On 21 December 1988, Air Malta Flight 180 arrived
in Frankfurt as scheduled and discharged its passengers
and baggage into the Frankfurt International Airport
A brown Samsonite suitcase with an Improvised
Explosive Device (IED) was entered into the Frankfurt
Airport automatic baggage distribution system at a midfield
entry point. PAA-103A was not departing until
some time later (around 4 hours); the suitcase with the
IED was retained in the Frankfurt Airport automatic
baggage system until a command was subsequently given
to the baggage computer system to discharge all bags of
PAA-103А at Gate 46. The brown Samsonite suitcase,
together with other suitcases, was driven from Gate 46 to
Gate 44 for X-ray.
The baggage (after the X-ray control was completed)
was delivered to PAA-103A and placed in the hold of a
Fig 1. PAN AM Flight 103, December 21, 1988
The fatal journey of flight PAA-103 began from
Frankfurt International Airport on the afternoon of 21
December 1988. The bomb inside the suitcase was
transferred through the baggage transfer facilities at
Heathrow Airport from PAA-103А (B-727) to PAA-103
The last words received from the Pan Am aircraft on
21 December 1988 were “Clipper 103 requesting oceanic
clearance” as co-pilot Raymond Wagner requested clearance
to begin the scheduled flight 103 over the Atlantic
Ocean to New York.
Soon after that, air traffic controller Alan Topp, who
watched Flight PA103 as it crossed Scottish airspace, saw
that the aircraft’s transponder stopped replying somewhere
over Lockerbie. The ATC controller tried again to
communicate with Clipper 103, but there was no reply.
Not one, but several radar returns on his screen at last
A ULD-3 container in the forward cargo hold
contained that brown Samsonite suitcase. It was located
on the left side of the aircraft, forward of the wing.
A detonated bomb ripped a hole in the side of the
container near the left side of the aircraft and a hole in the
aircraft skin. The pressure wave met the resistance of the
adjacent bags in the container, contents in the forward
hold, and other containers. Then it reverberated backward
to the opened holes of the container and the skin of the
Under influence of the reflective wave, the holes
widened. The aircraft skin then opened up and down like
a zipper. The forward part of the aircraft separated from
the rest of the structure less than 3 seconds after the initial
detonation. It swung around to the right and fell away
over the right wing. Other parts of the aircraft then began
to separate into pieces and, along with its passengers and
crew fell to the ground (Fig 2). Eleven citizens of
Lockerbie were also killed.
Fig 2. Nose section of Clipper Maid of the Seas
2.Trail of wreckage
Distinct north and south trails of wreckage from the
aircraft took place, spreading from Lockerbie east
towards the coast. An area of 845 square miles was
subsequently searched and the instruction to sector
commanders was “if it’s not growing in the ground,
recover it”. The aircraft weighed 318 metric tonnes, 107
tonnes of which was aviation fuel. This left 211 tonnes of
passengers, crew, cargo, mail, aircraft, and other contents
to be recovered (Fig 3).
Some sectors had little habitation and few access
roads, making searches very difficult. In some areas,
tracks had to be cut through forests to facilitate the search
and recovery operation. During the search operation,
18,209 individual items of property were recovered,
which included 90 % of the destroyed aircraft.
Fig 3. Disruption of fuselage
3. Detonation of high performance plastic
The investigation obtained the status of a major
murder investigation as soon as forensic examination had
identified the presence of chemicals found in Semtex.
The cell of the Popular Front for the Liberation of
Palestine – General Command that had been operating in
Germany prior to the bombing of Pan Am 103 was the
focus of the criminal investigation. The German Police
arrested members of this cell during Operation Autumn
Leaves in October 1988. Weapons and explosives,
including an IED within a Toshiba radio cassette recorder
(model No R0453D), which was triggered by a basic
timing mechanism, were recovered by the German police
at this time.
It was learned that this device – a barometric trigger
to activate the timer at a certain altitude – was intended to
be used by the PFLP-GC against aircraft and in order to
avoid a premature explosion.
