By Fred Burton

Thirty years ago, pieces of Pan Am Flight 103, a Boeing 747-121 that was carrying 243 passengers and 16 crew — rained down on the village of Lockerbie, turning the picturesque Scottish town into a fiery scene of horror.

The jumbo jet had broken apart in midair after a bomb in a suitcase in its hold detonated at 31,000 feet, sending flaming wreckage plummeting onto houses below.

It’s estimated that only two minutes elapsed between the device detonating and the debris slamming into Lockerbie. Everyone on the plane died, as did 11 people on the ground.

The intense investigation that followed concluded that the improvised explosive device that brought the flight down on Dec. 21, 1988 had been built and placed aboard the aircraft by Libyan intelligence agents and provided evidence that the attack had been ordered by Libya.

Beyond the emotional pain suffered by the friends and families of the victims, the disaster helped transform air travel, for better or worse.

Pan American Airways, which faced lawsuits and bad publicity over its failure to prevent the bomb from being placed aboard the plane, took a financial and public relations hit.

The venerable airline, considered by some the unofficial international flag carrier of the United States, would cease operations just a few years later. But, perhaps most importantly, the bombing and the way it had been carried out provided a watershed moment in the approach to air travel security.

A Personal Toll

As I’ve written here in the past and in my memoir Ghost: Confessions of a Counterterrorism Agent, the case was immediately very personal.

Danny O’Connor and Ron Lariviere, two fellow Diplomatic Security Service special agents who were returning to the United States on leave for the holidays, perished in the tragedy.

Maj. Chuck McKee of the Defense Intelligence Agency and Matt Gannon, the brother of another DSS agent, were also among the victims.

I played a small part in the investigation. The DSS assigned me to chase down a theory that the bombing might have been an attempt to assassinate the U.S. ambassador to Lebanon, who had been booked on the doomed flight but missed his plane. That theory did not pan out.

Eventually, however, FBI bomb technicians pieced together a picture of what happened, linking the device directly to Libya.

By a strange irony, the FBI laboratory in Washington identified that the circuit board used in the bomb’s timer was identical to one that came from a timer that one of my colleagues in the DSS Counterterrorism Investigations Division had recovered from an arms cache while investigating a Libyan-sponsored coup attempt in Lome, Togo, in 1986 and then submitted to the FBI lab for analysis.

Before the bombing, I had investigated two Libyan-backed attacks on U.S. diplomats in Sanaa, Yemen, and Khartoum, Sudan, so the Libyan angle was not surprising, but the agents’ deaths still delivered a gut punch to everyone at the State Department.

A Sea Change in Security

From an aviation security perspective, we have come a very long way since that horrible night in 1988. Although Gadhafi is no longer around to plot the demise of U.S. airliners, the threat to civilian aviation is still quite active.

But today, in response to tragedies like Pan Am 103 and the 9/11 attacks, the approach to security has fundamentally shifted. While measures have evolved to keep pace with the risks, the task remains herculean, even with the use of robust and sophisticated technology.

Some security screenings are readily visible to anyone who travels: Every piece of checked and carry-on luggage is scanned for indications that a bomb may be hidden inside.

Other systems focus on the passengers themselves, searching for evidence of explosives secreted on or within a traveler’s body. Where security arrangements were once left to individual airlines, they are now handled by employees of the U.S. Transportation Security Agency, which uses comprehensive databases to track and map luggage to passengers.

The security that the average air passenger doesn’t see is even more impressive. Intelligence checks are run on every passenger on a flight manifest, especially those traveling into and out of the United States.

Analysts identify high-risk flights and routes that warrant special intelligence assistance, including the discreet deployment of federal air marshals to thwart possible threats on board, such as a hijacking. Behind the secure doors, technology enhancements are in place including cameras, technology and software to detect preoperational surveillance.

These systems are plugged into the national intelligence assets and enhanced with information gathered by monitoring of human, communications and electronic intelligence.

Security planners know that groups like al Qaeda remain fixated on bringing down an airliner, therefore, international collection efforts are centered on uncovering aviation-related plots. This laser focus did not exist at the time of the Pan Am 103 bombing, nor did the supporting infrastructure.

Sadly, I’ve learned over the years that too often it takes tragedy to force change in the security arena. Rather than being proactive, governments for the most part are reactive, waiting until a failure reveals a security vulnerability rather than thinking outside the box in an effort to prevent the next disaster.

The Pan Am 103 bombing shined a spotlight on the horrible human costs of failing to screen luggage for bombs, leading to the implementation of a procedure that seems so routine today.


Fred Burton is one of the world’s foremost authorities on security and terrorism. He oversees Stratfor’s analysis of global security developments and consults with clients on security-related issues affecting their business assets or personal safety. He also guides the firm’s coverage of situations involving terrorism, hostages, hijackings and plane crashes. Before joining Stratfor, Mr. Burton served as a counterterrorism agent with the U.S. State Department from 1985 to 1999.


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