Lockerbie, Libya, and global control

James Turley asks who is the real threat to the world’s masses

The release of Abdelbaset Ali Mohmed Al-Megrahi - the ‘Lockerbie bomber’ - has triggered a huge, seemingly disproportionate explosion.

As most readers will know, at 6.25pm on December 21 1988, Pan Am flight 103 departed Heathrow airport for New York. Less than an hour later, it exploded, killing everyone on board and 11 residents of Lockerbie in southern Scotland - 270 people in all. Now, more than two decades since the bombing, it has returned to the news, after the only man convicted of involvement was released by the Scottish government on compassionate grounds. He has terminal prostate cancer, and by best estimates only a few months to live.

Many relatives of the victims, particularly in America, reacted with horror. However, others - particularly those in Britain - have long harboured scepticism as to his guilt. Speculation abounds as to the possibility of a secret diplomatic deal between the British government and the Libyan state, headed by Muammar Al-Gaddafi. These have, needless to say, been hotly denied by Westminster, which is keen to see the Scottish National Party administration in Holyrood carry the can for a controversial decision.

The ongoing wrangle over Al-Megrahi’s guilt provides the background to the dispute over his compassionate release. He was convicted in 2001, after long-running negotiations between western governments and Libya (not to say punitive sanctions) resulted in Gaddafi turning him and his alleged accomplice, Al Amin Khalifa Fhimah, over to Scotland. Their trial took place on ‘neutral ground’, at Camp Zeist in the Netherlands, a disused US airforce base. Fhimah had a cast-iron alibi, having been in Sweden at the time of the bombing, but Al-Megrahi was convicted, and his appeal was rejected. This caused some consternation at the time, with one of the five UN observers calling it a “spectacular miscarriage of justice”. It was fairly transparent that the US had applied pressure to get the result it wanted.

The evidence against Al-Megrahi was hardly cast-iron, to say the least, and he was granted a second appeal hearing in 2007. Robert Black QC, a Scottish lawyer and academic credited with engineering the Camp Zeist compromise over the original trial, met him and claimed publicly that Al-Megrahi was “an innocent man” who had been the victim of a huge stitch-up. The Scottish Criminal Cases Review Commission made it clear that a miscarriage of justice could have occurred.

Unsurprisingly, then, eyebrows were raised when Al-Megrahi withdrew his appeal last month - apparently to facilitate a possible transfer to Libya to complete his sentence under the prisoner transfer scheme. But instead Scottish justice secretary Kenny MacAskill announced he was to be freed on compassionate grounds. Amongst all the wrangling over this MacAskill began to look very uncomfortable defending ‘his’ decision.

Gordon Brown consistently refused to express an opinion on the release (except to express anger at the hero’s welcome al-Megrahi received upon his arrival in Libya) - a stance befitting a basically impossible position for the PM, caught between increasingly valuable trade deals with Libya, escalating tensions with Holyrood and public consternation from across the Atlantic.

But that silence could not last. In the event, Brown was ‘outed’ rather than making a public statement of his own accord. Correspondence released by the home office in the hope of defusing rumours of any backroom deals has instead further fuelled the row: foreign office minister Bill Rammell was quoted in a transcript of a meeting with a Libyan minister to the effect that Brown did not want to see al-Megrahi die in jail and Rammell confirmed that the transcript is accurate.

Al-Megrahi, then, is obviously enough a bargaining chip in the changing diplomatic relations between Libya and the imperialist countries, and this remains true whether or not someone finds a ‘smoking gun’ memo or letter in which the terms of a concrete deal are mapped out.

From the cold

It has been a long and tortuous road for the Gaddafi regime - it is not so very long ago that scenes such as the celebrations in Tripoli would have met with far worse than verbal condemnation. Upon coming to power in 1969, at the head of a populist military coup that overthrew a short-lived and US-loyal monarchy, Gaddafi vocally propagated an esoteric, quasi-socialistic Arab nationalism, attempting to assume leadership of the pan-Arab movement at a time when its leading light, Egyptian president Gamal Abdel Nasser, was reeling after his defeat in the Arab-Israeli Six-Day War.

Part of his strategy in this regard involved providing material aid to forces abroad he deemed anti-imperialist - the Provisional IRA, various Palestinian militant groups and (most famously among the British far left) Gerry Healy’s Workers Revolutionary Party were among the grateful recipients of money, weapons or supplies; the WRP even took orders of Gaddafi’s Green book, which outlined his political philosophy, selling them for a profit.

