Wednesday 30 September 2015

Sunday Times INSIGHT "The Lockerbie Files" 1990

[On this date in 1990 The Sunday Times published an article of almost 8000 words entitled The Lockerbie Files. It is no longer to be found on the newspaper’s website. What follows is taken from the version posted on 29 October 2012 on the International Skeptics website:]

It was the biggest murder ever committed in Britain. Tomorrow, 21 months after a bomb sent a PanAm jumbo jet plunging into the town of Lockerbie, the public inquiry into the deaths of the 270 victims will open, at last, before John Mowat, sheriff principal of South Strathclyde, Dumfries and Galloway. He will hear dozens of witnesses and scrutinise thousands of pages of evidence over the next three months.

Since the bombing, the Lockerbie investigators have probed the depths of terrorism, challenged powerful foreign interests and extended the frontiers of forensic detection. But most of the fruits of this painstaking police investigation will not be presented at the inquiry.

Lord Fraser, the Lord Advocate, the law officer leading for the crown at the inquiry, has decided not to present evidence that would cover such questions as how the bomb was put on the plane, who did it, and where. Nor will he introduce evidence uncovered by the extensive international criminal investigation evidence of security lapses at foreign airports and allegations of blunders by foreign police, including a bungle over a baggage loading list that may have enabled one of the terrorists to avoid capture by a matter of hours.

The inquiry is not equipped to probe the obstruction, bureaucracy, rivalry and incompetence that may have shielded the killers from justice. Nor is it able to consider the international political pressures behind the fact that today after an investigation costing Pounds 8.5m not one arrest has been made in direct connection with Lockerbie.

After an INSIGHT inquiry ranging over the whole breadth of police investigations in Britain and Germany, The Sunday Times is able to tell the story that the official inquiry will not hear. It is a story full of questions that the investigators still cannot answer. They may never be resolved.

Nobody noticed the undercover police officers as they sat in their unmarked cars in a quiet suburban street in the West German city of Neuss. It was Monday, October 24, 1988. Members of the anti-terrorist unit of the federal police the Bundeskriminalamt (BKA) were watching a block of grey council flats at 16 Isarstrasse in the city's Arab quarter. Their targets were terrorists belonging to the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine-General Command (PFLP-GC).

This group had been dormant since the early 1970s, when it carried out spectacular attacks on Western airliners. But, alerted by Israeli tip-offs that the group had smuggled weapons into Europe to attack Israeli and American targets, the BKA had begun round-the-clock surveillance of 16 suspects across West Germany. The police called the operation Autumn Leaves.

The Isarstrasse flat belonged to an Arab greengrocer. But the BKA was more interested in his visiting brother-in-law, Hafez Kassem Dalkamoni, 43, and a recently arrived companion, Marwan Abdel Khreesat, also 43.

Dalkamoni was a Syrian terrorist identified by the Israelis as leader of the PFLP-GC's European network. He had been captured by the Israelis after losing a leg during a cross-border raid in 1969 and released 10 years later in a prisoner exchange arranged by Ahmed Jibril, leader of the PFLP-GC.

Officially, the limping, grey-haired Palestinian was in Germany for medical treatment. But the BKA suspected him of smuggling detonators into the country in his artificial leg.

Khreesat's presence was even more alarming to the BKA. He had arrived on October 13 with his wife and two bronze Samsonite suitcases. Inside one, Dalkamoni admitted later, was a black Toshiba ''bombeat 453'' radio cassette recorder. Remains of a similar model were later found among the debris at Lockerbie.

Balding and paunchy, Khreesat seemed typical of the thousands of Arabs who regularly visit the large Middle Eastern community in West Germany. He was silent for most of his stay, rarely leaving his room except to listen to his hosts' young son practising on a small electric piano in the living room. His wife explained that he liked music and that he owned a television repair shop back in Amman.

But Khreesat was no ordinary TV repairman. He was one of the world's most skilled aviation bombers. Italian secret service files showed he was wanted in connection with the bombing of an Israeli airliner in 1972, when ammonium nitrate concealed in a Philips record player had exploded minutes after take-off from Rome airport.

