How ‘The Ghost’ still haunts Lockerbie’s investigators.19 December 2020
For decades, Abu Agila Masoud was such a shadowy and elusive figure in the search for the man who made the Lockerbie bomb that some investigators referred to him as The Ghost. Yet, through the unwitting help of East German intelligence, and some fortuitous coincidences, the FBI, the CIA , the Scottish police and a victim’s intrepid brother, eventually him tracked down, Correspondent.World can reveal.
During years of painstaking detective work the FBI investigation unit had become increasingly convinced it was Masoud’s handiwork that had destroyed PanAm Flight 103, but they gave him this other-worldly nickname because they had no image or reports of what The Ghost looked like, or even of his real identity.
‘For our two other main suspects – later put on trial before Scottish judges in Holland in 2000 — we were assembling significant information, like passports or an airport pass or we found a diary with some apparently incriminating pages. But we just had no idea who made the bomb,’ FBI agent Richard Marquise, who led the agency’s investigation, told Correspondent.World.
Richard Marquise at a lecture for PBS
The name Masoud came up three or four times in secret cables from the CIA intelligence officers in the field. Intriguingly, he was mentioned as a technician by a double agent the CIA was running inside Libyan Arab Airlines offices in Malta. But this only added to the mystery.
‘We were puzzled and frustrated,’ Marquise said. ‘We felt we had little chance to bring The Ghost out of the shadows.’
Behind the US Justice Department’s announcement, expected this week, of mass-murder charges against Masoud lies a tangled web of intrigue, surprising twists and turns, and good fortune.
As far back as 1991, parts of the puzzle had started to piece together.
Investigators went through all the travel entries for the passengers on one particular flight of great interest. It had taken off from Valetta, Malta to Tripoli, Libya — just 34 minutes after another Air Malta plane had flown to Frankfurt – a flight investigators later believed had carried the suitcase containing the bomb, concelead in a trnaistor radio cassette in an unaccompanied suitcase. Trransferred in Frankfurt, it went on to destroy PanAm Flight 103 over Lockerbie, killing 270 people.
Using a false name in a passport issued by the Libyan authorities, a Libyan intelligence officer Abdelbaset Al-Megrahi had been on board the flight to Tripoli – and so too had a mystery passenger, whose name was listed as Abu Agila Masoud. The embarkation document described his profession simply as ‘Libyan employee’.
By then, the investigators were convinced that the Lockerbie bomb had started its fatal journey in Malta when loaded at Valetta airport inside a piece of unaccompanied baggage.
No trace could be found of where any person called Masoud had stayed during what investigators knew was a one-week visit to Malta. But the CIA did have a double agent working inside the Libyan Arab Airlines office, who told them he had seen Megrahi with a dark-skinned fellow-Libyan.
‘We were still investigating whether the Lockerbie bombing was carried out by a radical Palestinian terror grouping, the PFLP-GC, backed by Syria and Iran,’ says one investigator. ‘But Libya kept coming up on our radar.’
They wondered if there could be any link with people who had bombed a discotheque in West Berlin in 1986. An East German counter-espionage unit, part of the feared Stasi, had been doing surveillance on a group of Libyan agents who operated from their embassy — renamed a People’s Bureau –on the Communist-controlled side of the divided city.
Colonel Rainer Wiegand, who defected to the West in December 1989, tried but failed to prevent the bombing of the night-club that he knew was being planned on the other side of Berlin, according to a detailed account by John Koehler, an East German who had become a US intelligence officer and had gone back to Berlin as the Associated Press bureau chief. Using inside sources, he wrote an authoritative book called ‘Stasi: The Untold Story of the East German Secret Police’.
The Libyan bomb plot went ahead. Paid around 2,500 dollars for a night’s work, the wife of a Libyan agent placed a bomb under a table at the La Belle disco, often frequented after midnight by off-duty American army personnel. After quaffing champagne and dancing, Verena Chaana and her sister left. Five minutes later, the bomb exploded, killing three people including two US GIs and injuring 200 people. That swiftly led to President Reagan ordering air raids on targets in Tripoli, which could have provoked a desire by Gaddafi for violent revenge, perhaps leading to the Lockerbie bombing, investigators calculated.
The maker of that La Belle bomb, Colonel Wiegand later told Western security operators, was a Libyan who had stayed in Room 526 of the Hotel Metropol at the time of the discoteque bombings, after arriving the day before. His name, said the colonel, was Abu Agila Masoud.
It turned out that he had checked in to his Berlin hotel with the same passport, numbered 835004, as the one he had used in Malta on the day of the Lockerbie bombing three years later.
There was also a Libyan connection, says Marquise, in the type of radio cassette the bomb-maker had used to insert his device for PanAm-103. It was a Toshiba RT-SF16. ‘We found out that the president of General Electric in Tripoli, a Libyan businessmen and government official called Sayid Rashid, had bought more than half of all that kind of radio-cassette that Toshiba ever manufactured,’ Marquise said.
Another key clue for the FBI emerged from a long-overlooked Lockerbie bomb fragment.
As the device exploded, a sliver of the Lockerbie bomb timer’s circuit-board had been embedded in a charred piece of clothing. The item had been stored among thousands of bits of aircraft debris painstakingly collected by Scottish police from a search area of 845 square miles.
