By: Clare Lopez
Accuracy in Media
A documentary that aired 11 March 2014 on the Al-Jazeera America channel presented compelling new evidence that Iran and the Syrian-based Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine-General Counsel (PFLP-GC) directed and carried out the bombing of Pan Am Flight 103 that crashed into Lockerbie, Scotland on 23 December 1988. “Lockerbie: What Really Happened?” presented formerly classified documents and never-before revealed accounts from two of the investigators in the case—American attorney Jessica De Grazia and her Scottish colleague, George Thompson—both of whom were part of the defense team for Abdelbaset al-Megrahi, the Libyan security official eventually convicted of planting the bomb.
Aware that Al-Jazeera America has its own agenda and that this story may just fit rather neatly into it this time, the evidence presented by credible sources nevertheless makes this documentary worth serious consideration. Other, especially U.S., media have tended rather consistently to pass over evidence of the Iranian regime’s long record of support for terrorism (both Shi’ite and Sunni), even when that support has involved American citizen deaths, as in the two cases presented here. This Al-Jazeera documentary diverges from that typical media coverage of Iran and so earns our attention.
In the documentary, De Grazia and Thompson discuss classified U.S. Defense Intelligence Agency (DIA) cables they obtained and shared with Al-Jazeera, but never had the chance to present in court. Specifically, they document a March 1988 meeting in Malta among representatives of Hizballah, Iran, Libya, PFLP-GC, and Syria. According to a protected source who attended the gathering, this apparently disparate group found common cause in hatred for Israel and the U.S., and met to discuss general cooperation in targeting Americans and Israelis. The Iranians were willing to direct terror operations, but wanted both the fig leaf of deniability that proxies could provide as well as the demonstrated explosives expertise for which both Hizballah and PFLP-GC were known. Syria long has allowed PFLP-GC to keep its headquarters in Damascus.
The collaborative arrangement that began with that meeting in Malta received its first operational assignment shortly after the USS Vincennes mistakenly shot down an Iranian civilian airliner in the Persian Gulf on 3 July 1988, with the loss of all 290 on board. Although the U.S. insisted the tragedy was due to misidentification of the Iranian plane and ultimately paid more than $100 million in compensation, a high-level Iranian defector reported that the Iranian regime nevertheless decided to seek revenge in kind, and quickly, by shooting down a similar U.S. civilian aircraft with a like number of passengers on board.
Abolghassem Mesbahi ran operations for the Iranian Ministry of Intelligence and Security (MOIS) in Europe before he defected to Germany in the early 1990s. His testimony about Lockerbie is especially credible because he also has testified in other cases involving Iranian complicity in terror attacks, including the Paris assassination of former Iranian Prime Minister Shapour Bakhtiar in 1991, the 1992 Mykonos Cafe assassination of Kurdish leaders in Berlin, and the 1994 bombing of the Jewish cultural center in Buenos Aires. Mesbahi was one of three Iranian defector witnesses in the Havlish, et al. v. bin Laden, et al. legal case, in which Judge George Daniels of the Southern District of New York Federal District Court ruled in December 2011 that Iran and Hizballah “materially and directly supported al Qaeda in the September 11, 2001 attacks and are legally responsible for damages to hundreds of family members of 9/11 victims who are plaintiffs in the case.” (The author was an expert witness for the Havlish legal team and co-authored one of the affidavits, which is cited herein.)
Mesbahi’s original 1996-97 Lockerbie testimony (as well as his more recent contribution to this newer documentary) is further bolstered by striking parallels in his later recorded testimony in the Havlish case. As described to the Havlish legal team, the Iranian regime’s efforts to galvanize pan-Islamic unity to attack U.S. and Israeli interests did not begin with the 1988 meeting in Malta, but rather a couple of years earlier, in the mid-1980s, during the depths of the Iran-Iraq war. It was then that the plan known among Iranian intelligence circles as “Shaitan Dar Atash” (“Satan in the Flames” or “Satan in Hell,” meaning America, known as the “Great Satan,” in the flames). Because it was acknowledged that Iran lacked the military power to confront the U.S. directly, the Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps (IRGC) and MOIS were tasked with devising asymmetric means to destroy America. According to Mesbahi, the IRGC and MOIS discussed ways of attacking the U.S. critical infrastructure (electric, fuel, water distribution, etc.) and using civilian aircraft as “bombs inside U.S. cities” such as New York and Washington, D.C. The ultimate intent was to bring down the U.S. economy.
