Al Megrahi - Lockerbie Bomber or hapless fall guy?
The hero's welcome that has greeted the return of the convicted Lockerbie bomber Abdulbaset Ali Al Megrahi to his native Libya has sparked outrage in the US.
With the Scottish justice secretary Kenny MacAskill playing the villain-in-chief, America's less than diplomatic rhetoric has shown that the release of such a notorious figure threatens the stability of Britain's "special relationship" with our transatlantic cousins.
Megrahi has less than three months to live, but his release could have long term implications for the British government and our role in the American "war on terror" that so consumes the superpower's foreign policy.
While no-one in Edinburgh, London or Washington is openly questioning Megrahi's guilt, maybe they should be.
The bombing of Pan Am Flight 103, and the incumbent loss of 270 lives, the vast majority of those being US citizens, still represents the single worst terrorist act in the UK.
That Libya and the despotic Colonel Gaddafi are behind the crime seems possible but by no means certain, with conspiracy theorists raising questions about links between the bombing and other state terror sponsors including Iran and Syria.
However, while Megrahi is the convicted, tried and imprisoned "face" of the atrocity, there are major questions about the evidence that convicted him and whether or not he is a patsy presented to appease the US by a remorseful yet unbowed Libya.
Other theories about the bombing of Pan Am flight 103 include suggestions that the aircraft was downed by Palestinian militants backed by Hizbollah, or even that the CIA was responsible for the attack to hide a drug smuggling route it had established from Europe into the US.
The diplomatic furore over Megrahi's release will surely settle down, but questions about what really happened at Lockerbie are set to continue for generations to come.
The Official Story
On the evening of 21 December 1988, residents in the sleepy Scottish town of Lockerbie were safely tucked up beside their fireplaces watching TV and enjoyed family meals ahead of Christmas.
At 7.03pm the tranquillity of the bitterly cold evening was ripped apart as 10,000ft above, a bomb exploded aboard Pan Am flight 103, ripping a whole in the clipper's fuselage and sending the flaming aircraft crashing into the tiny town.
Within hours, it became clear to accident investigators that this was no mechanical fault and that the case before them was the result of Britain's worst ever terrorist act.
Suspicion immediately fell on Middle Eastern Islamist groups, with the tactics seemingly out of step with those of domestic terror organisations such as the IRA.
At the time, Libya was one of the world's most dangerous "rogue nations" on the planet, acting as a state sponsor of terror, and providing training for everyone from the Palestinian Liberation Organisation to Irish Republican militants.
Perhaps motivated by the US air raids which had targetted Tripoli two years earlier, or the protracted naval battles that took place between Libya and the US throughout the 1980s, Gaddafi's men are officially "credited" with orchestrating an attack against the Pan Am flight.
When the Federal Aviation Authority (FAA) and the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) completed their investigation they came up with the names of two Libyan intelligence officers Abdelbaset Ali Al Megrahi and Lamin Khalifah Fhimah.
For more than a decade Gaddafi defied the international community, and cost his nation billions of dollars in UN trade sanctions, by refusing to hand over the two men to the Scottish or American authorities.
Finally, in 1999, after back room diplomacy involving then foreign secretary Robin Cook and South African leader Nelson Mandela, the two suspects were handed over to face a trial in Holland under Scottish law.
Megrahi, a former security official with the Libyan Arab Airlines based in Malta, was convicted largely on the evidence of Maltese clothes shop owner Tony Gauci, who said he sold the bomber the clothes which were found wrapped around the bomb in the Samsonite suitcase that was used to smuggle it on board Flight 103.
The suitcase bomb was supposedly loaded onto the plane in Malta by Megrahi, and then detonated using an intricate remote device, fragments of which were found in the Scottish countryside around Lockerbie.
The discovery of fragments from a Toshiba Bombeat cassette player and a timing device made by Swiss firm Mebo, which formed the key components of the bomb which brought down Flight 103, were used as evidence against the Libyan.
No forensic evidence was ever presented to prove that Megrahi handled the bomb or detonated the explosives.
His appeals against his conviction were turned down, despite support from leading Scottish lawyers and barristers who visited Megrahi and heard his protestations that he was an innocent man framed for a heinous crime.