The BKA wondered, in October 1988, whether Khreesat was now planning an attack against a target in West Germany. As the surveillance team followed Khreesat and Dalkamoni on shopping trips around Neuss and Frankfurt, they began to fear the worst. Why else were the two men buying clocks, batteries, switches and glue?

BKA wiretappers heard Dalkamoni telephone Khreesat from Frankfurt to tell him that an accomplice would deliver ''black boxes with lids'', ''gloves'' and ''paste''. Dalkamoni also promised to bring ''at least seven white pointed aluminium buttons, four of which would be electric''.

On the morning of October 24, as the BKA monitored the flat, Khreesat settled himself at a table in his bedroom with a screwdriver and a pair of pliers. Dalkamoni arrived with some packages covered in aluminium foil and sealed with black sticky tape. Khreesat opened the back of his Toshiba radio cassette player and set to work.

He worked alone for the rest of the day and the whole of the next; others in the flat were told he was putting together an amplifier. Then Khreesat made a long distance call to Damascus, monitored by the BKA, and said: ''I've made some changes to the medication. It's better and stronger than before.''

Fearing an attack was imminent, the BKA moved in next day. Manfred Klink, its senior anti-terrorism officer, was taking no chances. Armed officers seized Dalkamoni and Khreesat near their green Taunus car. In its boot they found a black Toshiba radio cassette recorder armed with about 300 grammes of Semtex-H high explosive and a barometric trigger designed to close an electric circuit at altitude.

''The detonating mechanism ... is suited to detonate explosives automatically in an aircraft,'' the BKA reported later. ''When the necessary operating height has been reached the fall in pressure connected with it will start the timing mechanism, and when the delay period has elapsed the detonator will be activated''.

The BKA simultaneously raided addresses in Frankfurt and four other cities, seizing 14 more supects and a lethal arsenal that included an anti-tank gun, sub-machine guns, mortars, rifle and hand grenades, TNT and five kilos of plastic explosives.

The Germans also issued an international alert to airline and airport security chiefs about the possibility of other Toshiba radio bombs made by Khreesat. They had reason to congratulate themselves. It seemed a massive plot to bomb an aircraft had been foiled and a terrorist cell taken out.

Events swiftly proved otherwise. For, in an astonishing decision that Scottish detectives would later believe had a direct bearing on the Lockerbie disaster, Khreesat was set free.

After holding him for two weeks on suspicion of conspiracy to commit a crime, the German police needed a new warrant to keep him in custody. On November 10, Dr Christian Rinne, an investigating judge of the federal high court in Karlsruhe, let Khreesat go.

Rinne said there was insufficient evidence to connect him with the Autumn Leaves gang's arsenal; nor had it been possible ''to discover a target or location for a crime of explosion''. If the BKA suspected Khreesat of involvement in earlier bombings, they did not disclose that to Rinne. ''According to the facts known so far, the accused is certainly suspected of the alleged charge. The strong suspicion of crime necessary for a warrant of arrest is, however, lacking,'' said Rinne.

Dalkamoni and one other suspect had been positively linked with the Frankfurt arsenal and were still under arrest. They would later be charged for bomb attacks aimed at American military trains. But the other suspects seized in the Autumn Leaves round-up were all out of custody. Marwan Khreesat, master bomb-maker, walked out of the courthouse and vanished without trace.

Seven weeks later, a terrorist bomb weighing less than a bag of sugar exploded on flight PA103 as it flew six miles high over Lockerbie. It was 7.03pm on Wednesday December 21, 1988. Many of the passengers were Americans going home for Christmas. All 259 people on board were killed; so were 11 Lockerbie residents.

The following day, from his temporary headquarters in the Lockerbie Academy, John Boyd, the chief constable of Dumfries and Galloway police, Britain's smallest force, began a vast search and recovery effort. He appointed Detective Chief Superintendent John Orr to head a team of 130 detectives to hunt down the bombers. Orr had no experience of airline bombings; but he quickly focused on three lines of inquiry.

One was that a suicidal terrorist had smuggled a bomb aboard. But tests on the bodies of the victims showed no indication that any of them had recently handled explosives. ''Profiling'' of their backgrounds by Special Branch revealed no terrorist connections.

