How a Lockerbie bombing suspect ended up in US custody

7 min read
21 December, 2022

The US has confirmed that Abu Agila Mohammad Mas'ud Kheir Al-Marimi, the last Libyan suspect in the Lockerbie bombing case, is in US custody, after being allegedly handed over by the unity government in Tripoli.

Mas’ud, a former security official in the Gaddafi regime, had mysteriously disappeared after an armed group stormed his home in the capital in November.

Appearing in a US federal court last week, his trial comes nearly 34 years after a bomb exploded on board Pan American Flight 103 over Lockerbie, Scotland in 1988 killing all 259 passengers, in addition to 11 people on the ground.

"Mas'ud, a former security official in the Gaddafi regime, had mysteriously disappeared after an armed group stormed his home in the capital in November"

In broad daylight

The New Arab has sought clarification from Mas’ud’s family about the circumstances of his extradition.

"My uncle was kidnapped from his home in front of his family members without any judicial order issued by the competent judicial authority," Abdel Moneim Al-Marimi, Mas’ud’s nephew, told The New Arab.

"The kidnapping was accompanied by intimidation," he added, calling for the intervention of the Libyan judiciary and legal penalties for the perpetrators.

According to the Guardian, Mas’ud was seized by forces loyal to Abdel Ghani al-Kikili, who commands the Stability Support Authority (SSA) of the Tripoli-based Government of National Unity (GNU).

In a televised speech last Thursday, Libya's Prime Minister Abdulhamid al-Dbeibah indirectly acknowledged his administration’s involvement in transferring the suspect.

"An arrest warrant was issued against him from Interpol. It has become imperative for us to cooperate in this file for the sake of Libya's interest and stability," he said.

Live Story

Dbeibah added that his government would provide Mas’ud with a lawyer and facilitate a visit by the suspect’s family to check on his health condition.

Mas’ud’s family, however, have rejected Dbeibah’s account of the incident as “false” and involving “fabricated charges”, while his nephew told The New Arab that the family is facing difficulties in obtaining a visa to travel to the United States.

The visit would be costly and beyond their means, but family members are determined to travel to see their detained relative, the nephew, Al-Marimi, added.

He said that they have also opened an investigation with the Public Prosecution against Dbeibah, his foreign minister Najla Mangoush, and Omar Bugada, the commander of the joint force in Misrata, for their involvement in the extradition process.

They accuse them of imprisoning Mas’ud for over a month without charge before smuggling him to the US, expressing “surprise” at the Dbeibah administration’s position given that they say the case was closed decades ago.

Paul Hudson, whose daughter Melina was one of the victims in the Pan Am Flight 103 Lockerbie bombing, holds up a banner of pictures of additional victims outside the federal court on 12 December 2022 before the trial for a Libyan suspect accused of making the bomb that exploded on the plane. [Getty]

The complicity of Libyan authorities

As details of Mas’ud’s case emerge, Libyan officials and rival political parties have launched scathing attacks on the Dbeibah administration.

In 2003, Libya accepted responsibility for the 1988 bombing and agreed to pay $2.7 billion in compensation to the families of the victims, paving the way to ending sanctions on the country.

"We are concerned that the handover took place illegally and without the supervision of the Libyan judiciary," Fathi Bashagha, prime minister of the eastern-based Libyan government, said on Sunday.

"This constitutes a flagrant legal violation that undermines the sovereignty of the Libyan state and the independence of the judiciary."

When contacted by The New Arab, national security advisor to the Dbeibah government Ibrahim Abu Shanaf said: “Libyan authorities have contacted the United States to understand the legal status of the Libyan citizen Abu Agila Mas’ud and on what basis he is being interrogated."

"As details of Mas'ud's case emerge, Libyan officials and rival political parties have launched scathing attacks on the Dbeibah administration"

He added: “We don't know how he was extradited, and this wasn't executed by the Libyan judiciary. However, we’re awaiting a response from the US authorities about the circumstances of the extradition and how that was done, as the case with regards to Libya was closed years ago and there is no way to open it today.”

