Friday, 4 March 2016

Lockerbie: Scene of the crime

[This is the headline over the fourth in Dr Morag Kerr’s series of articles for iScot magazine. It is to be found at pages 19 to 23 of the March 2016 issue. The following are excerpts:]

When Pan Am 103, Maid of the Seas, exploded over Lockerbie and crashed down on the Dumfriesshire market town, resulting in the biggest terrorist atrocity in the UK to date, it sparked a mystery which has been the centre of controversy for more than quarter of a century.

One thing is known, when the Boeing 747 began its journey from London on 21 December 1988 it was loaded from empty at Heathrow airport.  So, inevitably, the suitcase containing the bomb was put on board at Heathrow.  However, like almost everything else in this story it wasn’t quite that simple.  

While the bulk of the luggage had indeed been security checked in London, one batch was not.  Pan Am 103 had a feeder flight from Frankfurt that connected with the transatlantic flight at Heathrow, and it was carrying about 45 items of luggage that had been screened in Germany.  As pieces of blast-damaged aluminium were brought in from the fields over the Christmas weekend of 1988, it became clear that the explosion had been in the container holding this transfer luggage.

The reaction of the investigators seems to have been relief.  London’s flagship international airport was not responsible for the security breach that had allowed a bomb to destroy an aircraft and kill 270 people.  The news was headlined in the Times on Hogmanay.  The paper was confused about the change of aircraft at Heathrow, but the message was clear.  This was Germany’s responsibility.

There was more.  The German police themselves had reason to take the same view.  Only two months earlier they had arrested members of a Palestinian terrorist group, the PFLP-GC, who were found with improvised explosive devices designed to attack aircraft in flight. Most of these men had been released without charge, and it was feared they had regrouped and completed their mission.  Thus, by the end of the New Year holiday weekend, the investigation was on course.  The bomb had flown in on the feeder flight and the scene of the crime was Frankfurt.

Remarkably, this mindset remained unchanged as witness statements from Heathrow were collected and a rather different picture began to emerge.  On 31st December the baggage handler who had dealt with the transfer luggage (Amarjit Sidhu) stated that a number of suitcases were already in the container before he added the items from the Frankfurt flight.  On 3rd January the baggage handler who had dealt with the container earlier in the afternoon (John Bedford) confirmed this, and told a remarkable story.  He himself had loaded only a few cases along the back of the container, hinge-down-handle-up, before going for a tea break.  On his return he noticed two additional suitcases lying flat in front of these cases.  He said the x-ray operator Sulkash Kamboj told him he had loaded them in Bedford’s absence, but in his own statements Kamboj denied any knowledge of this.

On 9th January Bedford told the police that he remembered one of the extra cases being a brown Samsonite hardshell, and the other much the same.  It was already obvious that the explosion had occurred low down in the front left corner of the container, and by mid-January the forensic scientists were picking pieces of brown hardshell out of various other suitcases and finding larger pieces of the same case severely blast-damaged.  They had identified the bomb suitcase – a brown Samsonite hardshell.

The reaction of the investigators to this accumulation of information was extraordinary.  They ignored it.  While it was occasionally acknowledged that a Heathrow loading hadn’t been entirely ruled out, the investigation was going full steam ahead for Frankfurt.  Nobody, in January 1989 or later, made the slightest effort to figure out if the case Bedford described was legitimate passenger baggage.  Nobody attempted to match it to any of the luggage recovered on the ground. (...)

The judges declared that since the defence hadn’t proved the bomb was in the case Bedford saw, it could be disregarded, and chose to favour the Frankfurt route despite the missing data from that airport, the multiple unidentified items of transfer luggage, and the complete absence of an unaccompanied suitcase on Malta.

Nevertheless, huge questions remained unanswered.  What did Bedford see, if it wasn’t the bomb?  Could it have been legitimate passenger baggage?  Could it be matched to anything found on the ground?  Frustratingly, the information to allow this to be assessed wasn’t presented to the court.

To cut a long story short, the information was and is available, and it was finally analysed in 2012-13.  The key to the Crown’s abandoning of the theory that the luggage already in the container hadn’t been rearranged is the realisation that if the case Bedford saw had been under the bomb suitcase as the original investigation believed, it would inevitably have been blown to bits.  The search across Roxburghshire and beyond was thorough, and pieces of blast-damaged luggage were high priority.  Multiple pieces of the bomb suitcase and those surrounding it were recovered.  It beggars belief that nothing would have been found of the case that had been under the bomb.  But nothing was.

Set against this damning finding, all the prosecution had was the subjective opinions of the forensic scientists that the floor of the container would have shown “pitting and sooting” if the bomb had been in the bottom-level case.  However, that was shaky, as it had never been tested by experiment.  (Last year the experiment was finally done by an independent forensic institute, and sure enough, even with the bomb suitcase on the bottom, no pitting or sooting was seen.) (...)

Three baggage handlers who saw the container before the Frankfurt luggage was added were asked to reconstruct the loading as they remembered it.  All needed seven suitcases to make it look right, not six.  There was an extra, undocumented case in that container that afternoon, and it was the one lying to the front left, the one virtually bang on the position of the subsequent explosion, the one John Bedford described as a brown Samsonite hardshell.

Further evidence cements the conclusion that the bomb was in the suitcase on the bottom layer.  Although “pitting and sooting” were absent from the container floor itself, they were present on the section of the airframe under the floor, demonstrating that it was not protected by another intervening suitcase.  Examination of the two suitcases behind the explosion, which were loaded upright, shows the most severe damage right down at floor level, not halfway up the sides.  This really is “the picture that speaks a thousand words”.

The Lockerbie bombing was a crime that happened at Heathrow airport, at about half past four in the afternoon – not on Malta at nine in the morning.  At 4.30 pm on 21st December 1988 Abdelbaset al-Megrahi was verifiably in Tripoli.

Where does that leave the Lockerbie investigation, in 2016?  There are two Police Scotland investigations currently open – one operating on the assumption that the bomb was somehow smuggled on to KM180 on Malta and attempting to identify Megrahi’s alleged “accomplices”, the other looking at matters from an entirely different perspective.  Next month’s article will focus on the ongoing search for a resolution.

1 comment:

  1. Sooting & pitting underneath the floor on the aircraft means only one thing fire on board underneath the floor of the cargo hold a known problem with Boeing 747 .