In Tripoli in early 2010, I was driven through farmland past watchtowers to an airy villa outside the Libyan capital, to meet the country’s second most powerful man: Saif al-Islam Gaddafi. Although he had paved the way for multi-billion dollar deals with U.S. and British oil companies, and built an influential fiefdom separate to his father, Libya’s autocrat Muammar Gaddafi, he was proudest of one act that sealed his authority back home and drew the ire of the West: Securing the release from a Scottish jail of Abdel Basset al-Megrahi, the only person convicted in the shoot-down of a PanAm jet over Lockerbie, Scotland in 1988, which killed 270 people, 189 of them Americans. “I worked very hard to get him out of jail,” Saif said. “I think he is innocent, and he is very ill.”
Fast forward three years. Saif is now in jail awaiting trial in Libya, while Megrahi is dead, having succumbed to prostate cancer last May, proclaiming his innocence to the end. And on Thursday, Prime Minister David Cameron flew into Tripoli, and announced that British police would be permitted travel to Libya within the next two months to unearth the truth about the Lockerbie bombing, which remains—a generation on—the worst terrorist attack ever on British soil. Addressing reporters in Tripoli, Cameron said, “What we want to achieve is justice and a full uncovering of the facts.”
Good luck with that. Many knowledgeable Libyans are at this point dead, jailed or in exile. And more than 24 years after the bombing, those most affected by the Lockerbie bombing—the families of those killed—are deeply divided over the case, believing that justice was never fully done, but unable to agree on who was to blame.
In December a group of relatives of U.S. victims petitioned Congress to open oversight hearings into Lockerbie, claiming that top officials in the Gaddafi regime were implicated in the bombing, but that they had been gone unpunished because the U.S. and Libya were patching up years of hostilities; those could include Gaddafi’s old intelligence chief Moussa Koussa, who fled during the revolution, reportedly to Qatar.
Yet several British families who lost loved ones in the attack are convinced Megrahi was wrongly convicted at a time when Western governments were determined to see someone punished for the Lockerbie attack, and that the true culprits could lie elsewhere entirely, like Iran, since the bombing occurred shortly after an Iranian jet had been shot down. Jim Swire, a British physician whose daughter was killed in the Lockerbie attack, remains convinced Megrahi was innocent, and on Thursday, wrote on his website, “There simply isn’t any genuine evidence of Libyan involvement at any level.” John Mosey, who also lost a daughter in the bomb attack, likewise believes Megrahi’s trial was a sham. Both men sat through months of testimony in Megrahi’s international trial in the Hague. In an interview last year, Mosey told TIME that after the trial, “I came away 80 to 90 percent convinced that this man was not guilty. It was very clear that there was political interference.”
In a curious twist of fate, one key to unlocking some facts about Lockerbie could lie with Saif. There is no word whether British investigators will be allowed to question Saif, who has spent 14 months in the custody of the militia brigade of Zintan, which has refused to transfer him to the national prisons system or to the International Criminal Court (ICC) in the Hague, where he is wanted for war crimes. Saif’s only public appearance was in a Zintan court last month, where he was charged with conspiring with an ICC lawyer who visited him last year.
Should he be allowed to cooperate with British investigators—and should he wish to—Gaddafi’s once-powerful son, as the only family member still alive and in Libya, could potentially answer the crucial question: If Megrahi was innocent, who is guilty? Although Saif was just 16 when the Lockerbie bombing happened, he long told journalists (including me in three interviews since 2004) that Libya had agreed to hand over Megrahi and one other defendant simply in order to end years of international sanctions. If that is so, it is possible that Saif could well have had access to information concerning the true culprits. As part of the deal that ended sanctions, Libya was obliged to settle claims of terror attacks, including Lockerbie, the bombing of a U.S. nightclub in Berlin, and the killing of police officer Yvonne Fletcher in London. Gaddafi paid $270 million to the families of the Lockerbie victims—$1 million per death—while never admitting Libya’s guilt.
One other figure might also be helpful to the British investigators: Gaddafi’s former intelligence chief Abdallah Senoussi, who was captured on the run in Mauritania and extradited last September to a jail cell in Libya. He too is likely to have knowledge of the Lockerbie plot—if Libya was indeed involved—and he is believed to have helped appeal to Scottish authorities to free Megrahi.
Meanwhile, Libya’s former Oil Minister Shukri Ghanem drowned in a canal in Vienna last year, having never revealed the most controversial, unanswered question surrounding Megrahi: Whether his release was entangled with lucrative British business deals in Libya at the time. A $900-million oil exploration deal for BP, inked in 2004 when British sanctions were lifted, was ratified only after Megrahi flew home in 2009 to rapturous crowds at Tripoli Airport—escorted off the plane by a beaming Saif.