a role in the bombing. A federal judge freed Wilson, ruling his 27 year incarceration was illegal, and that he was working for the CIA when he supplied Middle East terrorist cells with explosives, something the CIA had denied.

The previously-mentioned 1994 documentary film The Maltese Double Cross – Lockerbie, which included interviews with Lester Coleman and Juval Aviv, seemed to favour a hybrid version embracing both the CIA-protected suitcase and the drugs mule versions of the theory. Shortly after the film was broadcast by Channel 4 television on May 11, 1995 Aviv was indicted on fraud charges. Aviv was quick to claim that these were trumped-up charges, and in due course they were dropped. The film can be viewed on the internet here by scrolling down to Allan Francovich - The Maltese Double Cross.

Radio detonation

According to conspiracy theorist and self-styled private investigator Joe Vialls, who died in July 2005, the bomb on PA 103 was triggered not by a sophisticated timing device, but by the technique of radio detonation. The Vialls theory relies on the fact that each navigational beacon has its own unique radio frequency, which is usually in the range 108.0 to 117.95 megahertz (MHz) VHF. The Dean Cross beacon, shown at the bottom left of the map, marked the start of PA 103's final track on December 21, 1988. Maid of the Seas would then have been flying at about 500 mph between Dean Cross beacon and where it crashed on the town of Lockerbie, an overall distance of thirty two miles representing a point-to-point flight time of barely four minutes. As PA 103 passed overhead the Dean Cross beacon, a light would have flashed on in the cockpit alerting the pilots to change frequency in order to obtain permission for the Atlantic crossing from Shanwick Oceanic Control at Prestwick, Scotland. Using standard reaction times, according to Vialls, it would have taken between three and five minutes for the crew to be ready to communicate on the new frequency. In its PA 103 report, the Air Accident Investigation Branch (AAIB) stated:

"At 18.58 hrs the aircraft established two-way radio contact with Shanwick Oceanic Area Control on frequency 123.95 MHz. At 19.02:44 hrs the clearance delivery officer at Shanwick transmitted to the aircraft its oceanic route clearance. The aircraft did not acknowledge this message and made no subsequent transmission." The AAIB report continued: "The cockpit voice recorder tape was listened to for its full duration and there was no indication of anything abnormal with the aircraft, or unusual crew behaviour. The tape record ended, at 19.02:50 hrs ± 1 second, with a sudden loud sound on the cockpit area microphone channel followed almost immediately by the cessation of recording whilst the crew were copying their transatlantic clearance from Shanwick ATC.


The Vialls radio detonation theory can work in one of two different ways:

  • A command radio signal is simply sent to the target from the ground (or from another aircraft); or,
  • The command radio signal is generated within the target itself at a specific time based on known frequencies and flight routing.

Vialls cited the following example of how the Israelis used the technique of radio detonation:

In the late 1980s, Israeli intelligence managed to slip a new cellular phone to a Hamas leader. The phone had already been booby-trapped with Semtex explosive and a radio trigger. By carefully listening to the telephone frequencies, the Israelis were able to monitor the times when the Hamas leader actually had the cellular phone pressed to his ear. As soon as they were sure they had the right man, an Israeli pilot in an F15 Eagle sent a coded radio "squawk" to the cellular phone, which blew the Hamas leader's head off. Either of the two radio triggering techniques could have achieved the same result with this cellular phone bomb.

According to Vialls, the inside of a Boeing 747 is a Faraday cage, which would ensure that secondary emissions—from the captain's radio message to Shanwick Oceanic Control, for example—would be sufficient to activate the radio trigger of the bomb. Thus, the PA 103 bomb could have been triggered by an internally-generated command radio signal transmitted to or received from Shanwick. However, Vialls believed that the extent of the damage caused to the aircraft meant that the bomb was probably positioned close to the fuselage, rather than—as the prosecution maintained at the trial—being wrapped in clothing, packed in a suitcase and loaded inside a baggage container.The location of the bomb and its type have also been called into question by explosives engineer, John H. Parkes, who shortly after the crash was present at the scene. Parkes was not called as a witness at the trial but, in a 2006 interview in The Scotsman newspaper, he commented:

"Every munitions or explosives device has its own characteristic signature. The signature I saw was not consistent with the device they maintained was used."
Parkes believes that there might have been a cargo of munitions in the hold of the aircraft, and these could have been detonated by specific radio frequencies.

