February 8, 2023

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Libyans charged in 1988 with Lockerbie plane bombing is in FBI custody

WASHINGTON — A Libyan intelligence agent charged with the 1988 bombing of an American jet plane over Lockerbie, Scotland, was arrested by the FBI and extradited to the United States to face prosecution in one of the deadliest terrorist attacks in American history, they said officials on Sunday.

The arrest of agent Abu Agila Mohammad Mas’ud was the culmination of a decade-long effort by the Justice Department to prosecute him. In 2020, Attorney General William P. Barr announced criminal charges against Mr. Mas’ud, charging him with building the explosive device used in the bombing of Pan Am Flight 103 that killed 270 passengers, including 190 Americans.

Mr. Mas’ud faces two charges including destroying an airplane resulting in death. He was being held in a Libyan prison for unrelated crimes when the Justice Ministry unsealed the charges against him two years ago. It is unclear how the US government negotiated Mr Mas’ud’s extradition.

Mr Mas’ud’s alleged role in the Lockerbie bombing was re-examined in a 2015 three-part documentary about “Frontline” on PBS. The series was written and produced by Ken Dornstein, whose brother was killed in the attack. Mr Dornstein learned that Mr Mas’ud was being held in a Libyan prison and was even given pictures of him as part of his investigation.

“If there is one person who can tell the story of the Flight 103 bombing and put to rest decades of unanswered questions about exactly how it was carried out – and why – it is Mr. Mas’ud,” wrote Mr Dornstein in an email after learning that Mr Mas’ud would finally face criminal prosecution in the United States. “The question, I think, is whether he’s finally ready to speak.”

After Colonel Muammar el-Gaddafi, Libya’s leader, was ousted from power, Mr Mas’ud confessed to the 2012 bombing and told a Libyan law enforcement official that he was behind the attack. When investigators learned of the confession in 2017, they questioned the Libyan official who challenged it, which led to charges.

Although extradition would allow Mr Mas’ud to stand trial, legal experts have expressed doubts as to whether his confession, obtained in prison in war-torn Libya, would be admissible as evidence.

Mr Mas’ud, who was born in Tunisia but has Libyan citizenship, was the third person accused of the bombing. Two others, Abdel Basset Ali al-Megrahi and Al-Amin Khalifa Fhimah, were indicted in 1991, but American efforts to prosecute them foundered when Libya refused to send them to the United States or Britain to work there to stand in court.

Instead, the Libyan government agreed to a trial in the Netherlands under Scottish law. Mr Fhimah was acquitted and Mr al-Megrahi was found guilty in 2001 and sentenced to life imprisonment.

In 2009, Scottish officials released Mr al-Megrahi on charges of prostate cancer, despite strong objections from the victims’ families and American officials, including President Barack Obama. Mr al-Megrahi died in 2012; His family appealed his conviction posthumously in Scotland, but last year a jury refused to overturn it.

Prosecutors say Mr Mas’ud played a key role in the bombing as he traveled to Malta and delivered the suitcase containing the bomb used in the attack. In Malta, Mr Megrahi and Mr Fhimah instructed Mr Mas’ud to set the device’s timer so that it would detonate the next day while the plane was in the air, prosecutors said.

On the morning of December 21, 1998, Mr Megrahi and Mr Fhimah met Mr Mas’ud at the airport in Malta, where he handed over the suitcase. Prosecutors said Mr Fhimah placed the suitcase on a conveyor belt and eventually landed on Pan Am Flight 103.

Mr. Mas’ud’s name appeared twice in 1988, even before the bombing took place. In October, a Libyan defector told the CIA he had seen Mr Mas’ud with Mr Megrahi at Malta airport and said the pair had gotten past a terrorist operation. Malta served as the primary vantage point for Libya to initiate such attacks, the agency’s whistleblower said. That December, the day before the Pan Am bombing, the CIA’s informant told the couple that they had traveled through Malta again. Almost another year passed before the agency asked the whistleblower about the bombing.

But investigators never seriously pursued Mr Mas’ud until Mr Megrahi’s trial years later, only for Libyans to insist that Mr Mas’ud did not exist. Mr Megrahi also claimed that he did not know Mr Mas’ud.