Filmmaker Details Investigation That Identified Alleged Pan Am Flight 103 Bomb-Maker

Dec 24, 2020
Originally published on February 10, 2021 12:06 pm

Thirty-two years after the bombing of Pan Am Flight 103, new charges have been brought against the man suspected of making the bomb that took down the plane over Lockerbie, Scotland.

U.S. Attorney General William Barr announced Monday that the department was charging former Libyan intelligence officer Abu Agela Mas'ud Kheir Al-Marimi. He is accused of providing a Samsonite suitcase with a Toshiba cassette player that was armed with an explosive.

The charges come after decades of investigations in several countries that led to only one conviction for the attack that killed 270 people. Scottish judges convicted Libyan Abdel Basset Ali al-Megrahi in 2001 for his role in the bombing. He died in 2012.

Filmmaker Ken Dornstein was sure others were involved.

His brother, David, was killed in the bombing, and Dornstein has dedicated his life to searching for the truth. In his 2015 Frontline documentary series "My Brother's Bomber," he revealed links that eventually led to the indictment of Mas'ud as the suspected bomb expert.

Despite the Libyan government's denial of involvement, Dornstein was convinced there were others involved in the plot. So he did what journalists do: pored over travel records and video archives and even went around the world to track down those responsible for his brother's death. He found travel documents linking Mas'ud to another attack on Americans in Germany two years before the Lockerbie bombing.

But it seemed like most everyone who had worked with Mas'ud was dead, and others wondered to Dornstein whether that was even his real name.

"My Libyan friend and fixer at the time looked at the name and said, that's almost a made-up name," Dornstein tells Morning Edition host Noel King.

Then, in 2012, Dornstein learned about a Libyan man living in Germany. He had gone to prison for bombing a German nightclub in 1986. Dornstein went to Germany to ask him who had made the bomb he used. The man went on to name Mas'ud.

Still, there was no one who could tell Dornstein where to find the suspected bomb-maker.

Then in 2015, more than two years after they met, the Libyan man in Germany sent Dornstein a text. It was a picture of a man long suspected was Mas'ud. He was being held in a Libyan prison.

On Morning Edition Dornstein describes what happened next:

And so what do you do? Do you take that information to the FBI? Do you call them up and say, "Guys, there's a guy who was involved in Lockerbie and I've got a picture of him. He's in prison on trial in Libya."

I was in something of a bind because as a filmmaker and a journalist, obviously I was trying to get as much as I could on the record. I had at different times been questioned by the FBI. They wanted to know if I had anything relevant to their investigation at different points. I did give them information, so they knew what I knew as of 2014. And it was really just a waiting game of whether there would be the ability or the political will perhaps to do anything about it.

If this man, Abu Agela Mas'ud, is in fact guilty, that means he is in part responsible for your brother's death. How did you feel hearing Attorney General Barr say we have indicted this man, this man that you spent years chasing?

You know, it's maybe understandably a mixed bag of emotions. I mean, as a journalist and filmmaker, I'm always grateful if someone takes your work seriously and something comes of it. As a brother, the thing that interests me at this moment is about the business of truth and lies and that [Libyan leader] Moammar Gadhafi was the original kind of strongman and he lied brazenly. And those lies were repeated by his inner circle, and they were repeated by the convicted bomber, al-Megrahi, who went to his death denying that he played any role in saying he was scapegoated. And even some relatives of Lockerbie victims have internalized those lies. And over time, that process is corrosive. I have believed that if you could find certain truths and establish certain facts and even film them, then you could disarm of the harm. And I'm waiting to see what comes of the Justice Department's announcement. My hope is that it puts more facts on the record that are incontrovertible and that it ends any remaining questions and that it silences the lies.

You tried very hard to talk to Abdel Basset Ali al-Megrahi before he died. You did not get a chance. What would you want to ask Abu Agela Mas'ud if you had an opportunity to sit down with him?

What I wanted more than anything, was for him to tell me the story. The narrative really was what I was looking for, the kind of specificity of detail that you couldn't deny and you couldn't make up. And the moment I wanted was the moment when he first heard that his name had come up in connection with Lockerbie and that 20 years, 20 plus years of lies and denials about his role had actually come to nothing. And I wanted him to know that you couldn't lie and deny forever and that someone would care enough to point out the truth. And I wanted him to know in this case that that was me.

Copyright 2021 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

NOEL KING, HOST:

This was December 21, 1988.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

UNIDENTIFIED REPORTER: A Christmas tragedy in Scotland tonight - a New York-bound Pan Am 747 flying from London's Heathrow Airport crashed in the village of Lockerbie in southern Scotland about an hour after takeoff. There were 258 on board Flight 103, and a Royal Air Force official coordinating rescue effort says all perished.

KING: And this was December 21, 2020. Here's Attorney General William Barr.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

WILLIAM BARR: I am pleased to announce that the United States has filed criminal charges against the third conspirator, Abu Agela Mas'ud Kheir Al-Marimi, for his role in the bombing of Pan Am Flight 103.