When scientists found a fragment of a printed circuit
board on part of the luggage container from Pan Am 103
into which the explosive device had been loaded, these
enquiries took on a greater significance.
The Royal Armament Research and Development
Establishment of the United Kingdom (RARDE) made
extensive enquiries. Police also established that the
fragment of printed circuit board came from a Toshiba
radio cassette recorder. Other debris recovered, including
a fragment from the owner’s instruction manual, subsequently
allowed forensic scientists to identify the model
as a Toshiba RTSF16 radio cassette recorder. It was
significantly different from the model used by the PFLPGC.
A witness incidentally recovered a fragment of the
instruction manual along with other debris near her house
in Morpeth, Northumberland. But obviously the
significance of this evidence at the time was not known.
4. The criminal investigation
The radio cassette recorder fragments were also
recovered from clothing damaged by explosives, which,
according to the conclusion of forensic scientists, were in
close proximity to the IED. The forensic examination of
the clothing also produced one of the most important
pieces of evidence of this investigation. A fragment of
printed circuit board was found in a grey shirt made by
Slalom, and the forensic scientists concluded that it had
an intimate involvement in the explosion. In their report
they stated: “This fragment represents the only recovered
piece of modification in the Toshiba radio which would
have been necessary to convert it into a delayed action
The improvised explosive devices recovered by the
German police were thereafter examined by forensic
scientists, but they did not find any components that
matched the fragment of circuit board recovered from the
bomb which destroyed Pan Am 103. However, it was
evident from the forensic examination and aircraft
reconstruction that an explosive device had been placed
onboard the aircraft.
Pieces of a blast-damaged suitcase had been
recovered (56 pieces of the suitcase were recovered
during the search operation (845 square miles), and it was
identified as an antique copper 26″ Samsonite Silhouette
4,000 hard shell suitcase.
A fragment from a pair of trousers bearing the brand
name Yorkie and the number 1705 was also recovered
during the search operation.
Although the PFLP-GC remained the main suspects
for the bombing, this evidence at that time allowed the
investigation to follow definite lines of enquiry.
Significant efforts were made worldwide to identify the
fragment of circuit board from the IED because of its
obvious importance. Enquiries had also revealed that the
Yorkie Clothing Company (Malta) manufactured the
Yorkie brand of clothing exclusively. Enquiries with the
company confirmed that the fragment of trousers
recovered from a hillside in south-western Scotland had
been manufactured by them. It was also learned that the
number 1705 stamped on the trousers was an order
number and referred to an order placed with them by a
retail outlet known as Mary’s House in Sliema, Malta.
Anthony Gauci, proprietor of the family-owned
business, told officers that he could recall selling the
trousers and other clothing to a Libyan on or about
Wednesday, 7 December 1988, 2 weeks before Pan Am
Flight 103 was destroyed.
Details of the other clothing purchased by the
Libyan which matched the blast damaged clothing
recovered at Lockerbie were also given by Gauci
(including the grey Slalom shirt mentioned before). He
recalled selling an umbrella to this man, and an umbrella
of the make described by him was recovered at
Lockerbie. Forensic scientists examined it and they
discovered that it had been in close proximity to the
explosion. Thus the credibility of his evidence was
As mentioned before, a Libyan was described by
Gauci as the person who purchased the clothing. It was at
this time that the first connection between a Libyan
citizen or citizens and the bombing of Pan Am 103 was
made. He also helped investigators to produce a photofit
of the man who attended his shop to purchase the
The German BKA provided the enquiry with a
computer print-out from the baggage handling system at
Frankfurt Airport as the focus of the investigation shifted
to Malta. It was a record of the bags loaded onto flight
Pan Am 103A on 21 December 1988 (the feeder flight for
Pan Am 103). This print-out showed that a bag was
accepted into the baggage conveyance system at 1307
hours, having been coded for that flight at Station 206.
An examination of the coder’s work sheet for coding
station 206 shows that at 1307 hours on 21 December
1988 the workers were coding bags from flight KM 180
Malta to Frankfurt.
