For decades, Abu Agila Mas'ud was such a shadowy and elusive figure that investigators wondered if he should be called "The Ghost". Yet the FBI eventually tracked down the man they plan to charge with making the Lockerbie bomb, partially through the unwitting help of East German intelligence, and dogged detective work by a Lockerbie victims’ brother, The Telegraph can reveal.
During years of painstaking detective work, the FBI agents felt he lived up to this other-worldly sobriquet because they had no image or reports of what The Ghost looked like, or even of his real identity.
"For our two other main suspects – later put on trial before Scottish judges in Holland in 2000 – we were assembling significant information, like passports or an airport pass or we found a diary with some apparently incriminating pages. But we just had no idea who actually made the bomb," FBI agent Richard Marquise, who led the agency’s investigation, told The Telegraph.
"All we had was the name Mas'ud. We found his name came up three or four times in secret cables from the CIA intelligence officers in the field," Marquise said. "He was mentioned as a technician by a double agent the CIA was running inside Libyan Arab Airlines offices in Malta. But this only added to the mystery. One cable described him as a 'tall black Libyan male who is approximately 40 to 45 years of age'."
"We were puzzled and frustrated," Marquise said. "We felt we had little chance to bring The Ghost out of the shadows, so we focused on other angles."
Behind the US Justice Department’s announcement, expected this week, of mass-murder charges against Mas'ud, lies a tangled web of intrigue, surprising twists and turns, and some serendipity.
“Sure we were on the trail for many years, but besides our careful work, we could not have achieved success without the Scottish police and the dogged detective work of Ken Dornstein, who lost his brothter David in the disaster.”
As far back as 1991, parts of the puzzle had started to piece together.
The FBI went through all the travel entries for the passengers on one particular flight of great interest. It had taken off from Valletta, Malta to Tripoli, Libya – just hours after another Air Malta plane had flown to Frankfurt.
Using a false name and passport issued by the Libyan authorities, a Libyan intelligence officer Abdelbaset Al Megrahi had been on board the flight to Tripoli – and so too had a mystery passenger, whose name was listed as Abu Agila Mas'ud. The embarkation document described his profession simply as "Libyan employee".
By then, the FBI was convinced that the Lockerbie bomb had started its fatal journey in Malta when loaded at Valletta airport inside a piece of unaccompanied baggage. The Germans gave the Scottish police a document showing that a suitcase was transferred to a feeder flight from Frankfurt that in turn connected with PanAm 103. The bomb had exploded thirty-eight minutes after it took off from Heathrow, killing 270 people.
The FBI could find no trace of where any person called Mas'ud had stayed during what they knew was a one-week visit to Malta. But the CIA did have a double agent working inside the Libyan Arab Airlines office, who told them he had seen Megrahi with a dark-skinned fellow-Libyan. One cable described him as a 'tall black Libyan made who is approximately 40 to 45 years of age.
"We were still investigating whether the Lockerbie bombing was carried out by a radical Palestinian terror grouping, the PFLP-GC, backed by Syria and Iran," said Marquise. "But Libya kept coming up on our radar."
They wondered if there could be any Lockerbie link with Libyans who had bombed a discotheque in West Berlin in 1986, killing two American GIs. That had swiftly led to President Reagan ordering air raids on targets in Tripoli, which would have provoked a desire by Gaddafi for violent revenge, Marquise thinks.
An East German counter-espionage colonel later provided an answer. After defecting to the West, he told security agencies that the maker of that La Belle bomb was a dark-skinned Libyan who had stayed in Room 526 of the Hotel Metropol. The name, he said, was Abu Agila Mas'ud.
Another key clue for the FBI emerged from a long-overlooked Lockerbie bomb fragment.
A sliver of the Lockerbie bomb timer's circuit board had been embedded in a burned piece of clothing as the device exploded. The item had been left in a file for many months. On careful examination by FBI technicians in the USA, the manufacturer's name could be detected: Mebo.
It was traced to a small Swiss company. In 1991 the FBI went to Zurich to find its owner, Edwin Bollier.
Bollier had written a letter which revealed a story that should have made the investigation spring into life two years earlier.
Marquise recalled: "When he heard about Lockerbie he had gone to our US embassy, and had written a note saying he knew which country did it – and even saying he was at a meeting in Tripoli days before it happened, when the subject of blowing up an aircraft was being discussed." The note had not even been read.
It turned out that in mid-December 1988, days before the Lockerbie bombing, Bollier had been in Tripoli, summoned there by the Libyans. They told him they needed a circuit-board and timer urgently. He had flown with one to Tripoli – only to be told that the Libyans had already found what they needed.
Two years before, the Libyans had tested out bombs in a Libyan desert – and Bollier had been watching the trials, because all twenty timers used there were supplied by him.
Independently from Bollier’s own account, the FBI specialists found that the Lockerbie circuit-board fragment, which had been etched with soda, had the same very minor blemish as two other bomb-timer circuit boards that the CIA had intercepted in West Africa. These two were made by Mebo – presumably two of the twenty Bollier had provided as samples to the Libyans.
It turned out also that Megrahi, the Libyan intelligence officer later convicted by a Scottish court in Holland in 2001, had rented an office from Mebo’s property in Zurich.
When Scottish investigators got to Libya in 1999, however, the Libyans denied any knowledge of the man.
At the trial of two Libyan suspects in Holland – in front of Scottish judges – however, Bollier had changed his story, saying that the fragment of circuit-board found on the ground near Lockerbie was faked.
“We believe and still believe his first version of events was the true one, but what could we do?” said Marquise.
Fortunately for the FBI, this was not to be a dead end. Mas'ud was to come back onto their radar soon after Libyan rebels, backed by air strikes by Britain and France, toppled Colonel Gaddafi in 2011. In the Revolution’s bloody aftermath, Mas'ud was put on trial, along with his boss, Abdallah Senoussi. They were filmed behind bars in a court along with several co-accused, all dressed in blue prison overalls. Mas'ud was sentenced in 2015 to ten years in jail.
His crime: he had made remote-controlled bombs to target rebel leaders during the 2011 uprising.
‘So, if true, it seems he never gave up what he was doing three decades ago,’ notes Marquise.
When Megrahi was released in 2009, dying from cancer, he was feted as a hero. On arrival in Tripoli, Megrahi was whisked away in a car. A man looking just like Mas'ud is briefly seen on video, giving Megrahi a huge hug.
Extraditing him, or his boss Senoussi, and putting one or both on trial is no easy matter, said Marquise. "Modern courts require much more than pure circumstantial evidence. Direct eyewitnesses, and a chain, would be needed. We don’t have a smoking gun.
‘Whatever charges are brought now, it’s going to be a difficult prosecution. But I hope it happens.’
It may just be, though, that The Ghost has slipped his pursuers yet again.
Paul Martin is the Founder and Editor-in-Chief of Correspondent.World
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