The Pan Am 103 Bombing
A Byte Out of History
Solving a Complex Case of International Terrorism
Fifteen years ago, on a cold and ultimately chilling evening just four days before Christmas, Pan Am Flight 103 took off from London’s Heathrow Airport bound for New York City. Among the 259 passengers and crew were 189 Americans.
They never made it home. Less than 40 minutes into the flight, the plane exploded over the sky above Lockerbie, Scotland, killing everyone on board and 11 Scots on the ground.
Until 9/11, it was one of the world’s most lethal acts of air terrorism and one of the largest and most complex acts of international terrorism ever investigated by the FBI.
Solving the case required unprecedented international cooperation—and hours upon hours of painstaking work. With the mid-air explosion 30,000 feet up, debris rained down over 845 square miles across Scotland. FBI agents and international investigators combed the countryside on hands and knees looking for clues in virtually every blade of grass, eventually turning up thousands of pieces of evidence. They also traversed the globe, interviewing more than 10,000 individuals in dozens of countries.
Participating in the investigation were an array of international police organizations from such countries as Germany, Austria, Switzerland, and, of course, Great Britain (including Scotland).
Ultimately, forensic specialists from the FBI, the CIA, and elsewhere determined that one of the fragments found on the ground, no bigger than a thumbnail, came from the circuit board of a radio/cassette player. That tiny piece of evidence helped establish that the bomb had been placed inside that radio and tape deck in a piece of luggage. Another small fragment, found embedded in a piece of shirt, helped identify the type of timer.
This evidence led to two Libyan intelligence operatives. In November 1991, the U.S. and Scotland simultaneously indicted the pair for planting the bomb. On January 31, 2001, after years of working to extradite the men and bring the case to trial, Abdel Basset Ali Al-Megrahi was found guilty of the crime. The co-defendant was found not guilty and released.
Recently, the Libyan government formally accepted responsibility for the bombing and has agreed to pay nearly $3 billion to the victims’ families.
FBI Director Robert Mueller, who headed up the investigation while Assistant Attorney General of the Criminal Division of the Department of Justice, recently described the impact the case had on him personally:
“The constables in charge of the Scottish end of the investigation had constructed a small wooden warehouse in which were stored the various effects of those who were on the plane when it broke apart in the skies: a white sneaker never again to be worn by the teenager; a Syracuse sweatshirt never again to be worn by the Syracuse student, and other such everyday pieces of clothing and personal belongings. These ordinary items brought home to me, and came to symbolize for me, the pain and the loss felt by those whose family, friends, or colleagues died that evening.”
It is that loss that we remember and honor today. And it is horrific cases such as these that strengthen the FBI’s resolve to help prevent acts of terrorism in the future.