Another possibility was the ''mule theory'': an innocent passenger had been duped into taking the bomb aboard. This was only ruled out after every single bag belonging to every passenger had been shown not to contain a bomb.

Lastly there was the ''inside man'' theory: an airport worker had managed to smuggle a bomb on to the aircraft in unaccompanied baggage.

It would take months and a tortuous journey through more than 9,250 leads before Orr would discover the answer. [...]

They found that a small magnet had been fused by the heat of the explosion into the metal frame of one damaged suitcase. A tangled piece of scorch-marked clothing in another case yielded a fragment of black-painted loudspeaker grille. A tiny screw melted into a third suitcase was a further pointer. By mid-February 1989, Feraday had identified a crucial piece of evidence pointing to the bomber the tiny piece of circuit board.

''I am completely satisfied that those fragments originate from a Toshiba-brand radio cassette recorder types RT 8016 or RT 8026,'' he wrote to Orr. ''The fragments are shattered in a manner consistent with their intimate involvement in an explosion and I therefore conclude that the bomb was contained in the aforementioned Toshiba-type portable radio cassette player.''

A charred instruction manual written in Arabic and English indicated that the radio had been sold in the Middle East. But there was no prospect of tracing the buyer.

Orr assigned a specialist search team to trawl five square miles of bush and shrubland on the western fringes of Newcastleton forest 23 miles from Lockerbie. It was laborious work. But the team members were fired up by the belief that they might bring the killers to justice.

They eventually found 27 pieces of a suitcase that Rarde was able to establish had contained the bomb. The pieces of scorched or melted brown plastic were all, Rarde concluded, part of a hard-sided brown Samsonite, the kind Khreesat had with him at the bomb flat in Neuss.

Harry Bell, a detective chief inspector, flew to Samsonite's headquarters in Denver, Colorado, where the suitcase was identified as an Antique Copper System Four Samsonite. The model had been manufactured between 1985 and 1988 and sold in the Middle East. But more than 3,500 had been made and there was no way of tracing the buyer. As with the fragments of the Toshiba bomb, the remains of the Samsonite seemed to lead to a dead end.

It was time to look elsewhere for clues. Since the first days after the bombing, Orr had been aware of a possible connection between Lockerbie and the Autumn Leaves operation in West Germany. On his advice, a formal British request went to the BKA for all possible assistance. But as February turned to March, Scottish detectives began to complain of BKA obstructiveness. At first it just seemed like bureacratic red tape. ''There were delays in answering our specific requests,'' said one detective. ''Later it became deliberate prevarication.''

The BKA at first rejected requests to interview detainees connected to the Autumn Leaves gang. When interviews finally did take place, the BKA insisted on asking the questions, and in German. Orr complained privately that the Germans were withholding the full Autumn Leaves files.

It was a delicate situation. A provincial Scottish police force, with little previous experience of terrorism, was challenging the counter-terrorism department of West Germany's equivalent of the FBI; the BKA is probably Europe's most efficient police organisation.

Matters came to a head in late March at a co-ordinating meeting of Scottish and German investigators at the inquiry headquarters in Lockerbie, where Orr outlined the growing evidence of connections between the PFLP-GC in West Germany and the Lockerbie bombing.

Evidence from Autumn Leaves proved conclusively that the group was once more planning to attack aircraft, said Orr. The Toshiba radio bomb, Samsonite suitcase and the use of Semtex were common factors pointing to links between the cell and the Lockerbie bombing. Orr also pointed out that, although Dalkamoni had been in custody when flight PA103 exploded, other members of the gang, including Khreesat, had been free for seven weeks.

Orr argued that it was essential to know the whereabouts of the Autumn Leaves gang after they had been released. ''It is vital to know where the PFLP-GC people arrested and then released were from 2829 October 1988 onwards; the whereabouts of their associates; if all the property capable of being used in bomb-making had in fact been recovered?'' Orr demanded that the BKA release their full files on Autumn Leaves.

''He made it clear,'' notes of the meeting read, ''that while he did not wish to interfere in any way with the investigation of the crimes committed by these people in West Germany, his first priority lay in solving the murder of 270 people in Scotland.''

