Richard Horowitz: Pan Am 103, Revisited

By Richard Horowitz

Juval Aviv, an Israeli-born New York private investigator, gave a presentation on August 8 at the annual American Bar Association (ABA) convention held in New York. Aviv is president of Interfor, Inc., which describes itself as an “international investigations firm offering comprehensive domestic and foreign intelligence services to the legal, corporate, and financial communities” with offices in thirty-six countries.

Aviv has created a mystique about himself by claiming to be the “Avner” character in Steven Spielberg’s Munich, hand-picked by former Prime Minister Golda Meir to lead a team of Israeli assassins to avenge the deaths of the 11 Israeli athletes killed by Black September during the 1972 Munich Olympics. As Aviv told the ABA audience, “Steven Spielberg bought the rights to my life story and Munich is based on that.”

Last week, however, Aviv was removed as the keynote speaker at a security conference scheduled for October after I and another security professional brought our concerns about Aviv to the conference director.

Aviv gained notoriety when Pan Am hired him to investigate the downing of Flight 103, which exploded over Lockerbie, Scotland in 1988. His investigative conclusion: the Central Intelligence Agency was responsible for the explosion on board the flight. According to his report, the CIA had allowed Syrian drug dealers to ship narcotics to the United States via U.S. aircraft in exchange for intelligence. Someone, however, slipped a bomb into the shipment aboard Pan Am 103, bringing down the plane.

While this defense did not help Pan Am in court, Aviv’s report, commonly referred to as the “Interfor Report,” merited a chapter in The 80 Greatest Conspiracies of All Time by Jonathan Vankin and John Whalen (Citadel Press, 2004) and can be found on websites and discussion boards across the Internet. (See number 9 in Another Ten Conspiracy Theories, right after the famous Beatles rumor “Paul is Dead.”)

Spielberg’s Munich has helped resuscitate Aviv, who had largely been discredited years ago. In 1990, Yigal Carmon, the Israeli prime minister’s advisor on counterterrorism, was asked by the U.S. President’s Commission on Aviation Security and Terrorism for his opinion about Aviv. Mr. Carmon’s letter to the Commission was frank:

1. Yuval Aviv does not work and has never worked for the Intelligence Community of the State or Israel. Furthermore, he has never been attached or connected to it.

2. The only connection he has had to security work—in an official capacity—was (except his regular army service, which he completed at the rank of Sergeant) working as a junior security officer for El-Al in New York, in the years 1973-1974.

3. His work in that capacity was terminated at the initiative of the employer because of unsuitability resulting from negative character traits. During the course of his work Yuval Aviv was found to be unreliable and dishonest.

4. According to our information—which was brought to the attention of the U.S. authorities—Aviv has been involved during the years (after being dismissed from El-Al) in various acts of fraud and impersonation.

Two years later, on December 20, 1992, 60 Minutes aired a segment on Juval Aviv entitled “Pan Am’s Apparent Attempt to Escape Paying Damages to Families of Flight 103 Victims.” From Mike Wallace’s introduction: “Now, it is not surprising that Pan Am and its lead insurer, U.S. Aviation Underwriters, would appeal that verdict. What is surprising perhaps is that they would hire a private detective like Juval Aviv to help them avoid paying huge damage claims.” Wallace confronted Aviv with Yigal Carmon’s letter.

Juval Aviv recently published a novel based on his original Interfor Report, and he and Spielberg reportedly agreed to make a film on Pan Am 103 based on this version of events—which will be, no doubt, a Hollywood money maker (“Spielberg’s real-life hero of Munich reveals the true story behind Pan Am Flight 103”).

Spielberg, however, will have a problem basing a Pan Am 103 movie on the Interfor Report, as it gives Monzer al-Kassar much prominence. For Aviv, Al-Kassar, a well-known Syrian drug smuggler and illegal arms dealer, was the perfect villain. He has been linked to the Iran-Contra affair, the notorious Bank of Credit and Commerce International scandal, the bombings in Argentina of the Jewish cultural center and Israeli embassy, and the Achille Lauro hijacking. He is 26 on the Iraqi government’s 41 Most Wanted List. He has been accused of violating U.N. arms embargoes of Croatia, Bosnia, and Somalia, and was recently arrested and indicted by the U.S. government for plotting to ship weapons to the FARC, a Columbian terrorist group, and extradited to New York on June 14, 2008.

While al-Kassar is not guilty of everything he has been suspected of, he has been intensely scrutinized by numerous government agencies, scholars, and journalists—and unfortunately for Spielberg, no one but Aviv makes the connection between the well-investigated al-Kassar and Pan Am 103.

The real problem with a Spielberg film based on Juval Aviv’s version, however, is that the plot will place the blame on the U.S. government for the downing of the Pan Am flight at a time when public trust in the government and support for the war on terrorism is crucial. One role of our government is to preserve and protect the public’s well-being, but Washington’s ability to do this stems also from the public support it receives.

As Richard Marquise, leader of the U.S. government interagency task force that investigated the bombing, wrote in his book Scotbom: Evidence and the Lockerbie Investigation: “Watergate had shaken the United States in 1972, but if Aviv’s report was true, the allegations would be significantly more damaging because it alleged US Government complicity in the bombing.”

Let us hope that a Spielberg-Aviv Flight 103 movie will not disrupt this dynamic crucial to our national security.

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Richard Horowitz is admitted to practice law in New York and the District of Columbia. He is also a licensed private investigator and served in the Israel Defense Forces for 6 years attaining the rank of captain.