A Libyan intelligence operative charged in the 1988 bombing of an American jetliner over Lockerbie, Scotland, was arrested by the F.B.I. and is being extradited to the United States to face prosecution for one of the deadliest terrorist attacks in American history, officials said on Sunday.
The arrest of the operative, Abu Agila Mohammad Mas’ud, was the culmination of a decades-long effort by the Justice Department to prosecute him.
In 2020, Attorney General William P. Barr announced criminal charges against Mr. Mas’ud, accusing him of building the explosive device used in the bombing of Pan Am Flight 103, which killed 270 passengers, including 190 Americans.
Mr. Mas’ud faces two criminal counts, including destruction of an aircraft resulting in death. He was being held at a Libyan prison for unrelated crimes when the Justice Department unsealed the charges against him two years ago. It is unclear how the U.S. government negotiated the extradition of Mr. Mas’ud.
Mr. Mas’ud’s suspected role in the Lockerbie bombing received new scrutiny in a three-part documentary on “Frontline” on PBS in 2015. The series was written and produced by Ken Dornstein, whose brother was killed in the attack. Mr. Dornstein learned that Mr. Mas’ud was being held in a Libyan prison and even obtained pictures of him as part of his investigation.
“If there’s one person still alive who could tell the story of the bombing of Flight 103, and put to rest decades of unanswered questions about how exactly it was carried out — and why — it’s Mr. Mas’ud,” Mr. Dornstein wrote in an email after learning Mr. Mas’ud would finally be prosecuted in the United States. “The question, I guess, is whether he’s finally prepared to speak.”
After Qaddafi was ousted from power, Mr. Mas’ud confessed to the bombing in 2012, telling a Libyan law enforcement official that he was behind the attack. Once investigators learned about the confession in 2017, they interviewed the Libyan official who had elicited it, leading to charges.
Even though extradition would allow Mr. Mas’ud to stand trial, legal experts have expressed doubts about whether his confession, obtained in prison in war-torn Libya, would be admissible as evidence.
Mr. Mas’ud, who was born in Tunisia but has Libyan citizenship, was the third person charged in the bombing. Two others, Abdel Basset Ali al-Megrahi and Al-Amin Khalifa Fhimah, were charged in 1991, but American efforts to prosecute them ran aground when Libya declined to send them to the United States or Britain to stand trial.
Instead, the Libyan government agreed to a trial in the Netherlands under Scottish law. Mr. Fhimah was acquitted and Mr. al-Megrahi was convicted in 2001 and sentenced to life in prison.
In 2009, Scottish officials released Mr. al-Megrahi because he had prostate cancer, despite the strenuous objections of the families of the victims and of American officials, including President Barack Obama.
Mr. al-Megrahi died in 2012; his family posthumously appealed his conviction in Scotland, but last year a panel of judges refused to overturn it.
Prosecutors say that Mr. Mas’ud played a key role in the bombing, traveling to Malta and delivering the suitcase that contained the bomb used in the attack. In Malta, Mr. Megrahi and Mr. Fhimah instructed Mr. Mas’ud to set the timer on the device so it would blow up while the plane was in the air the next day, prosecutors said.
On the morning of Dec. 21, 1988, Mr. Megrahi and Mr. Fhimah met Mr. Mas’ud at the airport in Malta, where he turned over the suitcase. Prosecutors said Mr. Fhimah put the suitcase on a conveyor belt, ultimately ending up on Pan Am Flight 103.
Mr. Mas’ud’s name surfaced twice in 1988, even before the bombing took place. In October, a Libyan defector told the C.I.A. he had seen Mr. Mas’ud at the Malta airport with Mr. Megrahi, saying the pair had passed through on a terrorist operation.
Malta served as a primary launching point for Libya to initiate such attacks, the informant told the agency. That December, the day before the Pan Am bombing, the informant told the C.I.A. that the pair had again passed through Malta. Nearly another year passed before the agency asked the informant about the bombing.
But investigators never pursued Mr. Mas’ud in earnest until Mr. Megrahi’s trial years later, only for the Libyans to insist that Mr. Mas’ud did not exist. Mr. Megrahi also claimed he did not know Mr. Mas’ud.
A total of 270 people died in the Lockerbie bombing on 21 December 1988
A Libyan man accused of making the bomb which destroyed Pan Am flight 103 over Lockerbie 34 years ago is in United States custody, Scottish authorities have said.
The US announced charges against Abu Agila Masud two years ago, alleging that he played a key role in the bombing on 21 December, 1988. The blast on board the Boeing 747 left 270 people dead. It is the deadliest terrorist incident to have taken place on British soil.
All 259 passengers and crew on board the jumbo jet bound to New York from London died while another 11 people were killed in Lockerbie when wreckage destroyed their homes.
