Sunday, 20 December 2015

The break-in at Heathrow Terminal 3

[On this date in 1988, the night before the departure of Pan Am 103, there was a breach of security at Heathrow Airport’s Terminal 3 that potentially gave access to the baggage build-up area used for luggage destined for that flight. This breach of security was known to the Lockerbie investigators but was not disclosed to the legal teams defending Abdelbaset Megrahi and Lamin Fhimah and so did not feature in the evidence led at the Zeist trial where Megrahi was convicted. The failure to disclose this material to the defence formed one of the grounds of Megrahi’s 2002 appeal. What follows is an account on The Pan Am 103 Crash Website of proceedings at that appeal on 13 February 2002:]

A former Heathrow Airport security guard has said he found a baggage store padlock "cut like butter" the night before the Lockerbie bombing. Ray Manly was giving evidence at the appeal by Abdelbasset ali Mohmed al-Megrahi against his conviction for murdering 270 people in the 1988 bombing. Al-Megrahi's defence team argue that the bomb could have been placed on Pan Am Flight 103 at Heathrow. At his trial, one of the key areas of the prosecution case was that the bomb was loaded onto a feeder flight from Luqa Airport in Malta, where al-Megrahi worked.

Evidence about the reported break-in was not introduced at the trial and is only now being heard for the first time. Mr Manly was on a night shift in Terminal 3 on the night of 20/21 December 1988. He told the Scottish Court in the Netherlands that the doors separating landside from airside were unmanned at night after they had been locked. During his rounds, he spotted that a padlock securing the doors had been broken.

"The padlock was on the floor. In my opinion it was as if it had been cut like butter - very professional," he said. The court was shown Mr Manly's security report, written soon after the incident in which he described the break-in as "a very deliberate act, leaving easy access to airside". Mr Manly informed his colleaguePhilip Radley and police were called. But Mr Manly said he did not see any police officers that night and was only interviewed by anti-terrorist squad officers about the incident the following January, after the Lockerbie disaster.

Giving evidence, Mr Radley told the five appeal court judges that Terminal 3's landside area, where passengers arrived to check in, was separated from airside by two thick rubber doors at the end of a corridor. Access to the airside area was restricted to staff. The doors were secured by a 4ft long iron bar and a heavy duty padlock and security guards were on duty on each side of the doors. Mr Radley said he was on the nightshift on 20 December when his supervisor called to tell him that the padlock on the doors had been broken. A guard was placed on the doors - designated T3 2a and T3 2b - until the morning, when a replacement padlock was found.

The court was shown Mr Radley's log book for the night including an entry recorded at 35 minutes past midnight on December 21: "Door at T3 2a lock broken off."  Questioned by Alan Turnbull QC, for the prosecution, Mr Radley explained that baggage handlers working airside would pass through the doors when starting their shift and leave the same way - unless they were delayed and the doors at T3 2a and 2b had been locked for the night. In that case, he said, baggage handlers would have to take a longer route out of the terminal and there had been complaints about having to do so. On the night of 20 December, baggage handlers had to stay late because of a delayed flight, he confirmed. Mr Turnbull suggested that a member of staff taking a short cut, could have forced the door, breaking the padlock.

Manly, who cautioned the court he might have to take a break since he was taking strong medication for a serious illness, bristled at Turnbull's suggestions that his recollections about the incident might have become confused. "I'm still suffering from the horror of it all...if someone had carried out their jobs, this might have never happened," he said.

Philip Radley, Manly's supervisor, also disputed Turnbull's suggestion that a baggage handler probably forced open the double doors that were also secured with a long metal bolt. "You couldn't break it out like that," he said. Turnbull said a muted response by airport officials and police to the incident showed they did not believe an intruder had slipped into sensitive areas at the airport. Manly said he was interviewed by an anti-terrorist squad shortly after the incident, but his story was never followed up at the Lockerbie inquiry.

Questioned by the defence Mr Radley said the detour for baggage handlers if the doors were locked was only "a couple of minutes". He could not recall any previous incident in which staff had forced open locked doors. The prosecution has also been allowed to present 11 new witnesses, to counter the new evidence. Although the court's decision to allow the new evidence to be heard can be seen as a boost to the defence case, under Scottish law the appeal judges have to weigh whether the new testimony, had it been heard at the original trial, would have changed the outcome of that case.

