December 22, 2023
Inside the FBI: Pan Am Flight 103
It’s been 35 years since the tragic aircraft bombing on December 21, 1988. In this episode, we’ll look back on one of the largest and most complex acts of international terrorism ever investigated by the FBI.
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Perry Adams: On December 21, 1988, Pan Am Flight 103 took off from Heathrow Airport in London bound for New York City. Among the 259 passengers and crew were 190 Americans.
Passengers were in a festive mood. It was four days before Christmas. For many, including 35 students from Syracuse University who had been studying abroad, it was a much-anticipated homecoming, a reunion with family and friends in time for the holidays.
They never made it home. Less than 40 minutes into the flight, the plane exploded over Lockerbie, Scotland, killing everyone on board and 11 Scots on the ground.
It’s been 35 years since the tragic bombing of Pan Am Flight 103. In this episode, we’ll look back on one of the largest and most complex acts of international terrorism ever investigated by the FBI. I’m Perry Adams, and this is Inside the FBI.
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Adams: More than a decade before 9/11, the bombing of Pan Am flight 103 was one of the world’s most lethal acts of air terrorism. Here’s FBI historian Dr. John Fox:
John Fox: The bombing of the Pan Am 103 flight and the fact that it led to the deaths of all 259 people on board and the number of victims on the ground in Scotland … it really brought the FBI into an era where we really did have to consider the wider international issues in conducting investigations because, as many Americans as died in the bombing, as connected as it was to America, there were victims of many nations and authorities in many nations interested in this case, and everybody had to come together to deal with this.
These terrorist attacks don’t victimize simply one group of people—one nation—but end up targeting peoples of many countries.
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Adams: Aviation security as we know it today did not exist in 1988. The bomb that brought down Pan Am Flight 103 was concealed in a cassette recorder and packed inside a suitcase that was loaded onto a flight from Malta to Frankfurt, Germany, with no accompanying passenger. The suitcase was then routed to a feeder flight in Frankfurt bound for London’s Heathrow Airport, where it was ultimately loaded onto the Pan Am jet.
Flying at an altitude of 31,000 feet, Flight 103 had just crossed the border into Scotland when the bomb exploded. The plane’s wings, along with tanks carrying 100 tons of jet fuel, plummeted into Lockerbie’s Sherwood Crescent neighborhood, creating an inferno and a crater more than 150 feet deep that registered miles away as a seismic event. At 7:03 p.m., 11 residents of Sherwood Crescent, including a family of four, were killed instantly.
Retired FBI Special Agent Dick Marquise initially led the FBI’s investigation into Flight 103 in 1988. Here’s what he said in 2018 as he looked back on the case:
Dick Marquise: The magnitude of that crash never really hit home to most people in the United States. I don't know that it hit home to most people in the FBI.
In order for anybody to get a full appreciation and feel for what happened, I think that someone had to go there and look at a crime scene—a crash site—that was 845 square miles in a mostly rural or small-town atmosphere in a small country in southern Scotland.
Adams: Alex Smith, now a retired detective, lived in Lockerbie in 1988. On the night of the disaster, he was at home with his father, settled in for what was supposed to be a quiet evening.
Suddenly, there was a tremendous crash outside, and the neighborhood was ablaze. Within minutes of running outside with his father, their home had burned to the ground.
Here is Smith, in 2018, describing the impact of the crash:
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Alex Smith: This thing is flying at 30-odd-thousand feet with 140-mile-an-hour crosswind. So, at the actual point of explosion, it fragments. And it was the main fuselage of the plane that came down in Sherwood Park. But on impacting with the ground, it actually blew up again, and everything went back up in the air.
So, for those of us on the ground, it was initial impact, horrendous crash and then, minutes later, the fallout. It was earth and rubble and parts of the aircraft just falling back to the ground again. And so, in all, it took about five to six minutes for the whole impact scenario to play through.
Adams: Other parts of the jetliner came to rest in and around Lockerbie. The rear fuselage and landing gear crashed into the center of town. The nose cone landed a few miles away in a field opposite a church.
George Stobbs was a senior police inspector in Scotland when the disaster occurred. He had worked a day shift and was at home when a newsflash on the television announced that an airplane had crashed. Stobbs immediately made his way to Lockerbie and then to Sherwood Crescent.
George Stobbs: I could see to my right-hand side, which would be sort of south of Lockerbie, a great ball of fire, and I could smell smoke and aviation fuel. I couldn't understand it, to be quite honest. And the devastation I was seeing, I still couldn't fathom how it had happened.
Anyway, as I got into this area, there was a great roaring noise and flames coming out of a great big hole in the ground and dense, dense smoke. Terrific heat. I actually saw a wrought iron gate melting. It was like it was made of butter, and it was dripping.
Adams: Within a week of what Scottish authorities were calling the Lockerbie air disaster, it was determined that Pan Am Flight 103 had been destroyed by a bomb. But when the plane dropped out of the sky that night, no one was certain what had happened.
Solving the case would require unprecedented international cooperation. More than 5,000 responders, including investigators from the FBI and Scottish authorities, combed the countryside for clues. Here’s Special Agent Marquise:
Marquise: When I look at what the police collected, and you think about a crime scene—we’re not talking about in a building, we’re not talking about around a car, we’re not talking about in somebody's home. We're talking about fields and streams and mountains and houses and buildings—845 square miles—and I think probably the largest crime scene in history. 845 square miles that the police picked up evidence.
