Special Report

The Other Lockerbies

It's fine for senators to grandstand on the UK's and BP's alleged roles in releasing a murdering terrorist to Libya. But why are they silent about other terrorists released to foreign governments?

By 8.3.10

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Senators Menendez and Lautenberg of New Jersey took to the microphone this week to express disappointment that witnesses from the British government and BP -- including outgoing CEO Tony Hayword -- were unavailable to appear before a Senate Foreign Relations Committee hearing convened last week. The purpose of the hearing was to explore BP's alleged role in the release last year by the Scottish government of the only person convicted of the 1988 bombing of a Pan-Am flight over Lockerbie, Scotland, in which 270 people lost their lives.

The slights from these witnesses are highly troubling because, technically, in calling for an investigation of BP's role in last year's decision by the British government to allow Scotland to release the convicted terrorist, the Senators representing New Jersey and New York are doing the right thing.

But a more troubling picture emerges when one considers whether these Senators are applying their outrage to other instances where foreign governments have released terrorists who have targeted -- and continue to target -- Americans. Indeed, when one looks at who is attacking Marines in Afghanistan and elsewhere today, it is hard not to characterize these Senators' efforts on Lockerbie as an example of doing the right thing for the wrong reason.

Senators Menendez and Lautenberg, along with Senators Schumer and Gillibrand of New York, had recently asked Secretary of State Hillary Clinton to investigate the U.K.'s release of Abdelbaset al-Megrahi last year, and the role that BP may have played in pushing the arrangement through. Al-Megrahi – convicted in 2001 of the 1988 bombing of a Pan-Am flight over Lockerbie, Scotland, was released last year from Scottish custody on "compassionate" grounds. Scottish authorities at the time cited their impression that al-Megrahi, diagnosed with terminal cancer, had only three months or so to live. A year later, al-Megrahi is still alive in Libya -- reports indicate that one of the doctors who previously diagnosed him as terminal now says he could live another decade.

These Senators are right to want to take a serious look at the extent to which BP's interest in securing oil deals in Libya may have contributed to the outrageous decision to release al-Megrahi. But if there is any doubt as to whether Menendez and his colleagues are primarily motivated by seeking justice for victims of terrorism -- as opposed to, say, further sticking it to a serious offender in one of the country's most hated industries at a time when millions of gallons of oil have been spewed into the Gulf of Mexico -- that doubt is validated when looking at other situations where foreign governments have released terrorists who have targeted Americans, and continue to do so.

Take our friends, the Saudis. Tom Joscelyn reports at the Long War Journal:

On Saturday, June 19 [2010], Saudi officials told reporters that about 25 former Guantanamo detainees, or approximately 20 percent of the 120 detainees who have been repatriated to Saudi Arabia, have returned to terrorism since being transferred. All of the recidivists had been enrolled in a rehabilitation program established by the Saudi government.

And as the Associated Press reported with respect to Afghanistan in March, 2009:

Abdullah Ghulam Rasoul, formerly Guantanamo prisoner No. 008, was among 13 Afghan prisoners released to the Afghan government in December 2007. Rasoul is now known as Mullah Abdullah Zakir, a nom de guerre that Pentagon and intelligence officials say is used by a Taliban leader who is in charge of operations against U.S. and Afghan forces in southern Afghanistan.

J.D. Gordon, former Pentagon Spokesman for the Western Hemisphere, stated in a recent interview: 

At last count earlier this year, the U.S. intelligence community estimated that roughly 20% of all detainees released from Guantanamo, all of which have been transferred to foreign governments, have been confirmed or are suspected of having returned to terrorism. This includes Taliban leadership fighting against U.S. and NATO forces in Afghanistan, a suicide bomber who struck in Iraq, and coincidentally a "terminally ill" man who became one of Afghanistan's most prolific IED makers when he left Guantanamo on humanitarian grounds.

So where have Senators Schumer, Gillibrand, Lautenberg and Menendez been while these foreign governments have released terrorists who continue to target Americans? Where are their calls for investigations and hearings into these incidents?

The fact that there was no high-profile, deeply unpopular oil company implicated in the release of these terrorists from Gitmo may go a long way in explaining the silence. Perhaps the Senators are also reluctant to point out the short-sightedness of one of President Obama's first acts in office: issuing the Executive Order to close Gitmo. 

Reports indicate that the Senate Foreign Relations Committee will attempt to convene a hearing on Lockerbie again in September. If these four Senators want to send a clear, consistent signal between now and then about seeking justice and closure for terrorism victims, they hopefully will take their call for an al-Megrahi investigation as an opportunity to rise above partisanship and get to the bottom of all incidents in which foreign governments have released known terrorists.

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About the Author

Ben Lerner is Vice President for Government Relations at the Center for Security Policy in Washington, D.C.