[RB: The appeal court rejected this ground of appeal. Here is my explanation of why it did so:]

The only ground upon which a criminal appeal can succeed in Scotland is that there has been a miscarriage of justice. In the Note of Appeal lodged on behalf of Megrahi there were set out in 21 paragraphs (many of them subdivided) the grounds upon which, individually or in combination, it was contended that a miscarriage had occurred. One of those grounds related to the existence and significance of evidence which was not heard during the original proceedings. This evidence related to a breach of security at Heathrow Terminal 3 (potentially giving access to the baggage build-up area) the night before Pan Am 103 departed from that terminal on its fatal flight. The Appeal Court allowed the new evidence to be led before it, but ultimately concluded that it could not be regarded as possessing such importance as to have been likely to have had a material bearing on the trial court’s determination of the critical issue of whether the suitcase containing the bomb was launched on its progress from Luqa Airport in Malta (an essential plank in the prosecution case) or from Heathrow. This ground of appeal was accordingly rejected.


  1. If we assume that the bomb suitcase was not interline from Frankfurt and that the operation was professional it seems very unlikely that very obviously cutting a padlock was part of the process of moving it to airside, except perhaps as a decoy operation. It’s far more likely that by the time that was done the bomb would have travelled to the airport at sea level and ground level and delivered into the custody of operatives already working airside, perhaps in the employment of Iran Air. It would have been a reasonable assumption on their part that when the plane was lost they would come under serious suspicion and faking a break-in would perhaps give them some cover. They were not to know of the desperation on the part of the UK authorities to ensure that no blame would land at Heathrow, as evidenced for example by the line taken by Counsel representing BAA at the Fatal Accident Inquiry.

  2. The break-in could be entirely coincidental. Or it could have been part of the plot, as a way of getting the suitcase airside so that the actual bomber could walk past security with his black-market pass the next day empty-handed. In the absence of a competent investigation at Heathrow, we simply don't know.

    What is extremely telling is the way this incident was dealt with by the Lockerbie investigation. First, nobody from the police approached BAA to inquire whether there had been any security alerts in the hours before the doomed flight took off. It was BAA themselved who approached the police and said, maybe you need to know about this.

    Then, after statements had been taken from Manly and Radley and others, these were simply sent to Lockerbie by the Met. The Met themselves as far as I know didn't take the matter any further. The statements were received in Lockerbie on 2nd February 1989 where they "were considered by enquiry officers at the time in the context of a range of emerging strands of evidence."

    It appears that the outcome of these considerations was that the statements were deemed to be of no importance whatsoever to the developing inquiry, now in its second month. The statements were entered into the HOLMES database, filed away, and forgotten about.

    Now, whether the break-in was actually related to the bombing or not, there's no excuse for this. An inquiry investigating a major terrorist incident involving the bombing of a plane that was loaded from empty at Heathrow airport should not be filing away a report of a serious security breach at that airport only hours before the plane took off as being of no interest.

    Why did they do that? Because in my opinion the instructions had already come from on high, that it was politically unacceptable for Heathrow to be landed with the blame for the Lockerbie disaster. (C.f. Sharm al Sheikh, 31st October 2015.)

  3. I agree, although incompetence and sheer pressure of work could also be a reason for lack of a follow-up in February 1989. My point was simply that you wouldn't risk breaking in to plant a bomb if there was another way to do it, e.g. having a couple of agents sign on a handlers with Iran Air, who I think had the next bay to Pan Am. Did anyone have a look at Iran Air employment records to see who was taken on in the period after the Vincennes business, I wonder.

  4. At the time, and for decades before, Heathrow was known as “Thiefrow” for the enormous number of thefts from passenger baggage, from air cargo, from maintenance areas, from just about anywhere within the perimeter of the airport. The whole place was highly insecure and just about anybody could wander in and get airside with just a small amount of local knowledge. It's possible that the PA103 IED bag was infiltrated via the airside access door after the padlock had been smashed, but I think it much more likely that it came in on a scheduled flight and was surreptitiously handed on to someone already airside. Iran Air and Syrian Arab Airlines both flew into Heathrow at the time, for example. Planes were left unguarded for most of the time they were standing on the aprons and the chances of a stranger being challenged wandering about airside were remote. I worked at Heathrow in the 70s and sometimes forgot my airside pass, but was able, with a tiny bit of cleverness to get airside without it. In any case, some airside passes in those days did not even require a photograph! Diplomats could apply for airside passes to meet VIPs or to escort their embassies' Diplomatic Pouches on and off flights. So getting an IED in a suitcase with an authentic baggage tag into the interline shed would not have been a serious problem.
    I agree with the correspondents above that what is truly significant about the break-in at Heathrow was the way it was buried. Even given the lack of security at Heathrow, a breach like this, on the eve of the biggest terrorist attacks should have resulted in a thorough investigation.

