Sunday, 11 March 2012

Airport security chief's concern at Megrahi verdict

[This is the headline over a report by Ben Borland in today’s edition of the Sunday Express.  It reads as follows:]

The head of security at Heathrow Airport at the time of the Lockerbie bombing has broken his silence on how Britain's worst terror atrocity could have been carried out.

Norman Shanks said the bomb could "easily" have been smuggled in to the country by foreign agents acting with the help of a Middle Eastern airline, such as Iran Air.

It would have been equally possible for somebody using one of around 70,000 airside passes to simply carry the bomb unchecked in to Terminal 3.

His revelations cast further doubt on the conviction of Abdelbaset Ali Mohmed al-Megrahi, following the publication of a book based on the Libyan's abandoned appeal.

Mr Shanks, now one of the world's leading airline security experts, said there were now "legitimate questions" over Megrahi's involvement in the 1988 bombing, which claimed 270 lives.

He confirmed that he had raised his fears with the Metropolitan Police at an early stage of the investigation.

Judges at Megrahi's trial accepted the Crown's case that the bomb, hidden inside a Toshiba radio cassette player and placed inside a suitcase, was loaded at Malta's Luqa Airport.

It was then transferred at Frankfurt Airport onto a feeder flight for Pan Am 103, before being transferred again at Heathrow, landing in the baggage hold in the "ideal position to destroy the plane".

Megrahi's claim that the bombing was the work of a Palestinian terror cell in Germany, acting on behalf of Iran in revenge for the US Navy shooting down a passenger jet, was dismissed.

However, after his conviction, it emerged there had been an overnight break-in at Heathrow, near the Pan Am baggage area, just hours before the fateful flight.

This information had never been made public or even disclosed to the defence, despite the fact the Metropolitan Police had known about it for almost 13 years.

Now, speaking about the break-in for the first time, Mr Shanks denied any involvement in the cover-up.

He said: "The police were fully aware of the discovery of the broken padlock so if anything was hidden it was not because of the airport."

The door leading to the airside part of Terminal 3 was left unlocked during the day, and Mr Shanks believes the padlock was broken by a night shift worker looking for a short cut.

He said: "This was way before we had screening of staff and a lot of staff felt they had the right to go anywhere they wanted. It was out of the ordinary but it was not exceptional.

"The public would have had no reason to be there. A member of the public hovering in that area at night would probably appear somewhat suspicious and be investigated."

He added: "It would have been much simpler for the rogue suitcase to have been brought in by an aircraft and transferred airside.

"That would have been equally possible and less likely to cause any prospect of being discovered. Any country that flew into Heathrow could have done it, several airlines had Heathrow engineering stores brought in and transferred to some area without having to come landside."

He added: "Iran Air were one of the Middle Eastern airlines with that access."

Western intelligence has long suspected there are close links between the Iranian state carrier and the country's shadowy secret services. 

Mr Shanks added: "At some point, it probably was raised [with the police] but I can't say why, when or who to.

"Equally, it would have been easy for somebody to take something through to airside. There was no screening of staff, no restriction on people walking through with items in bags. There was no reason for anyone to be stopped and questioned about anything they were carrying.

"Any authorised person with a pass was able to go airside, and that was around 70,000 people."

Mr Shanks led the complete overhaul of airport security, at Heathrow and across the rest of the UK, in the wake of the Lockerbie bombing.

And despite his desire to be "apolitical", he is sure that recent revelations have "raised what I would regard as legitimate questions" over Megrahi's conviction.

At the Camp Zeist trial, baggage handler John Bedford testified that he had seen a brown hard-sided suitcase - exactly like the one containing the bomb - in the Pan Am baggage area before the feeder flight from Frankfurt had arrived.

The judges admitted this "could fit the forensic description of the primary suitcase" and said Bedford was a "clear and impressive witness", but dismissed his evidence in favour of the prosecution case. 

[The following comments come from Jim Swire and Peter Biddulph's website:]

The multi-national operations at Heathrow, plus the presence on-site of major reconstruction work for Terminal Two, meant that on 21st December 1988 the 70,000 users of airside passes were of all nationalities, all skin-colours, many and various jobs, employed by many and various companies, some with little connection to air-traffic matters. To this number must be added the staff of the many airlines arriving and departing, including Iran-Air.

In short, Heathrow authorities had no knowledge as to who was using the passes, nor where on the airport they were going, nor when, nor what was the purpose of their presence. Professor Shanks states: "This was way before we had screening of staff and a lot of staff felt they had the right to go anywhere they wanted."

A rogue suitcase could "have been brought in by an aircraft and transferred airside... It would have been equally possible [for] any country that flew into Heathrow... Several airlines had engineering stores brought in and transferred to some areas without having to come landside."  

"Iran Air were one of the Middle Eastern airlines with that access."

Professor Shanks now admits that there are "legitimate questions" over the conviction of Mr Al-Megrahi. 

So now - after twenty three years of cover-up - we know the truth.  It is a pity that Professor Shanks did not reveal this during the nine years that elapsed before the Lockerbie trial.  He and others close to him also had the opportunity to say these things during the three years leading to Al-Megrahi's first appeal, but they stayed silent. 


  1. For a long time I have been of the opinion that a large part of the reason for the investigation refusing to look seriously at the possibility the suitcase Bedford saw was the bomb, was the knowledge that Heathrow leaked like a sieve and they had no realistic hope of being able to find out who had got the bomb in there or how they had done it. Such a revelation, had it come out in the context of the bomb actually being loaded there, rather than as an irrelevant aside in a case looking at a Malta loading, would have done immense damage to the British aviation industry. (I don't suppose the D&G police were all that averse to the focus of the inquiry staying well clear of the Met's patch, either.)

    You'd think it would be more important to find the real perpetrators of a terrorist act like Lockerbie, or at least to find out as far as possible how it was done, rather than ignoring the most compelling evidence and sending a squadron of cops on a wild goose chase to Malta. Wouldn't you?

  2. To be fair to Professor Shanks he did notify the Metropolitan Police about the break in at Heathrow early in the Lockerbie investigation. They had the information. Why was it not disclosed by the Met? Who ordered it withheld?