Pan Am 103 Why Did They Die?

Washington says Libya sabotaged the plane. Provocative evidence suggests that a Syrian drug dealer may have helped plant the bomb -- and the real targets were intelligence agents working for the CIA

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Investigators initially focused their efforts on examining the procedures in the baggage-loading area at Frankfurt's international airport. But risking the transfer of an unaccompanied, bomb-laden suitcase to a connecting flight did not jibe with the precautions terrorists usually take. Security officers using video cameras routinely keep watch over the area. An intricate network of computerized conveyors, the most sophisticated baggage-transfer system in the world, shunts some 60,000 suitcases a day between loading bays. Every piece of luggage is logged minute by minute from one position to the next, so its journey through the airport is carefully monitored. The bags are then X-rayed by the airline before being put aboard a plane.

But the U.S. government's charges against al-Megrahi and Fhimah don't explain how the bronze-colored Samsonite suitcase, dispatched via Air Malta, eluded Frankfurt's elaborate airport security system. Instead, the indictment zeroes in on two tiny pieces of forensic evidence -- a fingernail-size fragment of green plastic from a Swiss digital timer, and a charred piece of shirt.

Even though investigators previously thought the bomb was probably detonated by a barometric trigger (considered much more reliable, especially in winter, when flights are frequently delayed and connections missed), a Swiss timer was traced to Libya. The shirt, which presumably had been wrapped around the bomb inside the suitcase, was traced to a boutique in Malta called Mary's House. The owner identified al-Megrahi as the shirt's purchaser, although he originally confused al-Megrahi with a Palestinian terrorist arrested in Sweden.

It was the computer printout produced by FAG, the German company that operates the sophisticated luggage-transfer system, that finally nailed down the indictment of the two Libyans. The printout, discovered months after the bombing, purportedly proved that their suitcase sent from Malta was logged in at Coding Station 206 shortly after 1 p.m. and then routed to Gate 44 in Terminal B, where it was put aboard the Pan Am jet. But a "priority" teletype sent from the U.S. embassy in Bonn to the FBI director in Washington on Oct. 23, 1989, reveals that despite the detailed computer records, considerable uncertainty surrounded the movement of this suitcase.

TIME has obtained a copy of the five-page FBI message, which states, "This computer entry does not indicate the origin of the bag which was sent for loading on board Pan Am 103. Nor does it indicate that the bag was actually loaded on Pan Am 103. It indicates only that a bag of unknown origin was sent from Coding Station 206 at 1:07 p.m. to a position from which it was supposed to be loaded on Pan Am 103."

The FBI message further explains that a handwritten record kept by a baggage handler at Coding Station 206 was even less specific about what happened to the suitcase. "It is noted," the teletype continues, "that the handwritten duty sheet indicates only that the luggage was unloaded from Air Malta 180. There is no indication how much baggage was unloaded or where the luggage was sent." The FBI agent's report concludes, "There remains the possibility that no luggage was transferred from Air Malta 180 to Pan Am 103."

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