KING: To understand how long the odds were of this happening, consider this. It took Scottish judges 13 years to convict one of the two Libyan men who'd been charged in the bombing, Abdel Basset al-Megrahi. He was convicted in 2001. The other man wasn't convicted at all. Family members of the victims believed he couldn't have done this alone. He had to have had collaborators. But Libya denied any involvement, and Megrahi swore he was innocent. And then in 2008, he got cancer, and the Scottish government let him out of prison on compassionate grounds. Some of the victims' families were outraged.

Ken Dornstein's brother David was on board Flight 103. Ken is a documentary filmmaker. He and others were convinced that Libya was lying about its involvement, so he did what journalists do. He pored over old videos, pictures, photocopies.

KEN DORNSTEIN: I steeped myself in the documents. I mean, it was a lot of paperwork.

KING: And he went to Libya during the Arab Spring to try to find the truth of who else had been involved.

DORNSTEIN: The people who were the - I think the architects of the bombing - they had been killed, some by Gadhafi. And others had been killed by the rebels who had toppled Gadhafi. It was a violent regime, and they died in a violent way. But I was left again with just this name who my Libyan friend and fixer at the time looked at the name and said, that's almost a made-up name - Abu Agela Mas'ud. The people who worked with him were dead or gone, and my Libyan fixer said that might not even be a real name.

KING: He heard this again and again. Abu Agela Mas'ud maybe doesn't exist. And then Ken learned about a Libyan man living in Germany. This man had gone to prison for bombing a German nightclub in 1986. Two American servicemen were killed. Ken asked this man to meet, and he said OK. So Ken flew to Germany, and he asked, who made the bomb that you used in the nightclub?

DORNSTEIN: And he went on to name the name of the bomb maker, and it turned out to be Abu Agela Mas'ud.

KING: The man Ken had been chasing was real. But in the chaos after Libya's civil war, it seemed like there'd never be a way to find him. After all, he'd been a ghost for years. And then in 2015, more than two years after they met, the Libyan man in Germany sent Ken a text. It was a picture of a guy Ken had seen in an old video, a guy he'd long suspected was Abu Agela Mas'ud. He was wearing a blue jumpsuit.

DORNSTEIN: And I knew that those blue jumpsuits were the type that the former Gadhafi regime members who were on trial in Libya would wear in court. And so we went through - my filmmaking team went through every stock picture of images taken of the men who were on trial. And we pored through them, and we found more and more images of this same man. And I realized that's him. Mas'ud is not a ghost. He does exist. And in fact, he's being held in a Libyan prison.

KING: And so what do you do? Do you take that information to the FBI? Do you call them up and say, guys, there's a guy who was involved in Lockerbie, and I've got a picture of him; he's in prison on trial in Libya?

DORNSTEIN: I was in something of a bind because as a filmmaker and a journalist, obviously, I was trying to get as much as I could on the record. I had at different times been questioned, you know, by the FBI. They wanted to know if I had anything relevant to their investigation at different points. I did give them information, so they knew what I knew as of 2014. And it was really just a waiting game of whether there would be the ability or the political will, perhaps, to do anything about it.

KING: If this man, Abu Agela Mas'ud, is in fact guilty, that means he is in part responsible for your brother's death. How did you feel hearing Attorney General Barr say, we have indicted this man, this man that you spent years chasing?

DORNSTEIN: You know, it's maybe understandably a mixed bag of emotions. I mean, as a journalist and filmmaker, I'm always grateful if someone takes your work seriously and something comes of it. You know, as a brother, the thing that interests me at this moment is about the business of truth and lies and that Moammar Gadhafi was the original kind of strongman and he lied brazenly. And those lies were repeated by his inner circle. They were repeated by the convicted bomber, al-Megrahi, who went to his death denying that he played any role in saying he was scapegoated. And even some relatives of Lockerbie victims have internalized those lies.

And over time, that process is corrosive. I have believed that if you could find certain truths and establish certain facts and even film them, then you could disarm the harm. And I'm waiting to see what comes of the Justice Department's announcement. My hope is that it puts more facts on the record that are incontrovertible and that it ends any remaining questions and that it silences the lies.

KING: You tried very hard to talk to Abdel Basset al-Megrahi before he died. You did not get a chance. What would you want to ask Abu Aguila Mas'ud if you had an opportunity to sit down with him?

DORNSTEIN: What I wanted more than anything was for him to tell me the story. The narrative really was what I was looking for, the kind of specificity of detail that you couldn't deny and you couldn't make up. And the moment I wanted was the moment when he first heard that his name had come up in connection with Lockerbie and that 20 years, 20-plus years of lies and denials about his role had actually come to nothing. And I wanted him to know that you couldn't lie and deny forever and that someone would care enough to point out the truth, and I wanted him to know in this case that that was me.

KING: Ken Dornstein is a documentary filmmaker. His film for PBS' "Frontline" about this case is called "My Brother's Bomber."

(SOUNDBITE OF JOY WANTS ETERNITY'S "DEATH IS A DOOR THAT OPENS") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.