The radio detonation theory would probably rule out Libya from responsibility for the PA 103 bombing (although the Swiss firm Mebo – which was proven at the trial to have supplied sophisticated timing devices to Libya – actually fitted briefcases with the electronic equipment required to radio-detonate IEDs). Similarly, Syria and Iran – the other "usual suspects" and/or their sponsored terrorist groups – would have been unlikely to have had either the expertise or the technology to carry out a radio detonation. This leaves Israel, which originally developed the technique, and whose intelligence service, Mossad, Vialls himself blamed for the PA 103 bombing. This fitted with the general theme of Vialls's investigations: he blamed Israel and Mossad for a variety of international disasters and events, including the 2004 Asian Tsunami and the death of Diana, Princess of Wales. But Israel had no plausible motive for sabotaging PA 103. However, apartheid South Africa is alleged to have had such a motive, and this is examined below in the South-West Africa (Namibia) theory.

South-West Africa (Namibia)

According to another theory without evidence, apartheid South Africa was responsible for the sabotage of Pan Am Flight 103.

The theory is founded on three apparently unconnected facts:

The theory's chief proponent is former British diplomat, Patrick Haseldine, who was sacked on August 2, 1989 for, among other things, having accused the apartheid regime of responsibility for the Lockerbie bombing. In October 2007, Haseldine unsuccessfully called for a United Nations Inquiry into the death of Lockerbie bombing victim, UN Commissioner for Namibia, Bernt Carlsson.

A possible link with the previous radio detonation theory is also explored below.

Namibia independence agreement

At the Ronald Reagan/Mikhail Gorbachev summit of the leaders of the United States and the Soviet Union in Moscow (May 29-June 1, 1988), it was agreed that Cuban troops would leave Angola and Soviet military aid to Angola would cease as soon as South Africa withdrew from Namibia. The New York Accords, giving effect to these decisions, were signed at UN headquarters in New York City by representatives of Cuba, Angola and South Africa on December 22, 1988.

South African delegation

A Reuters news report of November 12, 1994 (pictured right) finally confirmed – after an interval of nearly six years – the early rumours that South Africa was closely linked to PA 103. A South African delegation of 23 negotiators, headed by foreign minister Pik Botha, arrived at London's Heathrow International Airport on December 21, 1988 en route to UN headquarters to sign an agreement relinquishing control of South-West Africa (Namibia) to the United Nations, as demanded by United Nations Security Council Resolution 435. The whole delegation – including the defence minister, General Magnus Malan, and the head of military intelligence, General C. J. Van Tonder – was booked for onward travel by flight PA 103. According to the Reuters report, their inward South African Airways (SAA) flight from Johannesburg had cut out a stopover in Frankfurt, which was SAA's European hub, and arrived early at Heathrow. The SA embassy in London managed to re-book Botha and six of his party on the 11:00 Pan Am 101 Flight to New York (according to the 1994 documentary film The Maltese Double Cross – Lockerbie). The German newspaper Die Zeit claimed that special security checks were then conducted on Botha's flight PA 101 at Heathrow —in keeping with standard practice for delegations of such size and importance (two cabinet ministers). These security measures were not extended to PA 103, because there would not be any need to since the flight no longer carried a delegation of government ministers. The remaining 16 negotiators cancelled their booking on PA 103 and returned by SAA to Johannesburg.

UN Commissioner for Namibia

On December 19, 1988 UN Commissioner for Namibia Bernt Carlsson left New York for an official visit to Brussels. After a speaking engagement in the European Parliament, Carlsson was expected to return from Brussels to New York on December 20, 1988. He would have been there in good time for the signing of the Namibia independence agreement at UN headquarters on December 22, but according to the Swedish newspaper iDAG of March 12, 1990, Carlsson had been pressured to stop off at short notice in London to meet with officials of the De Beers diamond mining conglomerate.

