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Pan Am 103 Clue Leads to Libyans : Terrorism: U.S. and Scottish investigators now believe that the regime of Moammar Kadafi carried out the jet bombing that killed 270.

June 24, 1991|ROBIN WRIGHT and RONALD J. OSTROW | TIMES STAFF WRITERS

WASHINGTON — The clue that turned the case was a microchip, a tiny piece of a triggering device to detonate a bomb.

From it, American and Scottish investigators found a new trail that refuted the conclusions of almost two years of arduous legwork by thousands of agents worldwide--and eventually changed major assumptions about the downing of Pan Am Flight 103 over a small Scottish village just four days before Christmas, 1988.

A key breakthrough, which came just as the largest international criminal probe in history neared an impasse, was almost a fluke. A "brilliant young CIA analyst," as one insider described him, decided to try a new hypothesis: Could someone besides the widely suspected culprits--Palestinian radicals, their Syrian patrons or Iranian militants--have been involved?

The analyst started with a hunch.

He searched for a "signature" that would match the Pan Am bombing with earlier incidents to prove his suspicions. Culling through CIA files, he came up with the 1984 bombing of a French UTA airliner in Chad. A premature explosion blew up the baggage compartment while the plane was still on the ground and wounded 27 people.

He also found a link with the 1986 attempt to blow up the U.S. Embassy in Togo. Officials in Lome, the Togolese capital, had arrested nine people with two suitcases full of plastic explosives.

But the biggest find was an obscure case in Senegal involving the arrest of two men at Dakar airport in February, 1988. In their possession were 20 pounds of sophisticated Semtex plastic and TNT explosives, weapons and several triggering devices.

The analyst's hunch was right.

In all three cases, the "signature" was distinctly Libyan.

In Senegal, the two men who were arrested--Mohammed Marzouk, alias Mohammed Naydi, and Mansour Omran Saber--were both agents of Libyan intelligence. And the triggering devices in their possession matched the microchip fragment from the Pan Am bomb.

The connection has since provided a new set of answers to how and why Pan Am 103 blew up over Lockerbie, Scotland, and who masterminded the blast.

Based on the forensic breakthrough and the links with earlier cases, investigators now believe:

* The regime of Moammar Kadafi carried out the bombing. Libyan intelligence, headed by Abdullah Sanussi, orchestrated the plot.

* The primary motive was revenge for the 1986 U.S. bombing of Tripoli in which about 40 people, including Kadafi's adopted daughter, were killed. "The notion that the 1986 bombing of Tripoli deterred Libyan terrorism is greatly flawed," a leading counterterrorism expert concluded.

* The mysterious bag carrying the bomb-laden Toshiba radio-cassette player on the blown-up Pan Am 103 came from Malta. Investigators believe the bomb was probably flown on an Air Malta flight to Frankfurt, Germany--although the passenger and cargo log has disappeared. In Germany, the cassette player was loaded on Pan Am 103 as an interline bag, unattached to any passenger.

Vital missing pieces in the puzzle finally fell into place. "We followed a lot of leads that looked promising at the beginning but turned out to be nothing," a counterterrorism specialist said. "All the streets followed down to dead ends."

The breakthroughs mean that, unlike the unsolved cases of half a dozen terrorist spectaculars against U.S. targets in the 1980s, the bombing of Pan Am Flight 103 may go to court.

Assistant Atty. Gen. Robert S. Mueller III, who heads the Justice Department's Criminal Division and has been meeting frequently with the FBI on the investigation, appears poised to take the case to a grand jury, according to U.S. officials.

Should the grand jury return sealed indictments, the biggest obstacle may not be just arresting those involved. U.S. authorities already are working with French police now seeking to apprehend one of the Libyan suspects somewhere in North Africa, the officials said.

The problem instead may be competition over which country will get them for trial. French intelligence now believes yet another terrorist attack--the 1989 bombing of UTA Flight 772 over the West African country of Niger--was also directed by Libyan intelligence.

Although the method differed in each case, the signature was once again the telltale clue. The UTA explosive, part of which did not blow up and was retrieved from the Sahara desert, was one of five "suitcase bombs" that investigators believed Libyan intelligence purchased earlier from the notorious Mideast bomb maker Abu Ibrahim.

The primary motive, French officials suspect, was revenge for French aid that enabled Chad--where the UTA flight took on most of its passengers--to rout Libyan troops occupying parts of the neighboring state in 1987. The bomb was probably loaded in Brazzaville, the Congolese capital where the flight originated.

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