When it was announced on Monday that the US Justice Department had taken custody of Libyan citizen Abu Agila Mohammad Mas’ud Kheir Al-Marimi, it reopened wounds and reanimated ghosts from close to 34 years in the past, when an unimaginable horror was visited on a small town in Dumfries & Galloway. As Dunblane would experience eight years later, on one December afternoon Lockerbie was thrust to worldwide fame and, simultaneously, reduced to a byword for tragedy.

It was a hole just 50cm across that brought down Pan Am flight 103. Shortly after 7pm on December 21 1988, a Toshiba cassette player stored in a brown Samsonite suitcase exploded. It had contained no more than 450g of Semtex, but it was enough to punch the fatal hole into the left side of the aircraft. At 7.02pm the cockpit voice recorder picked up a loud noise which would be its final testament. The aircraft accident report attributes the sound in cold, scientific language to “the break-up of the aircraft structure”. That small hole had been enough to create a massive pressure imbalance, ripping the fuselage of the Boeing 747 asunder. There was no time for a distress call.

Within three seconds the nose of the plane had sheared off, after eight there were pieces of aircraft scattered over a mile around. Then, 47 seconds after the initial explosion, the wing section of the plane, filled with jet fuel, struck Sherwood Crescent, Lockerbie.

Residents described its approach as a rumbling of deafening thunder, the impact made a crater of more than 500 cubic metres. The fuselage struck 13 Sherwood Crescent at more than 500mph. The bodies of its two residents, Maurice and Dora Hendry, would never be recovered. Nine others were killed on the street, their ages ranging from 10 to 82.

The people on the flight never stood a chance. It was, the Air Accidents Investigation Branch concluded in their dry fashion, ‘not survivable’. All 16 crew were killed, as were their 243 passengers. Most were British or American but 19 other nationalities were on board, among them four Hungarians, two Italians, a Belgian - all headed for the City of Dreams. Within days Lockerbie residents would be ladling out soup to their bereaved relatives at 24 hour canteens.


The first suspect was an American citizen named Jaswant Basuta. He'd been in Belfast for a family wedding and was flying home to New York having checked in two baggage items.

After one too many drinks in the airport bar though he missed PA103 - and found himself under interrogation when the plane went down with his bags on board.

That went against regulations, a fatal accident inquiry later found, and had staff removed the bags the Semtex bomb may have exploded on the tarmac or at a lower altitude, reducing the death toll.

The investigation was a painstaking process. More than 1,000 police officers and soldiers combed the countryside for months on end looking for anything that could help them reconstruct the events of the day. A fragment of the timer used to detonate the bomb was found by officers crawling on their hands and knees.

It matched the apparatus seized from a Libyan intelligence agent, Mohammad al-Marzouk, who had been arrested in Senegal 10 months before the fatal Pan Am flight. The timer was manufactured by a Swiss company called Mebo, who had supplied 20 of the devices to Libya in 1985, and they identified a business contact - Abdelbaset al-Megrahi.

Megrahi was the director of security for Libyan Arab Airlines, as well as allegedly being part of the Libyan intelligence services, and in 1991 was indicted along with an alleged co-conspirator, Al-Amin Khalifah Fhimah. No extradition treaty existed between either the UK or the US and Libya, who refused to surrender the two men. The African nation insisted it would detain the pair and put them on trial in Tripoli, but only if all evidence was provided to them. A decade of legal toing-and-froing followed before academic Professor Robert Black of the University of Edinburgh proffered an acceptable solution: a trial to be held under Scots law, in a neutral country.

A special court was set up at the disused US air base of Camp Zeist in the Netherlands, presided over by three senior Scottish judges. The prosecution case was based on the theory that Libyan leader Muammar Gaddafi had ordered the bombing as revenge for the 1986 US bombing of Tripoli and Benghazi in which his daughter was killed. Libya formally admitted responsibility in 2003 in return for the lifting of sanctions, but Gaddafi denied having personally ordered the attack.