The following month the long-delayed Autumn Leaves files at last arrived in Lockerbie from the BKA. They held some surprises for Orr. For weeks, he had been puzzled by Judge Rinne's decision to free Khreesat. Now, as he sifted through hundreds of pages of the English translation of Autumn Leaves, his bewilderment turned to horror.

The prima facie case against Khreesat appeared to be overwhelming. Dalkamoni had told the BKA that Khreesat had built bombs not just inside the Toshiba radio that police had seized but also in two tuners and a video screen. He modestly explained: ''Mr Khreesat was the expert. I brought him specially to Germany from Amman.''

Traces of explosives had been found on the table where Khreesat had worked in the Autumn Leaves flat, and Khreesat himself had revealed to police an extensive knowledge of the workings of the PFLP-GC. He had admitted that, about a month previously he had been in Dalkamoni's office in Damascus when he overheard a discussion by four PFLP-GC members about an attack on an American club.

But the really stunning discovery was that on November 5, while still in custody, Khreesat had telephoned Jordan. The call was monitored by an Arab-speaking intelligence officer who reported that Khreesat appeared to be taking orders from an official of the Jordanian intelligence service.

Suddenly the whole investigation took on a different complexion. Was Marwan Khreesat, television repairman and master bomber, also a Jordanian spy? More disturbingly, had a decision been made to let the bomb-maker go free because German intelligence knew he was employed by the Jordanians as an informer on Palestinian terrorism in Europe? Had he even helped the German police to break up Dalkamoni's group?

Perhaps this explained why the case to remand Khreesat had collapsed. Had the evidence against him been ''badly led'' by the police? Did Khreesat's ambiguous role lie behind the apparent reluctance of the BKA to hand over the Autumn Leaves file? It would certainly explain why the BKA was so keen to deny any link between the Autumn Leaves gang and the PanAm bombing.

For the detectives in the Lockerbie schoolhouse, this was a glimpse of a world they knew little about, where the priorities of police work and intelligence diverged, and morality played a subordinate role.

Further shocks lay ahead. In May 1989, police searchers returned from Newcastleton Forest in triumph with the lock to the Samsonite suitcase that had contained the bomb. If the key could be found, it could lead to the Samsonite's owner.

More than 100 luggage keys were scattered among the estimated 10,000 items from the wreckage stored in the investigators' warehouse. Superintendent Angus Roxburgh, the man in charge of the property store, spent the next 48 hours wrestling to fit one key after another into the lock. But none fitted. So Orr asked the BKA about keys he knew had been recovered in the Autumn Leaves raids. Perhaps one would fit: a terrific breakthrough. But the Germans prevaricated. They said no keys had been found, then that they had been house keys, and then that they had been destroyed.

Angrily, the Lockerbie detectives pursued the suitcase connection, and their suspicions about the BKA grew even stronger.

They were intensely interested in the bronze Samsonites which Khreesat had brought to Germany. One of Dalkamoni's relatives had told police that, just minutes before Dalkamoni and Khreesat were arrested, he had seen a bronze Samsonite in the boot of their car. Between this sighting and the arrests, Dalkamoni had parked the car and Khreesat had made a call from a street telephone.

No reference to a Samsonite appeared in German police files. The BKA had reported finding a Toshiba bomb in the boot, but no suitcase What had happened to it?

The Lockerbie police conjectured: ''It is possible that the brown suitcase was delivered to another person while Dalkamoni was 'parking the car', and that the suitcase contained another IED (bomb) and that the suitcase referred to is the brown Samsonite suitcase which contained the IED on PA103.''

In other words, the Scottish detectives suspected that the vanished suitcase was the missing link between Germany and Lockerbie. They surmised that, perhaps unknown to Khreesat himself, one of the bombs he had made had eventually sent 270 people to their deaths.

Such was the atmosphere in the Lockerbie incident control centre (LICC) over this question that Orr ordered an examination of the BKA's scene-of-crime photographs of the car. These showed cigarette packets and other litter in the interior yet a spotlessly clean and empty boot where the Samsonite had been seen. Suspicious, the Scots examined the film, and discovered that the picture of the boot had been taken on a separate roll. The BKA said it had run out of film. The Scots suspected dirty tricks.

