Authors: Tim Weiner
One hundred eighty-nine Americans were among the two hundred fifty-nine passengers and crew. Eleven people were killed on the ground. The Scottish constabulary began to collect evidence lying scattered across 845 square miles of countryside. Within a week, with the help of British intelligence, they determined that someone had hidden a high-performance explosive, Semtex, inside a checked suitcase.
The Bureau had jurisdiction under international law; the airplane was American. But its leaders had no idea how to proceed.
The FBI was not set up to deal with a major investigation like this,” said Richard Marquise. “I blame the institution.”
Marquise was given command of the FBI’s task force on Lockerbie—four agents and three analysts—on January 3, 1989. He scanned the passenger list for weeks, looking for clues. The list was the stuff of conspiracy theories. It included a CIA officer, Matt Gannon, and an army intelligence major, Chuck McKee, who had been working ninety-hour weeks together in Beirut, trying to free the nine American hostages still being held in Lebanon. Gannon’s father-in-law was the deputy chief of the CIA’s clandestine service,
and he had worked for many years in the Middle East. Six State Department officers and the chief Nazi-hunter at the Department of Justice died over Lockerbie. Another passenger, an American businessman, had the same name as a terrorist who had hijacked a Kuwaiti airliner years before.
The list of suspects encompassed almost every bitter battle between Americans and Arabs in the Middle East. The new president of the United States, George H. W. Bush, thought that the Syrians were behind Lockerbie. The FBI’s Buck Revell assumed the Iranians had done it: almost six months before, in July 1988, the USS
had shot down Iran Air 655 over the Persian Gulf, an unprovoked attack by an errant American admiral, killing 290 passengers. The CIA suspected Ahmed Jibril, a leading Palestinian terrorist, and theorized that the Iranians had hired him to blow up the plane. Then there was always Colonel Qaddafi of Libya. He had vowed to avenge the 1986 American bombing of Tripoli, itself an act of retaliation for the Berlin disco attack that had killed two American soldiers.
The only person with hard evidence was the chief constable at Lockerbie, John Boyd, whose officers scoured the hills and valleys, searching on foot. Six weeks into the investigation, after one of Boyd’s men found a fragment of a radio circuit board the size of a fingertip, the FBI knew that the Semtex explosive had been packed in a black Toshiba boom box. That was the only break in the case for many months.
“It was just painfully slow,” Marquise said. “In Washington, everybody wants an answer. Right now. Who did this? How did this happen?”
The FBI convened more than one hundred American, British, Scottish, and German investigators at a hotel conference room outside Washington in May 1989. Each nation, and every agency, was chasing its own leads. There was no cooperation, no real communication.
Six months after the bombing, the FBI’s Lockerbie task force was disbanded. Marquise and a small group of terrorism analysts stayed on the case.
The Scots spent the summer and the fall piecing the hundreds of thousands of shards of evidence together. They got on-the-job training from FBI veterans like Richard Hahn—a man who had been combing through the wreckage of lethal bombings for fifteen years, ever since the unsolved FALN attack on the Fraunces Tavern in New York. They learned how the damage from a blast of Semtex looked different from the scorching from the heat of flame.
The Scots soon determined that bits of clothing with tags saying “Made in Malta” had been contained in a copper Samsonite Silhouette with the radio that held the bomb. But they did not tell the FBI. Then the Germans discovered a computer printout of baggage records from the Frankfurt airport; they showed a single suitcase from an Air Malta flight had been transferred to Pan Am 103 in Frankfurt. But they did not tell the Scots. The international teams of investigators reconvened in Scotland in January 1990. Once again, it was a dialogue of the deaf. Marquise had a terrible feeling that the case would never be solved.
“We’re having tons of problems with CIA. Lots of rivalry,” Marquise said. “Scots are off doing their thing. You’ve got the Germans who are giving the records when they feel like it to the Scots. The FBI’s still doing its thing.… Everybody’s still doing their own thing.”
