The Justice Department on Monday dropped charges that accused a Libyan bomb expert in the 1988 explosion of Pan Am Flight 103 over Lockerbie, Scotland, an attack that killed 259 people in the air and another 11 on the ground.
The charges were announced at the 32nd anniversary of the bombing and at the last press conference of Justice Minister William Barr’s time, emphasizing his personal connection to a case that developed during his first term at the Department of Justice.
He announced an earlier set of charges against two Libyan intelligence officials as acting attorney general almost 30 years ago and promised that the investigation would continue. Although Barr had not appeared at a press conference for several months, he led this two days before his departure as something of a career book.
As they present new allegations, the Justice Department is reconsidering a case that deepened the gap between the United States and Libya, revealed the threat of international terrorism more than a decade before the 9/11 attacks, and produced global investigations and punitive sanctions.
In 1992, the UN Security Council introduced arms sales and air travel to Libya to produce Colonel Moammar Gadhafi, the country’s leader, to surrender the two suspects.
But the Libyan government was opposed to handing over the men to the United States, skeptical that they could get a fair trial. Libya eventually handed them over for prosecution before a panel of Scottish judges sitting in a Dutch court.
One man – former Libyan intelligence official Abdel Baset al-Megrahi – was convicted and a second Libyan suspect was acquitted of all charges. Al-Megrahi was sentenced to life in prison, but Scottish authorities released him on humanitarian grounds in 2009 when he was diagnosed with prostate cancer. He later died in Tripoli.
Libya formally blamed the bombings in 2003
The Pan Am flight exploded over Lockerbie less than an hour after taking off from London on December 21, 1988, en route to New York City and then Detroit. Among the Americans on board were 35 students from Syracuse University who fly home for Christmas after a holiday abroad.
The attack was the latest tension from Libya and Western countries, including the United States. In the years before the flight, for example, Libya was accused of bombing a West Berlin disco that killed two American soldiers and injured dozens of others.
It was not until 2003 that Gadhafi and Libya accepted responsibility for the Pan Am disaster, in which the country formally took the blame and reached a $ 2.7 billion compensation agreement with the families of the victims. The sanctions were lifted and in 2006 the Bush administration removed Libya from its list of state sponsors of terrorism and restored diplomatic relations with the country.
In addition to Barr, another key figure in the Lockerbie investigation was Robert Mueller, who was the criminal director of the Department of Justice at the time the first set of charges was announced. Mueller would later become the FBI director and special adviser responsible for investigating the ties between Russia and the 2016 Trump campaign.