It was established during enquiries that from the Air
Malta flight there were no passengers who transferred to
Pan Am 103A nor did any of the passengers transfer
luggage to this flight. Even more impressive was the fact
that no record of unaccompanied luggage transferring to
the feeder flight Pan Am 103A from KM 180 on 21
December 1988 was made by Air Malta. The print-out
and record sheet therefore confirmed the presence of a
suspicious item – an unaccompanied bag transported to
London Heathrow from Malta.
It was established by the investigation that Pan Am
Flight 103 had been destroyed by an Improvised
Explosive Device (IED):
– a Toshiba radio cassette recorder, Model No RTF16
contained the IED inside.
– the presence of chemicals found in Semtex was
confirmed by forensic examination.
– the bomb was placed inside a Samsonite suitcase along
with clothing purchased in Malta.
– on Wednesday, 7 December 1988 the clothing was
purchased by a man who was described as Libyan by
Anthony Gauci (a witness).
– this bag was transported on 21 December 1988 from
Malta to Frankfurt by flight KM180.
– then it was transferred to Pan Am 103A, which was the
interline flight of Pan Am flight 103.
With the assistance of the FBI and CIA, it was also
established in 1990 that the fragment of circuit board
from the IED was part of a printed circuit board from an
The FBI and CIA recovered MST-13 timers from
Togo and Senegal. In February 1988, a Senegalese
national was arrested at Dakar Airport together with two
members of the Libyan Intelligence Service. An MST-13
timer was recovered at the airport amongst the weapons
and explosives. The two Libyans were later released from
custody by Senegalese authorities. But any knowledge of
the weapons and explosives recovered at the airport were
denied by them during the interview, and thus the source
of the recovered timers was not confirmed.
MEBO (a Swiss company) commercially produced
the MST 13 timers. It was also learned that Swiss Nationals
Erwin Meister and Edwin Bollier owned the company.
The company regularly did business with Libya and
specialized in communications equipment. They (Meister
and Bollier) confirmed to investigators that the printed
circuit board piece was a part of an MST 13 timer.
In 1985, these particular timers were produced for the
Libyan Security Service exclusively.
Bollier also confirmed that:
– in December 1988 he received an order for more of
– 20 MST 13 timers had been produced and delivered to
the Libyans by his company;
– he had helped to train Libyan personnel to use the
timers at a training camp in the Sabha Desert in Libya;
– he provided the Libyans with 40 Olympus timers as he
could not complete their order. They were returned to
him because they were more expensive and inferior to the
MST 13 timers;
– Abdelbaset Ali Mohmed Al Megrahi and Badri Hassan
were partners in the company ASH, which rented offices
from MEBO in Zurich.
Ballier also stated that he thought Abdelbaset Ali
Mohmed Al Megrahi was a major in the Libyan Security
Service (Fig 4).
Fig 4. Abdel Basset Ali al-Megrahi
From further investigation and intelligence sources
more was learned about Megrahi and his role in the
Libyan Security Service. He obtained training as a flight
dispatcher (with Libyan Arab Airlines). By 1985 he was
head of the Airline Security Section of the Libyan
External Security Organization. In January 1987, he
became a director of the Centre for Strategic Studies.
On 15 February 1991, a photograph of Megrahi was
shown to Anthony Gaud. He identified Megrahi as
resembling the Libyan who purchased clothing in his
shop on 7 December 1988 or about that day.
The movements of Megrahi thereafter were subjectted
to extensive enquiry. Another purpose was to identify
his associates. His movements were established on the
basis of the examination of documents: immigration
cards, hotel registrations, etc.
Intelligence sources revealed that Ahmed Khalifa
Abdusamad was a potential associate of Megrahi.
Documents containing the handwriting of Abdusamad
were subjected to forensic examination, and it was
established that Abdusamad was probability Megrahi. It
was also learned from these documents that Abdusamad
stayed at the Malta Holiday Inn on 20–21 December 1988
and left Malta for Tripoli on 21 December 1988.
It was revealed by enquiries at the Holiday Inn that
at 7.11 on the morning of 21 December 1988 Abdusamad
made a telephone call from his room to telephone No
414570 (local), which was connected to a flat rented by
Al Amin Khalifa Fhimah in Malta.