Then, in June 1990, came small favors that paid big returns. Stuart Henderson, the new senior investigator in Scotland, shared one piece of evidence with Marquise: a photograph of a tiny piece of circuit board blasted into a ragged strip of the Maltese clothing. The Scots had been to fifty-five companies in seventeen countries without identifying the fragment. “They had no idea. No clue,” Marquise said. “So they said, probably tongue-in-cheek, ‘You guys try. Give it a shot.’ ”
The FBI crime laboratory gave the photo to the CIA. An Agency analyst had an image of a nearly identical circuit board, seized four years earlier from two Libyans in transit at the airport in Dakar, Senegal. On the back were four letters: MEBO. Nobody knew what MEBO meant.
Eighteen months had passed since the bombing of Pan Am 103.
UT OUT THE CHAINS OF COMMAND
The investigation was a mosaic of supposition and surmise. Few people at the highest levels were convinced it could be solved. Someone needed to take charge.
Robert Swan Mueller III was named chief of the Criminal Division at the Justice Department at the end of July 1990. Agents instinctively liked him, despite his aristocratic demeanor. They called him Bobby Three Sticks.
Mueller had a sharp mind, a first-rate temperament, and a high regard for well-crafted cases. The future director of the FBI was a born leader. And he was a marine.
Mueller had gone from Main Line Philadelphia and Princeton to lead a rifle platoon in combat in Vietnam. An official report from a December 11, 1968, battle in Quang Tri province praised his courage during a search-and-destroy mission. Confronting a force of two hundred North Vietnam Army troops, Second Lieutenant Mueller “
fearlessly moved from one position to another, directing the accurate counter-fire of his men and shouting words of encouragement to them. With complete disregard for his own safety, he … personally led a team across the fire-swept terrain to recover a mortally wounded Marine who had fallen in a position forward of the friendly lines.” He was awarded, among other citations, the Bronze Star for valor.
His appointment at the Justice Department came at a critical moment for the FBI. Saddam Hussein had invaded Kuwait; the United States prepared to go to war in the Persian Gulf. The FBI recorded the nervous twitching of terrorism alerts, perceived as threats from Iraq to attack targets in the United States. But money and manpower allotted to counterterrorism were low and sinking. So was morale, owing in no small part to the leadership of director William Sessions. “
Getting Director Sessions’ full attention was challenging,” said Bill Baker, the newly appointed FBI criminal division chief, who forged a close and critical alliance with Mueller.
Mueller put Marquise in full charge of the Lockerbie case. No FBI intelligence analyst ever had run a major investigation before. Marquise reported directly to Baker, and Baker to Mueller. His orders were to turn intelligence into evidence.
“We literally cut out the chains of command at headquarters,” Marquise said. “We brought in the CIA. We brought the Scots. We brought MI5 to Washington. And we sat down and we said, ‘We need to change the way we’re doing business. We need to start doing this right … We need to start sharing information.’ ”
Marquise had never had the authority to pick up the telephone and call his counterparts in Scotland. He made that first call in November 1990. Things started to change quickly.
Marquise learned that a Scottish magistrate’s court had uncovered the mystery of MEBO—Mebo was a Swiss electronics company that had been doing business with Libya for almost twenty years. Armed with that fact, he found out that an owner of the firm, Edwin Bollier, had hand-delivered a detailed letter to the U.S. Embassy in Vienna days after the Lockerbie bombing.
The FBI never would have looked for it without the tip from the Scots. It said, in essence: Pan Am 103 was a Libyan operation. Bollier knew what he was talking about: Mebo had built twenty sophisticated timers for the Libyans.
Bollier’s letter—vital evidence in an international terrorism investigation—had been sitting unread for almost two years.
Marquise knew from bitter experience how often the FBI had no idea what was in its own files. The Bureau was a pyramid of paper, and it stayed that way well into the twenty-first century. While Marquise was running the FBI’s Terrorism Research and Analytical Center from 1986 to 1988, the Bureau had come up with a database called the Terrorist Information System. The system was “totally useless,” he said. “You’d spend all kinds of time putting things in and you couldn’t get things out … It would have said ‘No Record’ for probably ninety-five percent of the major cases in the Bureau. We tried to sell it to people for years but it was so user-unfriendly. It was a great concept that didn’t work.”
