Sunday 29 May 2022

"A wonderful bit of forensic investigation"

[What follows is excerpted from an article headlined Truth about Lockerbie will never be known … it’s Scotland’s JFK in today's edition of The Herald:]

Cliff Todd was the head of Britain’s Forensic Explosives Laboratory. Now retired, he breaks his silence on the Lockerbie case, talking of the unanswered questions to our Writer at Large, Neil Mackay, who covered the terrorist atrocity and got to know the bomber

Cliff Todd once came so close to death that a mere sneeze in a room full of al-Qaeda explosives would have blown him to smithereens. He’s helped solve some of the world’s most infamous bomb attacks: the 7-7 terror atrocities, the shoe-bomber case, multiple IRA operations like Warrington, the Bali mass murders, the assassination of Pakistan’s Prime Minister Benazir Bhutto, and the neo-nazi nail bomb campaign in London. But the one crime he’s never been able to fully resolve is the Lockerbie bombing which killed 270 people when Pan-Am Flight 103 exploded over the Scottish town in December 1988.

Todd was head of investigations with the Ministry of Defence’s Forensic Explosives Laboratory (FEL). Every bomb incident in Britain fell under his watch – from schoolboy pranks with explosives, to bombings by organised crime gangs or bank robbers, bobby traps set by love rivals, and of course, all high profile terror attacks. Ahead of the release of his memoir – Explosive: Bringing the World’s Deadliest Bombers to Justice – Todd sat down to talk with the Herald on Sunday.

Questions still remain over Lockerbie, he says. Todd believes it’s impossible to say for sure that Libya alone lay behind the atrocity. Todd thinks Lockerbie is destined to become “another JFK”, so steeped in conspiracy theories the full truth will never be known.

Before he retired, Todd was the FEL manager of the Lockerbie case. He immersed himself in the fine detail, poring over every document and piece of evidence in the laboratory’s vaults. “I made it my business to go through everything from beginning to end, for my own satisfaction to know what was done, when it was done, why is was done, and what it meant.”

In 2001, following a sensational trial at a Scottish court sitting in the Netherlands, the Libyan intelligence officer, Abdelbaset al-Megrahi, was jailed for life for the Lockerbie bombing. Libya was accused of masterminding the attack in revenge for American air raids in 1986, in which Colonel Gaddafi reportedly lost his daughter. The air raids were a reprisal for a bomb attack on a Berlin disco which targeted American troops, believed to have been carried out by Libya.

Many – including some relatives of the British victims – never accepted the official version of events surrounding Lockerbie. There’s long standing claims that a Palestinian terror group – the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine-General Command (PFLP-GC) – carried out the attack, with the assistance of Iran. Tehran was said to have funded the Pan-Am attack in revenge for America shooting down an Iranian passenger plane over the Persian Gulf, in which 290 people died, the summer before the Lockerbie bombing.

Megrahi later died after being controversially freed from jail in Scotland on compassionate grounds as he was suffering from cancer. I corresponded with Megrahi while he was in Greenock Prison and he insisted he was innocent. Todd, though, doesn’t believe Meghrai’s claims that he was the victim of a miscarriage of justice – however, he does still think there’s plenty of questions around Lockerbie which remain unanswered.

“Will the truth ever be known?” Todd asks. “That’s a big question.” He says all the forensic evidence points towards Libya being behind the bombing, and he’s “satisfied with the court’s decision. There are some questions, but in essence I’m content that [the bomb] originated from Libya. Now, as to why, and who else might have been involved – I’ve no idea. Did Libya do it as a proxy for Iran? Who knows?”

The forensics point to the bomb being smuggled onto Pan-Am 103, in an international terrorist operation, crucially linked to Malta. The bomb went onboard the plane in Frankfurt, hidden within a Toshiba cassette recorder, placed inside a suitcase which was then stored in a luggage container in the hold of the plane. Pan-Am 103 flew to London before finally exploding over Scotland en route to America. Fragments of trousers, linked to the bomb, were bought in the Maltese town of Sliema in a shop called Mary’s House. Megrahi was identified as the man who bought the trousers. A fragment of timer device, alleged to have been used in the bomb, was said to have been sold by a Swiss company to Libya.

However, claims were made that the Swiss timers didn’t in fact match the bomb fragment. The Herald also uncovered claims that Tony Gauci, the owner of the Maltese shop where Megrahi was said to have bought the crucial pair of trousers, had been paid $2 million by American authorities.

Todd is sure, though, that the timers match and the trousers can indeed by traced to the Maltese shop. On the connection to Megrahi, however, he’s more cautious. “Gauci says he identified Megrahi, well okay, people can argue about that, I can’t have a fixed opinion on that one way or another,” he says. “So on the theory that the bomb went from Malta to Frankfurt to London and on, I’m happy with that. Who instigated that, however, I don’t know.”

Operation Autumn Leaves poses the biggest questions around the Lockerbie case, Todd feels. The operation took place just two months before Lockerbie, and saw German security services bust a PFLP-GC terror cell in Frankfurt. A number of bombs were found, with at least one inside a Toshiba Bombeat radio cassette recorder, making it almost identical to the Lockerbie bomb. Some relatives of the British victims believe the similarities are too stark to be easily explained away.