It was then established that Fhimah was the station
manager for Libyan Arab Airlines at Luqa Airport in
Malta. In 1988, he left this position and set up a tourist
company called Medtours with premises in Mosta, Malta.
Scottish and Maltese police visited these premises on 22
April 1991 and found a 1988 diary and a security pass for
Luqa Airport belonging to Fhimah.
5. “Take tags from the Maltese Airline”
Several references related to Megrahi were found
when the writings in the diary were translated. On 15
December 1988, Fhimah made what was for the enquiry
the most valuable entry in his diary: “Take tags from the
Maltese Airline”. The word tags were underlined twice.
He wrote in the notes section of the diary: “Bring the tags
from the airport”.
Because of this evidence, Fhimah became the
suspect. A closer examination of his movements revealed
that on 20 December 1988 he travelled from Tripoli to
Malta on the same flight together with Ahmed Khalifa
At the same time, the Central Intelligence Agency
disclosed that Abdulmajid Abdul Razkaz Abdulsalam
Giaka (Majid), a Libyan intelligence officer, had defected
to the United States. Libyan Arab Airlines employed him
as an assistant manager at Luqa Airport. In August 1988,
he was recruited by the Central Intelligence Agency.
According to his statements, he had worked with
Megrahi and Fhimah at Luqa Airport. Abdulmajid had
also confirmed to investigators that Megrahi held a senior
post in the Libyan Intelligence Service.
It had originally been intended to use Majid as an
intelligence source to help develop the criminal
Majid, when debriefed, provided information about:
– seeing a high performance explosive in Fhimah’s desk at
Luqa Airport between 1986 and 1988;
– seeing Fhimah and Megrahi at Luqa Airport in
December 1988 with two other Libyans in possession of
a brown hard-shell suitcase similar in description to the
– the identification of key players and the structure of the
Libyan Intelligence Service;
– the association/position of Megrahi and Fhimah within
the Libyan Intelligence Service and the relationship between
United States Authorities decided that Majid could be
used as a witness against Megrahi and Fhimah because
the information he gave was of great value to the investigation.
United States Authorities placed Majid and his
family in the Witness Protection Program.
6. The arrest and trial of the two accused
On 13 November 1991, after a review of all the
evidence, a petition warrant was subsequently granted at
Dumfries Sheriff Court for the arrest of Abdelbaset Ali
Mohmed AI Megrahi and Al Amin Khalife Fhimah on
charges of murder, conspiracy to murder, and a contravention
of the Aviation Security Act of 1982.
But Libya refused to hand over the two accused for
An agreement was however reached for a trial to
take place on a neutral territory under the laws of Scotland,
following extensive international negotiations
supported by UN Sanctions.
The High Court of Justiciary (Proceedings in the
Netherlands) (United Nations) Order 1998, supported by
agreements of the governments of the United Kingdom
and the Netherlands, provided the legal framework for the
trial to take place in Holland. The legislation in fact
created a little part of Scotland in the Netherlands.
A former American Air Force Base at Kamp Van
Zeist near Soesterberg was identified as the site for the
The buildings on the site, which was approximately
100 acres in size, were identified as appropriate for
refurbishment and redevelopment for use as a court, a
prison, a cafeteria, accommodation blocks, etc.
Megrahi and Fhimah were formally arrested on 5
April 1999. There was an expectation, however, that the
process to extradite them from Holland to Little Scotland
for trial would take several months.
An identification parade was held at Kamp Van
Zeist for Megrahi on 13 April. When Anthony Gauci
viewed the parade, he identified Megrahi as the person
who had purchased the clothing from his shop.
UN resolutions also required Libya to fully cooperate
with the police investigation into the bombing of
Pan Am 103, apart from handing over the accused. A
number of people, including a government minister and
other high ranking officials were interviewed after the
submission of a formal letter of request. The director of
the Libyan Passport Agency and the administrative
director of the Libyan Intelligence Service were among
those interviewed. It was established that the Passport
Agency issued a passport in the name of Ahmed Kalifah
Abdusumad on 15 August 1987 in response to a letter
from the Libyan Intelligence Service. During an interview,
the administrative director of the Libyan Intelligence
Service confirmed that the Intelligence Service had
requested the issue of the passport.
