WASHINGTON – Attorney General William P. Barr was first in office nearly three decades ago when two Libyan intelligence officials were indicted in the 1988 bombing of a U.S. jetliner over Lockerbie, Scotland, which killed 270 people, including 189 Americans.
“This investigation sends a strong message,” Barr said when announcing the charges in 1991. “We have the determination and ability to track down those responsible for terrorism against Americans, no matter how long it takes.”
Now the Justice Department under Mr. Barr plans to open criminal charges against another suspect in the bombing, a Libyan bomb expert named Abu Agila Mas’ud, in the coming days, according to two people familiar with the case. Monday will mark the 32nd anniversary of the attack.
A Justice Department spokesman declined to comment. The exact whereabouts of Mr. Mas’ud are unknown. He was once imprisoned in Libya for unrelated crimes.
The case against Mr Mas’ud was based in part on the work of a journalist named Ken Dornstein, who was working at PBS’s Frontline, when he began his own full-blown investigation into the bombings. His brother David was among those killed on board the Pan Am Flight 103 aircraft.
The bombing was the worst terrorist attack in British history and a devastating strike against the United States that bottomed out in its relations with Libya. President Ronald Reagan had ordered air strikes against Libya two years earlier in retaliation for the bombing of a German nightclub frequented by American military personnel. The American authorities concluded that the Pan Am bombing was Libya’s response.
Mr. Dornstein approached the F.B.I. 2012 with new information about Mr. Mas’ud, a shady former Libyan intelligence official who appears to have played a crucial role in the bombing.
The case provides a kind of bookend for Mr Barr, who plans to resign next week after arguing with President Trump over his increasing unwillingness to serve the president’s political agenda. In addition to filing cases against Lockerbie suspects three decades apart, both tours of Mr. Barr as Attorney General were largely defined by cases presented by Robert S. Mueller III. Who was head of the department’s crime department during the first Lockerbie investigation and from there served as a special adviser from 2017 to 2019 investigating the Trump campaign’s links to Russia’s election meddling.
The investigation of Lockerbie, run by the F.B.I. Code-named Scotbom, it has long frustrated American investigators. Mr Müller said years later that he was haunted by the attack and his inability to bring other conspirators to justice.
“We are trying again to protect our people and free the world from terrorism. We will continue to move forward, ”said Müller in a 2008 speech in honor of the victims. “But we will never forget.”
The Justice Department’s efforts to prosecute the first two suspects, Abdel Basset Ali al-Megrahi and Al-Amin Khalifa Fhimah, were initially halted when Libya refused to extradite the men to either the US or the UK. Eventually, the Libyan government agreed to have her tried under Scottish law in the Netherlands, which is highly unusual.
Mr al-Megrahi was convicted in 2001 and given a life sentence of at least 27 years, while Mr Fhimah was acquitted, which further frustrated American investigators.
Almost a decade later, Scottish officials granted Mr. al-Megrahi a compassionate release for having cancer, and he was greeted by a hero in Libya. The decision to free him angered the US government and the victims’ families, including Mr Dornstein, who believed he saw a killer run free.
Mr al-Megrahi died in 2012. His family appealed his conviction posthumously in Scotland, where the motion is pending.
It was believed that Mr al-Megrahi and Mr Mas’ud may have known each other, but while preparing his trial in the Netherlands, Mr al-Megrahi repeatedly told his lawyers that he did not know Mr Mas’ud. His lawyers were concerned that if Mr. al-Megrahi testified, he would incriminate himself if asked about Mr. Mas’ud. Mr al-Megrahi also denied the Scottish special commission reviewing his conviction.
In an interview, Mr. Dornstein described Mr. Mas’ud as a ghost because the Libyan government had tried for years to deny his existence, even after his name came up at the trial. Mr. Mas’ud’s name was also in C.I.A. Cables that were written on Lockerbie before the bombing. A Libyan informant working for the C.I.A. Those who defected and were later relocated to the USA had told the espionage agency about Mr. Mas’ud and his connection to Mr. al-Megrahi before the bombing. The informant suspected that the couple had planned an intelligence operation shortly before the Lockerbie bombing.
But Mr. Mas’ud escaped investigators for years.
When Colonel Muammar el-Qaddafi was overthrown as leader of Libya in 2011, Mr. Dornstein, then chief producer of the PBS news program “Frontline”, used the resulting chaos to see if others were involved in the bombing.
In 2015 a three-part documentary Mr. Dornstein wrote, directed and produced on “Frontline” and described his search for a solution to the bombing. He helped identify Mr. Mas’ud as one of the main suspects in the case and located him in a Libyan prison. At the end of 2018 he was still imprisoned in Libya, The Times of London reported.
As part of his investigation, Mr Dornstein traveled three times to Libya in 2011 and 2012, where he conducted interviews, found documents and searched Tripoli for suspects.
A major breakthrough came in 2012 during a trip to Germany, during which documents led Mr. Dornstein to a former Libyan intelligence agent named Musbah Eter, who said Mr. Mas’ud was involved in the 1986 disco bombing in West Berlin that killed two American people Soldiers – an attack by the Libyan secret service and the Libyan embassy in what was then East Berlin.
Mr Eter eventually revealed to Mr Dornstein that Mr Mas’ud had admitted a role in Lockerbie, a fact that appeared to be corroborated by passports Mr Mas’ud used in both fatal surgeries.
Mr Eter said Mr Mas’ud, who worked for Libya’s former intelligence chief Abdullah al-Senussi, was in a Libyan prison and even sent Mr Dornstein a picture of him in overalls. Mr. Eter described Mr. Mas’ud as a quiet technician who had managed to hold himself back in Libyan intelligence circles.
In an interview, Mr. Dornstein said that Mr. Mas’ud likely installed the timing device on the bomb that exploded shortly after Pan Am 103 launched. The bomb had been placed in a portable tape recorder that had been boarded an aircraft in Malta and transferred twice before being put on Flight 103.
When Mr. Dornstein met F.B.I. In 2012 in Agents in Boston, he shared his findings. In 2014 he contacted the agents again and informed them that Mr. Masud lived and was detained in Libya.
During the F.B.I. He did not give Mr. Dornstein any details of his investigation. He said he could collect tidbits when agents followed up his tips and interviewed Mr. Eter in Berlin from 2014.
Even with information from Mr Dornstein, the case appeared to be dwindling by that year when prosecutors dealing with ongoing terrorism cases brought it to Mr Barr’s attention.
During the F.B.I. Scotland had gathered convincing evidence against Mr Mas’ud and was investigating him as well. According to those familiar with the discussions, Mr. Barr played an important role in developing the case.