On careful examination by FBI technicians in the USA, they found the same indentations on it as two other circuit-boards they could identify. Their agents had intercepted parts of two bombs in West Africa, and their fully-functioning timers showed the manufacturer’s name: Mebo.
They were made by a small Swiss company, Mebo Ltd Telecommunication. In 1991 the FBI went to Zurich to find its owner, Edwin Bollier. ‘Ah, I assume you tracked me down because of the letter I brought to the US embassy in Vienna,’ Bollier told the FBI. They were mystified. On checking, they found there had been a letter, left unread, in a file at the US embassy.
‘We had no idea it was there,’ says Marquise. ‘It was just by fluke we could find it, but it provided big credence to what Bollier was telling us.’
Bollier’s letter had revealed a story that should have made the investigation spring into life two years earlier.
Marquise recalls: ‘ When he heard about Lockerbie he had gone to our US embassy, and had written a note saying he knew which country did it – and even saying he was at a meeting in Tripoli days before it happened, when the subject of blowing up an aircraft was being discussed.’
It turned out that in mid-December 1988, days before the Lockerbie bombing, Bollier had been in Tripoli, summoned there by the Libyans. They told him they needed a circuit-board and timer urgently. He had run out of his own, but had quickly bought a forty timers at a local shop, and had flown with them to Tripoli – only to be told that the Libyans had already found what they needed.
Two years before, the Libyans had tested out bombs in a Libyan desert – and Bollier had been watching the trials, because all twenty timers used in the trail were ones he had supplied. He had hoped for a very large order – which never materialised.
Bollier was taken to the USA and spent five days with FBI interrogators, providing a fuller story. Independently from Bollier’s own account, the FBI specialists found that the Lokerbie circuit-board fragment, which had been etched with soda, had the same very minor blemish as two other bomb-timer circuit boards that the CIA found in West Africa. They must have come from the same machinery as two others previously found and confiscated from Libyan agents operating in West Africa. All were made by Mebo – presumably two of the twenty Bollier had supplied to the Libyans.
It turned out also that Megrahi, the Libyan intelligence officer later convicted by a Scottish court in Holland in 2001, had run an office from Mebo’s property in Zurich.
There seemed to be a link, because Megrahi had rented an office in the Zurich offices of Medbo Ltd. When Scottish investigators got to Libya in 1999, the Libyans acknowledged they knew Megrahi but denied any knowledge of Masoud.
When the trial of two suspects started in Holland, in front of Scottish judges, however, Bollier had changed his story, saying he knew nothing of any Libyan malfeasance, and that the fragment of circuit-board found on the ground near Lockerbie was faked. [He continues to blog angrily and says he is taking the Scottish government to court for the huge losses he has suffered. Business with several other clients, wary of his Libyan and alleged bombing connections, dried up.]
‘We considered that his first version of events was the true one,’ says Marquise.
Fortunately for the investigators, this was not to be a dead end.
Masoud was to come back onto their radar soon after Libyan rebels, backed by air strikes by Britain and France, toppled Colonel Gaddafi in 2011. In its bloody aftermath, Masoud was put on trial, along with his boss, Abdallah Senoussi.
Ken Dornstein, an eagle-eyed brother of one of the young passengers aboard PanAm Flight 103, was sent some film of several criminals, all dressed in blue prison overalls, behind bars in a Libyan courthouse. They were alleged to have committed crimes for the now-dead Colonel Gaddafi’s regime.
One of them was listed as Abu Ajila Masoud. He was sentenced in 2015 to ten years in jail.
His crime: he had made remote-controlled bombs to target rebel leaders during the 2011 uprising. ‘Once a bomb-maker, always a bomb-maker,’ noted an American investigator.
In odysseys from Berlin to Tripoli Dornstein, a former private detective, had single-mindedly sought to track down and confront Masoud. He was making a film about his quest for justice, to be shown on American PBS, called My Brother’s Bomber.
He found one of the three men convicted of bombing the La Belle discotheque, who confirmed to him that Masoud was part of the plot.
Dornstein later found an astonishingly revealing piece of footage shot when Megrahi was released in 2009, dying from cancer. Feted as a hero on arrival in Tripoli, Megrahi is seen being whisked away in a car. A man looking just like Masoud is briefly appears in the back seat, giving Megrahi a hug. The car driver was Senoussi, their boss.
Senoussi was sentenced to death in 2015 for numerous murders and acts of torture inside Libya but is understood to be alive — and supplying intelligence assistance to parts of the shaky regime in Tripoli.
While the US Justice Department intends to charge Masoud with the bombing, it also hopes to collect new evidence against Senoussi, who was not just Libya’s powerful intelligence chief but also Gaddafi’s brother-in-law.
Extraditing either man and putting one or both on trial is no easy matter, says Marquise. ‘Modern courts require much more than pure circumstantial evidence. Direct eyewitnesses, and a chain, would be needed. We don’t have a smoking gun.’
Marquise concluded: ‘Whatever charges are brought now, I think it’s a hard prosecution. But I hope they do put him on trial.’
Even if the US demands he is extradited, The Ghost may well evade his earthly pursuers for a long time, or forever.
Paul Martin is the Founder and Editor-in-Chief of Correspondent.World