Monday, December 22, 2008

Remembering Flight 103

To mark the 20th anniversary of the terrorist bombing of Pan Am Flight 103 yesterday, families of the victims and many of the investigators who helped solve the case joined together at Arlington National Cemetery to bear witness that lost loved ones will never be forgotten and that the fight against terrorism will never stop.

On December 21, 1988, Flight 103 exploded over Scotland as it headed from London to New York. All 259 passengers onboard died—189 of them Americans—along with 11 Scots on the ground when the plane crashed in the small town of Lockerbie.

“It is perhaps of some significance that this terrorist act took place on December 21, the longest night of the year,” FBI Director Robert S. Mueller III told the crowd of about 200 family members

The families—from grandparents to infants—came together on a blustery winter day for a ceremony that included laying wreaths at a memorial cairn dedicated in 1995. Many wore blue scarves that said “WE REMEMBER” with the name of their lost loved one inscribed along with the date—“12.21.88.”

Lockerbie crash site
Investigators at the crash site of Pan Am Flight 103.
The darkness that descended on Lockerbie that winter night was devastating, and it was felt around the world. More than a dozen years before the 9/11 attacks brought home the horror of terrorism on American soil, the Pan Am bombing was the world’s most deadly act of air terrorism.

From the devastation, however, the victims’ families came together and found strength as well as a purpose: to be a voice for those who had died. And the FBI and Scottish authorities, along with law enforcement organizations and intelligence agencies around the world, cooperated in unprecedented ways to investigate one of the most complicated cases of international terrorism we had ever seen.

Ultimately, the evidence led to Libyan intelligence agents, and in 2001, Abdel Basset Ali Al-Megrahi was found guilty of the bombing. A co-defendant was found not guilty. The Libyan government formally accepted responsibility for the bombing and agreed to pay $3 billion to the victims’ families.

The case holds special significance for Mueller, who in 1988 was Assistant Attorney General of the Criminal Division of the Department of Justice and headed up the investigation. “Let me say that I was confident then, and I remain confident to this day, that those we convicted were responsible for this terrorist act,” he said.

Mueller noted that while the passage of 20 years “may dull the deepest wounds, it cannot make them disappear. But time also provides a way forward,” he said, applauding the families for their successful advocacy to improve aviation security and to keep the threat of terrorism in the public eye.

“It may have been easier to turn from this tragedy and to find peace in a more private way,” he said, “but you have continued to push government officials to recognize the danger of terrorism, here at home and abroad.”

Fighting terrorism, he added, “remains the Bureau’s top priority. For those of us in the FBI, our work is not merely finding and prosecuting those who would do us harm. It is making sure that other families will not suffer as you have.”

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