What were the Germans up to? As the Lockerbie team chewed over such facts and as it knew about the arrest of Khreesat and Dalkamoni, another suspicion took shape. If Khreesat had been a known informer for the Jordanians, had he actually tipped off German intelligence that he had made his bombs and that it was time to arrest the Autumn Leaves gang before Dalkamoni could distribute them?

That might explain the BKA's apparent efforts to obfuscate what had happened. If it knew about Khreesat's double identity, it would have had to detain him to maintain his cover.

Dalkamoni also had suspicions on these lines. Months later, as he sat in a high security cell in Hessen, he reflected on whether a man he had regarded as a trusted associate in the cause of Palestinian terrorism had all along been working for the West. During a prison visit by his wife in April 1989, he told her that he thought Khreesat had ''played a double game''. [...]

Once again the imperatives of a team of detectives pursuing mass murderers had clashed with those of the intelligence community. The Scottish investigators were under public and political pressure to get at the truth of a dreadful crime; but no intelligence service would willingly unmask its operatives to prying eyes. In their schoolhouse, some of the Scots felt that they were fighting a losing war against encircling secrecy.

Their sense of helplessness grew with the realisation that the tide of international politics was also turning against them. The West was moving towards better relations with Syria, host to the PFLP-GC, and with Iran, whose radical former interior minister, Ali Akbar Mohtashemi, was suspected of instigating the Lockerbie bombing in revenge for the American destruction of an Iranian airbus in July 1988.

Orr had been told that he would be unable to produce a shred of evidence against Iranian or Syrian officials in court. But he told his men not to worry about politics.

''He repeatedly told us to keep our heads down and get on with the job,'' said one detective. ''But only a fool could ignore the implications if we got a successful result.''

While gloom spread at Lockerbie, the forensic team at Rarde was trying to resolve another dispute between the two police forces. Had the suitcase packed with the bomb slipped past airport security at Heathrow or at Frankfurt, where a feeder flight to PA103 had originated?

Britons and Germans were blaming each other, and Orr was under pressure from the joint intelligence steering group of the Cabinet Office, which co-ordinates intelligence and security policy, to resolve the disagreement. There was a danger that the festering dispute would compromise co-operation between the Secret Intelligence Service (MI6) and its German counterparts in the hunt for IRA terrorists on the European mainland.

It was a three-dimensional jigsaw puzzle. Luggage pallet AVE4041, holding the bomb in the Samsonite suitcase, had been loaded at Heathrow; but Special Branch detectives had established that none of the bags in it had originated in London. Most had been transferred off feeder flight PA103A from Frankfurt, apart from seven or eight bags in the bottom layer which had come direct from Cyprus and other airports.

If the scientists could establish the exact location of the bomb suitcase within the pallet, this would indicate the airport where it had been loaded.

Feraday, Rarde's expert, flew to America for a series of secret tests at the US Navy's explosive ordnance disposal technology centre at Indian Head, Maryland. Pointedly, the Germans were not invited.

Moulding varying amounts of Semtex into Toshiba 8016 radios, Feraday built five bombs which were wrapped in clothes and packed into five Samsonite suitcases. Each suitcase was loaded into luggage pallets similar to AVE4041 and the bombs were blown up.

The test report concluded: ''Results clearly indicate that the case containing the IED (the bomb) was not ... in the bottom layer of passenger baggage.'' This meant the bag had come from Frankfurt. It was a rare victory for the Scots.

For the BKA, one embarrassment followed another. Returning in April to a greengrocer's shop owned by Dalkamoni's brother-in-law, which it had already searched during the Autumn Leaves raids the previous October, the BKA found that it had overlooked two home-made bombs in a Sanyo data monitor and an Ultrasound radio tuner. Primed with Semtex, both had barometric pressure switches linked to time delays.

To Orr's men, this discovery was more evidence that the Autumn Leaves gang had been planning attacks against aircraft using bombs made by Khreesat and powerful support for the theory that the Pan Am device had been put aboard PA103A at Frankfurt.

The Germans disagreed, and a battle of scientific memoranda began. The BKA now had three bombs in its possession: one seized with Khreesat and Dalkamoni in October, the other two found in the greengrocer's. It asked its forensic section, ST33, to report if these could survive a flight from Frankfurt to London (flight time 1 hour 18 minutes) without detonation, and then explode, as the Pan Am bomb had done, 38 minutes after take-off from Heathrow.