The New Arab sought further clarification from the Dbeibah administration but did not receive a response.

The eastern-based House of Representatives called on the Attorney General to investigate "those who were involved in reopening the Lockerbie case" and said it considered it an attempt to seize Libya's assets held and frozen abroad.

The House of Representatives also said that any "illegal" handover of a Libyan citizen is a "heinous crime".

Live Story

Why now

The US Justice Department announced charges against Mas’ud in 2020 after having made a breakthrough in 2017 when they received a copy of an interview with Mas’ud given to Libyan law enforcement after being detained after the Gaddafi regime collapsed.

US officials say he admitted to building the bomb used in the Pan Am attack, while an FBI affidavit says Mas’ud admits the operation was ordered by Libyan intelligence services.

Mas’ud was arrested in 2012 in Tripoli as one of the intelligence officers of the former Gaddafi regime and remained in Ain Zara prison on several charges, including planning to suppress demonstrators in the 2011 revolution.

In November he was released for health reasons. Officers from General Khalifa Haftar’s forces reportedly contacted him soon after and asked him to join them.

Officials from Dbeibah’s government have said that Mas’ud was allegedly planning to flee from Tripoli to Benghazi, but his arrest prevented him from doing so.

Abdul Hamid Dbeibah anadolu
Mas'ud’s handover has political goals for the National Unity Government, analysts say. [Getty]

Political analyst Ali Abu Zeid told The New Arab that Mas’ud’s handover certainly has political goals, especially for the National Unity Government, which he says suffers from international isolation and fragile domestic authority.

By handing over Mas’ud to Washington, Dbeibah believes that he can court US support for his leadership amid ongoing political infighting.

“Dbeibah clearly indicated the possibility of handing over others, and he meant Abdullah Al-Senussi, and this is what we warned about four months ago,” Abu Zaid said.

Dbeibah also clearly did not anticipate the widespread disapproval caused by Mas’ud’s extradition, which prompted him to respond in a televised speech – one that underlined the confusion of his administration since there was no court ruling or evidence presented to support his claims.

According to Abu Zaid, Mus’ab’s extradition could pave the way to reopening other compensation claims, as some families of the victims of the Lockerbie bombing did not accept a settlement worked out in 2008.

"By handing over Mas'ud to Washington, Dbeibah believes that he can court US support for his leadership amid ongoing political infighting, analysts say"

That sum - $1.5 billion – also included payments for a 1986 Berlin disco attack by Libyan agents, while the agreement that year called for $300 million for Libyan victims of US airstrikes in response.

Mas’ud’s case could also encourage other cases to be reopened, such as the killing of PC Yvonne Fletcher outside the Libyan embassy in London in 1984, in which an ex-Gaddafi aide was found jointly liable for her shooting.

Lawyer Abdelbaset Haddad told The New Arab that the decision to extradite Mus’ab was flawed as Libyan law states that citizens may not be extradited and must be tried for crimes in domestic courts.

Judicial authorities in Libya have failed, however, to prosecute crimes against both Libyans and foreign citizens in the country, including by intelligence services.

Live Story

“We respect the just rights of the victims, but we are against selectivity in dealing with humanitarian issues, and just as American states have the right to prosecute and hold the wanted persons accountable in their courts regarding cases committed against their citizens, we today call on the Libyan authorities to file a lawsuit for the American raid on Libya,” Ahmed Hamza from the National Human Rights Commission in Libya told TNA.

Two alleged Libyan intelligence operatives were charged with the Lockerbie bombing and tried by a Scottish court in the Netherlands.

Abdelbaset Ali Mohmed al-Megrahi is the only suspect to have been convicted of the attack and spent seven years in jail until being freed on compassionate grounds in 2009 after a cancer diagnosis.

He died in 2012 but had always maintained his innocence.

Islam Alatrash is a Libyan journalist and researcher based in Tripoli. Currently, he is a senior reporter for Deutsche Welle (DW). His work focuses on human rights, community-led development, religion, politics, and interfaith and climate change issues

Follow him on Twitter: @islam20ly