  5. The problem is, we have absolutely bugger-all evidence from Heathrow. Yes I have a stack of statements from airline staff, but the only person who says anything of interest as far as I can see is Bedford. (OK, and Sidhu's evidence is crucial but only because he didn't do or see anything out of the ordinary.) Bedford volunteered the information about the mysterious brown Samsonite hardshell, and he repeated it with minor embellishments (such as saying maybe it was more maroon than brown) in subsequent interviews, but he was never pressed on the issue. He wasn't even asked if it was the left-hand one or the right-hand one he was talking about! (At the FAI he confirmed it was the left-hand one.)

    Nobody asked Kamboj or Parmar what they were doing or where they were while Bedford was away from the shed. Nobody asked them if they received or x-rayed anything for 103 during that time. Nobody asked them if they had the container directly in their line of sight during that time. Bedford said he didn't see anyone suspicious lurking around, but I don't even recall if Parmar or Kamboj were asked that question. (It would surely have been far more relevant to ask them, if the deed happened while Bedford was away.)

    I haven't read all the statements of the other staff members who were around. There were teams from other airlines working in the shed at the same time and I assume these people were interviewed, but hey, maybe not. Did any of them see anything happening over by the Pan Am station? I kind of assume the defence read this stuff and we'd know about it if there was something there. So sue me, there are only so many hours in the day.

    But really, we simply don't have the data to make anything but the most general speculative guesses about how that suitcase got into the container. I've read that it's not true about the Iranair station being next to the Pan Am one. I don't believe Iranair had a station in the interline shed at all, though they did have some airside presence at terminal 3 so it's not impossible they could have been involved. Did the police interview anyone from Iranair? Not that I know of.

    But get this. John Ashton says there was a significant investigation at Heathrow by a team from New Scotland Yard led by a Special Branch superintendent from the Anti-Terrorist Squad. He told me the guy's name but the email is in an old mailbox. He says they did a lot of work. The thing is, I have no idea what this work was. It doesn't seem to have had anything to do with what Bedford saw, and not a word of it was brought up at the trial.

    Unless we have access to hard evidence from Heathrow, we're whistling in the dark on the who and the how. All I can be sure is, is the what. And that is that the bomb was in the case Bedford saw, and both the police and the forensic investigations seem to have been geared to not acknowledging that.

  6. As you say, we're whistling in the dark. It's also pretty certain that the Crown Office won't be digging up anything at Heathrow. That's enough from me for a public forum!

  7. I don't know whether they're too late or not. There may be useful evidence there, perhaps accumulated as part of the Met investigation and overlooked. Can't tell without having some sight of what they investigated.

    Bear in mind the murder of Lesley Molseed was solved 32 years after the event. The poliice originally latched on to Stefan Kiszko and basically railroaded him, inducing him to make a false confession so that he could go home to his mother. Helped not a little by a group of teenage girls who gave false testimony that Stefan had molested them some time before the murder. Stefan Kiszko spent 16 years in jail, even after he should have been released on parole, because he protested his innocence and refused to feign remorse for a crime he didn't commit.

    Then, in a strange parallel to the Lockerbie case, it was discovered that exculpatory evidence had been in the possession of the investigators all along, unrecognised by his incompetent defence (who had concentrated on trying to get their client to enter a plea in mitigation). A new appeal came to court and this time the prosecution entered a plea of no contest. "After hearing the new evidence [actually evidence that had been available from the start] presented by Sedley and Gregory (defence), Muller and Boyce (for the Crown) did not put up any contrary argument and immediately accepted its validity." (See, it can happen.) Stefan Kiszko was exonerated. (They docked 16 years bed and board from his compensation money and he didn't survive long after his release, but that's another story.)

