WORLD

THE BOMBING OF FLIGHT 103

INVESTIGATION OF THE WRECKAGE SPARKS A WORLD WIDE POLICE SEARCH FOR TERRORISTS

ANDREW PHILLIPS January 9 1989
WORLD

THE BOMBING OF FLIGHT 103

INVESTIGATION OF THE WRECKAGE SPARKS A WORLD WIDE POLICE SEARCH FOR TERRORISTS

ANDREW PHILLIPS January 9 1989

In the rain-soaked fields and wooded hills around the Scottish town of Lockerbie last week, hundreds of sombre men and women scoured every inch of ground. Their eyes cast down, they collected thousands of fragments of wreckage from the Pan American World Airways jumbo jet that had crashed in a fireball on the town just four days before Christmas. One find proved central to solving the mystery of why Flight 103, on its way from London to New York City, had fallen from the sky just 52 minutes after takeoff, killing all 259 passengers and crew members and another 11 people on the ground. Searchers found a shattered suitcase with an unusual pattern of rips and tears. The case, along with parts of a plastic-lined metal luggage container from the doomed jet’s cargo hold, were taken to a weapons research centre southeast of London. There, technicians recalled early from their Christmas break pored over the evidence—and in 24 hours delivered a chilling verdict: Flight 103 had been the victim of a deliberate bombing attack.

That announcement on Dec. 28—exactly a week after the Boeing 747 disintegrated over Lockerbie and rained fire and wreckage on the quiet town—immediately set off an international hunt for those responsible. Police in Britain and the United States launched a massive investigation that extended into other parts of Europe and the Middle East. And as it became clear that the explosion that brought down Flight 103 had been a criminal act, possibly the work of Arab terrorists, calls for revenge swept the United States, home to most of the victims. President-elect George Bush, due to take office on Jan. 20, vowed to seek out any group responsible for the “cowardly terrorist action.” At the end of a three-day hunting vacation in Texas, Bush declared that “we will seek hard and punish firmly and decisively those who did this.”

Finding and punishing the bombers, however, will pose major problems for both investigators and political leaders. British police warned that their inquiry will almost certainly be long and painstaking. And if responsibility for the murders is eventually traced to a terrorist group, that may well draw the new Bush administration into direct confrontation with either Libya or Syria. Two of the radical Palestinian organizations most widely suspected of engineering the attack are closely linked to the Libyan and Syrian governments. If either group is held responsible, Bush will come under intense pressure to strike back at the government that protects it.

Air travellers immediately felt the impact of the discovery that Flight 103 had been deliberately destroyed. The finding confirmed fears that a bomb had been smuggled through security screens either at Frankfurt, where the flight originated, or at London’s Heathrow airport, where passengers and luggage transferred from a Boeing 727 jet to the larger jumbo jet that exploded over Lockerbie. At week’s end, the Times of London reported that the bomb was in a suitcase loaded in Frankfurt and transferred to the ill-fated Boeing 747 in London. The U.S. Federal Aviation Administration ordered American airlines flying out of 103 airports in Europe and the Middle East to tighten security, starting immediately. Among other measures, airlines were told to X-ray or physically inspect all baggage and to subject some passengers, chosen at random, to more stringent checks—possibly including body searches.

FAA officials compared those new measures to practices already used by Israel’s national airline, El Al, whose passengers must check in three hours before takeoff in order to pass through careful security checks. As a result of those measures, El Al’s planes have never been successfully attacked, and at least one attempt to smuggle a bomb aboard an El Al jet—at Heathrow airport in April, 1986—was foiled. But such measures do not come without costs. “It just depends on how much airport security civilian passengers are prepared to undergo,” observed Michael Learmount, an editor of the respected aviation magazine Flight International, published in London. “Because airport security costs money, it costs time and it costs convenience.”

The discovery that the Pan Am plane had been deliberately bombed—rather than destroyed by a structural failure—was the result of what one British official called 24 hours of “brilliant detective work” by explosives experts at Britain’s defence ministry. Working at the ministry’s Royal Armament Research and Development Establishment in Kent, they examined debris collected at the crash site 500 km to the north. Tears in the suitcase suggested that it had been ruptured by flying metal. Using sophisticated electronic machinery to examine fibres taken from the luggage hold, the investigators concluded that they had been ripped in a manner characteristic of an explosion. And they detected minute traces of a plastic explosive and the telltale burn marks of an explosion on parts of the lining of the luggage hold.

Hours later, chief investigator Michael Charles announced the findings in Lockerbie, where townspeople were still in shock over the disaster. Two parts of the metal luggage container, he said, “show conclusive evidence of a detonating high explosive.” Added Charles: “The explosive’s residues recovered from the debris have been positively identified and are consistent with the use of a high-performance plastic explosive.”

Charles gave few other details, but aviation experts said other evidence suggested that the explosion almost certainly occurred in the jumbo jet’s forward cargo hold. That is just below and behind the plane’s flight deck and immediately behind its avionic rack, or electronics control centre. A powerful explosion in the forward hold would blow a hole in the jet’s fuselage and instantly demolish its autopilot, radio receivers and transmitters and other electronic gear. The result, one expert said, would be akin to the aircraft being “shot in the brain”—which would explain why the pilots sent no distress signal before crashing.