This was incriminating evidence against Megrahi.
The coded passport in the name of Ahmed Kalifah
Abdusumad was later recovered from the defence team.
Thus the suspicion that Megrahi was Abdusumad
was confirmed by this evidence. It was also confirmed
that he used this passport on 20 December 1988 to travel
to Malta together with Fhimah and that the passport was
used several times in 1987, only once in 1988 and not
used after 21 December 1988.
On 3 May 2000 the trial of Megrahi and Fhimah
began. The evidence of the former Libyan Intelligence
Officer, Abdulmajid, who defected to the United States,
was a significant part of the case against Fhimah. As
evidence in the trial, cables (redacted) from Majid’s CIA
handlers were used. It should be mentioned that the CIA
had never previously made documents or witnesses
available to a foreign court. But this time the CIA even
made available evidence of payments to Majid.
In any way, Fhimah was acquitted of the charges against
him and returned to Tripoli on 31 January 2001.
(Presentation … 1990).
According to international media, Scotland’s
government 20/08/09 released Megrahi from a life
sentence for the 1988 bombing of Pan Am Flight 103
over Lockerbie in Scotland because he has terminal
prostate cancer. Libyan leader Muammar Gaddafi hugged
the convicted Lockerbie bomber and promised more
cooperation with Britain in gratitude for his release,
while London and Washington condemned his “hero’s
Gaddafi’s comments drew a flat denial from Britain
that Megrahi’s release was in any way linked to business
deals with Libya, which has Africa’s largest proven oil
reserves. Britain said all responsibility for his release
rested with Scotland, which runs its own judicial affairs
7. Lessons learned
Lessons to be learned from the Pan Am 103 or
“Lockerbie” terrorist attack, which happened 20 years
ago, remain valuable today.
In January 1989, the USA and UK requested a
special session of the International Civil Aviation
Organization (ICAO) Council “to improve international
aviation security procedures” in response to the
destruction of Pan Am 103. A special session of the
ICAO council was held on 15–16 February 1989. During
this significant international meeting, ways of responding
to acts of unlawful interference against civil aviation
This attempt to strengthen aviation security can be
considered the most important effect of those tragic.
events on further improvement and future development of
harmonized and standardized aviation security measures.
At this session, an eight-point plan suggested by the
United Kingdom and supported by the United States as
the basis for improvements in aviation security
throughout the entire world was adopted.
ICAO organization and powers were strengthened
after this conference. This resulted in the improvement of
aviation security regulations, training and quality control.
Lockerbie also caused many states to enhance civil
aviation security measures.
It should be mentioned that legislation addressing
compensation for victims of air disasters was one of the
most important changes in civil aviation as a result of Pan
Am 103. Revisions to the Montreal Convention replaced
the Warsaw Convention (by November 2003).
At the same time, “Lockerbie” was the mechanism
for the formation and implementation of the ICAO
Convention on Marking Plastic Explosives (1991). The
convention requires states producing such explosives to
mark them at the time of manufacture to enhance their
ability to be detected by available mechanical detectors or
“Lockerbie” has also elaborated the US policy
regarding states that sponsor terrorism. This policy, economic
sanctions and isolationism, brought Libya to admit
responsibility for the “Lockerbie” attacks and agree to
pay compensation to the families of victims.
Another lesson is that the families of “Lockerbie”
victims should be thanked for their activity to establish
policy and ensuing legislation providing support from
airlines and states for aircraft accidents survivors and
families of victims. The Aviation Disaster Family Assistance
Act and the Foreign Air Carrier Family Support Act
were enacted in 1996 and 1997 correspondingly.
The artful concealment used by Lockerbie terrorists
made the detection of explosives very difficult for screeners.