Understandably, all this was a source of considerable irritation for the imperialist countries, however cynical the dictator’s motives (precisely how he manages to square up pan-Arabism, pan-Islamism and pan-Africanism is open to speculation). The US imposed sanctions in the 1980s, followed by the UN after Gaddafi refused to hand over the Lockerbie suspects. In 1986, Ronald Reagan blamed Libya for a bomb attack on a German night club frequented by US servicemen, and ordered air strikes in response. Gaddafi narrowly evaded death, and lost his 15-month-old adopted daughter.

The collapse of the Soviet Union, however, left Libya increasingly isolated internationally; Gaddafi’s decision, under considerable duress and with the obligatory intervention of Nelson Mandela, to extradite al-Megrahi and Fhimah marks the moment when the west began to bring Libya in from the cold, and Lockerbie has figured regularly in this process. UN sanctions were suspended, and then - when the Libyan government accepted “responsibility for the actions of its officials” with regard to the case - ditched.

Britain’s role in the diplomatic thaw has been central. It was Britain which moved the security council resolution that dropped the sanctions, and has led the way in establishing economic ties. The US has retained a cooler attitude, but no doubt approves of and benefits from better relations with an oil-producing state that, in regional terms, is a military power. All very cosy - and all liable to hit the rocks if serious doubts are cast on the guilt of al-Megrahi, and Gaddafi refuses to toe the line. He has, after all, only accepted national responsibility in the vaguest terms, and remains supportive of al-Megrahi.

It should be clear that, whatever the true stakes involved, the last thing any of this has to do with is justice. The end of UN sanctions opens up the possibility of highly lucrative trade deals for Britain and other countries; it also offers the opportunity at the very least to defuse a vocal - if demagogic and self-serving - supporter of various militant anti-imperialist forces worldwide, particularly in the Middle East (and especially in Palestine), or even recruit him to the rebranded ‘war on terror’. Such were Tony Blair’s hopes on a visit in 2004, the first face-to-face meeting between Gaddafi and a western leader in decades - he came away with £1 billion worth of investments arranged and claimed to have been given various guarantees on terrorism.

For Brown and Labour, there is the added bonus that this case offers a chance to hammer the SNP, which can conveniently be blamed for a decision condemned as soft on terrorism by the rightwing media. For its part, the SNP does not want to do anything to damage the image it has cultivated of a responsible, moderate government, but one that can be entrusted with full powers, independent of Westminster.

At present the SNP is riding high in the polls but faces many serious difficulties as well. Its leader, Alex Salmond, is due to announce his Scottish independence referendum soon, but his vision - of another ‘Celtic tiger’ economy, based on a deregulated financial sector - has, to put it mildly, lost much of its lustre, particularly given the severity of Ireland’s economic crisis. Add to that the problems common to all minority administrations and a degree of ideological incoherence in the party’s ranks, and it is unsurprising that unionist politicians smell blood. Kenny MacAskill’s slightly ridiculous public profile, and his strenuous and singularly unconvincing denials that the release is anything more than clemency for a dying man, provides a perfect pretext for SNP-bashing.

The whole affair simply stinks. Capitalism is a global system which as a condition of its international reach preserves separate sovereign states, and naturally tends to exacerbate hierarchies between them. It is this that produces antagonistic struggle - the jostling for position in the international rat race translates at the grassroots into one people eating while another starve, one regime surviving where another collapses. Whether they trade bombs or prisoners, states operate with a callous disregard for their inevitable victims. Extorting admissions of guilt from the Libyan government, regardless of their veracity, is no less a crude show of strength than blowing up 15-month-old children in punishment air strikes.

Communists - unlike the degenerate WRP, and other third-worldist elements - never gave Gaddafi’s anti-imperialist rhetoric too much credit. The man is an opportunist, a ruthless political operator with a fast grip on power in Libya. Any capitalist state, regardless, tends towards integration into the imperialist order, a process which can only aid the global expansion of capital.

Amongst all of this it is clear who is the real threat to the world’s masses - and it is not rogue states like Libya, however ruthless their regimes. If Al-Megrahi is indeed innocent, his eight years in prison make him one of the luckier victims of imperialism, with its ‘war on terror’, ghost prisons, kidnapping and torture.

His case is a particularly clear reminder of what lurks behind the rhetorical flourishes of international politics - intrigue, secret dealing and global control.