What Was the Lockerbie Bombing?

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  • Written By: Mary McMahon
  • Edited By: O. Wallace
  • Last Modified Date: 28 February 2020
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The Lockerbie bombing was an air disaster which occurred in 1988 over Lockerbie, Scotland, killing 259 people aboard a Pan Am-owned Boeing 747 aircraft, along with 11 people on the ground. This event is notable because it was caused by an act of terrorism, rather than pilot error or equipment failure. It was considered one of the deadliest terrorist attacks involving aircraft until 2001, when four aircraft were simultaneously targeted by terrorists in the United States, killing thousands of people in the aircraft and on the ground.

Pan Am Flight 103 was a routine trans-Atlantic flight which ran between London and New York City. On 21 December, the passengers were mostly American, including a large group of students returning home after a semester abroad. According to investigations conducted in the wake of the disaster, the Lockerbie bombing actually started in Germany, when a piece of luggage loaded with Semtex explosive and a pressure-sensitive timer was loaded onto a flight which included 77 passengers bound for New York City. This luggage was transferred to the New York-bound flight.


All appeared normal for the aircraft after takeoff, with the pilots responding to communications from air traffic controllers and the plane showing up on radar until 5:02 PM, at which point the flight stopped responding and the single radar target suddenly turned into four. The Semtex explosives on the plane ripped through the fuselage in seconds when a pressure change triggered the detonator, causing a catastrophic failure of the plane's integrity and a midair breakup.

As the plane broke up, sections plummeted into the village of Lockerbie, killing several people on the ground and destroying numerous houses. According to one witness who testified at the inquiry into the Lockerbie bombing, one of the flight attendants was alive when the plane hit the ground, although she died before medical aid could arrive. Other passengers were killed in the abrupt decompression of the plane, or from the considerable physical trauma caused by impact with the ground.

The investigation into the bombing quickly uncovered two Libyan nationals who were put on trial for the crime. One of them, Abdel Basset Ali al-Megrahi, was convicted and sentenced to prison. The United States took a very active role in the investigation, given the large number of American citizens involved, and it suggested that Libya was responsible for the bombing, condemning the nation as a state sponsor of terrorism. Libya initially denied this accusation, but government leaders later publicly apologized for the bombing and offered compensation, which would seem to suggest that the American accusation may have been at least partially correct.

The events of the Lockerbie bombing are usually blamed on an escalating climate of tension between the United States and Libya. Several notable terrorist attacks targeting Americans occurred during the 1980s, and many of these events were linked to Libya and the Middle East. In response, the United States pushed for sanctions against Libya and other nations which sponsored terrorism, triggering some backlash in the process.


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