The case against Megrahi and Fhimah rested on three key pieces of evidence. First was the sale by Mebo of the timers to Libya, with executives from the Swiss company called to testify. The second concerned clothes recovered and linked to the suitcase, which Megrahi was accused of having purchased in Malta. Thirdly, a former LAA colleague, Abdulmajid Gialka, was to testify he’d seen the bomb loaded into the suitcase. The two were charged with 270 counts of murder, as well as conspiracy to murder and breach of the Aviation Security Act.

The Crown alleged that Megrahi had purchased clothes in Malta, with he and Fhimah using them to disguise the cassette player loaded with the bomb. The unaccompanied suitcase was then loaded on Air Malta flight KM180 from Luqa Airport - where Fhimah had been the station manager for LAA and retained a security pass - to Frankfurt, transferred to Pan Am flight PA103A, a feeder flight, which carried it to London Heathrow Airport, and that there, in turn, it was transferred to the aircraft which was destroyed over Lockerbie.

HeraldScotland: Lockerbie disaster, copyright Newsquest

The matter of the suitcase proved controversial, with Pan Am and security company Alert receiving criticism from some quarters for not having detected the bomb.

On 18 November 1988, the Federal Aviation Administration had issued a bulletin with a detailed description of a Toshiba radio cassette player which had been discovered in the car of a member of the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine and had been rigged to explode.

The fatal accident inquiry found that bags from the feeder flight "were not counted or weighed so as to check that they corresponded to the baggage checked in at Frankfurt by passengers proceeding to New York" and hadn't been x-rayed at Heathrow.

It's likely the bags would have been x-rayed at Frankfurt - operator Kurt Maier didn't testify at trial but told investigators he had scanned the baggage - but as 'interline' baggage would not have been matched to a passenger. In addition, there were "limitations" in detecting explosives within electronic equipment

The evidence against the two accused wasn’t exactly watertight. The clothing contained in the brown suitcase was found to have been purchased at Mary's House in Sliema, Malta. One of the owners, Tony Gauci, testified that he had sold clothes to a Libyan man around two weeks before Christmas. Gauci initially told investigators that the man was ‘over 6ft’ (Megrahi was 5ft 8in) and maintained it had been raining when the customer visited the shop. Meteorological records could not rule out a light shower, but it was “90 per cent there was no rain”. He also failed to consistently identify Megrahi and was later described by former Lord Advocate Lord Fraser of Carmville as “an apple short of a picnic”.

In their verdict the judges admitted that Guaci had not made “an absolutely positive identification” but concluded “his identification so far as it went... was reliable and should be treated as a highly important element in this case”.

HeraldScotland: Lockerbie bomb trial prosecution witness, shopkeeper Tony Gauci

In the matter of the timer, Mebo’s Edwin Bollier, Erwin Meister and Ulrich Lumpert were called to testify. In the opinion of the judges “all three, and notably Mr Bollier, were shown to be unreliable witnesses”.

Bollier and Meister claimed to have seen a timer which had been set to a time and date which would coincide with the Lockerbie bombing, despite said timer being unable to display any such readings. Bollier had typed a false letter on a Spanish typewriter accusing two Libyan men and had it delivered to the US embassy, which he blamed on having been accosted by a mysterious stranger from the security services of an unspecified country. This was dismissed as belonging to a “spy thriller”, as was his claim that fake Mebo timers were being manufactured in Florida by the CIA. He was also found to have consistently hidden the fact that five timers had been supplied to the East German Stasi, as well as to Libya, but it was accepted based on corroborating evidence that Mebo had indeed sold timers to the Arab nation.

Finally, the evidence of Gialka proved flimsy. He had been a junior member of the Libyan intelligence services but had turned double-agent and was working with the CIA. Gialka received a monthly salary of $1,500, and evidence was presented to the court that his handlers had threatened to ditch him if he failed to come up with better information.