    The police accepted that Kiszko was indeed factually innocent and re-opened the case. There was a feature on Crimewatch. The real murderer, Ronald Castree, was identified by means of a DNA match. He was convicted 32 years after Lesley Molseed was killed.

    It's unlikely that DNA evidence such as convicted Castree would be available in the Lockerbie case, but there might be something. I wouldn't give up hope. (Of course, the Molseed case was in England. I've yet to see any evidence that the Scottish Crown Office is capable of recognising a past mistake.)

  8. Did not about this case. What a horror story.

    "It's unlikely that DNA evidence ... would be available in the Lockerbie case, but there might be something."

    But I can't imagine what else there could be that would make any difference.

  9. I am grateful to Dr Kevin Bannon for allowing me to post the following passage from his Lockerbie research:

    “Heathrow security officer Raymond Manly was on duty during the night and early morning before the departure of Pan Am 103. His responsibilities had included checking un-manned areas and security in general. On one of his rounds he found that ‘position CP2 [later referred to as T3-2A] had been interfered with’. The doors, marking an airside/land side interface, were closed but the padlock was on the ground and had been cut through as if by bolt-cutters. Manly immediately reported this to his night duty officer Philip Radley, recording the event in the CP2 logbook during the first hour of 21 December 1988. He remained at the position for an hour or more but no other investigators had appeared when a colleague arrived to relieve him. Manly declared that on the airside of CP2 there was access to baggage containers, loose luggage ready for loading and various Pan Am labels and that the possibility existed of an unauthorised introduction of a tagged bag into the baggage build-up area. After Manly went off duty, access was not supervised during the subsequent early hours of 21 December 1988.

    “Following the disaster the police investigated the damaged lock incident but Manly was surprised that he was not initially approached by police and mentioned this to colleagues. He said he was eventually interviewed by the anti-terrorist squad and by a police detective who took the damaged padlock away with him. Another affidavit by Philip Radley confirmed the report from Manly and implied that the incident was reported to the BAA duty manager. Radley himself made only one statement to police on 19 January 1989 and was not subsequently contacted by either the police or the Crown.

    "At the Camp Zeist appeal, Crown counsel Alan Turnbull ventured that ‘if the padlock was cut from the landside, the only reason that anyone would do that would be to gain access to the airside’. Such speculation was somewhat misleading as it overlooked a more effective and calculated purpose: if an outsider set on planting a bomb, gained access airside by cutting the CP2 padlock, he would still need to know how to place an item aboard PA 103, unseen in the baggage sorting/loading area - a difficult task without knowledge of procedures or ‘insider’ assistance. But with such assistance, the perpetrator would not need to break into airside in the first place.

    "However, if the IED was indeed planted at Heathrow - the most plausible scenario - then primary suspicion would be immediately confined to a relatively small number of loaders and baggage handlers. But if an insider did indeed place the bomb, he might do well to cut the lock of an airside portal, making the damage quite conspicuous, diverting suspicion from the small cohort of airport staff and casting it over a much wider field – anybody in the Thames valley and metropolitan area and beyond. This more pragmatic scenario was neither considered by the investigators nor conjectured at the appeal."

    1. The last paragraph absolutely mirrors my own thoughts that inspired my original comment.

  10. To me it makes sense that a bomb was introduced at Heathrow rather than on two feeder flights where the bomb bag went undetected twice in a row, but I have so many questions about this report of a break-in though:

    1) I know this was 1988, but there were seriously no alarms or security cameras at these doors?
    2) What does a rubber door look like? I've never heard of that. All I could find on Google Images was a rubber door that rolls up like a garage door which seems harder to secure than a typical door you swing open and closed.
    3) Heathrow Airport was really that desolate at 1230am that someone was able to pull this off without getting caught?
    4) The security guard didn't enter the airside baggage area to investigate further? That would have been useful to determine if something was amiss.
    5) Regarding #4, shouldn't the baggage build-up area be empty or nearly empty at this time of night since there would be no checked luggage deposited at that time of night (unless a flight is canceled overnight or delayed until the morning etc.)?
    6) No photos or fingerprints were taken on the door or the lock?? That would help determine if it is was a staff member and determine if their intentions were innocent or bad.

    It is no surprise that Heathrow has some of the most strict passenger security I've seen now (perhaps aside from Israel).