South Africa luggage swap theory

On December 21, 1988 Bernt Carlsson arrived at Heathrow from Brussels on flight BA 391 at 11:06 with a booking to travel onward to New York by flight PA 103 at 18:00. The UN Commissioner for Namibia was met at the airport by Bankole Timothy of De Beers and taken by car to London. After the meeting with De Beers, Carlsson was brought back to Heathrow Airport, arriving at about 17:30. Carlsson's already checked-in suitcase would have remained at Heathrow airport for about seven hours, thus providing South African airside-authorized personnel with ample opportunity to substitute it for the bomb suitcase. This is contrary to evidence given at the Pan Am Flight 103 bombing trial in 2000 which led the Judges to conclude that the so-called primary suitcase was introduced as unaccompanied baggage at Luqa Airport in Malta, conveyed by Air Malta flight KM180 to Frankfurt International Airport, transferred there onto feeder flight PA 103A to Heathrow Airport, loaded into the interline baggage container AVE 4041PA at Heathrow, and put on board PA 103 in the forward cargo hold. However, the fact that South African Airways incorrectly switched baggage at Heathrow on December 21, 1988 was confirmed by a Pan Am security officer, Michael Jones, at the Lockerbie fatal accident inquiry (FAI) in October 1990. Jones told the FAI a breach of aviation rules had been committed because the suitcase of South African passenger, Miss Nicola Hall, had been put on the earlier Pan Am 101 flight (with Pik Botha's delegation) whereas Miss Hall was booked – and died – on PA 103.

Making a link between theories

Conspiracy theorist Patrick Haseldine has suggested that, on instructions from the State Security Council, South African military intelligence operatives at Heathrow would have installed the bomb on PA 103 when it was confirmed that their target, Bernt Carlsson, was to join the flight at the last minute at Heathrow. According to the theory of radio detonation, this bomb would have been set to detonate when PA 103 contacted Shanwick Oceanic Control air traffic control in the vicinity of the Dean Cross radio navigational beacon.

PA 103 aftermath

According to the Swedish newspaper iDAG, within a week of the death of Bernt Carlsson on flight PA 103, his office safe at the United Nations had allegedly been broken into. Furthermore his apartment, which had been sealed by the UN's security staff, had also apparently been burgled. There is however no evidence linking the South African government to the burglary, not has any motive been provided.

Bomb making capability

The theory suggests that apartheid South Africa — at the time a regional superpower armed with nuclear weapons and with technologically-advanced aerospace companies such as Kentron and highly-qualified individuals such as the Coventry Four — would have had the expertise to design an improvised explosive device (IED) capable of bringing down an aircraft. This capability is however not rare or even advanced since it only consisted of explosives linked to a timing device. Such capabilities are possessed by many countries; even relatively underdeveloped nations such as Libya whose agents were convicted of this act, as well as the almost identical bombing of UTA Flight 772, only 9 months later, which used the same explosives, but a different timer.

The Electronic Magnetic Logistical Component (EMLC), a division of the SADF, developed such specialist weapons in the form of letter, car and briefcase bombs, as well as gadgets like umbrellas and radios. Moreover, the Directorate of Military Intelligence — with close links to Western intelligence agencies — would have been fully aware of the arrest of the PFLP-GC Frankfurt cell; the "Helsinki warning"; and, the motives of both Libya and Iran for revenge against the United States.

South Africa had however, not imported 700 tonnes of Semtex or the timers from Switzerland as Libya did, both of which had been used in this attack.

Flaws in theory

The South African-related theory does not consider the investigations and actions by the new ANC government following the 1994 general election. The Truth and Reconciliation Commission investigated a number of aircraft incidents looking for evidence of involvement by apartheid forces. However despite a mandate to investigate apartheid-era atrocities, the commission did not deem it necessary to devote any time investigating a South African connection with the Lockerbie bombing, nor did anyone apply for amnesty in this regard. Furthermore, Nelson Mandela subsequently played a key role in getting Libya to hand the two suspects over for trial, something he would not have done if his government had the slightest inkling of involvement by agents of the previous apartheid regime.

