Nine years after the death of Lockerbie bomber Abdelbaset al-Megrahi, Jim Swire, whose daughter was murdered in the 1988 terror attack, tells Michael Alexander why he believes Iran, not Libya, masterminded the bombing.
Transfixed before the TV, Dr Jim Swire and his wife Jane were paralysed with dread as the breaking news emerged that a Pan American jumbo jet with more than 250 people on board had crashed in the Scottish Borders.
As the cameras panned across destroyed streets then cut to the glowing gable ends of a bungalow, a chimney standing above a crushed wall, flames and sparks showering heavenward, the scale of the hellish devastation was apparent.
However, after desperate calls to jammed emergency help numbers, it would take more than five hours for the airline to confirm their worst fears that their daughter Flora had been a passenger on the Pan Am Flight 103 plane, and that there were no survivors.
Hearts torn apart
More than 32 years have passed since Jim and Jane’s hearts were torn apart by the terrible events that took place in the skies above Lockerbie on December 21, 1988.
A terrorist bomb, loaded into the hold of their beloved daughter’s New York-bound aircraft, exploded 38 minutes after take off from Heathrow Airport, murdering 270 people.
At first, Jim accepted American claims that Libya was responsible.
But during the trial of Abdelbaset al-Megrahi, the man eventually convicted of the atrocity, he began to have doubts.
It later emerged in legal papers that two key figures in the conviction of the Lockerbie bomber were secretly paid millions of dollars in a deal approved by the US government and forensic evidence central to the prosecution case has been discredited.
Megrahi, who was controversially released by the Scottish Government on compassionate grounds in 2009, himself maintained his innocence right up to his death from prostate cancer nine years ago this week in May 2012.
Search for ‘the truth’
Over three decades, Jim’s search for the “truth” on behalf of Flora and all those who died has taken him from the corridors of power in London and Washington to the United Nations and Egypt, as well as to the inner sanctum of former Libyan dictator Muammar Gaddafi.
Now having released his new book, co-written with Peter Biddulph, The Lockerbie Bombing: A Father’s Search for Justice, Jim explains why he remains disillusioned with the British and American establishment and why he firmly believes it was Iran – not Libya – that was responsible for the atrocity.
He also believes the 2001 Lockerbie trial verdict has inflicted “catastrophic” damage on Scotland’s criminal justice system.
“What matters most about Lockerbie is that 270 people died in a clear cut revenge attack launched at the behest of Iran, and our government both failed to take any notice of the warnings and failed to allow any inquiry into why the attack hadn’t been prevented,” says Jim, now 85, in an interview from his home in the North Cotswolds.
“It’s my view having studied the evidence very carefully over 32 years that the device never came from Malta, never came through Frankfurt airport but was delivered overland to Heathrow and put aboard there, despite the government having been warned about it.
“There’s plenty supporting evidence to show that, which leaves the question of how did it come about that the West mounted the trial that resulted in the conviction of one of one of those two Libyans when clearly that’s not how it was carried out at all?
“I think that’s a really sinister background.
“But the other thing that is monstrous, apart from the murders themselves, is the fact that for whatever reason the West, which really means America and Britain, decided that it was going to create an entirely false story to conceal the fact that they had other ambitions of the outcome from Lockerbie to serve some kind of purpose other than the truth.”
Did government fail in its duty to protect citizens?
Jim, who, along with Peter Biddulph, will be in conversation with veteran war correspondent Kate Adie at the online Aye Write festival on May 21, laughs that he’s “getting a bit ancient and doddery”, when asked how he’s doing.
However, after years of painstaking research, he remains driven by the love for his daughter and the quest for justice after concluding long ago that the 1980s Thatcher government failed in its fundamental duty to “protect the lives of its citizens” with any kind of enquiry subsequently forbidden since.
“What started me on this, once I got over being totally dazed by the loss of Flora, was sheer anger because within a few weeks of Lockerbie, I got hold of an illustrated brochure that had been sent to the British government from the West German BKA police force in October 1988,” he says.
