Some cases you never forget, while others blend into one long line of tragedy. For me, the 1980s were a blur of travel, endless threats, carnage and terrorist attacks as I dealt with the likes of the Abu Nidal Organization, Hezbollah, the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine and the Irish Republican Army. But one particular run-in with state-sponsored terrorism was so extreme and violent — not to mention personal — that the case has stuck out clearly in my mind for decades. And each December, on the anniversary of the event, I remember it vividly.
Twenty-nine years ago, on Dec. 21, 1988, the bombing of Pan Am Flight 103 rocked the world. The plane, which was carrying 243 passengers and 16 crew members, was on its way from London to New York when an improvised explosive device detonated onboard over Lockerbie, Scotland. At an altitude of 31,000 feet, the 747 Clipper Class aircraft broke up into countless pieces of fuselage, which made a two-minute free fall as they were scattered all over Scotland. (The nose cone was later discovered on the ground, relatively intact.) There were no survivors.
Hundreds of lives, hundreds of unique personal stories and bright futures, were lost that day. Indeed, many students from Syracuse University were onboard the flight, likely returning home for the holidays. But while every loss of life from a terrorist attack impacts those of us in the counterterrorism field, the Lockerbie bombing was particularly brutal for myself and my colleagues, as members of our own were onboard that flight. On Dec. 21, 1988, we lost special agents Danny O'Connor and Ron Lariviere, as well as Matt Gannon, the brother of one of our agents, and Maj. Chuck McKee of the Defense Intelligence Agency. The men were all returning to the states on home leave for the holidays, making the attack all the more painful for friends and loved ones. One of the many grim realities of working in my field is that when agents are killed, other agents are dispatched to notify the victims' families. It was a bleak Christmas for us all, to say the least.
But alongside my devastation came a powerful drive to achieve justice. In my memoir Ghost: Confessions of a Counterterrorism Agent, I describe the feeling: "Long after midnight for weeks, I cannot help but replay what those final moments must have been like for those people who did nothing wrong but choose the wrong plane to fly home on for the holidays. Night after night, week after week, my imagination becomes a plague."
The case was personal, and at the Defense Security Service we dove into the investigation with fierce resolve. Together with the FBI, which led the case, we learned that the suitcase had been placed onboard by the Libyan intelligence service in Malta. And although the internet is filled with conspiracy theories about the crash, the FBI did an excellent job with their forensics. I'm as confident today as I was back then that Libyan intelligence agents were responsible.
With the knowledge of the origins of the suitcase, we employed the Rewards For Justice Program to aid us in hunting down the Libyan killers — and we managed to secure the highest possible payout to hopefully bring them to justice. On my watch, however, we were unfortunately never able to pay the reward, nor were we able to bring the Libyan intelligence officers behind the attack to justice in a U.S. court of law. In fact, one of the perpetrators in the attack died many years later, a free man in Libya.
Even though many years have passed and countless other tragedies have eclipsed the global news cycle, the bombing of Pan Am Flight 103 is never far from my mind. And during the holiday season, I can't help but feel even more powerfully and persistently haunted by the events of that day. In the midst of a month of celebration, I am reminded of that two-minute free fall from 31,000 feet — and I am strengthened in my resolve to continue the work that my fellow agents lost their lives pursuing.