Kenny MacAskill writes about his decision to release the Lockerbie bomber and the behind-the-scenes diplomatic intrigue
On 21 December 1988, Pan Am flight 103 departed from Heathrow for New York. It wasn’t scheduled to land in Scotland. However, a delay in departure meant that a bomb placed on the plane detonated over Scotland and not the North Atlantic. The atrocity took the lives of all aboard and remains the single worst act of terror carried out in the UK.
The small Scottish town of Lockerbie lay directly below and was oblivious to the horror about to befall it. It resulted in a manhunt that ultimately put Scottish Justice on trial, as well as trying the Scottish Government.
The Lockerbie Bombing was not a one off act of terror. It was part of a series of actions and reaction as terror brought counter terror. It was state sponsored that involved governments and state agencies as well as terrorist organisations. It was a horrific event but one of many over a cycle of violence that continues to this day.
It resulted in a huge manhunt that spanned the globe, overseen by the Scotland’s smallest Constabulary but cooperating with major forces and security services at home and abroad.
It saw two men brought to trial in an unprecedented Scottish Court, brokered not just by Nation States but by the United Nations. It resulted in appeals and reviews and the file remains open to this day.
The one man convicted of the bombing was the subject of a Prisoner Transfer Agreement between the UK and Libya. He was subsequently released by me, as Scottish Justice Secretary, on compassionate grounds in 2009.
The conviction, never mind the release, has been controversial. Many profess Megrahi’s innocence to this day.
It’s certainly the case that the evidence was circumstantial and some dubiety remains over both identification and payments to critical witnesses. Whether a conviction would have been sustained on subsequent appeal is open to doubt. However, it’s also clear that the investigation was thorough and that allegations made against police and prosecutors are without foundation.
However, in the court of public opinion he stands convicted. He had a role but was just a foot soldier for those he worked for.
A coalition of the willing
The act, though carried out by Libyan intelligence, had its genesis in the terrorist war that was being waged between the west and terrorist agencies and continues today, even if the actors are changed and in some instances have even changed sides.
Its origins were also in the downing of the Iranian airliner by the USS Vincennes, for which the US neither apologised nor atoned till much later. It set in motion events that created a coalition of the willing to perpetrate the atrocity that included Iran, the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine – General Command, Syria and Libya.
Security interests were also to the fore. Gadhafi had been courted by the western world as a bulwark against Islamic terror. He was later toppled and replaced by many of those he had been supported in suppressing.
The evidence for that comes not just from the court but from the statements of both Gadhafi and the National Transitional Council in Libya which subsequently replaced him.
A Faustian pact
But, there was also much more to this than simply a terrorist atrocity. It involved not just commercial deals but security interests.
There was oil, as the UK sought a major deal for BP in Libya. There were also minerals and military contracts, pursued not just by western companies but also by their governments. Security interests were also to the fore. Gadhafi had been courted by the western world as a bulwark against Islamic terror. He was later toppled and replaced by many of those he had been supported in suppressing.
It included a Faustian pact by Blair and Bush with Gadhafi, in the early part of the new millennium, that saw a deal in the desert. It was followed not just by a major commercial transaction but the rendition of Libyan opposition prisoners into Gadhafi’s hands by MI6 and the CIA.
A cog in a bigger machine
As Lockerbie was just a part of a cycle of violence so Scotland found itself as a cog in a much bigger machine. It was only subsequent to many of the events that I realised how small a cog and how big a wheel.
A Scottish Government with limited devolved powers found itself dealing with a major international situation where the UK, USA and the Arab world all had an interest. The public pronouncements of many of those were often at odds with the agendas they pursued privately.
However, the rules and guidance that applied in Scotland were implemented and Megrahi was released on compassionate grounds, having been diagnosed as terminally ill with prostate cancer. It’s a decision I alone made and one I stand by to this day.
Scottish Justice was required to deal with Lockerbie but subsequently found itself on trial. The Scottish Government with no powers to act in foreign affairs found itself at the centre of an international storm.
Much has been said or written about both me and the Scottish Government. The book sets the record straight.
Kenny MacAskill was the Scottish Justice Secretary between 2007 and 2014. His new book, The Lockerbie Bombing: The Search for Justice, is out now from Biteback Publishing.