WASHINGTON — A Libyan intelligence official accused of making the bomb that brought down Pan Am Flight 103 over Lockerbie, Scotland, in 1988 in an international act of terrorism has been taken into U.S. custody and will face federal charges in Washington, the Justice Department said Sunday.
The arrest of Abu Agila Mohammad Mas’ud Kheir Al-Marimi is a milestone in the decades-old investigation into the attack that killed 259 people in the air and 11 on the ground. American authorities in December 2020 announced charges against Mas’ud, who was in Libyan custody at the time. Though he is the third Libyan intelligence official charged in the U.S. in connection with the attack, he would be the first to appear in an American courtroom for prosecution.
The New York-bound Pan Am flight exploded over Lockerbie less than an hour after takeoff from London on Dec. 21, 1988. Citizens from 21 different countries were killed. Among the 190 Americans on board were 35 Syracuse University students flying home for Christmas after a semester abroad.
The bombing laid bare the threat of international terrorism more than a decade before the Sept. 11 attacks. It produced global investigations and punishing sanctions while spurring demands for accountability from victims of those killed. The university’s current chancellor, Kent Syverud, said in a statement that the arrest was a significant development in the long process “to bring those responsible for this despicable act to justice.”
Stephanie Bernstein, a Maryland woman whose husband, Michael, was among the 270 victims — he was a Justice Department official returning on the flight from government business — said the news was “surreal” because there had been times in the past two years when victims’ families had been told that “it looks promising” only to find that was not the case.
“At first I thought I was dreaming when I was told what had happened, but it’s happened, and I’m incredibly grateful that this man will be tried in the United States,” Bernstein said in an interview.
The announcement of charges against Mas’ud on Dec. 21, 2020, came on the 32nd anniversary of the bombing and in the final days of the tenure of then-Attorney General William Barr, who in his first stint as attorney general in the early 1990s had announced criminal charges against two other Libyans intelligence officials.
The Libyan government initially balked at turning over the two men, Abdel Baset Ali al-Megrahi and Lamen Khalifa Fhimah, before ultimately surrendering them for prosecution before a panel of Scottish judges sitting in the Netherlands as part of a special arrangement.
The Justice Department said Mas’ud would appear soon in a federal court in Washington, where he faces two criminal counts related to the explosion.
U.S. officials did not say how Mas’ud came to be taken into U.S. custody, but late last month, local Libyan media reported that Mas’ud had been kidnapped by armed men on Nov. 16 from his residence in Tripoli, the capital. That reporting cited a family statement that accused Tripoli authorities of being silent on the abduction.