On 20 August 2009, the dying Megrahi was released from prison in Scotland, and received a hero's welcome as he flew home to Libya aboard Colonel Gaddafi's private jet.
The Conspiracy Theory
There are so many threads to the conspiracies that whirl around the Lockerbie bombing investigation that any detailed examination of the evidence inevitably leads to more questions than answers.
The main plank underpinning most of these theories is that Megrahi was framed, either by Gaddafi to protect those truly responsible for the attack, by the CIA and MI6 to implicate Libya, or by a rival Islamist group from Palestine, Syria or Iran.
Megrahi's trial raises serious questions about whether or not he had any involvement in the bombing, and more than one appeal has fallen on sympathetic ears in Scotland.
No forensic evidence was presented to the three judge panel that found him guilty, and the prosecution case hung on the less-than-reliable account of a Maltese shopkeeper allegedly paid off by the CIA to finger Megrahi as the terrorist.
Bomb fragment evidence also appeared to have been tampered with, as a Swiss engineer, Ulrich Lumpert, later confessed to stealing part of a circuit board that had been sold in bulk to Libya and handing it over to one of the Lockerbie investigators, presumably to be used in a "frame up" of Megrahi.
Indeed so little evidence was produced that the consensus of opinion in the media during his trial was that Megrahi would have to be acquitted, and it was something of a surprise when he was found guilty of 270 counts of murder by the Scottish court sitting at Camp Zeist in Holland in January 2001.
In 2007 the Scottish Criminal Cases Review Commission (SCCRC) found evidence that Megrahi might have "suffered a miscarriage of justice" and recommended that he be granted a second appeal, which was later turned down.
While he remains a convicted mass murderer, Megrahi has all the hallmarks of a man set up to take the fall for someone else's crime. But if we accept the premise that the Libyan may be innocent, the plot only thickens from there.
The three other main theories to explain the Lockerbie Bombing are:
1. Iran organised the attack in retribution for the downing of its own commercial jetliner by a US ship in 1988
2. Notorious terror mastermind Abu Nidal blew up the US plane at the instruction of Gaddafi, with Megrahi handed over as the fall guy
3. The CIA orchestrated the bombing to wipe out rogue agents and eradicate the evidence of a secret drug smuggling route into the US
If Libya was not behind the bombing then a combination of Syrian, Iranian and Palestinian Islamic terror groups are the most likely culprits.
Suspicion initially fell on ex-Syrian army captain Ahmed Jibril and his Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine - General Command (PFLP-GC), who had warned in 1986 that "There will be no safety for any traveller on an Israeli or US airliner".
Backed by Iranian money Jibril is thought to have been determined to bring down a US plane following the shooting down of Iran Air Flight 655 by the USS Vincennes in July 1988, which cost 254 Iranian lives.
A PFLP-GC cell in Frankfurt, where Pan Am Flight 103 originated, was set up in October under the stewardship of bomb maker Marwan Khreesat, who specialised in making similar IED explosives to the ones that were used to carry out the Lockerbie bombing.
The second theory features Osama Bin Laden's predecessor as the world's most wanted terrorist. Abu Nidal was the poster child of early Jihadist missions against airliners, carrying out the hijacking of Pan Am Flight 73 in Karachi which killed passengers and wounded 150 others.
He was reportedly told to produce the timer device that triggered the Lockerbie bomb, and then handed it over to Gaddafi's head of intelligence to carry out the plot.
The CIA drug smuggling theory has attracted more derision from critics, but the presence of four US intelligence operatives on Flight 103 means it cannot be totally discounted.
According to sources close to the intelligence agency, in the 1980s the CIA had established Operation Corea, a protected drug smuggling route to allow Syrian narcotics dealers to transport heroin to the US aboard Pan Am flights in exchange for information on terrorist groups operating in the Middle East.
Pan Am's lead investigator into the crash, ex-Mossad agent Juval Aviv, claims the CIA protected the drug filled suitcases from airport security and that the terrorists who targetted Pan Am Flight 103 had simply swapped one of these cases for a bomb-filled piece of luggage.