Last month it was reported that Masud had been kidnapped by a militia group in Libya, leading to speculation that he was going to be handed over to the American authorities to stand trial.
A US Justice Department spokesperson told the Reuters news agency that Masud would make an initial appearance in a federal court in Washington.
Five years ago he was serving a prison sentence in Libya for bomb-making.
In 2001 Abdelbaset al-Megrahi was convicted of bombing Pan Am 103 after standing trial at a specially-convened Scottish court in the Netherlands. He was the only man to be convicted over the attack. Megrahi was jailed for life but was released on compassionate grounds by the Scottish government in 2009 after being diagnosed with cancer. He died in Libya in 2012.
Newsnight’s Kirsty Wark recalls arriving at Lockerbie on the night of 21 December 1988
It is alleged that while in jail in Libya, Masud confessed to being involved in the conspiracy with Megrahi to blow up the flight.
Aamer Anwar, Megrahi’s lawyer, said Masud was actually in the custody of a war lord “widely condemned for human rights abuses” – he said the circumstances in which such a confession was extracted would be “strongly opposed” in any US or Scottish court.
Megrahi, who always proclaimed his innocence, launched two appeals against his 27-year sentence. One was unsuccessful and the other was abandoned. In the 34 years since Pan Am 103 was brought down, the story of the Lockerbie bombing has taken many twists and turns.
The prospect of a first Lockerbie trial, let alone a second, seemed extremely unlikely until Nelson Mandela brokered a deal which led to two Libyan suspects being handed over to a Scottish court sitting in the Netherlands. One of them was convicted of bombing the plane, but it was always the prosecution case that Abdelbaset al-Megrahi acted with others.
The collapse of Gaddafi’s regime in 2011 raised hopes that more suspects could be brought before a court until the country fell back into violent political instability.
In 2020, the outgoing US Attorney General William Barr announced charges against Abu Agila Masud and behind the scenes, prosecutors at the Crown office, detectives from Police Scotland and their US counterparts continued to work on the case.
The announcement that Masud is now in US custody means a second trial over the biggest mass murder in British legal history could now happen, under American rather than Scots law. But many challenges lie ahead, not least the legal status of Masud’s alleged confession when he was held in prison in Libya. Its contents also appear to undermine and strengthen the prosecution case against Megrahi. As ever with this story, it’s wise to expect the unexpected.
A spokesperson for the Crown Office and Procurator Fiscal Service (COPFS) said: “The families of those killed in the Lockerbie bombing have been told that the suspect Abu Agila Mohammad Mas’ud Kheir Al-Marimi (“Mas’ud” or “Masoud”) is in US custody. “Scottish prosecutors and police, working with UK government and US colleagues, will continue to pursue this investigation, with the sole aim of bringing those who acted along with Al Megrahi to justice.”
Police Scotland said it remained “deeply committed” to the investigation and to supporting the families and communities who suffered such devastating losses.
A spokesperson added: “We continue to work closely with the Crown Office and Procurator Fiscal Service in Scotland, along with our partners within the UK government and the authorities in the United States, in supporting the continued pursuit of justice against those responsible”
- 21 December 1988 – Pan Am flight 103 is destroyed by a bomb over the southern Scottish town of Lockerbie.
- US and British investigators indicted Megrahi in 1991 but he was not handed over by the Libyans until April 1999.
- May 2000 – A special trial under Scots law starts on neutral ground at Camp Zeist in the Netherlands.
- 31 January 2001 – Former Libyan intelligence officer Megrahi is found guilty of mass murder and jailed for life with a minimum term of 27 years.
- March 2002 – Megrahi loses an appeal against his conviction.
- September 2003 – The Scottish Criminal Cases Review Commission (SCCRC) is asked to investigate Megrahi’s conviction.
- June 2007 – The SCCRC recommends that Megrahi is granted a second appeal against his conviction.
- 18 August 2009 – Megrahi’s move to drop his second appeal is accepted by judges at The High Court in Edinburgh.
- 20 August 2009 – Megrahi, who has terminal prostate cancer, is released from prison on compassionate grounds.
- May 2012 – Megrahi dies at his home in Tripoli, aged 60.
- July 2015 – Scottish judges rule that relatives of the Lockerbie bombing victims should not be allowed to pursue an appeal on Megrahi’s behalf. Courts had previously ruled that only next of kin could proceed with a posthumous application.
- July 2017 – Megrahi’s family launched a new bid to appeal against his conviction.
- March 2020 – The Scottish Criminal Case Review Commission said Megrahi’s conviction can be taken to a fresh appeal.
- November 2020 – Five Scottish judges hear the third appeal against Megrahi’s conviction on grounds of possible miscarriage of justice