The United States justice department is scheduled at 15:30 GMT today to announce a new indictment against a Libyan individual, possibly two, in the bombing of Pan Am Flight 103 over Lockerbie, Scotland, on 21 December, 1988. The suspect was described in US media reports last week as explosives expert Abu Agila Mohammad Masud. He is said to have been the man who made the bomb that brought the aircraft down, killing all 259 people on board and 11 people on the ground.
According to emails that I have seen, the Scottish Lockerbie appeal team forwarded at 19:17 last Friday what it described as a "Pan Am Flight 103 Notification" to British victims' families on behalf of the US Justice Department. That is likely to mean Attorney General William Barr himself, given his personal connection to the Lockerbie affair. Barr was acting Attorney General in November 1991 when he indicted Libyans Al-Amin Khalifa Fahima and Abdelbaset Ali Meghrahi. The first was acquitted but the latter was convicted and sentenced to 27 years in jail.
In the email, the Department invites families to watch the coming press conference streamed online. The message also provides call-in numbers for over 20 countries. The 270 victims of the Lockerbie bombing came from 21 different nationalities.
Al-Meghrahi was sentenced on 31 January 2001 by a special Scottish court sitting in the Netherlands. He died of prostate cancer at his home in Libya in 2012 after being released on compassionate grounds in 2009, protesting his innocence until the end.
Reverend John Mosey, who lost his 19-year-old daughter Helga on the doomed flight, described it as "bizarre" that the Justice Department should choose this day — "Which is special to many of us" — to make such an announcement. He went on to question Barr's motive by asking why he waited 32 years to bring the new charges. Mosey is one of the team of victims' families who helped launch the latest posthumous appeal against Al-Meghrahi's conviction, along with the Libyan's family, which is now being considered by Scotland's top five judges. A decision is expected any time now.
Many Lockerbie bombing experts think that Barr, who was due to step down on 23 December but was asked to stay on for another week to announce the new Lockerbie indictment, wants to leave office with a "bang". That's what Robert Black, QC, believes. It was Black who first came up with the idea of a Scottish court sitting in the Netherlands back in 1990 and helped convince the Libyans to accept it. Another Lockerbie bombing expert told me, on condition of anonymity, that Barr wants to create "phantom heroism for himself to chew on in his retirement."
At least two former army officers living abroad and also speaking anonymously, confirmed to me that Masud is indeed a former police officer with explosives expertise but he had no connections with Libyan intelligence during the Gaddafi era. They say that he became important when disposing of improvised explosive devices in the 1990s during Gaddafi's war against local Islamists. However, these officers do not believe that Masud, who is in jail in Libya, had the sophisticated skills necessary to devise a complicated bomb like the one which destroyed Pan Am Flight 103.
In the 1990s, Libya saw an increase in explosions targeting police and army officers, particularly in the east of the country, and carried out mainly by the Libyan Islamic Fighting Group (LIFG). The latter was designated as a terrorist group by some countries, but has long since given up its terror campaigns.
After the Gaddafi government was toppled in 2011, many former leaders of the LIFG became prominent politicians in the fragmented North African country. The most famous of these was Abdelhakim Belhaj who was, at one point, imprisoned by Britain before being handed over to the Gaddafi government in 2004.
Al-Meghrahi's son, Ali, commented on the US Justice Department email by asking, "Where were [you] in the past 32 years?" Ali, who is represented by lawyer Aamer Anwar in the case, sounded suspicious of the timing, "…especially when we have been fighting for an appeal over the past six years."
Last week, US media quoted Mohamed Ali Abdallah, a US citizen of Libyan descent, as saying that he thinks the US Justice Department is going to indict two Libyans, not one. Reports said that the second suspect is likely to be Abdalla Senousi, who was Gaddafi's right hand man and is also in jail now. Abdallah is the US affairs advisor to Libya's Government of National Accord (GNA), the only government in the country recognised by the UN.
Sources within Libya speak of some kind of potential deal in the making between the GNA and the Americans over the two accused men. Any such deal might mean that the GNA will consider extraditing to the US the less important suspect, Masud, but keep hold of Senousi, who is often described as the "black box" of the former Gaddafi government.
It is worth noting that the GNA has stopped funding Al-Meghrahi's appeal, despite the fact that Libyan law obliges it to provide financial help to citizens facing legal issues abroad.
The views expressed in this article belong to the author and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of Middle East Monitor.