More than three decades after a bomb brought down Pan Am Flight 103 over Lockerbie, Scotland, killing everyone on board, a former Libyan intelligence officer accused of making the explosives appeared in federal court Monday on international terrorism charges.
The extradition of Abu Aghila Mohammad Masoud Kheir Al-Marimi was a major milestone in the decades-long investigation into the attack, which killed 259 people on board the plane and 11 on the ground. His arrival in Washington sets the stage for one of the Justice Department’s most significant terrorism prosecutions in recent memory.
“Despite the fact that nearly 34 years have passed since the defendant’s actions, countless families have never fully recovered,” Assistant U.S. Attorney Eric Kenerson said during a court hearing attended by relatives of the victims.
The Justice Department announced on Sunday that Massoud had been taken into custody in the United States, two years after it was announced that it had charged him in connection with the bombing. Two other Libyan intelligence officials were indicted in the US for their alleged involvement in the attack, but Massoud was the first defendant to appear in a US courtroom for prosecution.
A Pan Am flight bound for New York exploded over Lockerbie less than an hour after taking off from London on December 21, 1988. Citizens of 21 countries died. Among the 190 Americans on board were 35 Syracuse University students flying home for Christmas after a semester abroad.
The blast exposed the threat of international terrorism more than a decade before the attacks of September 11, 2001, and prompted global investigations and punitive sanctions. Several relatives of the victims, who were unsure if a criminal case would ever be filed, described the news that Massoud was finally in U.S. custody as surreal.
Stephanie Bernstein, whose husband, Michael, was a Justice Department prosecutor, said she felt “great satisfaction” after returning from England aboard Pan Am 103. She said her husband persecuted the Nazis and firmly believes there is no statute of limitations for murder.
“He had a cookie-cutter saying on his door that said, ‘The law sometimes sleeps but never dies.’ It shows that the law never dies, that the United States government is going to take care of its citizens in life and in death, and that the government has not forgotten,” Bernstein said.
Outside the courthouse on Monday, Paul Hudson carried a photo of his daughter, Melina, a 16-year-old student returning from an exchange program for Christmas break. He remembered how her belongings had been scattered across the Lockerbie countryside after the disaster. The families returned her passport and notebook.
“And the notebook had a quote on the cover, ‘No one dies unless they are forgotten,’ and I tried to live by that,” he said. Memories of my daughter are “an everyday thing” and “this time of year it gets stronger.”
Bearded and balding, Massoud was dressed in a green prison uniform and walked unsteadily to the defense table. He spoke through an interpreter at times, and federal defenders representing him at the hearing said he wanted to be represented by lawyers of his own choosing.
At one point when the charges were being discussed, Massoud said in Arabic that he could not speak until he met with his lawyer.
The review of the restraining order is scheduled for the end of the month.
The charges against Massoud were announced on December 21, 2020, the 32nd anniversary of the bombing and the final days of then-Attorney General William Barr’s tenure. At the time, Massoud was in custody in Libya. The announcement was a career caper for Barr, who announced criminal charges against two other Libyan intelligence officials during his first tenure as attorney general in the early 1990s.
The Libyan government initially refused to extradite the two men, Abdel Basset Ali al-Megrahi and Lamen Khalifa Fimah, before eventually handing them over for prosecution before a Scottish panel of judges sitting in the Netherlands under a special arrangement.
In Massoud’s case, the Justice Department’s recently unsealed indictment includes three counts related to the bombing, including destroying an aircraft resulting in death. Prosecutors said in court that they would not seek the death penalty because no such penalty was available for those particular crimes at the time of the blast.
U.S. officials have not said how Massoud was taken into U.S. custody, but local Libyan media reported late last month that Massoud had been kidnapped by gunmen on Nov. 16 from his residence in Tripoli, the capital. The report cited a statement from the family, which accused the Tripoli authorities of keeping silent about the abduction.
The breakthrough in the Justice Department’s investigation came when U.S. officials in 2017 obtained a copy of an interview Massoud, a longtime Libyan intelligence expert on explosives, gave to Libyan law enforcement in 2012 after he was taken into custody after the leader’s government collapsed. Colonel Muammar Gaddafi’s country.
In that interview, U.S. officials said Massoud admitted to building the bomb in the Pan Am attack and working with two other conspirators to carry out the attack. He also said the operation was carried out at the behest of Libyan intelligence and that Gaddafi thanked him and other members of the team after the attack, according to the FBI affidavit.
The affidavit said Massoud told Libyan law enforcement that he had flown to Malta to meet al-Megrahi and Fimah. He handed Fimah a medium-sized Samsonite suitcase containing the bomb, having already been instructed to set a timer for the device to explode in exactly 11 hours, according to the document. He then flew to Tripoli, the FBI said.
Al-Megrahi was convicted in the Netherlands, while Fimah was acquitted of all charges. Al-Megrahi was sentenced to life in prison but was released on humanitarian grounds by Scottish authorities in 2009 after he was diagnosed with prostate cancer. He died in Tripoli still professing his innocence.
Associated Press reporters Julie Walker in New York and Rick Gentillo and Nathan Elgren in Washington contributed to this report.
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