Unfortunately, one of the bombs blew up while being examined at BKA headquarters, killing a junior technician; and in the resulting panic, another exploded after being rushed outside and blasted with water from a firehose.

Although the BKA was left with only one fully functioning example of Khreesat's bombs, it reported that all three had a time delay of between 30 and 45 minutes, and concluded: ''Presupposing that an explosive device of the same construction was used in the attack, then this must have been taken on board for the first time in London, or at least made acute by insertion of the master switch.''

Bombs built by Khreesat had a maximum time delay of 45 minutes, argued the BKA. Therefore, if he had made the PA103 bomb it must have been loaded at Heathrow. It could not have been loaded at Frankfurt, on a flight of more than an hour, because it would have activated within 45 minutes; so it could not have been made by Khreesat and was not overlooked by the BKA during the arrest of the Autumn Leaves gang. Either way, the BKA had not been responsible.

This logic infuriated senior Lockerbie detectives, who complained that the BKA was ignoring a wealth of circumstantial forensic evidence pointing to Khreesat, Dalkamoni and the rest of the Autumn Leaves gang. [...]

Between the rows there was important progress. By August, after months of painstaking work, Hayes and Feraday had drawn up a detailed list of clothing that had been with the bomb in the suitcase. This gave the police the strongest clue yet to its owner.

The clothing included a white singlet; brown tartan trousers marked ''Yorkie, size 34''; a grey shirt or blouse; a blue and white pin-striped shirt or blouse; a grey herringbone pattern jacket; a coarse herringbone pattern skirt, a cream and brown striped jacket and a blue Babygro romper babysuit. They all showed scorch marks. Fibres from them had been fused into parts of the Samsonite suitcase. The Babygro provided the single most important lead in the whole inquiry. It was labelled ''Malta Trading Company''.

Rarde had also identified a second category of bomb-damaged clothes. None of the clothing showed traces of the radio bomb or the Samsonite suitcase. But the damage was so intense that the clothes must have been inside or at least very close to the bomb suitcase.

These other clothes included: a pair of white jogging trousers or longjohns; a multicoloured headscarf; a purple sweatshirt; a tartan pattern grey jacket a white singlet, a white bra and part of a green slip- on tennis shoe. Most revealing of all was a pair of cream jogging trousers marked "Noonan". The passenger list revealed that Karen Elizabeth Noonan, a 20-year-old American student from Potomac, Maryland, had been on board. Her background revealed she had spent time in Vienna and had befriended an Arab called Bilbassi.

The point did not escape Hayes. "We are therefore able to conclude," he wrote, "that all of the above clothing, much of which could be regarded as lady's clothing, could have originated from within the prime suitcase and, in the case of the first listing above, in all probability did originate from within the prime suitcase,." Had Noonan been a "mule"?

Follow-up inquiries on the Babygro indicated it had been sold at outlets throughout Europe, including Dublin. Noonan had been to Dublin just weeks before the bombing to watch her college team play football.

Hayes's memo caused a stir of excitement at the Lockerbie Academy. During one of his daily phone calls to Douglas Gow, the FBI's supervisory officer in Washington, Orr made it clear that the Noonan lead was the strongest yet, Gow agreed. Noonan fitted the profile of a "mule" perfectly. Could she provide the answer the Scots were looking for?

On the morning of August 16, the telephone rang in John Orr's office. He switched the device on to the orange scrambling machine. Detective Inspector Watson McAteer, deputy liaison officer with the BKA, said the Germans had at last produced the baggage loading list for PA103A, the feeder flight from Frankfurt.

The computerised printout was an itemised list of 111 bags which had been loaded on the afternoon of December 21. Orr had been asking for it since early Janaury. "First the Germans said it didn't exist; then they said they had lost it. Finally they said it had been destroyed," claimed one detective.

This was the goldmine Orr had been waiting for. Casting his eye down the left side of the list, he saw a handwritten cross in the margin beside one entry. It referred to a bag, numbered S0009, which had been entered into the computer at 13.07pm. A separate typewritten worksheet showed that this bag had gone through handling station 206. A third worksheet revealed only one bag had been recorded at station 206 at 13.07pm. It was from Air Malta flight KM180, which had left Valletta at 9.45am that morning, docking at Frankfurt's terminal B at 13.40pm. [...]

