On December 21, 1988, the deadliest terrorist attack in U.K. history occurred when a bomb planted on Pan Am Flight 103 exploded over Lockerbie, Scotland, killing all 259 people aboard.
On December 21, 1988, Pan Am Flight 103 took off from London en route to New York City. Thirty-eight minutes later, the plane exploded over Lockerbie, Scotland, killing all 259 people on board as well as 11 people on the ground. It wasn’t a tragic accident. Someone had planted a bomb.
The subsequent investigation into the so-called Lockerbie bombing unveiled a complex conspiracy involving Libyan intelligence agents and a powerful desire for revenge. Though suspects were quickly identified, the bombing of Pan Am Flight 103 would have far-reaching implications.
To this day, Scottish and American teams continue to investigate the case.
The Night Of The Lockerbie Bombing
On December 21, 1988, Pan Am Flight 103 took off in London, England, with 243 passengers and 16 crew members onboard around 6:30 p.m. Bound for New York City, the Boeing 747 held many passengers headed home for the holidays, including 35 study-abroad students from Syracuse University.
Meanwhile, in Lockerbie, Scotland — a small town in the south of the country — most people were starting to settle down for the night. For them, and for the plane passing above their head, all seemed well.
But just 38 minutes into Pan Am Flight 103’s journey, an explosion rocked the aircraft. According to The Guardian, evidence suggests that the passengers onboard were plunged into darkness. Then, as the forward fuselage began to disintegrate, the nose of the plane tore off, pummeling them with cold.
Some were sucked into the engine. Some were propelled into the night sky. Most, however, were trapped in two large sections of the rapidly falling plane, some 60 percent of whom were still alive. It’s impossible to know, however, if anyone was still conscious as the plane plummeted to the earth.
Meanwhile, residents of Lockerbie heard a terrible roar as the ground shook around them (the impact of the plane measured 1.6 on the Richter scale). Bodies fell from the sky, and remnants of the plane crashed through the town. As the FBI found, the wings and the middle part of the fuselage slammed into several homes on Sherwood Crescent, killing 11 people there.
When rescue teams arrived, they came upon a nightmarish scene. Bodies littered the ground, Lockerbie residents wandered around in disbelief, fires roared, and the plane had left a 150-foot-long hole across the tiny town.
“There was a great roaring noise and flames coming out of a great big hole in the ground and dense, dense smoke,” George Stobbs, the senior police inspector with the Dumfries and Galloway Constabulary at the time, told the FBI. “Terrific heat. I actually saw a wrought iron gate melting. It was like it was made of butter, and it was dripping.”
In total, 300 tons of plane debris spread out over 845 square miles. Every passenger on board had died in the crash, including 190 Americans. In all, the victims from Pan Am Flight 103 included 21 nationalities. But the Associated Press reports that two people could have survived the devastating crash — if only medical personnel had reached them sooner.
The sheer level of devastation sparked international outrage. Soon, officials began the arduous process of piecing together what happened that night.
Investigating Pan Am Flight 103
Given the number of American citizens on Pan Am Flight 103, the investigation into what happened in Lockerbie involved both Scottish officials and the Federal Bureau of Investigations. Both knew that the process wouldn’t be easy. More than 10,000 pieces of evidence had been collected and the total search area spanned hundreds of miles.
But by July 1990, the investigators were able to come to a grim conclusion: a bomb had taken down Pan Am Flight 103.
They determined that the explosion had come from the forward cargo hold, where a brown Samsonite suitcase containing a radio cassette holder had also contained a bomb. What’s more, investigators discovered that dozens of scraps of clothing with traces of the explosive came from the same place: the Malta Trading Company.
As The Guardian reports, this discovery broke open the case. Investigators were able to pinpoint a suitcase that had been transferred from Malta to Pan Am Flight 103, as well as the Maltese store where the clothing had come from. When they spoke to the store owner, he remembered selling the clothing to a Libyan. The man stuck out in the store owner’s memory because he seemed indifferent about the sizes of the clothing or its price.
