Lockerbie: Will a Fresh Look Find New Evidence?

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Tom Stoddart / Getty

The wreckage of the Boeing 747-121, Clipper Maid of the Seas, lies in a field outside the Scottish town of Lockerbie after the Dec. 21, 1988, bombing, which killed 270 people

It was a moment of revulsion for some of the family members of those who died in the 1988 bombing of Pan-Am Flight 103: the only person convicted in the attack, Abdel Basset Ali al-Megrahi, being set free and receiving a hero's welcome on the tarmac in his native Libya. Now, two months after al-Megrahi's controversial release, Scottish police are diving back into the two-decade-old investigation in hopes of identifying the former Libyan intelligence officer's suspected accomplices — and providing some peace of mind to relatives of the 270 people killed in the attack.

Police confirmed on Sunday that they would take a fresh look at the evidence in the bombing case after a British newspaper, the Sunday Telegraph, reported that family members had received an e-mail from the Crown Office, Scotland's prosecuting authority, saying police were looking into several possible new leads. The paper said authorities decided to look into the case again after al-Megrahi, who has terminal cancer, dropped his final appeal before the Scottish government released him in August.

Stuart Henderson, the former detective chief superintendent who led the original Lockerbie investigation, tells TIME that the new review will likely focus on eight suspects in the bombing who were never interviewed during the original inquiry. Henderson intimated that the men were all Libyans and that police had been prevented from questioning them in their initial investigation by Libya's leader, Colonel Muammar Gaddafi. "We identified other people who we wished to interview at the time, but we never got the chance because of you know who," he says.

Pat Shearer, the chief constable of the Dumfries and Galloway police, issued a statement Monday saying that Libya would continue to be at the center of the investigation. He said investigators were basing their work on the premise established during al-Megrahi's trial that he "acted in furtherance of the Libyan intelligence service and did not act alone."

Police are keeping quiet on whether there is any new evidence in the case or whether the FBI will be involved, as it was in the original investigation. But in the e-mail that the Crown Office sent to family members in September, Lindsey Miller, a senior prosecutor, suggested that investigators had been examining forensic evidence and that several leads showed promise. "Please be assured that this is not simply paying lip service to the idea of an 'open' case," she wrote.

It's unclear whether Libya will cooperate with any further inquiries. In 2003, the country formally accepted responsibility for the Lockerbie bombing, paying $2.7 billion in compensation to the relatives of those who died. Since then, however, Libyan officials have denied culpability and suggested that the payout was made as part of its recent efforts to normalize relations with the West. The Daily Telegraph reported Monday that British detectives had made at least three trips to Libya to interview witnesses and potential suspects but that they had recently been blocked from returning to conclude their investigation. Also Monday, in an interview with Sky News, Gaddafi brushed aside questions about Lockerbie and the release of al-Megrahi, saying, "It is a matter of concern for the British, Scots, Americans. We are not really concerned about it."

Other issues may also hamper the fresh probe. Richard Marquise, who was the FBI special agent in charge of the U.S. investigation into the bombing, tells TIME that the inquiry may be hindered by the fact that most of the investigators in the original case, him and Henderson included, have retired. He says "fresh eyes" can often uncover leads that were missed the first time around, but adds, "I have always believed that police and prosecutors often err when not using 'old eyes' in addition to new ones."

Relatives of the victims, many of whom feel they have long been denied the consolation of justice, cautiously welcomed the review. Jim Swire, whose daughter Flora died in the attack, told reporters, "I think if they are really going to have a meaningful investigation, then that is all well and good and long overdue. But if it is just a dodge to prevent an investigation into why the lives of those killed were not protected, then I would be livid."

Many family members have long sought an independent inquiry into the events leading up to and immediately following the bombing to determine whether any government policies in place at the time were indirectly to blame for the attack. "Underpinning our request for this inquiry is our belief that unless we understand and acknowledge the complicated series of events that led to the decision to put a bomb on Flight 103, no lessons will be learned," Pamela Dix, whose brother Peter died in the bombing, wrote in a commentary in the Guardian newspaper on Monday.

Speaking to TIME from her home in New Jersey, Susan Cohen — whose daughter Theodora would have been 41 next month had she not died on the flight — says al-Megrahi's trial was "narrow in its scope, and it's right that we now look further." Although she's frustrated that it has taken so long for another review of the case, she's not worn out by the protracted search for justice. "You can never be too exhausted when searching for the murderers of your child," she says.