Efforts to unify the Islamic world across Shi’ite-Sunni sectarian lines redoubled after Iran’s revolutionary leader, the Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini, died in 1989. In the early 1990s, when Usama bin Laden and Ayman al-Zawahiri were living under the protection of Sudan’s pan-Islamic Muslim Brotherhood leadership, President Omar al-Bashir and Hassan al-Turabi, his sometime political ally, organized a gathering of jihadist forces from across the Islamic world. The various Palestinian factions, including the PFLP-GC, plus Hizballah and the Iranian leadership all attended. It was in Khartoum that then-Iranian president Ali Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani offered bin Laden the explosive expertise of Imad Mughniyeh, his top Hizballah terror operative. That is the partnership, which endures to this day, that led eventually to the attacks of September 11, 2001.
In the wake of the July 1988 shoot-down of Iran Air flight 655, Iranian planners turned to PFLP-GC operatives who had made a name for themselves with several prior airliner attacks. According to De Grazia and Thompson, the DIA documents identify four PFLP-GC members who were involved in the Lockerbie plot: Ahmed Jibril, the PFLP-GC leader who possibly masterminded the attack; Hafez Dalkomoni, who led the German-based PFLP-GC cell suspected of involvement; Marwan Khreesat, a Jordanian master bomb-maker who may have made the bomb used on Pan Am Flight 103; and Abu Talb, the Egyptian-born leader of PFLP-GC’s Swedish cell, who is suspected of having couriered the Lockerbie bomb. German security forces were monitoring the Dalkomoni cell and arrested both him and Khreesat in October 1988, but a bomb found in Dalkomoni’s car was an exact match for the one that later brought down the Pan Am airplane. Both bombs were covered in Toblerone chocolate candy wrappers and concealed inside a Toshiba cassette player. Other bombs were discovered in Dalkomoni’s apartment, but the Germans recovered only a total of four out of five of the bombs they knew existed. The fifth exploded over Lockerbie, Scotland on December 23rd.
By the following summer of 1989, the British and Scottish investigators were ready to issue arrest warrants for fifteen PFLP-GC members they had identified as connected with the attack. According to investigators De Grazia and Thompson, the case was for all intents and purposes solved; all involved with it (including American, British, German, and Scottish intelligence and security representatives) were in agreement that the PFLP-GC had carried out the attack on orders from the Iranian regime.
And then, sometime in mid-1989, according to former CIA operative Robert Baer, President George H.W. Bush made a phone call to British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher and asked her to back off the case against PFLP-GC. In the Al-Jazeera America film, Baer claims that the U.S. government made an executive decision that the role played by the PFLP-GC (and by extension, its sponsors in Damascus and Tehran) would be quietly submerged and instead, the Libyans would be made the sole scapegoats. After that, the Lockerbie prosecution went after Megrahi and the Libyans, eventually convicting Megrahi, who spent eight years in a Scottish prison before being released on humanitarian grounds, dying in 2012 of cancer.
It is difficult to know why U.S. leadership decided to protect the PFLP-GC and Iranian regime, when all the investigative work had been done and all the evidence pointed strongly at their responsibility for the Lockerbie bombing. Gathering tensions with Iraqi leader Saddam Hussein over his Weapons of Mass Destruction (WMD) programs and the perceived need for Syrian support and, at a minimum, a pledge of non-interference from Iran may have been part of it. In the final analysis, though, Iran still has not been held to account: not for the murder of 270 people, mostly Americans headed home for Christmas, over Lockerbie, Scotland, and not for the nearly 3,000 killed on 11 September 2001. It is time that Iran is brought to account for its crimes against humanity.
Clare M. Lopez is a Senior Fellow with the Center for Security Policy and the London Center for Policy Research. She is also a member of the Citizens’ Commission on Benghazi.