As The New York Times reports, the store owner cooperated with investigators, and eventually identified one of their suspects as the clothing buyer: a Libyan intelligence officer named Abdel Basset Ali al-Megrahi.
The head of security for Libyan Arab Airlines, the U.S. Justice Department reports that Megrahi was ordered to fly to Malta by Libyan intelligence in order to meet with two other co-conspirators: Abu Agila Mohammad Mas’ud Kheir Al-Marimi and Lamen Khalifa Fhimah.
Megrahi instructed Mas’ud to set a timer on their bomb for 11 hours. The three then placed the device into a cassette player, positioned it in the suitcase, and put the suitcase on a conveyer belt in the airport.
Then, investigators believe, they waited.
Megrahi and Fhimah were indicted on 270 counts of murder, conspiracy to murder, and violating Britain’s 1982 Aviation Security Act in 1991, and charges were announced against Mas’ud in 2022. But in the decades to come, their arrests and trials would provide only scant answers.
The Motivation Behind The Lockerbie Bombing
In 1999, Megrahi and Fhimah were extradited from Libya to the Netherlands, under the custody of the United Nations. Their trial began on May 3, 2000, during which Megrahi was found guilty — and sentenced to a minimum of 27 years in jail — and Fhimah was acquitted.
Throughout their arrest, trial, and detainment, neither Megrahi nor Fhimah admitted to being involved in the bombing of Pan Am Flight 103. In addition, the testimony of some witnesses, including the Maltese store owner, have since come under scrutiny, according to The New York Times.
Despite the men’s silence, authorities have speculated that the motive behind the attack was likely revenge. HISTORY notes that the Libyans may have wanted to retaliate against a 1986 strike which killed Libyan leader Muammar el-Qaddafi’s young daughter, or avenge the U.S.’s accidental downing of Iran Air Flight 655, which killed 290 people in 1988.
But the story of the Lockerbie bombing didn’t end there. Megrahni was released from prison in 2009 on “compassionate grounds” after being diagnosed with terminal prostate cancer, a move that deeply angered American officials. He died three years later in 2012.
And on December 21, 2020, the 34th anniversary of the bombing of Pan Am Flight 103, US Attorney General William Barr announced criminal charges against Abu Agila Mohammad Mas’ud Kheir Al-Marimi for his role in the Lockerbie disaster. Mas’ud was released into U.S. custody in 2022. He will face trial and potentially serve a life sentence if a jury finds him guilty.
As such, the ramifications of the terrorist attack continue to this day.
The Legacy Of Pan Am Flight 103
Not only have the legal proceedings against the Lockerbie bombing suspects echoed through time. So has the pain of the victims’ families.
Every year, Syracuse University holds a memorial to honor the 35 students who lost their lives in the Pan Am Flight 103 disaster.
The school’s chancellor, Melvin Eggers, vowed in a statement that the “sons and daughters will be remembered at Syracuse University so long as any of us shall live and so long as the university shall stand.”
In Washington D.C., a traditional Scottish cairn memorializes the lives lost in the disaster. The base of the cairn reads:
“On 21 December 1988, a terrorist bomb destroyed Pan American Airlines Flight 103 over Lockerbie, Scotland, killing all on board and 11 on the ground. The 270 Scottish stones which compose this memorial cairn commemorate those who lost their lives in this attack against America.”
Even today, families await more news regarding the events that led to their loved ones’ deaths on the night of December 21, 1988. While they wait, they keep their loved ones’ memories alive by establishing foundations and scholarships in their names, meeting with other families impacted by the disaster, and advocating for stronger airport security.
“There’s a saying that the dead are still with us as long as someone speaks their name,” said Kathryn Turman, the FBI’s Victim Services Division assistant director. “That’s one of the things that we do in the FBI, and we do well, is we speak their names. We continue to do that.”
After reading about Pan Am Flight 103, learn about the terrorist attack on Pan Am Flight 73. Then, discover the story of Todd Beamer, the courageous hero who led a revolt against hijackers on United Airlines Flight 93 during 9/11.