The lack of evidence linking Megrahi to the bombing suggests that while none of these conspiracies may have actually taken place, the version of events presented to the Scottish court that convicted him is just one in a long line of implausible scenarios as to what really happened at Lockerbie.
- Huge question marks hang over the bomb fragment evidence used at Megrahi's trial. Edwin Bollier, owner of the Swiss company Mebo which produced the circuit board used in the attack, later revealed he was offered $4 million to testify that fragments of the timer were consistent with devices that were sold to Gaddafi. And Mebo employee Ulrich Lumpert, who gave evidence at Megrahi's trial, later swore before a Swiss court that he had lied under oath and stolen parts of the MST-13 timer circuit board presented to the Lockerbie panel and handed them to a US investigator in 1989.
- The fragments of timer device found deep in the Scottish countryside were an amazing stroke of luck for investigators scouring a huge and heavily wooded area for miniscule pieces of physical evidence. Had Megrahi been allowed a second appeal, his legal team planned to argue that no explosive residue was found on the circuit board remains, suggesting they were planted.
- There were four American CIA operatives heavily-linked to Middle Eastern troublespots aboard Pan Am 103 when it was brought down. These men included Matthew Gannon, the deputy CIA station chief for Beirut in Lebanon. They would have known about any protected drug smuggling routes and could have been heading home to blow the whistle.
- The evidence presented by Tony Gauci, the chief prosecution witness, appears to be unsafe, and he changed his account of events on several occasions during the police investigation, once after seeing a news report which picture Megrahi. At one stage he even identified a leading Palestinian terror kingpin as the man who brought clothes from his store. Reports have also surfaced that he was paid off with $2 million to testify against Megrahi.
- Bomb maker and double agent Marwan Khreesat made five bombs out of Toshiba Bombeat Cassette players, similar to the one that exploded on Pan Am 103, which were handed over to Ahmed Jibril's PFLP-GC terror organisation and never recovered. Some Lockerbie relatives, including Dr Jim Swire who maintains that Megrahi was not behind the attack, believe the similarities between the devices points directly to Iran and Syria as architects of the bombing.
- Megrahi has consistently protested his innocence, even when it seemed pointless to do so, and has been backed by some of the Lockerbie relatives, and leading lights from the Scottish judicial system. Even the SCCRC, when hearing his appeal found grounds for a second appeal and evidence that a miscarriage of justice may have taken place.
- Megrahi only dropped his appeals against his conviction when forced to in order to return home. This action sees him remain the convicted "face" of the bombing, while awkward questions that haunt US and British security services will remain unanswered.
- The British government has refused to hold an independent inquiry into the bombing which would allow questions over the identity of the terrorists behind the atrocity to be debated, and mean that all the evidence used by prosecutors would be made available to the public.
- The US embassy in Helsinki was allegedly contacted 16 days before the Lockerbie bombing with a coded warning that terrorists planned to use a bomb to target a US plane from Frankfurt to America. The intelligence was never acted upon, supporting the theory the US may have allowed the attack to happen in order to eliminate the CIA agents that were about to blow the whistle on Operation Corea.
- The Libyan government has paid more than $2 billion into a fund to compensate the victims of the Lockerbie bombing, effectively taking the blame for the attack.
- Megrahi has dropped his appeal against his conviction, but remains convinced he will be exonerated.
- Through his role as an intelligence officer working in the airline industry, Megrahi was ideally placed to deliver the bomb to the Pan Am flight, and had the expertise to hide it from airport security.
The decision to free Al Megrahi on compassionate grounds has simply reignited public anger over the bungled official investigation into the Lockerbie bombing. A close look at the evidence, or lack of it, shows clearly that this Libyan father-of-five is nothing more than a fall guy. Whether it was a CIA drug smuggling operation gone bad, an act of terror by Iran or a simple intelligence failure by US officials, the real story behind the downing of Flight 103 has not yet been told. The amount of evidence linking the Iran/Syria backed PFLP-GC to the bombing is hard to ignore, and though Tripoli has effectively accepted responsibility, it seems the real finger of blame should be pointing squarely towards Tehran.....