The Explosion of Pan Am Flight 103 Over Scotland – 12/21/1988

World History |


Horrifically, airplane’s exploding from an act of terrorism has happened before and one incident became the subject of Britain’s biggest criminal investigation which was thought to have actually been an assault on the United States. Pan Am Flight 103 to New York that departed from London exploded on December 21st, 1988 in midair over Lockerbie, Scotland. The disaster resulted in the death of all 243 passengers as well as 16 crew members aboard; 11 residents from Lockerbie that were on the ground also were killed. The airplane exploded when reaching an altitude of 31,000 feet and what detonated in the cargo area was an audio cassette player that contained a bomb. The number of victims that were American was 189.

Those accused of planting the bomb while it was at a gate at the airport in Frankfurt, Germany were Islamic terrorists. Authorities believed the reason for the bombing was to retaliate for two possible reasons. First, a response to U.S. air strikes launched at Libya in 1986 that killed the young daughter of leader Muammar al-Qaddafi as well as dozens of others in the area. The other possibility was a response to an incident in 1988 where mistakenly, the U.S. brought down an Iran Air commercial flight that killed 290 people over the Persian Gulf.

The U.S. embassy in Helsinki, Finland got a call 16 days before the airplane exploded that warned of an explosive device would be used on a Pan Am airplane departing out of Frankfurt. However, a controversy was created regarding if the threat was taken seriously by the U.S. and if those who travel should have received some sort of warning; officials would comment later that it was purely coincidental regarding any connection between the bomb and the call.

The British authorities and the F.B.I. conducted a joint investigation that concluded in 1991 with an indictment for murder against Libyan intelligence officers Lamen Khalifa Fhimah and Abdel Basset Ali al-Megrahi; unfortunately, Libya would not allow the suspects to be given to the U.S. Ultimately, in order to stop sanctions from the United Nations against his country, Qaddafi in 1999 granted the suspect’s extradition to Scotland where they would stand trial using Scottish prosecutors and law in the Netherlands. The trial concluded in early 2001 where Fhimah was acquitted but al-Megrahi was found guilty and sentenced to prison for life. However, despite the objections of the U.S. government, al-Megrahi would be returned to Libya and set free in August of 2009 because doctors discovered that his life would terminate in a few months.

Although showing no remorse, Libya claimed responsibility for the bombing in 2003. The U.S. and the U.N. ended sanctions on Libya while they agreed to give each victim’s family restitution of roughly $8 million. Libya’s prime minister in 2004 declared the arrangement was a “price for peace” insinuating that the main reason for accepting responsibility was to have the sanctions stop; the victim’s families were infuriated over the remark. Going bankrupt after three years from the bombing, Pan Am filed a lawsuit against Libya and would eventually be awarded a settlement of $30 million.

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Nancy Reyes

Senior Writer

One of our top senior writers, Nancy came to us wanting to break away from the politics that comes with major news corporations. She leads our team of historical writers in creating the best engaging content out there that keeps our readers coming back for more. She is an enthusiast of all things medieval and has been a member of her renaissance fair group for 15 years. She received her degree in International Relations from the University of Southern California and hopes to one day travel the world.