Explosive detection systems and explosive trace
detection were designed after “Lockerbie” as an attempt
to develop equipment for the reliable detection of
explosives and explosive devices. It became possible due
to increased funding of research and development of this
Cargo security was amended by new standards for
screening and practices based on the “known” and “unknown”
Realization of new procedures and physical methods
of control regarding electronic and electrical equipment
such as radios and computers were achieved. Use of
passenger questioning was reiterated in further addressing
Implementation of one of the most important
standards for screening of checked and transfer baggage
both at check-in and between flights to achieve 100 %
hold baggage screening became reality, and automated,
in-line, and multi-level baggage screening system
technologies commenced operating.
The sabotage in “Lockerbie” resulted in more
effective usage of so called bingo cards (base of manual
reconciliation procedures), which evolved to become the
automated baggage reconciliation systems working now
in many airports across the world.
Another lesson of Lockerbie yet to be implemented
by civil aviation is contained in the recommendations of
the aircraft accident report:
“The following safety recommendations were made
during the course of the investigation:
That airworthiness authorities and aircraft
manufacturers undertake a systematic study with a
view to identifying measures that might mitigate
the effects of explosive devices and improve the
tolerance of aircraft structures and systems to
explosive damage” (Charles 1990).
As a result, much research was done to improve the
structure of aircraft and harden the cargo hold and
containers against the consequences of IED blasts. Efforts
in this area continue.
The aviation security community initiated higher
standards of access to restricted areas of airports, i.e.
security control of people and vehicles entering these
areas. Background checks of aviation personnel,
particularly security employees, were a significant part of
“Lockerbie” also should never be forgotten as an
example of an insider threat. The head of security of an
airline (Abdel al-Megrahi) was found guilty of having
perpetrated the attack. This challenge from inside the
system is another lesson and one of the greatest threats to
aviation security in the future, as well as self-satisfaction:
Pan American Airlines was found guilty of “wilful
misconduct by failing to prevent a bomb from being
smuggled aboard the flight”.
With time passing by, we observe how the tactics of
terrorist are changing, especially after the events of 9/11,
subsequent “anti-terrorist” wars, and the resistance thus
generated. Aviation security countermeasures continue to
re-act; they and their enhancements remain reactive (not
active) to any act of unlawful interference. This lesson is
probably the most disquieting of all “Lockerbie” lessons.
Risk assessment and comprehensive evaluation of
threats to civil aviation based on detailed intelligence
made by those responsible may be one of the ways to
prevent terrorist plans, which continue to be developed on
the basis of holes in our aviation security systems,
persistently searched by malefactors. But are current and
new security countermeasures, such as background
checks, staff screening, 100 % hold baggage screening,
enhanced cockpit doors and sky marshals as effective as
expected? Are there any doubts whether there will be a
next? Actually it is just a question of when.
Still it should not be forgotten, that if PA 103 flight
departed from Heathrow on time and exploded over the
Atlantic, little important evidence would have been foun
Reproduced article from S. Ushynskyi. Pan am flight 103 investigation and lessons learned.
Former MEP for Leeds (1984-99)
• However appalling the bombing of Pan Am flight 103 was, and if Libya were responsible, at worst Megrahi was following orders. That doesn’t excuse his putative actions, but it is then hard to identify a moral distinction between his behaviour and eg that of the USAF aircrews attempting Gaddafi’s assassination in the US bombing raid on Tripoli that killed 59 people, including Gaddafi’s adopted daughter, or the behaviour of the (subsequently decorated) captain of the USS Vincennes when he shot down Iran Air flight 655 in 1988, killing all 290 passengers and crew.
David Cameron has no business trying to curry favour with the US administration by criticising the lawful and probably just decision of the Scottish justice secretary Kenny MacAskill to release Megrahi on compassionate grounds. He should instead have lectured Obama on the subject of motes and beams; there was plenty of material for him to draw on – he could have started with the comfortable retirement in Miami of Luis Posada Carriles, an ex-CIA stringer responsible for the bombing of Cubana Flight 455 in 1976, despite his conviction in absentia in Venezuela and their related extradition requests.