Lockerbie’s long shadow

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Lockerbie’s long shadow

The explosion of the Russian airbus over the Sinai desert had sombre echoes of Lockerbie, the destruction in 1988 above the Scottish town of that name of Pan Am Flight 103 by a terrorist bomb.
Lockerbie can be seen as a portent of the present dark moment. The fresh Paris atrocities are the latest chapter of a conflict in which non-Muslims increasingly perceive the Islamic world as a reservoir of motiveless malignity.
The issue of Lockerbie has been revived by a film recently broadcast by the PBS television network in the US and in the UK by BBC4. Hugely emotive, My Brother’s Bomber is the work of the American journalist, Ken Dornstein, who lost his older brother at Lockerbie and who has spent years investigating the attack. Dornstein takes for granted that the Libyan intelligence officer, Abdelbasset Al-Megrahi, convicted in 2001 of murdering 243 (mostly American) people at Lockerbie, was guilty as charged. But his film points an accusing finger at two possible accomplices, Abdullah Senussi, the late Libyan leader Col. Qaddafi’s security chief, and Abu Agila Masud, the alleged bomb-maker. It conveys that the latter was also behind the 1986 attack on the La Belle discotheque in Berlin, popular with US servicemen, which led to the US bombing of Libya, for which Lockerbie was presumed vengeance. Currently imprisoned in Libya, the two men are now being treated as Lockerbie suspects by Scotland’s prosecuting authority.
The striking thing about Dornstein’s film is the one-eyed fixity of its gaze. Those unfamiliar with the tangled Lockerbie story could hardly grasp from it the disquiet about Megrahi’s conviction felt by British people of conscience, among them Dr. Jim Swire, who, notwithstanding the loss of his daughter at Lockerbie became Megrahi’s friend, and the authors, John Ashton and Morag Kerr. They believe that the three Scottish judges who convicted Megrahi at a special court in the Netherlands perpetrated a gross miscarriage of justice. They question the credibility of Tony Gauci, the Maltese shopkeeper who testified that Megrahi bought clothes from him that were wrapped round the Lockerbie bomb; they insist that the claim that the bomb originated in Malta has to be set against strong indications that it was planted in London; and they point out that the timer attached to the bomb, a key piece of evidence in the prosecution of Megrahi, proved not to belong to a batch of timers sold to Libya by a Swiss firm.
Swire and his fellow skeptics believe that Megrahi’s conviction would not have survived the appeal he was preparing when, in 2009, diagnosed with terminal cancer, he was released by Scotland’s devolved government to return to Libya to die. Public outrage at his release was matched by that of the political establishments of London and Washington. Yet one may wonder if this official fury was not in some measure theatrical. An appeal might well have unveiled politically embarrassing matters: the lavish efforts made by the US to look after Tony Gauci; the CIA’s black propaganda war against Libya; the grounds for suspecting that the Lockerbie attack was orchestrated by Iran.
Swire figures fleetingly in My Brother’s Bomber. The film shows him going to pay his last respects to the Megrahi in Tripoli, with Dornstein in attendance. Kitted out with concealed recording equipment, Dornstein hoped to accompany Swire into the dying man’s home but was politely refused entry and ended up writhing with frustration outside.
My Brother’s Bomber plays to the familiar stark binary narrative of terrorized West versus demonic Arab world. It may be felt that Dornstein shares with the US media and public opinion a visceral resistance to challenges to this narrative. In truth, there has never been much chance of the mainstream western media lending credence to alternative versions of the Lockerbie story. Now, in the poisonous, furiously polarized aftermath of the Paris massacre, the freedom of people like Jim Swire to question the official story could become more circumscribed than ever.
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