Arizona Public Radio | Your Source for NPR News
Play Live Radio
Next Up:
0:00 0:00
Available On Air Stations

A suspect in the 1988 bombing of Pan Am Flight 103 over Scotland is in U.S. custody


A man suspected of making the bomb that destroyed Pan Am Flight 103 over Lockerbie, Scotland, 34 years ago is now in U.S. custody. That's according to both American and Scottish authorities. Two hundred and seventy people died in that terror attack in 1988. NPR's Frank Langfitt joins us now from London with the latest. Welcome to the show.

FRANK LANGFITT, BYLINE: Hey. Good morning, Ayesha.

RASCOE: So what do we know about the arrest of this suspect?

LANGFITT: Well, we don't have an official word exactly from the Americans of where and how this occurred, but there have been reports that Libyan militia, a Libyan militia group, kidnapped him, leading to speculation at the time that they would turn him over to the Americans. And now it's been confirmed he's in U.S. custody. The man is named Abu Agila Mohammad Mas'ud Kheir Al-Marimi. He's a longtime member of Libyan intelligence services. And prosecutors say a breakthrough in the case came when Libyan authorities interviewed him. And they gave the Americans the transcript. And according to the transcript, Mas'ud admitted to building the bomb. He confirmed that it was ordered by Libyan intelligence at the time and that the late leader Moammar Gaddafi thanked him and other people who were involved in the team that downed the airliner, thanked them for doing this.

RASCOE: This bombing was 34 years ago. Remind us of the details of this horrific tragedy.

LANGFITT: Yeah. Ayesha, this was an enormous story at the time. And it was the biggest attack, terrorist attack on Americans until 9/11. I just want to sort of set the scene because it was around this time 34 years ago. It was four days before Christmas. Two hundred fifty-nine passengers - they board 747 at Heathrow Airport outside of London for a red-eye flying to New York. One hundred ninety of them are American. This includes college students heading home. Thirty-five of those were from Syracuse University. Now, the plane gets up to 31,000 feet. And then this cassette player in the cargo hold, it explodes. It has a time-activated bomb inside. It blows a hole in the fuselage, and everybody on board is killed. And then there's falling wreckage over this small town in Scotland, and that ends up destroying 21 homes and killing 11 people on the ground.

RASCOE: And the investigation has been going on for more than three decades then.

LANGFITT: Yeah. I mean, it's been - it was incredibly challenging. You know, the blast sent debris over 840 square miles. That's almost the entire width of Scotland. And investigators did more than 10,000 interviews. One of the big discoveries was there was a piece of plastic about the size of a thumbnail that came from that cassette player that contained the bomb. Now, one Libyan man was brought to justice and sentenced to 27 years, but he was later diagnosed with cancer, and the Scottish government basically released him on humanitarian grounds. The U.S. was very unhappy with this, and that man died in Libya in 2012.

RASCOE: So do we know what happens next?

LANGFITT: Well, the Department of Justice was in touch with NPR's Ryan Lucas. He's been in touch with them, and they said that Mas'ud will make an initial appearance in U.S. District Court in Washington. And we're waiting to hear when and, you know, under what circumstances they'll - that will be and what kind of public access because even though this was a really long time ago, the families were terribly affected by this. They still want to see justice. And so I think that when this man comes into court, there's going to be tremendous interest in the United States but also here in the United Kingdom.

RASCOE: That's NPR's Frank Langfitt. Thank you so much for joining us.

LANGFITT: Great to talk, Ayesha. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Ayesha Rascoe is a White House correspondent for NPR. She is currently covering her third presidential administration. Rascoe's White House coverage has included a number of high profile foreign trips, including President Trump's 2019 summit with North Korean leader Kim Jong Un in Hanoi, Vietnam, and President Obama's final NATO summit in Warsaw, Poland in 2016. As a part of the White House team, she's also a regular on the NPR Politics Podcast.
Frank Langfitt is NPR's London correspondent. He covers the UK and Ireland, as well as stories elsewhere in Europe.