Some other deficiencies in this conspiracy theory are the following:

  1. There are much simpler and more specific ways of assassinating a single person. The South African government assassinated several overseas political opponents during this period (e.g. Ruth First, Dulcie September and David Webster), employing methods that specifically targeted these people individually by shooting or small explosive devices. These acts were mostly carried out by the Civil Cooperation Bureau or related operatives like Craig Williamson as they admitted and testified to at the Truth and Reconciliation Commission (South Africa).
  2. Blowing up a civilian airliner of a foreign superpower would draw an unnecessary scrutiny. The aircraft and most of the passengers were American and the United States was an ally of South Africa all through the Cold War, because South Africa fought against communist aligned expansion in Southern Africa, specifically Angola.
  3. Cancelling reservations and tickets for the same flight would obviously arouse suspicion as it clearly has amongst conspiracy theorists.
  4. The theoretical assassination plan would have a low chance of success:
    • A bomb had to be smuggled onto a commercial flight in a foreign country at short notice.
    • The target person had to be convinced to change to that specific flight (Carlsson was originally booked on a different flight).
  5. The official Scottish investigation into the bombing of Pan Am Flight 103 never pursued this theory
  6. The supposed advantages gained by Carlsson's death are negligible, as it had no effect whatsoever on the timetables laid down for Namibian independence:
    • Namibia independence agreement was still signed the following day, 22 December 1988.
    • The UN could have replaced Carlsson with another commissioner. Carlsson was the fourth United Nations Commissioner for Namibia and had only been serving for 18 months at the time of his death. South Africa had in any event not recognised any of the previous UN Commissioners.
    • South Africa did not attempt to kill any of Carlsson's three predecessors.
    • There is not clear motive for killing Carlsson on the day before signing the New York Accords when he had already been serving as Commissioner for 18 months.
    • UN Security Council Resolution 435 (of 1978) had always envisaged that a South African Administrator-General (AG) could, during a transition period, continue to operate but under the supervision of a UN Special Representative in Namibia (the UN eventually selected Martti Ahtisaari).
    • Namibian elections and independence also followed within months as agreed in the New York Accords, and in accordance with the time frames as laid down in UN Security Council Resolution 435 which stipulated a period of roughly seven months. The seven-month period commenced without delay on 1 April 1989 as decided by UN Security Council Resolution 629 (of January 1989).
  7. Documentaries such as that by American RadioWorks also have not included this theory in their investigations.

No motive has ever been presented for South Africa to kill Carlsson. Carlsson's death did not change the outcome or the time frame of the Namibian peace process either, since the New York Accord was signed and UN Resolution 435 and 629-—both implemented without delay—-had always called for a South African Administrator-General (AG) and a UN Special Representative.

Conclusion

In a special pre-trial report by American RadioWorks, the strengths and weaknesses of the case against Libya were explored. The report also examined in detail the evidence for and against the other main suspects in the first five alternative theories of this article. No evidence was offered in the report against either the radio detonation or the South Africa luggage swap theory.

Abdelbaset Ali Mohmed Al Megrahi was found guilty at the Pan Am Flight 103 bombing trial and his initial appeal was rejected in 2002, Libya continues to be held responsible for the Lockerbie bombing, and has paid $2.16 billion in compensation to the families of the 270 victims. However, as a result of a 4-year investigation by the Scottish Criminal Cases Review Commission (SCCRC), Megrahi was granted leave on June 28, 2007 to lodge a second appeal against his conviction.

The second appeal will be heard by five judges in 2008 at the Court of Criminal Appeal. A procedural hearing at the Appeal Court in Edinburgh took place on October 11, 2007 when prosecution and defence lawyers discussed legal issues with a panel of three judges. One of the issues concerns a number of CIA documents that were shown to the prosecution but were not disclosed to the defence. The documents are understood to relate to the Mebo MST-13 timer that allegedly detonated the PA103 bomb. A further procedural hearing at the Edinburgh Appeal Court is scheduled for December 20, 2007.

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