1988 Pan Am Bombing Case Study

Excerpt from Case Study :

Pan AM Flight 103

The Lockerbie terrorist attack of 1988 Pan Am aircraft

One of the most well-known terrorist attacks prior to the 9/11 ones is the 1988 Pan Am bombing which included a Pan Am flight being burst into flames over Lockerbie, a small town in Scotland, United Kingdom, which eventually killed 270 people, out of which 189 were Americans.

The background of the incident is deeply entrenched in the Cold War period, at the time in which President Reagan was under diplomatic dispute with the major Middle Eastern ruler, Mohamed Qaddafi of Libya. Although most post-incident analysis suggested that the act was requested and directed by the Libyan forces, to this day it is rather hard to determine with precision which country was behind the terrorist attacks (Greenspan, 2013).

There are several aspects to consider when defining the background of this tragedy. One of them is the political environment of that time. The issue of terrorism had already become a subject for debate given antecedents and the mutual claims between the United States and countries such as Libya of each attempting to sabotage and bring material and human damage to each other. Prior to the event in 1988, in 1986 the United States was accused by Libya of having tried to sabotage some of its military air equipment. However, again, to this day, there is little evidence of any such interaction. What is more important however is the fact that the tensions between the United States and Libya at the time have been considered as sufficient grounds for establishing a background for the attacks in December 1988.

Another aspect to be taken into account is the limited knowledge in terms of air safety measures and the way in which terrorist related security checks were conducted at the time. Unlike the period after 9/11, security checks in the 80s were not very thorough and allowed for no smell explosive to reach the aircraft and create such a disaster. After the Lockerbie tragedy, the safety measures in this sense changed dramatically and demanded an increase in the awareness of terrorist threats and an improvement in the checks that were being conducted during check in and the rest of the boarding procedures.

There are also certain specific factors that motivated the attack. However, it must be pointed out that they relate to a typical terrorist action in which the main goal of the perpetrators is that of making a statement, creating panic, and ensuring visibility for the actions. In the current case, it was rather difficult to identify particularly these aspects in the attack or in the person found guilty of setting the explosive that caused the tragedy. By contrast, it was considered that the main factor that motivated the attack was in fact a political one and related to the retaliatory desire of Qaddafi over the United States for the difficult diplomatic situation that existed between Libya and the U.S. At that time. More precisely, "Tensions between Libya and the United States had been mounting for years when, in March 1986, the two sides fired on each other in disputed waters off the Libyan coast. The following month, a bomb went off in a West Berlin disco popular with American servicemen, killing two U.S. soldiers and a Turkish woman and injuring more than 200 others. Having intercepted communications that purportedly implicated Libya's government in the attack, the United States responded with air strikes" (Greenspan, 2013)

Unlike the 9/11 attacks, the Lockerbie one was not that elaborated in the sense that it is nowadays considered that although it was sponsored by the Libyan government, the plan was rather straightforward and included a direct command from Qaddafi to Abdel Basset Ali al-Megrahi, Libyan intelligence agent, for the attack. This would imply that unlike other terrorist attacks where these are conducted by paramilitary groups that in cases are sponsored or supported by the respective state, the Lockerbie attack had been orchestrated by the forces of the Libyan state and not by any other interest or terrorist groups. It is to this day that constant new theory on whether in fact it was an act of the Iranian government that had shortly before the Lockerbie attached gun down a plane by the American forces and decided to retaliate against the United States (Reyner, 2014)

A compelling theory that added another group in the discussion of the guilty parties for the attack in 1988 was that in fact the PFLP of Palestine had been responsible for the attack given the U.S.'s support for Israel in the Middle East (Reyner, 2014). The CIA testified against this theory in 2000 during the trail for the establishment of the guilty parties. During the trial held in Scotland, the CIA provided evidence to support the fact that indeed it was the Libyan government that had orchestrated the attacks and not any other terrorist group. In this sense, "the CIA officer differentiated the timers of the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine-General Command (PFLP-GC) from the ones used by the Libyans and identified the circuit-board fragment to be from a Libyan timer. These facts were crucial because the Libyans' defense rested on the premise that the PFLP-GC -- not the Libyans -- had bombed Pan Am 103" (CIA, 2012).

The actual events that took place in December 1988 had been the subject of one of the most thorough analysis conducted on an aircraft accident up to that time. This is particularly because of the nature of the incident as well as the controversy surrounding the events and the causes. The difficult part in the investigation was to understand who was responsible for the acts. Otherwise, the factual events were rather straightforward. On December 21st, before Christmas, Pan Am flight 103 was supposed to leave London for New York, when, after take off and reaching a cruising altitude of 31,000 feet, the bomb that had been aboard detonated and affected the left wing of the plane. Soon after, the plane lost stability and started to disintegrate and eventually crashed in a small town in Scotland. There had been 259 people on board and none survived the blast and the crash. On the ground, the blast and the impact killed an additional 11 people. This is considered to be the most important and deadliest terrorist attack that took place on British soil.

The remains and the debris was scattered over 2,200 square meters, which made the investigations very difficult to handle. All types of agencies were involved in managing the crash scene, from local Scottish police, that of Dumfries and Galloway Constabulary to the CIA and the FBI. "The determined investigation over more than 11 years was a jigsaw-puzzle assembly by many cooperating law-enforcement, intelligence, and legal personnel from numerous countries" (CIA, 2012) This massive display of force was further backed up by the investigations being conducted in the United States by the Federal Aviation Agency which considered Pan Am mostly to blame for allowing the explosive package to get aboard of the aircraft. Following this investigation, Pan Am soon failed for bankruptcy and exited the aviation industry as a stand-alone company.

The investigations that took place on the ground and in the laboratories for more than a decade resulted in establishing that Semtex explosive was used to manufacture the bomb. More precisely, "Investigations determined that Semtex, a plastic explosive, was the cause of the aircraft's shattering. The explosives were wired to a device that measured barometric pressure connected to a timer. These were placed inside a portable radio/cassette player, and packed in a regular suitcase. It has never been determined how the luggage made it onto the aircraft" (Zalman, n.d.). This theory was tested in days after the events took place by a father of one of the Lockerbie victims, to demonstrate the limited and inefficient security measures that were being taken at the time in airports. Although he did not use explosive, the father of the victim pointed out the easiness with which such a tragedy can take place and thus questioned the security measures being taken with Pan Am.

There are numerous controversies surrounding the event, most of which relate to the actual sponsors of the attack. There are several theories as mentioned previously that would point firstly to Libya, but also to Iran or other paramilitary groups such as the Palestinians. Although theories were presented as to the possible responsibility of Iran or Palestinian forces, in 2003, the Qaddafi regime assumed responsibility for the attack and accepted to pay damages to the families of the victims of the attack. Even so, there are sources suggesting that this was in fact due to the need of Libya to have sanctions being lifted by the European Union, the United States and the United Nations, sanctions that were imposed after the attack (Greenspan, 2013)

Another controversy surrounds the early release of the person considered to be responsible for the attach, the Libyan intelligence agent that was sentenced to a total…

Cite This Case Study:

"1988 Pan Am Bombing" (2014, April 17) Retrieved February 19, 2018, from

"1988 Pan Am Bombing" 17 April 2014. Web.19 February. 2018. <

"1988 Pan Am Bombing", 17 April 2014, Accessed.19 February. 2018,