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U.S. takes custody of the alleged bomb maker in the 1988 Lockerbie attack

A MARTÍNEZ, HOST:

On December 21, 1988, a bomb brought down Pan Am Flight 103 over Lockerbie, Scotland. Now nearly 34 years later, the Libyan man suspected of making that bomb is in U.S. custody.

ROB SCHMITZ, BYLINE: It's hard to understate how shocking the Lockerbie bombing was at the time. Two hundred seventy people from 21 countries were killed, 190 of them Americans.

MARTÍNEZ: NPR justice correspondent Ryan Lucas joins us now. Ryan, tell us more about the suspect and who he is.

RYAN LUCAS, BYLINE: Well, the suspect is Abu Agila Mohammad Mas'ud Kheir Al-Marimi. He'd been held in a detention facility in Libya, and officials say he was handed over to an FBI team on Sunday. And they then flew him back to the U.S. to face charges. Now, he faces two charges. He was charged two years ago by the Justice Department. There are two counts that he faces, though - destruction of an aircraft resulting in death and destruction of a vehicle by means of an explosive resulting in death.

MARTÍNEZ: And what is his role alleged to be?

LUCAS: Well, according to American prosecutors, Mas'ud was an officer in the Libyan intelligence service and was a bomb-making expert. And prosecutors say that he played a critical role in this Lockerbie affair. They say he prepared the bomb that was used. In this instance, investigators say the bomb was hidden in a cassette player that was placed in a suitcase. Now, prosecutors say that Mas'ud delivered the suitcase with the bomb to two Libyan operatives. Mas'ud allegedly set the timer on their orders for the following day. And then those operatives took the suitcase, and they're the ones who managed to get it on the plane.

MARTÍNEZ: And tell us about the two other men that face charges.

LUCAS: Well, these two men - one is Abdelbaset Ali Mohmed al-Megrahi; the other is Lamen Khalifa Fhimah - they were identified early in the investigation, and they were charged. They eventually faced trial in a special Scottish court that was set up in the Netherlands. Megrahi was convicted. Fhimah was acquitted.

But American and Scottish investigators didn't stop there. They kept working this case. And they caught a break with the uprising that toppled Libyan leader Muammar Gaddafi in 2011 because Mas'ud was detained and questioned by the new Libyan authorities after Gadhafi's fall, and he allegedly confessed to them his role in the Lockerbie bombing. The Libyans provided a transcript of Mas'ud's confession in that interview to the FBI. And that was critical to Mas'ud eventually being charged two years ago here in the U.S.

MARTÍNEZ: And now he's in custody and going to face justice here in the U.S. And I can imagine that this is a huge step for the families of the victims.

LUCAS: Absolutely. Absolutely. This is the culmination of a decadeslong investigation and hunt for everyone responsible for this bombing. One of the victims of the attack was Richard Monetti. He was a student at Syracuse University. He and 34 other Syracuse students who were studying abroad were returning home for the holidays on Pan Am Flight 103. Monetti's sister, Kara Weipz, spoke to Weekend All Things Considered about Mas'ud's arrest. Here's a bit of what she had to say.

KARA WEIPZ: This means so much to the families, so much to my family, so much to me to know that justice is going to be served in our country under our laws.

LUCAS: And she also said that this is another step toward ascertaining the truth about the bombing and ultimately, of course, holding everyone responsible.

MARTÍNEZ: So, Ryan, what are the next steps here?

LUCAS: Well, Mas'ud will now face the U.S. criminal justice system. There are legal questions, of course, surrounding the confession that he made in Libyan custody. We'll see how that all plays out in the weeks and months to come. But for now, I'm told that Mas'ud could make his initial appearance in federal court here in Washington, D.C., as soon as today.

MARTÍNEZ: All right. That's NPR's Ryan Lucas. Ryan, thanks.

LUCAS: Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

A Martínez
A Martínez is one of the hosts of Morning Edition and Up First. He came to NPR in 2021 and is based out of NPR West.
Ryan Lucas covers the Justice Department for NPR.