U.S. Justice Department charges Libyan in 1988 Lockerbie airplane bombing

The Justice Department on Monday unsealed charges accusing a Libyan bomb expert in the 1988 explosion of Pan Am Flight 103 over Lockerbie, Scotland, an attack that killed 259 people in the air and an additional 11 on the ground.

270 were killed in the attack days before Christmas, including 3 Canadians

A man looks at the main memorial stone in memory of the victims of the bombing of Pan Am Flight 103, in the garden of remembrance near Lockerbie, Scotland, on Friday. (Scott Heppell/The Associated Press)

The Justice Department on Monday unsealed charges accusing a Libyan bomb expert in the 1988 explosion of Pan Am Flight 103 over Lockerbie, Scotland, an attack that killed 259 people in the air and an additional 11 on the ground.

Abu Agela Mas'ud Kheir Al-Marimi, also known as Hasan Abu Ojalya Ibrahim, was charged with two criminal counts, with a news conference taking place Monday, the 32nd anniversary of the tragedy. He is described as a former Libyan intelligence operative.

The Wall Street Journal reported last week the suspect is in custody in Libya and will be extradited to the United States to stand trial, with Attorney General William Barr saying at Monday's news conference he felt confident the suspect would be extradited to face justice.

"As to all the victims and the families, we cannot take away your pain from your loss, but we can seek justice for you. Our message to other terrorists around the world is this — you will not succeed — if you attack Americans, no matter where you are, no matter how long it takes, you will be pursued to the ends of the Earth until justice is done," said Barr in an accompanying statement from the department.

In presenting new charges, the Justice Department is revisiting a case that deepened the chasm between the United States and Libya, laid bare the threat of international terrorism more than a decade before the Sept. 11 attacks and produced global investigations and punishing sanctions.

In this Dec 22, 1988 file photo police and investigators look at what remains of the flight deck of Pan Am 103 in a field in Lockerbie, Scotland. The debris from the plane spread over a massive area after the explosion. (The Associated Press)

In 1992, the United Nations Security Council imposed arms sales and air travel sanctions against Libya to prod Col. Moammar Gadhafi, the country's leader, into surrendering the two suspects.

But the Libyan government balked at surrendering the men to the U.S., skeptical they could receive a fair trial. Libya ultimately turned them over for prosecution before a panel of Scottish judges sitting in a Netherlands court.

Only man convicted died in 2012

One man — former Libyan intelligence official Abdel Baset al-Megrahi — was convicted, and a second Libyan suspect was acquitted of all charges. Al-Megrahi was given a life sentence, but Scottish authorities released him on humanitarian grounds in 2009 when he was diagnosed with prostate cancer. He later died in Tripoli in 2012.

The Pan Am flight exploded over Lockerbie less than an hour after takeoff from London on Dec. 21, 1988, en route to New York City and then Detroit. Among the Americans on board were 35 Syracuse University students flying home for Christmas after a semester abroad.

Three Canadians were among the dead.

The attack was the latest flareup of tension between Libya and Western nations, including the U.S. In the years before the flight, for instance, Libya was blamed for the bombing of a West Berlin discotheque that killed two American soldiers and injured dozens of others.

It wasn't until 2003 that Gadhafi and Libya accepted responsibility for the Pan Am disaster, with the country formally taking blame and reaching a $2.7 billion US compensation deal with the victims' families. Sanctions were lifted and, in 2006, the Bush administration removed Libya from its list of state sponsors of terrorism and restored diplomatic relations with the country.

Barr announced an earlier set of charges against two Libyan intelligence officials in his capacity as acting attorney general nearly 30 years ago, vowing that the investigation would continue. Though Barr had not appeared at a news conference in months, he led this one two days before his departure as something of a career bookend.

Besides Barr, another key figure in the Lockerbie investigation was Robert Mueller, who was the Justice Department's criminal chief at the time the first set of charges was announced. Mueller would later become FBI director and special counsel in charge of the investigation into ties between Russia and the 2016 Trump campaign.

U.S. Attorney General William Barr participates, seen Monday in Washington, D.C., helped pursue suspects in the bombings during his first tenure in the Justice Department, which began in 1989 and ran until January 1993. (Michael Reynolds/Reuters)

The two men clashed when Barr issued a summary of Mueller's report. Mueller expressed concerns in a letter and testimony on Capitol Hill on the way Barr characterized his work, which he believed downplayed the actions of President Donald Trump and his campaign staff.

Asked by a reporter, Barr said he did not invite Mueller to Monday's news conference.

Barr did note the absence of FBI Director Christopher Wray at the event.

With files from CBC News and Reuters