Police in Scotland and Germany hope the shifting allegiances and faction fighting within the world of Palestinian terrorism will produce and evidence they need. "It won't be today or tomorrow, but I'm confident that one of these days somebody involved will break their silence," said one Western intelligence official.

But as the fatal accident inquiry opens in Dumfries tomorrow, the Scots and the Germans are still far apart in their theories about what that evidence will be.

The Scots police remain convinced that the Pan Am bomb was one of those made by Marwan Khreesat as he sat at his bedroom table on October 24 and 25, 1988. They suspect the BKA missed this device when it seized the Autumn Leaves gang and that the device was subsequently smuggled out of the country and, somehow, taken to Malta via Cyprus. But this is a theory with several holes.

Principally, how could the bomb have been taken to Malta? There is the Talb link, and there is a report of a member of the Autumn Leaves gang traveling by train to Vienna with a Toshiba radio under his arm after his release from custody. But would terrorists take a homemade bomb with a propensity to go wrong halfway around Europe, rather than move a bomb-maker to the point where the device was needed?

Furthermore, if the bomb was a barometric device made by Khreesat, why did it explode neither on the Malta-Frankfurt flight nor on the Frankfurt-London flight? The fact that it blew up 38 minutes our of Heathrow when, but for a diversion caused by high winds, PA103 would have been over the Irish sea suggests that it was precisely primed to send the plane plunging into deep water, where no evidence would ever be found.

As a result, the Germans treat the argument implicating Khreesat with a mixture of irritation and contempt. They argue that a bomb originating in Malto must have been constructed to a different design by another bomb-maker.

"The Scottish evidence is rather flimsy," said one senior German security official in charge of the case. "If you have a point and you like that point you try to fit everything into that scheme. That's what they are doing." He said evidence pointing away from Khreesat is in the hands of the Scottish police, "they might not like it, but it's there". Yet just what this evidence is he would not say.

Twenty-one months on, while the police bicker, the political steam has started to go out of the Lockerbie issue. Morale amount the investigators has plummeted, and men and resources have been diverted elsewhere. Just 35 of the original team of 130 detectives remain at the Lockerbie Academy; Orr has been promoted to deputy chief constable of the region. In Germany, Klink's Lockerbie team has dropped from 20 to just a handful.

On Thursday, as Sheriff Mowat's fatal accident inquiry enters its fourth day, Hafez Dalkamoni will appear before Frankfurt high court accused of possessing weapons and membership of a terrorist organization. He is expected to plead guilty to possessing one of Khreesat's bombs. But he insists this was meant for a target in Israel. With remission for good behaviour and the time already spent in custody, Dalkamoni can expect to be free within a few years.

Khreesat himself, television repairman and bomb-maker, is believed to be living in Amman, almost certainly under the protection of the Jordanian government. Senior Western intelligence officials refuse to discuss his real allegiances.

"We never confirm or deny the identity of our agents, " said one intelligence official who has supervised the Lockerbie case. "All I can say is that if Khreesat is a penetration agent, I wish we could have many of his sort."

Compromised by such sentiments, the hunt for the truth about the Lockerbie disaster faces an even greater obstacle: the Gulf crisis.

When James Baker, the American secretary of state, visited Syria earlier this month seeking solidarity against Iraq, he indicated that the CIA and West German intelligence had extensive evidence linking the Damascus-based PFLP-GC to the Lockerbie bombing, and he asked President Assad to expel the organization from Syria. Baker said American-Syrian relations could not be normalized until Assad acted.

The Syrians replied that if there was hard evidence to link any person or group in Syria with any terrorist acts, then those responsible would be placed on trail. But pressure to make the Syrian fulfil that promise is increasingly unlikely.

For, in a world suddenly endangered by the Gulf crisis, Syria and Iran have become unexpected partners with the West against Saddam Hussein. When Syrian troops stand shoulder-to-shoulder with British and American soldiers, the 270 victims of Lockerbie take second place in the struggle for justice.

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