The initial stages of the police inquiry into Lockerbie focused on the PFLP-GC. There’s been speculation that Libyan agents may have been connected to the Palestinian terror cell. Former head of CIA counter-terrorism, Vincent Cannistraro, who worked on Lockerbie, believed the PFLP-GC planned the attack on behalf of Iran. There’s a theory that after the Autumn Leaves arrests, the plot was sub-contracted to Libyan intelligence.

Operation Autumn Leaves, Todd says, “was very much the focus initially. There were similarities there. It was the Malta connection that moved the investigation away from Palestinians towards Libya”.

The forensics, he believes, point clearly to ‘the Malta connection’ but, he feels, questions remain, due to events such as Operation Autumn Leaves, about the wider geopolitical motivations behind the crime and whether Libya may have acted for another organisation or state. “We didn’t say that our evidence pointed directly to Megrahi because it doesn’t, it points directly to Mary’s House selling the material that went into the bomb case. Somebody obviously got those trousers from Mary’s House, who that somebody is, is not for the FEL to say.”

On the timer, Todd adds: “The FEL only ever made conclusions in respect to the fragment belonging to the timer. We never made any conclusions regarding Libya and that’s kind of the overall point. The FEL looks at the evidence and says what the evidence shows, and in Lockerbie we didn’t make any conclusions about ‘this must have been Libya who did it’ … Right from day one is was clearly going to be very political and that will never go away.”

Todd believes “you’d have to be deluded or a liar to think that everything is known that we can know about Lockerbie. I wouldn’t claim that for a second”. So does Todd think the truth will ever be known? “Personally, no. I think it’s a bit like JFK. It’ll never go away, there will always be another angle.”

Does he think Megrahi ‘did it’? “I don’t know. It’s not for me to say. The evidence pointed, it seems to me, to Libya. That’s it.”

At the time of Lockerbie, Todd was a junior investigator. It was his two bosses who worked solely on the investigation. Today, “there would certainly be many more people working on it”, Todd explains. “It was realised very early on that it was likely to become very political, and they were deliberately told to keep it within themselves and so they didn’t use as much help as they otherwise might.”

However, he insists this in no way hampered the investigation’s integrity. “It might have made the investigation a bit longer than it needed to be, but the integrity is beyond question.”

The FEL has been accused of cover-up over Lockerbie. Todd remains furious about such claims. “All that mud was slung and it makes me really angry,” he says. He does, however, empathise with the families of relatives who don’t believe the official version of events and continue their search for truth. Todd feels they remain tragically “trapped in the moment in 1988” when their loved ones died. “My heart goes out to them but that isn’t a place from which you can be entirely objective,” he adds.

Does he think reports of Tony Gauci receiving payments fed conspiracy theories? “Possibly, but as forensic scientists we ignore that and let the police get on with what they do and we do our stuff. Gauci – is he reliable? Nothing to do with us really.”

The FEL’s work on Lockerbie, Todd maintains, “was a wonderful bit of forensic investigation. It was tremendous”. Before he retired, he complied an extensive study on Lockerbie for his staff so they could learn from the investigation. Today, nobody who worked on the bombing is still at the explosives lab. “The expertise cannot be lost,” he says. “Once I left all that expertise would have been gone.”

Forensics teams faced an unimaginably complex task with Lockerbie. A bomb in a cassette recorder, in a suitcase, inside a luggage container, within the hold of a jet exploded over Scotland, scattering debris from coast to coast.

Astonishingly, Todd explains, the components of a bomb “don’t get vaporised”. Rather it shatters into microscopic fragments. Search teams recovered every scrap of debris from the ruined plane. Once all debris was gathered and sorted into batches – bits of wing, under-carriage or fuselage – “you then start looking for specific explosive damage”.

Examining luggage containers seemed “a good place to start” as the theory was that the bomb had been in the airplane’s hold. “Fairly soon, we found bits of a luggage container which showed explosive damage known as micro-cratering.” That meant the luggage container had been peppered with tiny particles of exploding bomb. A timer fragment was also found, and scraps of the tell-tale trousers from Malta – completing the main elements of the forensics case.

Todd is courageous enough to own up to the fact that he’s made forensic mistakes, though. During the investigation into whether Portuguese Prime Minister Francisco de Sa Carneiro had been assassinated by a bomb on a plane, Todd accidentally cross-contaminated evidence with explosive residue. As soon as he realised his mistake, however, he admitted it right away. “Always hold your hands up,” he says. “Never cover anything up. Everyone makes mistakes at some point.”

While he admits that forensic science isn’t perfect because “people are humans and humans make mistakes and so no process can ever be 100% reliable”, he’s clear that no FEL staff would, in his opinion, ever act in a corrupt way by manipulating, planting or covering up evidence.

[RB: Cliff Todd paints a very rosy picture of the work of FEL in the Lockerbie case. As I wrote on 11 August 2021 in an item headed The Forensic Explosives Laboratory and the Lockerbie case  "Anyone familiar with the forensic scientific evidence provided by FEL in the Lockerbie case may be forgiven for regarding today's tribute with a distinct measure of scepticism." A further item headed The same bad science and the same bad scientists sets out the views of Gareth Peirce on the work of the laboratory in a number of high-profile cases, including Lockerbie.]

No comments:

Post a Comment