And those police officers that did it, quite honestly, the majority of them didn't know what terrorism was. They had never faced it, they had never worked it, they had never seen a crime scene of that magnitude. They did an incredible job that I don’t know that anybody, including the FBI, could have replicated with the circumstances that they had to deal with.
Adams: From the outset, the Scottish police treated the disaster as a crime scene and preserved everything that might be evidence. Geographical boundaries were drawn into sectors, and a dedicated team was assigned to each. Anything recovered was meticulously cataloged.
Investigators recovered 319 tons of wreckage and thousands of pieces of evidence. In the debris, they found the tiny fragment that helped establish the bomb had been placed inside a radio in a piece of luggage. Another small fragment, found embedded in a piece of shirt, helped identify the explosive timer.
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Adams: In the years that followed, investigators continued to put the puzzle pieces together, interviewing more than 10,000 individuals in 16 countries.
In 1991, the British and American governments charged two Libyan intelligence operatives in the case. Their trial in 2000 was held in Scottish court built for the occasion on a former U.S. military base in the Netherlands. The court acquitted one of the men and convicted the other in 2001, sentencing him to life in prison. The Libyan government formally accepted responsibility for the bombing and agreed to pay nearly $3 billion to the victims' families.
Since the bombing, victims' families have continued to push to advance the investigation, believing the plot and its execution were not limited to those two operatives. Agents from the FBI's Washington Field Office made repeated trips to countries with a nexus to the plot. And in private briefings, FBI officials steadfastly assured victims’ families the investigation was robust and ongoing.
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On December 21, 2020—32 years to the day after the terrorist bombing—federal officials charged a third operative, the alleged bombmaker. Now in his 70s, he was arrested in 2022.
Here's Dr. Fox:
Fox: Despite this attack having occurred 35 years ago, we continue to pursue those who were guilty of committing it. We still seek justice for the victims and for those who still suffer because of their losses from that attack that day.
Adams: The FBI's Victim Services Division also continues to provide support and services to the victims of Pan Am Flight 103 as they attend investigative briefings, court proceedings, and memorial events like the annual ceremony in Syracuse, New York, that honors the 35 university students who died in the bombing.
Kevin Gutfleish is a supervisor in the FBI’s Victim Services Division.
Kevin Gutfleish: Even though the crime happened 35 years ago, they are still living with the results of that incident. Victims' needs change over time, and it’s critical that the victims know that they have support.
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Adams: Within days of the bombing, and for years after, family members of victims from the United States and other countries made their way to Lockerbie. Some wanted to know exactly where their loved one’s body had been recovered. Others sought the comfort of the peaceful memorials erected to honor the victims. As time passed, many came to say thank you.
Scottish police officers and Lockerbie residents regularly volunteered to be guides and companions to these special visitors, and because of the grace and compassion shown to grieving strangers a long way from home, lasting bonds were formed.
With so many first responders, including young soldiers, streaming in to assist with recovering the bodies and clearing the wreckage, there became an immediate need in Lockerbie for food. The townspeople began baking scones and cakes to supplement other food services and to show kindness to the workers who faced such a grim task.
Some of the Lockerbie women volunteered to clean soldiers' uniforms, and that thoughtfulness turned into something more. The "laundry ladies," as they became known, began to clean and carefully fold and package the recovered clothing of the victims so that the items could be returned to loved ones.
Thousands of articles of clothing and other personal effects were held in a warehouse known as the "property store." Working in shifts, it would take the laundry ladies more than a year to clean everything.
Graeme Galloway was a rookie police officer in Scotland in 1988. Years later, he remembers the impact those acts of kindness had on him.
Graeme Galloway: You know, these were volunteers—these were people that just wanted to do their wee bit to put something back in. And I think we can never ever lose sight of that—the people, that kind of human kindness. It will always, always, in my view, outshine any terrorist act.
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Adams: December 21 is the winter solstice, the darkest day of the year.
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Although it is sadly symbolic that the bombing of Pan Am Flight 103 occurred on that day, it is perhaps more meaningful to consider that the responses to the tragedy—the kindnesses shown, the friendships made, the positive changes to aviation security, and law enforcement’s care for victims—continue to cast a very bright light into the world all these years later.
For the families who lost loved ones; for the Scottish police officers, firefighters, and volunteers who responded to an unprecedented disaster; for investigators and prosecutors who dedicated years of effort to the case; and for the residents of Lockerbie, there is no forgetting December 21, 1988. In fact, many have vowed never to forget, to make sure the lessons of Lockerbie are not lost on future generations.
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Adams: This has been another production of Inside the FBI. You can follow us on your favorite podcast player, including Spotify, Apple Podcasts, Google Podcasts, or YouTube. You can also subscribe to email alerts about new episodes at fbi.gov/podcasts.
I’m Perry Adams from the FBI’s Office of Public Affairs. Thanks for tuning in.
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Thirty-two years after the terrorist bombing of a Pan Am jet over Scotland killed 270 people, including 190 Americans, charges have been filed against a former Libyan intelligence operative for his alleged role in building the bomb.
Thirty years after the terrorist bombing of Pan Am Flight 103 over Lockerbie, Scotland, the FBI and its partners are still actively seeking justice for the 270 victims and their families.
On the 30th anniversary of the terrorist bombing of Pan Am Flight 103 over Lockerbie, Scotland, family members and officials gathered at Arlington National Cemetery to honor the 270 victims lost in the attack.