Lockerbie Bombing Suspect Is in U.S. Custody

Alleged bomb-maker for late Libyan dictator Moammar Gadhafi admitted to building device, U.S. prosecutors have said.

By guest authors Byron Tau and Sadie Gurman in Washington and Benoit Faucon in London. Ginger Adams Otis in New York contributed to this article.

WASHINGTON—The alleged bomb-maker in the 1988 terrorist attack that destroyed a commercial jetliner over Lockerbie, Scotland, is in U.S. custody and will face federal charges, marking a breakthrough in one of the world’s longest and most sprawling terrorism investigations.

Authorities allege Abu Agila Mohammad Masud, a Libyan explosives expert, constructed the bomb used to destroy Pan Am Flight 103 on Dec. 21, 1988, as it flew from London to New York. The attack killed the 243 passengers and 16 crew on board. An additional 11 people were killed by falling debris, making the attack one of the deadliest in U.K. history.

“The United States has taken custody of (the) alleged Pan Am flight 103 bomb-maker,” a Justice Department spokesman said Sunday, Dec. 11, 2022.

“Scottish prosecutors and police, working with UK Government and US colleagues, will continue to pursue this investigation,” a spokesperson for the Scottish Crown Office and Procurator Fiscal Service said in a statement.

Mr. Masud’s arrest raises the possibility that families of the victims could for the first time see a suspect prosecuted in the U.S. Two other suspects were tried in Europe more than 20 years ago.

He is expected to make an initial appearance in a Washington, D.C., federal court in the coming days.

“This is extraordinarily good news. I want to see this guy prosecuted,” said Susan Cohen, who lost her 20-year-old daughter in the bombing. “This is what we have all wanted for a long, long time.”

Investigators in the U.S. and U.K. believe the attack was carried out by Libyan intelligence operatives. In 2003, the Libyan government acknowledged responsibility in a bid to normalize relations with Western countries and bring to an end United Nations sanctions. Longtime Libyan dictator Moammar Gadhafi denied personal involvement in the attack. Gadhafi was killed in 2011 in a civil war aimed at toppling his regime.

The task of identifying and trying additional suspects received renewed attention under former Attorney General William Barr, who announced the charges against Mr. Masud shortly before leaving office in 2020 at the end of the Trump administration.

The charges included destruction of aircraft resulting in death and destruction of a vehicle by means of explosives, serious allegations that could carry decades in prison if he is convicted.

After Gadhafi’s ouster, Mr. Masud was jailed for allegedly plotting against the Libyan revolution. Libyan authorities released him three months ago because he had cancer, but Misrata-based special forces recently detained him again, a person familiar with the matter said.

Libyan authorities denied involvement in Mr. Masud’s handover to the U.S. According to the official Libyan news agency Lana, the country’s justice ministry said that Mr. Masud had been illegally removed from the country.

Prosecutors have said Mr. Masud admitted to assembling the device that blew up the commercial jetliner. Much of their case is based on a confession Mr. Masud allegedly gave after Gadhafi was overthrown and killed.

Mr. Masud admitted that the bombing had been “ordered by Libyan intelligence leadership” and that Gadhafi had “thanked him and other members of the team for their successful attack on the United States,” court documents said.

“This was huge unfinished business.”

— Former U.S. Attorney General William Barr

In the years since the attacks, U.S. and U.K. authorities have sought restitution for families of the victims. The U.N. sanctioned Libya in response to the aircraft’s destruction. Those sanctions were lifted after a landmark 2003 settlement agreement for Tripoli to pay $2.7 billion in compensation—about $10 million to each family of the 270 victims.

Many families had hoped that individuals associated with the attacks would also be brought to justice.

Previous trials of Lockerbie suspects have delivered mixed verdicts. Two other Libyan officials, Abdel Baset al-Megrahi, who died in 2012, and Lamen Khalifa Fhimah, were charged in the attack by Scottish authorities in the 1990s. After years of resisting extradition, Libya eventually agreed to extradite both in 1999. Al-Megrahi was convicted in 2001 but released after serving eight years of a life sentence, while Mr. Fhimah was acquitted.

Mr. Fhimah couldn’t immediately be reached for comment.

The Lockerbie case carried personal significance to Mr. Barr, who also laid out U.S. charges against al-Megrahi and Mr. Fhimah during his first stint as attorney general in 1991.

Mr. Barr on Sunday praised the Biden administration for pursuing Mr. Masud’s capture. “This was huge unfinished business,” Mr. Barr said in an interview. “I think it’s important for the U.S. to establish that we will never stop going after terrorists who kill Americans.”

Mr. Barr previously called the Lockerbie attack “the opening attack of modern-day mass terrorism against the American people” which led to the attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, and the resulting war on terrorism.

The U.S. separately took custody of Mauritanian national Fawaz Ould Ahmed Ould Ahemeid, who was accused of planning and coordinating three deadly attacks in western Mali in 2015, prosecutors said in the six-count indictment against him.

Mr. Ahemeid, also known as Ibrahim Idress, aka Ibrahim Dix, was arraigned in New York federal court Saturday on multiple terrorism charges for his alleged role in those attacks.

Attorneys for Mr. Ahemeid declined to comment.

Corrections & Amplifications
Prosecutors in December 2020 said Abu Agila Mohammad Masud admitted to assembling the device that blew up the jetliner. A headline on an earlier version of the story incorrectly said prosecutors made the claim last year. (Corrected on Dec. 11).