Today In History: The Lockerbie Plane Bombing

Today In History |

December 21, 1988

Today in 1988, explosives were detonated on Pan Am Flight 103, on its way from London to New York. The plane exploded while flying over Lockerbie, Scotland. All 259 people aboard the plane died, as well as eleven bystanders who were struck by debris.


The bomb was hidden in a cassette deck in the plane's cargo hold. The majority of the passengers were American, leading authorities to speculate that the bombing was meant to be an attack directed at the United States. Britain launched an enormous criminal investigation to find the culprit or culprits.

They concluded that the bombing was likely retaliatory, for American air strikes on Libya that killed dozens, including Muammar al-Qaddafi's daughter, or for when America shot down an Iranian commercial flight in 1988, mistaking it for a hostile craft, killing all 290 people aboard. They believed the bomb was snuck onto the plane while it was on a layover in Frankfurt, Germany.

The American embassy in Helsinki received a warning sixteen days before the bombing that a bomb would be placed on a Pan Am flight departing Frankfurt. This is still an article of hot contention, many claiming that the United States authorities failed to warn travelers and take appropriate precautionary action. Officials still maintain that the warning call and the bombing were unrelated.


After long negotiations, in 1999, Libya agreed to release Libyan citizens Abdel Basset Ali al-Megrahi and Lamen Khalifa Fhimah for trial in Scotland, as the prime suspects in the bombing. Al-Megrahi received a life sentence in 2001. Fhimah was acquitted. In 2009, when al-Megrahi became terminally ill, Scotland released him to return to Libya against America's wishes.

Libya publicly accepted responsibility for Pan Am Flight 103 in 2003, paying each of the victims' families eight million dollars. Consequently, the United Nations lifted crippling sanctions that had been levied against Libya. Shukri Ghanem, Libya's prime minister, described the restitution to the families "price for peace." The families were outraged by the remark.

Largely due to the bombing, Pan Am Airlines went under three years later. They sued Libya and were awarded a $30 million settlement.

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Matt lives in Southern California. He is interested in politics, history, literature and the natural world.