“The BKA made it clear they’d ambushed a group of terrorists from the PFLPGC (Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine-General Command) in Damascus, Syria, who were making these bombs and the Germans told the British government these bombs are being housed in domestic things like tape recorders which were difficult to detect on x-ray equipment at airports.
“The warning was sent in October ’88.
“But it actually took the Department of Transport in London until December 19 – two days before Lockerbie – to actually get in touch with Heathrow about this warning.
“When the Department of Transport did get in touch – and I still have a copy of the telex where I wrote ‘Good Heavens’ in the margin – it actually says that if searchers at Heathrow have difficulty in deciding whether the x-ray picture they are getting of a suitcase might be something dangerous or not, if they are not sure they should make sure it’s only carried in the hold of an aircraft.
“But what the warning beforehand from West Germany had told the Department of Transport was these devices are fully automatic.
“They never explode at ground level, but if you put them in an aeroplane, they always explode about 35 minutes after their wheels leave the tarmac, which of course is just what the Lockerbie bomb did.”
Jim, a retired GP, goes on to talk about other evidence he has gathered: the detailed warnings to US embassy staff in Moscow before Lockerbie that an attack was imminent – a warning he says was never shared with the public.
He talks about his view – backed by Scots lawyers he’s spoken to – that the evidence at the Camp Zeist Scottish Court trial was “not coherent”.
While he thinks police in Scotland “did their best”, he believes a fundamental error was made when clothing wrapped around the bomb traceable to Malta was presented as evidence the bomb had come from Malta.
Jim believes that for geopolitical reasons, instead of looking for justice, politicians “wanted to divert blame away from Iran” and they “needed a scapegoat” which they found in Gaddafi’s Libya. Gaddafi admitted responsibility but maintained he did not order the attack.
Jim believes the conviction of al-Megrahi was “one of the biggest miscarriages of justice in the history of Scottish law” and believes future historians will piece together “what really happened” when confidential documents are made public.
In December 2020 there was a significant development when the US attorney-general announced new charges against a Libyan accused of building the Lockerbie bomb.
Charges were unveiled against Abu Agila Mohammad Masud, who the US says admitted to Libyan investigators that he built the device that brought down the plane in 1988
Scottish judges threw out a miscarriage of justice case, brought by the Megrahi family, in January 2021.
Bereavement: A ‘life sentence’
But it’s Jim’s words as a father who lost his beloved, “intelligent” daughter that perhaps remain most poignant.
Flora, a brilliant medical researcher just a day short of her 24th birthday, was on her way to see her boyfriend in the USA for Christmas when she was murdered.
Describing bereavement as a “life sentence”, Jim admits he and his wife quietly reflect on the children their daughter might have had and the career she might have led.
But as a member of that unwanted club of families who have been affected by terrorist atrocities, he also reveals one of the worst things that happened to him during the last 32 years was when he received an email from a relative of one of the American victims whose daughter had been killed on the flight – sent at a time when it was known al-Megrahi had incurable prostate cancer.
“What she said to me was ‘Dr Swire, you are a doctor over there. Will you speak to the doctors over there and tell them that we don’t want painkillers to be provided to Megrahi. We want that man to die in the utmost agony’.
“What that told me was that poor lady: the hatred she had for the man she at that time very reasonably believed had murdered her child.
“That was another victory for the terrorists – her personality had been destroyed by the hatred that had been generated by the terrorist atrocity.
“One of the things that all of this nonsense about Malta and Libyans and all the rest of it has done is deny us so far the ability to even forgive those who really did murder our children who in this case was essentially the Ayatollahs of Iran and their minions.
“To be denied that and to protect those people from the wrath of international justice is one of the most dreadful things to have fallen out of this, apart from the dreadful murders themselves.”
*The Lockerbie Bombing: A Father’s Search for Justice by Jim Swire and Peter Biddulph is published by Birlinn, RRP: £14.99. For more on Aye Write go to www.glasgowlife.org.uk