E WERE GOING TO GO FORWARD
By the start of 1991, Marquise had the rough outlines of a circumstantial case against Qaddafi and Libya. He felt a momentum building.
“We’ve got FBI agents teamed with Scottish cops, teamed with Maltese cops, covering leads in Malta, doing things on one sheet of music,” he said. “We’re sharing information incredibly. We’re starting to come up with the names of Libyan intelligence officers. And one of them is a guy by the name of Abdel Baset Ali al Megrahi.”
A shopkeeper in Malta picked out a picture of Megrahi as a man who had bought some of the clothing found at the crime scene in Lockerbie. Immigration records showed that Megrahi had been in Malta the same day the clothes were purchased. In February 1991, as the Gulf War raged, the FBI invited Edwin Bollier for a weeklong interview. He tentatively identified a picture of Megrahi as a Libyan who ran a front company that did business with Mebo in Zurich.
“I’m pretty excited,” Marquise said. “Everybody’s pretty excited.” He briefed Robert Mueller, who coolly reminded him that he had a long way to go.
Marquise needed to turn intelligence into evidence. He needed a witness
who could link Megrahi to the Samsonite suitcase with the Semtex. He needed to find someone who knew that the suitcase carried the bomb from Air Malta 180 to Pan Am 103. He went back to the CIA. The Agency told him, belatedly, that it had once had a Libyan informant named Abdul Majid Giaka at the international airport in Malta. He had gone on the CIA’s payroll four months before Lockerbie. He was on it the night Pan Am 103 was bombed. But the Agency had dropped him a few months later, deeming him a fabricator milking his interrogators for money.
Marquise was dying to talk to Majid, no matter how dubious he seemed to the CIA. In June 1991, the Agency flew him from a navy ship off the coast of Malta to give the FBI the chance to interview him in Virginia. Justly wary of its informant, the CIA imposed one condition: Don’t tell anybody.
Marquise weighed the odds and broke the rules. He picked up the telephone and called his Scottish counterpart. “If you ever tell anybody about this, I’ll get fired,” he said to Stuart Henderson. “The guy’s in the U.S. We think he may have some information but we don’t know. We’re going to start to interview him tomorrow.”
Majid was debriefed for at least two weeks during September 1991. He insisted that he knew three facts. He identified Megrahi as an intelligence officer serving as Libya’s airline security chief. He said that Megrahi’s subordinate in Malta had a cache of Semtex. And he said he had seen Megrahi with a large brown suitcase at the airport in Malta during the weeks before the Lockerbie bombing. Majid was without doubt an unreliable witness. But the FBI had faith that he was telling the truth on those three points. Marquise thought he had the foundation of a case that would stand up in court.
It came down to a question of law or war. The decision was up to the president.
The United States could try to kidnap Megrahi; it had nabbed terrorists overseas before. But snatching him in Libya was beyond the capabilities of the CIA or the military. It could try to kill him. That was beyond conscience at the time: shortly before the Lockerbie bombing, when Israel had sent a hit team to Tunis to kill Abu Jihad, the second in command of the Palestine Liberation Organization, the United States had openly condemned the act as a political assassination.
The president could attack Libya with bombs and missiles. Reagan had targeted Qaddafi after Libya’s spies blew up the La Belle disco in Berlin five years before, citing the right to use force in self-defense under Article 51 of
the UN Charter. But the evidence then was airtight; the Lockerbie case now demanded an equivalent proof.
President George H. W. Bush believed that terrorists were criminals, not enemy combatants. He chose to go to court. Mueller strongly concurred. They would follow the law where it led. Marquise said: “We were going to go forward with our prosecution and announce the results to the world.”
Megrahi was indicted in the United States and Scotland on November 15, 1991. It took almost a decade to convict him. Another decade passed before it was clear beyond doubt that Colonel Qaddafi himself had ordered the attack on Pan Am 103 in a pitiless act of revenge against the United States and the United Kingdom. The circle of retribution was completed when an American Predator spy plane helped the colonel’s enemies hunt him down before they killed him in Libya, twenty-three years after the Lockerbie attack.