British investigators did not identify the plastic explosive involved, but most experts said that it was probably Czech-made Semtex. Like other plastic explosives, Semtex—made primarily for military purposes—has the consistency of putty and can be safely moulded into any shape—even rolled into thin sheets and concealed in the lining of a suitcase. It is odorless, difficult to detect by airport sniffer devices or X-ray machines, and can be set off using a tiny detonator that emits a weak electric current, which can easily be disguised as a transistor radio or other common device. Explosives experts estimated that roughly 25 to 40 lb. of Semtex would be needed to bring down a massive plane like a Boeing 747 jumbo, and noted that many terrorist groups have the capability to prepare such a bomb. “It isn’t difficult to make a bomb out of Semtex,” said James Ronay of the U.S. Federal Bureau of Investigation. “It wouldn’t require any more expertise than working with dynamite.”

But there was no clear evidence last week linking any group to the explosion, and some American anti-terrorism experts dismissed an early claim—repeated late last week—by an Iranian group that it was responsible for the attack as revenge for last July’s downing of an Iranian passenger jet in the Persian Gulf by an American warship. Instead, experts pointed to three groups with extensive histories of using sophisticated explosive devices—and political motives for mounting such an attack:

• The Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine-General Command, based in Syria and led by onetime Syrian army captain Ahmed Jibril. Jibril’s group broke away from the Palestine Liberation Organization in the early 1980s, and condemned PLO leader Yasser Arafat’s recent decision to recognize Israel’s right to exist and his efforts to seek a diplomatic settlement in the Middle East. In October, police in Frankfurt arrested 13 Palestinians, three of them members of the PFLP-General Command, and confiscated 12 lb. of Semtex plastic explosives. Israeli counterterrorism officials last week named Jibril’s group as the most likely suspect. But a top leader of the organization declared that his group was “against this kind of criminal operation targeting innocent civilians.”

• The Fatah Revolutionary Council, based in Tripoli and led by Palestinian extremist Abu Nidal, another declared enemy of Arafat. His group is believed to have carried out dozens of terrorist attacks, including the 1985 massacres at the Rome and Vienna airports that killed 18 people, as well as the attack on a Greek ferry last July in which nine died. However, Israeli officials noted last week that Abu Nidal has no record of attacking planes in the air. And the group last week expressed its “deepest sorrow for this tragedy.”

• The May 15 Organization, another radical Palestinian splinter group that takes its name from Israel’s date of independence and is led by Abu Ibrahim. Ibrahim’s group has received support in the past from Iraq and has been linked to attacks on El Al offices, as well as a plastic bomb explosion in 1982 aboard a Pan Am plane flying from Tokyo to Honolulu in which a 16-year-old boy was killed and 15 passengers were injured. According to Yossi Melman, an Israeli authority on Arab terrorism, Abu Ibrahim is experienced at building bombs equipped with pressure-sensitive devices designed to set off suitcase bombs after an aircraft reaches a certain altitude. But last week, Melman did not point a finger at any specific group in the Lockerbie incident, saying only: “All of these groups have the technical capability and the modes of operation that could link them with this latest mass murder.”

All three groups also oppose Arafat’s moderate policies—and might well attack an American target in an attempt to sabotage the recently opened dialogue between Washington and the mainstream PLO leadership. The Israeli government also strongly opposes those talks—and last week seized on the Pan Am incident to bolster its argument that the United States was wrong to meet with PLO leaders. In Jerusalem, deputy Foreign Minister Binyamin Netanyahu declared that the attack proves that terrorism is “indivisible.” He added, “You cannot fight terrorism in one part of the world and reward it in another.”

While the hunt for the bombers got under way, the first bodies recovered from the crash site were returned to their homes. Many members of the victims’ families called for revenge against those responsible. “These people are butchers and fanatics,” said Larry Mild of Severna Park, Md., whose stepdaughter, Miriam, was among those killed. “I don’t know names terrible enough to call them.”

Family members at a service for one of the two Canadians killed in the crash, Paul Freeman, a 25-year-old actor from Dundas, Ont., asked mourners to bear no malice toward his murderers. In Toronto, relatives of the other Canadian victim, financial analyst Hanne-Maria Maijala, 26, expressed anger that no one had warned the public about an anonymous bomb threat—16 days before the blast—against Pan Am’s U.S.-bound flights out of Frankfurt. U.S. authorities had alerted diplomatic employees in Europe of a warning received on Dec. 5 that there would be a bombing attempt within two weeks. “They should have warned everybody,” said Maijala’s brother, John. “We think they were negligent.”

In Britain, too, there was anger as well as grief. Wreckage from the plane tore a 20-footdeep crater through one of Lockerbie’s quietest residential streets, Sherwood Crescent. Debris rained down on much of the rest of the town—leaving physical damage that will take months to repair—and mental scars that may never heal. Rev. Peter Edwards, a Roman Catholic priest and close friend of a British family of four killed in the crash, expressed the outrage of many people on both sides of the Atlantic touched by the tragedy. “At the moment, we can only feel deep pain,” he said. “It’s too soon to talk about forgiveness.”