Libyan leader Muammar Ghadafi had surrendered the convicted man, Abdel Basset Ali al-Megrahi, and his co-accused, Al Amin Khalifa Fhimah, for trial in a neutral venue after more than a decade of negotiations and pressure. For Ghadafi, among the more generous state sponsors of terrorism during the 1970s and 1980s, the move was a bid to break out of the international sanctions that have been in force against his country since 1992 as a result of the bombing. If the cost of ending the embargo is a life-sentence on one of his intelligence operatives, Ghadafi may be more than willing to pay it.
Freelancers, or following orders?
Even though they've begun to crumble, formally ending sanctions at the United Nations Security Council (where their most committed advocates, the U.S., Britain and France, have veto power) is far from a done deal. The U.N. ambassadors of the U.S., Britain and Libya are scheduled to discuss the issue, but Secretary of State Colin Powell has made clear that Washington believes the trial alone is not sufficient reason to end sanctions against Libya. And the conviction of a mid-level intelligence officer only raises questions about decision-making higher up on the chain of command. After all, Libyan intelligence is not exactly known as a roguish band of freelancers; following orders is generally a good idea in a state built around an authoritarian personality cult.
If Megrahi was simply following orders, of course, the question is where those orders originated. Not simply who in Libyan intelligence may have issued them, but on whose behalf. The court case focused narrowly on the question of whether the two Libyan agents had set the bomb that destroyed Pan Am 103, rather than on why or on whose orders they may have acted. The Western intelligence community has never been able to go beyond speculation on this score: Was the bombing Ghadafi's own retaliation for the 1986 U.S. air raid on Libya's capital that killed Ghadafi's adopted daughter, among others? (The U.S. strike came after Libya was blamed for the bombing of a nightclub in Berlin that killed two American soldiers.) Or were the Libyans subcontracted by some other state sponsor Iran, perhaps, as possible retaliation for the 1988 accidental downing by the U.S. Navy of an Iranian passenger jet? Or even Syria? These scenarios remain hypothetical. Hypothetical, perhaps, but a reflection of the almost universal skepticism that the footsoldier Megrahi had acted on his own initiative.