Gialka told the CIA in October 1988 that he was aware of 8kg of explosive which was stored at the LAA offices in Malta, and that they were introduced at some point in 1985 when Megrahi was in the country. In July 1991 he added that Ffimah had been the custodian of these explosives. There were “a number of inconsistencies” with his account and the fact he’d only proffered his second story when under pressure for information was deemed “highly significant”.

At that same meeting with the CIA Gialka claimed to have seen the accused arriving on the same flight at Luqa airport, and by trial he testified that he saw the two collecting the brown suitcase which would later contain the bomb from the luggage carousel, before meeting with two other men who left with the two accused in Ffimah’s car. No evidence was provided that Gialka had mentioned this to the CIA at the time, and the idea the American intelligence service would have failed to appreciate the significance of the story and report it was deemed “quite inexplicable”. Furthermore, the informant claimed to have once provided a report to Megrahi stating it would be possible to put an unaccompanied bag on a British aircraft, something even he admitted he had not mentioned to the CIA.

The only other piece of evidence against Ffimah were two 1988 entries in his diary. One was a reminder in English to “take tags from Air Malta”, while a second translated from Arabic read “Abdel-baset arriving from Zurich". The Crown alleged that Ffimah had flown to Tripoli on December 18, returned two days later on the same flight as Megrahi, then helped him to bypass the airport security he knew so well on December 21 to ensure the bomb made it to Frankfurt and, subsequently, Heathrow. The judges found “no evidence” that Ffimah had helped Megrahi to get the bomb onto the plane, or even that he had been at the airport on December 21. He was unanimously found not guilty.

In Megrahi’s case, the charges of conspiracy and breach of the Aviation Security Act were dropped, but despite “uncertainties and qualifications” in some areas, the judges found that his entrance to Malta under a fake name, identification by Gauci and the clothes matching what was sold in his shop, his background with Bollier and Libyan intelligence services and other aspects added up to “a real and convincing pattern”.

Without Ffimah's involvement, the Crown was unable to "point to any specific route by which the primary suitcase could have been loaded" in Malta, something the judges cited as "a major difficulty".

Megrahi was sentenced to life imprisonment, with the recommendation that he serve at least 20 years before the possibility of parole. An appeal was rejected in March 2002, with a second dropped shortly before he was released on compassionate grounds in 2009. Suffering from terminal prostate cancer, Megrahi was allowed to return to Libya where he died in 2012.

HeraldScotland: epa01853532 Convicted Lockerbie PanAm airline bomber Abdel Baset al-Megrahi  is visited in Tripoli Central Hospital by a delegation of African parliamentarians in Tripoli 09 September 2009.  Megrahi's release on compassionate grounds has sparked contr

Prosecutors had always insisted that he didn’t act alone, while many – including some of the victims’ families – felt his conviction was wrongful in the first place. Which brings us to the third man.

In December 2020 the US Department of Justice made public a criminal complaint charging Abu Agila Mohammad Mas’ud Kheir Al-Marimi with destruction of aircraft resulting in death, and destruction of a vehicle used in foreign commerce by means of an explosive resulting in death, issuing an Interpol warrant for his arrest. It appears he was captured by a militia group in Libya last month then handed over to US authorities.

The complaint alleges that Mas’ud built the bomb used in the terrorist attack, handed it to Ffimah on the morning of December 21 at Luqa airport, witnessed him place it on a conveyor belt, then headed back to Tripoli. The alleged bombmaker was formally charged on Monday, when he made no plea, with a hearing fixed for December 27 to allow him to retain legal counsel.

The charges stem largely from an alleged confession made by Mas’ud, who named Ffimah and Megrahi as co-conspirators, in which he admitted to making the bomb and buying the clothes in which it was wrapped – one of the key reasons judges convicted Megrahi in the first trial.

Will Mas’ud prove the key to finally answering the remaining questions surrounding that awful December day? The families of the bereaved will hope his trial doesn’t simply add further confusion.