Outgoing U.S. Attorney General William Barr on Monday announced criminal charges against a new suspect in the 1988 terrorist bombing of a Pan Am airliner that exploded over Lockerbie, Scotland.
The charges against Abu Agela Masud, a former senior Libyan intelligence officer and bomb maker, came on the 32nd anniversary of the bombing that killed 270 people in what remains the worst terrorist attack in British history and the second worst in U.S. history after the attacks of September 11, 2001.
“Our message to other terrorists around the world is this — you will not succeed — if you attack Americans, no matter where you are, no matter how long it takes, you will be pursued to the ends of the earth until justice is done,” Barr said at a press conference at the Justice Department
Barr said the case “holds special significance” for him because he was attorney general in the administration of President George H. W. Bush in 1991 when U.S. and Scottish authorities charged two other Libyan intelligence officials in the terrorist attack.
Libya initially denied any involvement in the plot. But facing intense international pressure and diplomacy, it agreed in 1999 to hand over the two suspects to the Netherlands where they stood trial in a special sitting of a Scottish court.
One of the two men, Abdel Baset Ali al-Megrahi, was convicted and sentenced to life in prison in 2001. He was released on humanitarian grounds in 2009 because he had cancer and later died. The second man, Lamen Khalifa Fhimah, was acquitted.
In 2003, the regime of Muammar Qaddafi accepted responsibility for the attack and later paid $2.7 billion to the victims’ families.
Barr said the breakthrough in the latest case came when law enforcement authorities learned in 2016 that Masud had been arrested after the collapse of Qaddafi’s regime in 2011 and interviewed by a Libyan law enforcement officer in September 2012.
According to a criminal complaint affidavit unsealed Monday, Masud built the bomb that destroyed the Pan Am aircraft and worked with the other two co-conspirators to carry out the plot.
The affidavit alleges that the bombing had been ordered by Libyan intelligence and that after the attack Qaddafi “had thanked Masud for the successful attack on the United States.”
The bombing of the New York-bound Pan Am Flight 103 killed 270 people, including 259 passengers and 11 people on the ground. The victims included 35 Syracuse University students returning home for the holidays from a semester abroad. Citizens of 21 countries were killed in the attack.
The bombing was an apparent retaliation for U.S. airstrikes against Libya ordered by President Ronald Reagan in response to the 1986 bombing of a Berlin nightclub frequented by American servicemen.
Masud was allegedly involved in the discotheque attack, which killed two American service members and a Turkish woman, according to the complaint.
Masud remains in Libyan custody, and Barr said he hoped that Libyan authorities will hand him over to stand trial in the United States.
“At long last, this man responsible for killing Americans and many others will be subject to justice for his crimes,” Barr said.
Kara Weipz, whose brother Rick Monetti died on the flight, said the victims’ families felt “justified” and “vindicated.”
“The motto of the family members over the past 32 years has been ‘The truth must be known,’” Weipz, who is president of the Victims of Pan Am Flight 103, Inc, said at the press conference.
“Today confirms what we believed to be true and a step forward in holding all those responsible for the murder of 270 innocent people on this day in 1988.”
Masud’s role in the bombing plot was highlighted in an investigative PBS series by filmmaker Ken Dornstein, whose brother David Dornstein, died in the Pan Am bombing.
After al-Megrahi’s release in 2009, Dornstein “set out on a quest for answers,” learning during the course of his investigation that Masud may have played a role in the bombing and was still alive, according to an account of Dornstein’s investigation by PBS.
A former FBI agent told Dornstein that the FBI knew about Masud but could never identify him, according to PBS.