In his new book Terrorism: How to Respond,* Richard English, a historian who has written the definitive history of the IRA, argues that terrorism is best understood as a “subspecies of war” that embodies—among other things—“the exerting and implementing of power, and the attempted redressing of power relations.”
The furor over the Scottish government’s decision to release Abdel Basset Ali al-Megrahi, the convicted Lockerbie bomber, and the speculations surrounding the whole affair prove his point. The festive welcome Megrahi received from President Muammar Qaddafi himself on arrival in Libya was met with predictable fury on both sides of the Atlantic. The explosion aboard Pan Am Flight 103 on December 21, 1988, which caused the Boeing 747 to disintegrate in flames over the Scottish town of Lockerbie, was the worst terrorist atrocity ever to have been perpetrated on British soil. Two hundred and seventy people died, including eleven Lockerbie residents. The majority of the victims, 189 of them, were US citizens returning for the Christmas holidays.
President Obama’s spokesman, Robert Gibbs, described the jubilant crowds that greeted the frail figure of the returning Libyan intelligence agent as “outrageous and disgusting.” Robert Mueller, director of the FBI—who as assistant attorney general had been involved in the investigation that led to Megrahi’s indictment and conviction by a Scottish court sitting in the Netherlands—took the unusual step of releasing the text of a letter he had sent to the Scottish justice secretary, Kenny MacAskill, in which he complained that MacAskill’s action, “blithely defended on the grounds of ‘compassion,'” would give “comfort to terrorists around the world.”
The devolved Scottish government —under the Scottish National Party (SNP), which has announced its intention to hold a referendum on full independence—has robustly denied claims that business interests or pressures from the UK government had any part in its decision to release Megrahi. Its position was supported—after a lengthy and deafening silence—by British Prime Minister Gordon Brown, whom the opposition has accused of “double-dealing” over the Lockerbie affair:
I made it clear that for us there was never a linkage between any other issue and the Scottish government’s own decision about Megrahi’s future…. On our part there was no conspiracy, no cover-up, no double-dealing, no deal on oil, no attempt to instruct Scottish ministers, no private assurances by me to Colonel Qaddafi. We were absolutely clear throughout with Libya and everyone else that this was a decision for the Scottish government.
In an effort to support their position, the UK and Scottish governments released a pile of documents, including previously leaked correspondence between MacAskill and Jack Straw, his counterpart in London. The British justice secretary explained that in his dealings with the Libyan authorities he had been unable to persuade them to exclude Megrahi from a prisoner transfer agreement between Britain and Libya under which prisoners would serve their sentences in their respective countries. The documents also reveal…
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