Robert Fisk: Libya: what's the bloody motive?

Last week's judgment leaves many loose threads in the case of Pan Am 103. Crucially, the Why? question goes unanswered

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It's an odd sort of document, the judgment of Lords Sutherland, Coulsfield and MacLean. "Motive," I wrote on the 83rd and final page when I had finished reading it in Beirut. "What's the bloody motive?" In a city where every bomb, assassination or air raid has a reason - albeit often disguised or uninvestigated - it's the obvious question. Even in Edinburgh or Glasgow, their lordships must be familiar with the idea. Wives and husbands may kill each other, but we usually need to know if it was out of jealousy, revenge or for the insurance money. But not, it appears, when it's about 270 people dying most cruelly after a bomb explodes aboard an international airliner. How very odd.

It's an odd sort of document, the judgment of Lords Sutherland, Coulsfield and MacLean. "Motive," I wrote on the 83rd and final page when I had finished reading it in Beirut. "What's the bloody motive?" In a city where every bomb, assassination or air raid has a reason - albeit often disguised or uninvestigated - it's the obvious question. Even in Edinburgh or Glasgow, their lordships must be familiar with the idea. Wives and husbands may kill each other, but we usually need to know if it was out of jealousy, revenge or for the insurance money. But not, it appears, when it's about 270 people dying most cruelly after a bomb explodes aboard an international airliner. How very odd.

The Crown prosecution did say that it was Libya's revenge for the 1986 US air attack on Tripoli and Benghazi, a raid that cost the life of Colonel Gaddafi's adopted daughter. And it's true that the Libyans appear to be all too ready to put bombs on planes; the French seem to have put together a dramatic case against Libya for the bomb on a French UTA jet over Chad. But Chad and France were in dispute about Niger and other policies in central Africa. It's not an excuse for so wicked a crime, but at least it's a motive. The Libyan motive for Lockerbie - two-and-a-half years after the US raids - is far less clear. An Iranian motive after the US cruiser Vincennes shot down an Iranian airliner over the Gulf, killing 290, is easier to understand. Iran Air flight 655 was destroyed only five months before Lockerbie (the US captain said he thought the Airbus was an Iranian fighter). But the court's judgment in the Netherlands makes no mention of this.

Thus, it seems, the Libyans were behind the Lockerbie bombing because they were, well, Libyans. The nature of the Libyan regime and its earlier propensity for violence seems to be the best reason we are given.Now the links to Libyan intelligence agents, albeit often opaque, make it difficult to believe that Libya was uninvolved. But their lordships' findings are fascinating in other ways.

One of the themes to emerge from their judgment is the way in which the unimpeachable evidence derived from the wreckage of Pan Am flight 103 is more impressive than the rather less conclusive computer baggage documentation discovered in Frankfurt airport - through which the case containing the bomb passed, apparently from Malta - but which is itself infinitely more credible than the information derived from Luqa airport in Malta. Indeed, the court never found out how Abdelbaset Ali Mohamed al-Megrahi of the Libyan intelligence service got the case past security at Luqa. The best we learn of events in Libya is from a CIA-paid "witness" who is totally discredited by the judgment.

So from the certainties examined by the forensic men in Britain - the most minute pieces of charred cloth and radio plastic and timer parts - we move into ever murkier evidence until, like the wind that blows off the Sahara, the Libyan end of the story is cloaked in sand. Verbally, these dunes are evident on the pages of the judgment: "It is not difficult to infer" (p81, on whether the accused knew the purpose of buying the garments packed in the fatal piece of luggage); "it is possible to infer" (p82, about al-Megrahi's visit to Malta on a false passport on the day of the bombing); "after full account of that difficulty, we remain of the view" (p75, that the suitcase began its journey from Malta without knowing how it breached airport security).

Reading this reminds me of those historians who have to tell a story without sufficient written evidence: "It is not difficult to understand how Caesar might have reacted"; "we can imagine Napoleon's response"; or perhaps "it is not difficult to infer that Richard the Third ordered the murder of the two princes". Reviewers usually have a field-day with this sort of stuff. And I suspect their lordships might not accept it in the Scottish domestic courts.

Then there's the witness reliability problem. The judgment deals ruthlessly with a few airport apparatchiks in Europe. And it trashes the CIA's informant. But when we come to Edwin Bollier, the Swiss arms dealer who sold timers to Libya, there's an odd assortment of trust. When Bollier says that a spy encouraged him to buy a typewriter with Spanish keys on which to give the CIA the names of two Libyans, his story "belongs in our view to the realm of fiction where it may best be placed in the genre of the spy thriller". But the judges accept, for example, that Bollier had dealings with the Libyan government and obtained timers for them, because in these cases "his evidence has not been challenged and appears to have been accepted...." So in just a few pages the fantasist turns into a truth-teller.

Again, this doesn't mean there was no provable Libyan connection, nor that the convicted agent wasn't involved; merely that it leaves a lot of open questions. We should, of course, remember that the scientific evidence was never supposed to have been found: Pan Am 103 would have been well over the Atlantic when the bomb went off, if it had not been delayed at Heathrow. But that doesn't mean, surely, that we can wrap up the story with the Libyan connection. And there is clear evidence that the authorities originally took the same view. In the Middle East at the time, there was near conviction that the Iranians - who had promised revenge for the Airbus killings - were implicated. They had a real motive. And their intelligence service could call on the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine-General Command, probably the most expert bomb-makers in the region.

Sure enough, the judgment includes details of raids and bomb-parts seized from the PFLP-GC in Germany not long before Lockerbie. But they didn't apparently use the same kind of timers that Bollier sold to the Libyans. This is a little bizarre. The PFLP-GC, like Abu Nidal's notorious killers who used to base themselves in Tripoli, had connections with Libya. And under the inspiration of a world Islamic movement, young Muslims did travel from between Tripoli and Tehran. And in the Middle East, intelligence services co-operate and infiltrate each other (which is why a Jordanian agent was planted in the PFLP-GC's German cell).

So why wasn't this explored? The British policeman who interviewed the Maltese man who probably sold the suitcase clothes to the Libyan agent initially produced photographs of suspects who included PFLP-GC men. But then - and it's interesting that the judgment does not mention the PFLP-GC's links with Iran or why they might have been involved - the decision seems to have been taken that Libya was to be the focus of the inquiry. It should have been a focus. But why the only focus? Was this because the trail ran cold in Germany? Or because, while the Maltese was being regularly called to examine photographs of suspects, Saddam Hussein had invaded Kuwait, and Syria - the PFLP-GC's supporter and Iran's only Arab ally - had decided to support the Allied cause in the Gulf? I'm not suggesting Big Brother was at work; merely that the world was changing and great events were afoot and Syria was (for the moment) our friend. And, since there was a Libyan connection, it was a politically easier one to follow. I'm not saying the court's judgment is a whitewash; just that it's a bit odd. Indeed, reading it, one might infer - to use their lordships' quaint expression - that it's the truth but definitely not all the truth.

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